Confession time: I'm a people pleaser in recovery. Even as a shy little kid I wanted to do what would make those around me happiest, even if it didn't feel comfortable or enjoyable. This happened in little ways, like going to a sleepover even though little introverted Emily hated being with any strangers for even a brief time, let alone an entire night with my stomach tied in knots. It also happened in larger ways, like befriending someone because they seemed lonely, even if they were mean to me. I was always working to do the "right" thing, even if the "right" thing made me frustrated and stressed.
I was often complimented for being so sweet, so nice, so polite, so generous, and so kind. I thoroughly loved being liked.
As I got older, these patterns started to feel more distressing. Strangers' needs preempted my own and unhealthy relationships dragged on for years. The things I most wanted to do were abandoned at the last minute because a friend needed help moving or a coworker wanted company because she couldn't sleep at 3am. I'd fashioned a lifestyle so steeped in self-sacrifice that it felt like a prison. I sometimes resented people I loved, so much so that time with them felt insincere and exhausting. It wasn't their fault and it wasn't necessary.
One day, while I rushed to make it to the grocery store before class, I had a long overdue epiphany. Several deer were on the lawn in front of my apartment building, and I froze. My heart was racing with the anxiety of being late and I wished they'd just choose to leave on their own, so I wouldn't frighten them. It suddenly occurred to me that, although they might be somehow inconvenienced in a deer-like way, their grazing location and schedule didn't need to take priority over my schedule. Was I a people and deer pleaser? When was this ridiculousness going to end?
With the silliness of that situation I had to face the facts.
I had just as much right to take up space as anyone else in my life. No one else was going to be as invested in my time, energy, and ultimately, happiness, as I was. It was a deeply uncomfortable feeling, flavored with the tiniest tinge of relief.
I was gonna have to upset a few deer to live my damned life.
I started to etch boundaries in little ways.
You want help moving? Let me get back to you tomorrow about that.
You're calling in the middle of the night? No. I'm not picking up this time.
It felt icky and I wanted to backpedal nearly every time. I often did! I wondered, what if I woke up one morning and found myself friendless?
But worse, what if I woke up one morning and my life was exactly the same: the property of anyone else who asked?
These words by Cheryl Richardson come to mind:
"If you want to live an authentic, meaningful life you need to master the art of disappointing others and living with the reality that some people just won't like you. It may not be easy, but it's essential if you want your life to reflect your values and deepest desires."
The first time I shared that quote at an event I was leading on self care, the usually talkative, curious group screeched to a halt. Suddenly no one wanted to talk. I asked about it later, and one woman told me, "That statement made me deeply uncomfortable. I hate the idea of upsetting people and it would make me feel selfish to do it."
I related to her reaction on a visceral level! So many kind, big-hearted people feel the same way. It's a generous offering to the world. But it can also take a toll.
Now and again I find myself sliding back into a voluntary, reactionary state of offering a tiring amount of time and energy, without recharging. But what I repeatedly find is that when I'm mindful about setting boundaries and protecting my time and energy, my interactions are sincere and loving.
It's not selfish to tend to your needs and wants first. It's in service to the world. It allows you to be present and attentive without resentment. It also sets an inviting example to others, who, like you, don't need to do anything to earn their own time and energy to live happily. They're yours, just by being.