I am a recovering co-dependent. I’ve been recovering for years but just didn’t know it until the last year or so. Often codependency is used to refer to people in destructive relationships with addicted people. That wasn’t my scenario so I didn’t make the connection until I heard it described another way.
Last fall I was at Donald Miller’s Storyline conference in Chicago. One of the breakout sessions I went to was called “Codependency: Where it comes from, how it’s harmful and how we can change it” led by Bill and Laurie Lokey from OnSite Workshops in Nashville TN. As they talked tears fell because they were defining everything I had struggled with my entire life.
They said, “a codependent doesn’t have a sense of self—a defined ‘me’” because they have spent most of their life defining themselves by the state of those around them. Basically they showed me how I had spent my life taking too much responsibility for the happiness and well-being of everyone around me.
I needed the validation it provided, but would become resentful of the perceived expectation to take care of everyone and then I would feel guilty for the resentment. So much emotional upheaval all resulting in having little sense of who I was apart from working to please others and have them approve of me.
The work of overcoming this has been an almost twenty year process despite only having a name for what I was overcoming recently. While not everyone has struggled with people pleasing to the point of codependency many of my readers responded to my inquiry about self-esteem struggles by naming pleasing people as a killer of their self-confidence. So I wanted to offer four things I’ve learned in the last ten years for your battle with this assassin.
- Discover what need you are trying to fill by pleasing them.
We all have needs. Psychology and the social sciences have been studying human needs for years, and advertising has gotten extremely good at using those needs against us. These needs drive behavior, so seeking to understand your needs is a critical component of learning how to let go of pleasing people.
Are you looking for someone to say you are good enough—approval? Are you looking for belonging? Significance? Purpose? Love? Acceptance? Validation? Encouragement?
Until more recently I had a high need for people to understand me, so I would try really hard to explain to everyone—willing or not—the why and how of me. Remember the social awkwardness I’ve described in previous writing! What I’ve come to realize is that I was really seeking acceptance and to find out if others valued me. I never felt like I fit and I was always looking for others to tell me I did.
What happens when these types of needs drive behavior however, is that we give other people a lot of power over us.
We have legitimate needs, love, belonging, community, support. We were created to have our needs met through relationships—first our relationship with God and then with other people. When man divorced God it broke our perfect relationships with each other as well. Now we are naturally selfish balls of wants and needs all fighting to get those needs met by pushing and poking at the people in our lives.
Learning how to get those needs met in healthy ways by safe people takes work and thought, understanding and trust. The more you learn to get your needs met first and foremost by God, allowing Him to grow your understanding of yourself, the greater your capacity becomes to engage in healthy relationships, with healthy people who will help meet your needs because of the mutual care and concern you have for one another, without having to worry about pleasing them all the time.
- Learn to establish boundaries.
Boundaries exist all around us. In sports, boundaries tell players where they can go. On the freeway they tell cars where they are allowed. Laws are boundaries around behavior. In the details of life boundaries are important, they are equally important in relationships as well.
Boundaries in relationships tell me where I stop and you begin. Boundaries tell me what I have a right or responsibility to control and what I don’t.
One of the difficult things about having a teenager stems from boundaries. When our kids are little there isn’t much boundary between us and them. They are basically an extension of us, coming and going and moving as we do. As they grow into adolescents however they start to push back—they are looking to figure out where we stop and they start. Many a frustrating moment is spent learning to allow them to set boundaries with us, by making requests of them instead of demands, but also establishing boundaries with them about where our responsibility for them ends and they need to own their own life. We need them to learn this because otherwise they become adults who don’t have boundaries.
Henry Cloud and John Townsend in How People Grow explain it like this: “We were created to take responsibility and be in control of ourselves, leaving everything else in God’s hands. However when we lost our perfect connection to God we started trying to control everyone and everything else around us and lost control of ourselves.”
Boundaries allow you to say how you will be treated. “I will not be yelled at. When you are able to talk to me calmly and without personal attack, then I am willing to continue the conversation.”
Boundaries allow you to establish limits to what you can give. “I am unable to serve in that volunteer capacity because it will take away from the time I have determined I need to spend with my family.”
Boundaries are important because they let you say NO. They let you say no without necessarily having to justify the ‘why’ to the person trying to push past them.
People will put pressure on you and try to run over your boundaries daily; whether it’s a kid, a co-worker, a family member or a friend, intentional or not. Understanding boundaries will go a long way in freeing you from the need to please people.
People pleasing is a self-esteem killer large enough to warrant two weeks to cover. It isn’t an assassin to take lightly. Both these lessons, and the two I will cover next week, could be a full series by themselves. My hope is to give you a place to start fighting back against what so many named as being their most difficult struggle with self-esteem.
What need is your people pleasing trying to fill?
What boundaries keep getting run over in your life?