10/19/2012 12:22 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Some of the People, Some of the Time: On People-Pleasing

I like to make people happy, and really, what's wrong with that? As an approach to the world, it's a good thing to want to make people happy, right? Let's all be friends and let's all get along. Wonderful!

Yeah, but... maybe, not so much. Recently I have been ruminating on the point at which wanting to make those around you happy stops being a well-meaning social aspiration and actually begins to encroach on your psychological and emotional well-being. Yes -- it's the curse of people-pleasing.

As a chronic people-pleaser, I have to try to make those around me happy. Now, before you stop reading at the saccharine-sweet picture I appear to be painting of myself here, wait. There's far more to this than just being a goody-two-shoes.

I navigate my way through most social situations anticipating what those around me want and need, and then I give it to them. I have a "me" for everyone. Feeling weepy? I'll be the comforter. Full of rage? I shall share your indignation. Bored today? Come over and hang out with me! Because it's nice to be needed, isn't it? Not always.

Let me give you an example. Let's say you just got home on Friday night, fresh off the work week, you want to pour yourself a glass of vino, fire up a DVD and spend some time with your beloved. Bliss... but hark! What's this? The telephone tears through the fibre of your Friday evening and your chum is on the other end of the line. Maybe they're bored, had a bad day in work, family argument. The air thickens; you know what's coming and you're at the point where you feel virtually powerless to stop it.

"Yeah sure, come over, we're not doing anything."

But you were doing something, weren't you? You were doing nothing, but it was your nothing. It was your time to recharge, to become a little bit more you, to indulge in that delicious experience of just being yourself.

So why not just say that to your friend? Well, that's where it all starts getting interesting. I am terrified of not being liked, and it took me a while to realize this. Many thwarted attempts at asserting myself passed, many deep conversations about self-sabotage, before I realized that I equate saying "no" to people -- to prioritizing what I want from time to time -- with being disliked by others. (The inability to say "no" requires a blog all its own...) So my strategy for maintaining friendships became: Give them everything they want, and make 'em laugh!

And that went for most things; we'll go where you want to go, we'll leave when you want to leave. Your point on a topic? I agree because it's simply too awkward for me to disagree. Get something wrong? I'll save face for you because nice people don't tell others when they make a mistake, it's mean. Ask me to make a decision and I simply reply, "I don't mind!" Liar.

I felt dissatisfied, and I wasn't sure why. Being with people became draining rather than refreshing. I was uprooted and cast adrift, and my sense of center was fading rapidly.

When I started the Fearless Living Bootcamp, one of the first challenges I had to think about was an area of my life I was not satisfied with. Various standard examples came up -- money, job, weight, wardrobe. But there was something pulsing underneath, waiting to erupt. I was dissatisfied with life. How sad. Because I had no root in authenticity.

When I began to really dig, to really force myself to go inward, to sit with that discomfort and maybe have a drink with it a few nights, I discovered that my people-pleasing came from an innate desire to be approved of by those around me. I want them to show me that I am worthy of being liked, that I am a lovable person. Therefore, the best (and easiest!) way of doing that, for me, was to give them every reason to approve of me.

"Kathryn! She's so agreeable, easy to please, fits in, makes no noise. Great!"

But this kind of approval-seeking behavior only reinforces your own self-disapproval. It makes it okay to hate yourself. Trying to solve your crappy self-worth through outside approval is a race you're always going to be running at half-speed. When the outside approval dies down, that's the discomfort you have to sit with. That's the "you" you have to learn to love.

I believe that people-pleasing is born out of fear. Fear of being disliked, and for me, a fear of being abandoned. I don't want my friends to walk away from me, because who will I be? What does that say about me? So I hold people hostage by indulging them, by granting them their every wish and pandering to their every whim just to keep them there.

But really, I have behaved quite unfairly. I failed to give them agency enough to handle being told "no." In reality, I was not respecting them. I should have just given them who I am all along. I've indulged them with a version of myself for every occasion when all they needed, and probably wanted, was me. Exactly as I am, in every moment.

Your center shatters into tiny pieces when you try too hard to please everyone around you, and it can be so hard to reconcile who you could be with who you have been behaving as. And maybe who you might be is a scary prospect, when the pretense and the masks fall away.

But this is the question I must ask of myself every day: Which fear is greater? Not pleasing everyone else, or never pleasing yourself? Staying as something less, or becoming something so much more?

For more by Kathryn Lamble, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.