Confession: I am a people-pleaser. As a child, I didn’t want to disappoint my parents or teachers. In friendships, I’ve always been the one who worries if I’ve upset someone. And in my relationship with God, I battle the fear that I’m not doing enough to grow closer to Him. Being a people-pleaser for me is worrying about or trying to make everyone happy with me. And it’s so tiring precisely because this goal is impossible to achieve.
And though I mean well - I tell myself I do these things because I value my relationships - at the root of my people-pleasing are several issues that actually hinder the relationships I’m so valiantly trying to protect.
When I worry about keeping the peace around me, there is an underlying assumption on my part that peace depends on me. When I worry about the thoughts and concerns of others, I’m hoping that I can change what they think or what they are concerned about. What I see then is that my people-pleasing is an issue of control; specifically, it’s a fear of losing control over the world around me.
No one likes to feel out of control. No one likes to feel that others are controlling them. So instead, we take the reins and try to insure that others are happy. Oddly enough, our sense of control is controlled by others. And ultimately, our trying to manage our world leaves us feeling anxious and out of control.
The good news is that we have a God who is all-powerful and who is able to bring peace into our worried lives. What we need is to recognize that trying to control our lives doesn’t work because we’re really powerless over these things. God, on the other hand, is not. We can get past our people-pleasing by abandoning ourselves to God and letting Him guide us instead of us trying to control all of the minutia around us.
Behind our desire to be in control of our lives is an aching desire to be accepted and validated. We worry what others think about us and this causes us anxiety and stress. Our sense of identity is so wrapped up in others’ lives because we fail to keep proper boundaries in our relationships. We don’t want to hurt others feelings, we don’t want to be disliked, we don’t want to feel judged. We listen to the lies we tell ourselves instead of listening to and seeking out our validation from God.
It isn’t before our friends or parents that we are going to have to give account of our lives, it is before Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:13).
We’re so used to trying to earn others approval, we might even try to earn His, too. Jesus teaches us to not to live our lives trying to prove ourselves and our righteousness (Matthew 6:1-6,16). As Christians, we have no need to seek out acceptance from the world around us. “You have died,” Saint Paul tells us, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Despite our imperfections, God has reconciled Himself to us and has adopted us as His own (Colossians 1:22; Ephesians 1:5).
If I’m trying to control my relationships by keeping the peace, and I’m looking for validation in others, then fear is probably motivating my actions. I’m afraid of being alone or afraid of being rejected, and therefore I try to keep others happy. I might be afraid to be assertive or to hurt others feelings because I can’t handle the rejection that might come from it. But really, how can one truly live a life motivated by this sort of fear?
There are different sorts of fear in our lives. On the one hand, there’s the fear of God that we experience when we recognize we are in the presence of the Living God. But then there’s the fear of discomfort and the fear of dealing with life that keeps us running from life by living in fear. Instead of living our lives motivated by fear of losing our relationships (with people or with God), we are called to live according to the self-sacrificial love of Christ, our God who is love (Ephesians 5:25; 1 John 4:8).
Recently, I found a fun article called “The Definition Of Hell For Each Myers-Briggs Personality Type." According to the article, the worst imaginable thing for a person of my Myers-Briggs type, ESFJ, was that, “Someone you love is in dire need of practical help and you can’t give it to them. Worse yet, they think you’re refusing to help them out of pettiness and they’re mad at you.” Well, that’s spot on! It’s almost as if being a people-pleaser is wrapped up in how I’m wired to interact with others.
Though it might take work to stop being a people-pleaser, it’s even harder to try to make everyone else happy. If this is something we struggle with, we will need to work to see how we are motivated by a desire to be in control, by a need for validation, and by fear. Instead of trying to control our world, we will recognize that God is better at running the world than we are. Instead of looking to be validated by others or to prove ourselves, we will seek out a stronger relationship with God.
And instead of fear, we will live motivated by love.
In what ways do you struggle with trying to make others happy? Is this something you’re willing to change with God’s help?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.
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