I missed the original deadline for this article. The preceding days and weeks had been taken up by an unprecedented amount of busyness in almost every area of my life – a high proportion of it in some way because of the side effects of being a sufferer of the disease to please. The deadline for this article loomed at the back of my mind along with many other deadlines while I precariously attempted to juggle the balls of a hectic life.
As deadline day approached and I was given a gentle reminder, I realised that it would just be impossible for me to get it done in time. But along with that realisation came panic: could I really ask for an extension? What would they think of me? Would I be letting the mask slip? Would I be letting them down? Would they ever speak to me again?
I’m more than a little bit obsessed with the psychological personality profiling of the Myers Briggs test (look away now if you think it’s all just a load of mumbo jumbo). Of the 16 personality types, I’m an ESFJ (extroverted, sensing, feeling, judging), which makes me pretty prone to people pleasing. According to the test, ESFJs “need approval from others to feel good about themselves. They are hurt by indifference and don’t understand unkindness. They are very giving people, who get a lot of their personal satisfaction from the happiness of others. They want to be appreciated for who they are, and what they give.”
My ESFJ people-pleasing has led me to do some ridiculous things, including driving to airports at ungodly hours, missing out on sleep in order to keep all the balls in the air and all the people pleased, finding it extremely difficult to ask for help – and occasionally being taken advantage of.
For the people pleaser superwoman-types, the words “I can’t” or “No” are among the hardest in the English language. For me, these words have symbolised failure and shame. To say that you’re unable to do something means you’ll be letting someone down; they will in turn think badly of you and that you aren’t so capable after all. And they’ll eventually think you’re a bad person and reject you.
The people-pleasing syndrome is tied up in so many other complex issues about our sense of identity and value, our need for approval, our self-esteem and how we view the world around us. “Be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect,” we read in Matthew 5:48. And I could pretend that it’s this verse that is the driving force behind my people-pleasing. But it’s just not. The drive to be perfect is in fact more an obsession with making yourself appear to be perfect all the while being very aware of your own failings – just not wanting to let them out.
Brene Brown writes in her brilliant book The Gifts of Imperfection: “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: if I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgement and blame.”
We want to please people because ultimately we want their approval. But as Christians that’s a dangerous place for us to be. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians (1:10): “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
These words are pretty hard for us to hear. But remembering them will make us stop and question the motives behind why we do things; is it really about doing good or being kind or giving? Or is it more about seeking affirmation and approval from others in order to avoid the ultimate pain: rejection?
I’m not sure what the answer is, but as I’m growing older I’m beginning to realise that it’s OK to say no; that people will not think less of me because of it – that they might even still like me. Ultimately, this is all about being authentic about who we are and what we can do rather than keeping up a façade at all costs for fear of what other people might think.
After all, all I did was ask for an extension and this article was written. No one died. No one thinks I’m a failure because of it. And that’s something to remember.
Chine Mbubaegbu is head of media & communications at the Evangelical Alliance and author of Am I Beautiful? (Authentic, 2013). She is a trustee of the Bible Society, the Christian Enquiry Agency and the Church & Media Network.