People Pleasing Is the Worst
At work, I am a decider. My opinions are strong and, generally, I’m vocal about them.
In my daily life — nope. What movie/TV show do I want to watch? What color towels should we get? Do I want to go to a movie next Friday?
I’m a passive decider: okay, that sounds good; sure, why not; I guess that one.
If there were ever a time where I’d be judged on the merits of these decisions, I could basically deny being involved.
One of the simplest of questions — simplest of decisions — has been a particularly annoying nudge — a nagging reminder of all the other simple, personal things I don’t decide:
“What do I want for dinner tonight?”
Is that a loaded question? To me, it feels like it is.
For most of my adult life I’ve deftly avoided sit-down, family dinners. My favorite spot for dinner is on the couch or even the floor, eating outside is good, maybe at a kitchen island, or dining out…all fine options. I existed this way, and never really questioned anything related to my thoughts on the ritual of dinner, until my partner and I moved in together. She, from a huge, loving family, actually enjoys sitting down at the table for dinner. One of her first texts to me each day is often “Dinner thoughts?”
The question began to irritate me like a swarm of mosquitoes.
Then, I became irritated that it irritated me.
I became irritated that I genuinely, truly, sincerely never knew what I wanted — except to not have to think about it.
I Started Out Okay…I Think
The earliest time of my life from which I have vivid memories is age three. I remember I was feisty. I led the games, named the chickens, took control of my wardrobe, walked by myself to nursery school (sure, we lived next door), cut worms in half on the curb (don’t ask), played basketball with teenagers, and generally just rocked the age of three…and four… and five.
And I guess this is a part of human development, but when I was in first grade, I lost that confidence dramatically. I know, our personalities shift, we become self-aware, life experiences change us, blah blah blah. (Apologies to all my therapists for the blah blah blah.)
Okay. Back to this: I started out okay.
I Became a Pushover…with Very Little Backbone
I started answering what I assumed everyone else wanted to hear when I was six.
By six, I was a well-tuned worrier. I worried constantly about what to say to people and how I should behave.
I worried about how it could be possible to not be bored if life after death goes on forever and ever, and, also, about how I learned to breathe and if I was doing it right.
I let my worry about others’ needs, my family’s ideas, and my growing fears about living dictate my behavior.
I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t steal anything. I didn’t do drugs when everyone else started trying drugs (because I worried about my mother’s and grandmother’s reactions and, my god, what would God say?)
‘I’m sorry’ was my response to pretty much everything — when someone bumped into me, when I needed help with something for school, when someone asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to. I would apologize when I was told, “No need to say your sorry.” (My mom called it apologizing for my existence.)
So, What: I Don’t Like Sit-Down, Family Dinners
Growing up, dinner time was a big ritual and, well, it sucked.
The dinner table usually consisted of: a well-scotched grandpa, now onto the red wine; a teary grandma, already crying from the usually-tense cocktail hour; a deeply depressed mom; a workaholic dad, tired and, probably, suffering early stages of cancer; a very young brother, clueless (or was that his escape mechanism?); and, an uncomfortable uncle or aunt or neighbor or whomever else was there that night or living with us at the time.
Grandpa, sat at the head of the table and was mindful of everyone’s actions. “Do you need a pillow?,” he’d yell if my elbow touched the table. Everything we did at the table was watched and corrected. Grandpa generally led this, but all the adults would back it. They would correct everything: how you held your fork, how you cut your food, how you drank your milk, even how many times you chewed before swallowing was up for critique. Usually, my grandpa would yell something about my brother who was definitely doing something wrong, then my dad would take over, and then mom and grandma would try and intervene.
All of this was just about the eating — the discussions about God and life that went on in the midst of the critiques and reprimands were on par with any of the noted evangelistic fiery hellscape sermons given by famed preachers and were served up with a side of you-clearly-aren’t-following-God-correctly. Dinner time was miserable.
Throughout high school and my first stint in college, it was just me, my mom, and my brother. Dinner time was less miserable but I don’t think any of us actually looked forward to it.
I had trouble breathing when we would sit down at the dining room table for dinner. I would struggle to take breaths between bites. I admit: it sounds and was weird. I’d swallow food and then breathe large breaths that only made it into the top of my lungs, my shoulders would raise to my neck, and I’d slowly let out the air in a stuttered, staggered way — then I’d take a new bite. I didn’t notice I was doing it. (So, yay for Mom for pointing it out and giving me one more thing to be self-conscious about at the dinner table!)
Around the time I went to college, my mom became Self-Help’s Mistress. As she consumed all the self-help books available at our library, she eventually got to the bottom of my breathing troubles, diagnosing me as suffering anxiety from our dinners during our time living with my grandparents. (Other, actually formally trained professionals did, in fact, verify this diagnosis.)
I Assume therefore I Decide
When I stopped being that feisty little person who said ‘no’ to overalls because I wanted twirly dresses and led the make-believe sessions and got my mom to take the patches off her Lee jeans so I could give them to the cute kid in class named Lee, I started assuming the correct way to exist. A means of self-preservation in a home where bad was more possible than good, the truth wasn’t a topic for discussion, and questions weren’t allowed, assuming what people wanted became, I thought, the safest way for me to make everyone happy and, therefore, keep the peace.
Here’s the clincher, though: I was deciding all along.
I decided what the pauses between words actually meant when people spoke. What the subtle inflections of my family members’ words meant. What the physical cues — the look in their eyes, the furrow of their brow, in the way they held their hands — really said to me.
I decided my assumptions. I decided what made people happy. I decided what it was I thought they wanted me to do or to say.
Ultimately, I decided to assume and become a people-pleasing pushover.
I decided to not decide.
(Am I the ultimate manipulator? Or a master interpreter? What would’ve happened had I stopped following, stopped assuming, and said: I want _____ (fill in the blank here)!?)
What the Hell Do I Want for Dinner?
As a child, I brainwashed myself to the point where I really didn’t know how to know what I wanted. I can blame others for this — I can blame the situation from which I came, my family of origin, the people who taught me fear — but that doesn’t change the fact that I chose, and still choose, to behave this way.
Breaking the pattern of being a passive decider, ending my role as a people pleaser, is a process. For me, the big decisions are easier, sometimes. It’s these smaller, daily decisions (what’s for dinner? do I want to go to that party? if I don’t volunteer for that event, am I a bad person?) that are constant reminders that I haven’t quite mastered the art of decision making yet, that I’m still worrying about what others want and not giving them the opportunity to know who I am.
This isn’t really about dinner — or decision making. It’s about ending a relationship with a people-pleasing pushover self to reveal a stronger, feistier, less-anxious self. It’s about giving people the opportunity to know the honest me — and to be as free with my ideas as I’d want others to be with theirs.
So, I turned to the completely underrated Bill Murray movie, What About Bob?, and its sage lesson about taking baby steps. I took my first step and answered the question:
“What do you want for dinner tonight?”
Turns out I wanted brisket.