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The role of a People-Pleaser—what if no one is coming to save you?

I have been having a lot of conversations lately about how we deal with not being ok. A lot of us have a hard time being seen in our discomfort and owning it honestly when it's true. We don't want to be found out as being any of the things not being ok means. I'm no exception. There is risk inside vulnerability, it's uncomfortable and not a state that's particularly fun to hang out in, there can be serious mental health implications and high risk stakes, there may be patterns of addiction, neglect and abuse that are familiar in this space. It's much simpler, easier and comfortable to be the only party goer at my depression's impromptu soiree, even if it's a little lonely.


When we aren't ok and conceal it, and our inner desire to seek support is overpowered by the fear of being a burden. we might present ourselves as just fine to the world. This dissonance leads us to do a lot of internal negotiating around what is "true" that further obstructs our ability to get our deeper needs met. Admitting we aren't ok opens us up to the reality that we need support and what if they can't give us what we're looking for? What if someone makes fun of us? What if we're rejected? What if we are left alone?


And so we pretend like it's all good, we cling to our 'positive thinking,' we busy ourselves, we sidestep honesty and insist we are fine to stay connected. We take on the work all by ourselves because the narrative says, "don't be a drag." We have a hard time allowing ourselves to be seen admitting that in fact it's true! That inside all of the chaos, violence, tragedy and catastrophe, we might not be ok. What's louder is an expectation that we SHOULD be. We get small and focus on showing up for other people because it's easier that way. And then we get resentful and confused by our bitterness because we aren't being seen inside our connection. The persistence of this expectation isolates us from our needs, making us a stranger to ourselves and our bodies. We can get stuck in never giving anyone an in because over time we lose touch with our ability to sense where the in is.


We choose to outthink our feelings and ignore sensation, we avoid and keep a strong face. Sometimes choosing this path is necessary and the relief it provides is what we need to make it through the day, navigate the toxic work environment, keep ourselves safe from street harassment and abusive family members. Making the choice to minimize harm is a worthy one. Disengaging is a necessary and critical choice to learn to keep ourselves safe and boundaried. AND recognizing our need for support when it is safe to seek it also takes courage. We don't want to only know a pattern of disengaging without the practice of returning to ourselves. We need time to unpack the experience that doesn't have room to be fully felt in a moment. Our reality needs to be witnessed and acknowledged. We need to eventually get back in touch with our feelings and sensation and return to an embodied sense of safety. If we suppress feeling when we're under pressure without finding space / ways to open or center ourselves in the aftermath and acknowledge what has happened, over time it get's harder to recognize the "Self" that has needs other than what is required to survive. It gets harder to make choices that support us imagining a life where there is more possible than simply surviving.


So how do we know what we need in order to thrive? It looks different for everyone. I get overwhelmed by the question, "What do you need?". People rarely ask and I have only recently begun to understand my responsibility to communicate what I need in order to receive the care I am looking for. I am slowly letting go of the idea that I am not worthy of receiving it. I'm still growing my capacity to recognize what I need in the moment where I am hurt or feel unsafe because I am still learning to trust that people can and will hold me in the aftermath of conflict. I'm still learning how to take responsibility for myself inside my activation. I am still learning that sometimes the best way for me to get what I need is to hold myself.


My yoga and mindfulness practices have been foundational to this growth (more on that later). Pulling from the world of psychology, what has helped me get here is my ability to discern across Chris Argyris's "ladder of inference". The practice is to notice the difference between real objective data: what we see, selected data: a more subjective selection, the meaning affixed to the parts we've selected and the assumptions we make based on that selection. This language takes me right on up into my brain space and isn't the way I access healing in the moment, but I find it to be a useful frame of reference. Orienting and staying open to receive the real objective data (i.e. sensation) helps keep me out of the story of my past, and allows me to return to my body in the present.

It's ok to move at the pace of trust in this work and it's ok if that pace is slow. It's ok to not know what you need, and to ask for space to figure it out before giving someone an answer. It's healthy to have different expectations for different relationships to meet your needs and to meet you in this work. We all have different capacities and our own experiences to move through and negotiate.


