The desire to behave in a way that pleases other people instills itself into a person before she can walk or talk. When a baby holds her own bottle, enjoys solid food for the first time, learns to clap her hands, or blows a kiss, she’s rewarded with wide smiles, sing-song praise, and applause. So what does that baby do?
More of whatever it was that garnered her positive responses.
When the motivation behind the intent to bring joy to others is an act of obedience to Jesus’ greatest commandment, then beautiful seeds of encouragement — mercy, kindness, peace, and love — are planted. But when the impetus for pleasing others is to bring more of what we want into our lives, than we’re treading dangerous terrain.
My tendency for people pleasing started innocently enough when I was in elementary school. One day my mom came home from the store and told me that she ran into a classmate of mine while waiting in the checkout lane. The little girl mentioned to my mom that she didn’t like me because I walked like a “hot shot,” which to an eight-year-old in the early 80s meant that I swung my arms too fervently.
Pink-toned warmth spread across my face and neck as my mom relayed what that little girl said about me. Instantly, I felt ashamed of myself for unwittingly hurting the feelings of my classmate. So I set out to make amends. I stopped swinging my arms when I walked. In fact, I didn’t move them at all, and for the next several years, I developed the gait of a penguin. I eventually retaught myself how to walk properly, but the damage was done. My awkward walk combined with other factors led to an extremely lonely season in my life. A span of 9 years and what felt like 9 million moments of rejection.
Each rejection fueled my penchant for people pleasing. And my motivation muddied. Some of my desires were genuinely steeped in service. Extending mercy and exuding empathy toward the suffering felt as natural to me as my green-gold eyes. But I also remember times when my actions sprung from fear, so I decided that in order to live a happy life, I must keep those around me happy.
I didn’t realize I was practicing a form of idolatry, I mean . . . what harm is there in being nice?
Ironically, I wasn’t always nice.
When I felt threatened in any way, my inner mean girl pounced into action. There was a time when I was so weary from past rejection and so determined to never feel unwanted again that I treated a co-worker with malice.
Her name was Diana. She joined the Christian financial planning firm about six months after I started working there. She was kind, diligent, and wore the same style veil of rejection I wore. Everyone loved Diana, except for me. The office already had one overachiever who went out of her way to make everyone happy. There was no room for another in my eyes.
I spoke harsh words to her with a curt tone. I cut her off before she could finish her sentences. I publicly questioned her intelligence while feigning my innocence. She was uneasy with who she was and eager to please others, and I misjudged her meekness for weakness. I felt powerful making her feel small until I realized what I was doing. Then I felt plain sick.
Would you like to know what opened my eyes? She spoke love to me. She timidly, yet bravely walked into my office one day and said, “Angela, please tell me why you don’t like me. I think you’re smart and funny . . . and I really want to be your friend, but you won’t give me a chance. Why?” Her words were kind, strong, and true.
I didn’t have an answer for her, just a sincere apology. Diana forgave me, became my friend, and even sang at my wedding.
Telling that story . . . it’s hard. It hurts to remember that I allowed rejection, shame, and fear twist up my conscience until wrong seemed right. And that’s the ugly side of people pleasing. It’s not a harmless, victimless sin.
When we live to please for personal gain, we’re turning from God’s will and attempting to secure our own. When we begin to see ourselves as God sees us and then channel that true love into worshiping Him, then we serve others for the glory of the kingdom and no service is more sweet.