This is one way attemping to get my needs met goes for me:


I often interpret neutral cues as negative because of my trauma, so I have to get more of that real objective data from someone to keep myself from assuming the worst. When I leave those worst assumptions unchecked, I draw conclusions from them which develop into core beliefs based on those conclusions over time and then my action is limited by what I believe to be true. ..but it's not the whole story. For example, when someone snags a trigger and I'm pulled into my well known threat response of fawn, I appease—especially if I perceive someone has more power than me—and deny my own discomfort in order to maintain the connection. It's much more comfortable for me to focus on the other person's discomfort and assume the role of alleviating it. It's safe here and this way I don't risk abandonment. Plus I'm pretty good at talking it out.


What has shifted for me in my healing work is I have begun to see how my tendency to show up and take care of others is enacted by the part of me stuck in the role of People Pleaser. This role can distract me from the discomfort of communicating to get my own needs met. I took Nancy Stark Smith's 3-week-long contact imrpov workshop back in 2017 and something she shared with me privately has stuck with me ever since.


You can't take anyone's pain away, and you shouldn't try.


Her words hit me like a ton of bricks. Nancy's advice is one of the more insightful pieces of wisdom someone has offered me inside of an embodied practice that speaks to the ways we relate to one another inside our discomfort. Part of the point I think Nancy was trying to make was illuminating that in my rush to "make someone feel better" I was attempting to take someone's pain away. She was suggesting I was acting out of my own relationship to discomfort/conflict and not really concerned with the person right in front of me. She was pointing to the pattern of this indirect way of getting my needs met. Her reflection provoked questions I still consider when in relationship. Who am I to assume what is 'better' for someone else? Who am I to assume that kind of power? Without saying the words she was asking, if other people's discomfort makes me uncomfortable, was I trying to 'improve' the situation by bypassing someone else's pain? What did that mean for my relationship with pain? Do I know how to be with someone inside their discomfort? Do I know how to be with my own?


I am curious about this part of myself and am committed to the ongoing unlearning of this pattern as a white body, a person raised AFAB, a friend, a coach, a lover, and someone who deeply values and works to live the value of holding space for intimate community (Aasia Lewis thank you for this phrase!) and for healing . I have come to see the way my impulse to please others is connected to ideas of saviorism and martyrdom. Over the years 'victimhood' has been a role I've been in relationship to that has shaped my understanding of myself as the person who makes things better. Before, I was operating by the belief that there had to be something to fix in order to be loved and I found my worth by being the fixer. For a long time, that was the only space that was left for me.


Here's how I am orienting to it now.


I am not responsible for anyone else's healing, feelings or reactions. I do not heal people or take their pain away. People heal themselves. People's emotions are their own and are more often about THEM, than they are about me. When I am unsure wether something is about me or I am anxious and feel like I have done something wrong, I practice asking for clarity on the matter rather than allowing my perceptions alone to inform my reality. Sometimes it takes me a handful of conversations and 3-4 days before I can find the courage to get there. This practice is hard work and often times deeply uncomfortable for me but I am proud of myself for my commitment to it. My trauma responses can elicit loud emotional reactivity and my need for communication that supports the kind of emotional intimacy I enjoy is high. Not everyone is here for that and that's ok. A lot of people are here for that, and I am surprised at the mutual ease clarity inside of communication brings to both parties. I have identified my trusted community that can meet me in this work and that community continues to expand as I expand in my capacity to practice honestly and clearly communicating what I need.


From a somatic perspective, unlearning my people pleasing means looking at the speed at which I respond in relationship to the sensations rising or tension present in my body. It comes down to looking at my relationship to pause and my ability to say "let me think about it" when I feel or sense resistance. This resistance is pointing to something that conflicts with my ability to be in integrity with my deeper truth. The body is key here. Part of my work as a somatic based coach is to ask you and get you back in touch with your ability to sense your body when it responds by holding / gripping / resisting. When there is too much rigidity, the possibilities available in a moment are seized in the body's holding. They are inaccessible because the holding is protecting and prioritizing something much more important than possibility—survival.


Part of my body's impulse to resist is the ego's fear of change. This rigidity in the body serves a purpose. Our survival patterns are deep, complex and worthy of our gratitude for keeping us safe. And...they can get in the way when they no longer serve us. I am committed to detangling myself from my role as People Pleaser because I am no longer interested in living on behalf of someone else. I no longer believe it is my responsibility to emotionally caretake without reciprocity, that if I can give someone everything I've got that means they will give it back. I now believe, first and foremost I can expect to be held in the deepest parts of myself by MYSELF. And I don't need to hold others first in order to receive that. No one else knows these parts like I do and I can't expect them to.


As a recovering people pleaser, I am letting the part of myself that compulsively chooses to be the person in the relationship/room with no apparent needs die. I am welcoming back the part of myself I have had to deny in order to hold others as that shaping dissolves, making space for something new. I am welcoming change in understanding who I am responsible for and what labor inside of that responsibility is mine to take one. I am honoring relationships where my "no" is honored, even if it makes someone uncomfortable or lets someone down. In honor of something my client brilliantly said the other day, "someone's short term comfort is not more important than my long term well being."


But to even get there, I needed to see what I was holding before I could let it go. As I dug in to the story that gave birth to my role as a People Pleaser, I began to recognize the narrative I was holding around my presence was one in which I assumed my needs and as an extension I, were an inconvenience. I was not able to articulate my needs, because I'd been stuck in a cycle where someone else's were prioritized over them. This kept me in a pattern of self denial and deprivation, reinforced by my sense of self worth that was written in my story as my ability to care for others in theirs.


The beliefs that support the person I am becoming...


You don't need to assume your needs are a burden before you give yourself a chance to express them. Just because you have been burdened by somebody else's does not mean yours are inherently burdensome. Find compassion and extend approval to the ways you do apologize for taking up space when it happens, this is old patterning you are shedding and it is a process. Move at the pace of trust (thank you adrienne maree brown). Inside of any effort to shift our patterning, it takes many returns to the pattern to see it and choose something else. Shame does not need to guide you there.


It's a practice. There is nothing wrong with making errors and failing along the way. Perhaps failure just shows us what we don't want. The adjusting, progression and breaking through comes after we have fully seen what it is we don't want, and we make a choice to go in a different direction.


Can we allow ourselves to be seen in our error? Can we allow ourselves to recognize our humanity by modeling failure as a valuable thing to practice? Can we let go of our compulsion to apologize for getting it wrong? Can we resist the pressures of White Supremacy and set down our internalized ideas that we need to be perfect in order to have value, in order to belong? I attempt failure to learn from it. I attempt failure because failure can be fun, because failure is generative, because failure gives me permission to be human. Because we grow inside our discomfort. Failure offers the salve of humility. It is a powerful reminder that I am a small tiny being on a giant rock amidst billions of other rocks hurling through the universe, a universe that I couldn't possibly know everything about. By apologizing for not knowing, I am apologizing for taking up space with my imperfection, for being human.


Letting the People Pleaser in you die is boundary work. We wont get very far in getting what we need if we work from a place of scarcity, depleting ourselves by pouring ourselves into someone else, waiting for that person to give it back. No one is coming to save you. Working to secure everyone's approval as a prerequisite for you to grow and change means you would never even get the chance to begin. There are going to be people who don't fuck with you, who don't agree with you and who do not like what you say. There will also be those people who don't understand you and who show up anyway. There will be needs you absolutely can't manage on your own and ones you can that you never thought you could. Letting go of the People Pleaser role is an invitation to let go of the pattern that places your power to define what your needs are and how you want to get them met in the hands of someone else. You have to be the one to save you.


Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable challenges our internalized tendency towards productivity that says we need to always be improving in our healing, striving for 'better', and striving for 'more.' It resists the notion that perfection is something attainable that will bring us fulfillment. My practice is shifting out of this mode of scarcity that denies my complexity and says I have to end up somewhere else in order to belong, into one of abundance that humanizes my grief and despair and the mess that is my life.


This work is not always sexy. It's HARD. We need to build cultures of care so we can hold each other to get the complexity of our needs met, to be in our individual and collective healing. The real care I am able to access when I ask for support, when I start with an honest "I am not ok", when I can muster the energy and COURAGE to name my discomfort, to be seen in what I fear makes me unlovable...the anxiety, and depression, insecurity, the longing, the expectations I think make me needy (as if it were bad to have needs), the tender dreams and optimism I feel about the world and the grief that shrouds it, the compassion fatigue...when I share this honestly I am surprised by the way people are ready and relieved to meet me. I believe we in our capacity to show up for each other and understand one another. We all want to feel and be seen. I am surprised by the way that people handle my truth and the relief in admitting the truth to myself. I feel expansive permission to be just as I am...I feel less lonely in my experience and more able to be with it. I feel open to much more expansive possibility, much more open to love. And that's not just because others are with me. It's because I am giving myself permission to feel and be with all that lies within.



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MOVEMENT-BASED ARTIST, BODY WORKER & SOMATIC COACH HOLDING SPACE FOR HEALING IN BROOKLYN, NY.

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