By Karen Ehman
Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. —Galatians 1:10
The gymnasium at the big brick elementary school in my neighborhood was the site of many activities. We not only marched there for Friday afternoon physical education class, it doubled as our school cafeteria and tripled as our auditorium. (It should have been dubbed the “caf-e-gym-a-torium!”) One day I might be up against the wall hoping to get picked early for a dodgeball team. Another day, I might be standing on a riser, singing alongside classmates at a school Christmas concert or spring recital. But most often, it was the place where I munched on my lunch five times a week.
Who among us doesn’t remember standing nervously with our lunch tray scanning the room for a place to sit? Such a mental flashback can still stir a sense of anxiety. There’s no greater setup for a feeling of rejection or, at the very least, a sense of loneliness. But I didn’t fret about sitting alone because I had a secret weapon in my back pocket. Well actually, she was behind the serving table, scooping up mashed potatoes and gravy with a smile. It was my mother, the beloved Delta Center Elementary School lunch lady.
In the cafeteria, if I wanted to win friends—and influence enemies—Mom was just the ticket. In addition to our basic scoops and mounds of food piled high on our rectangular pastel plastic trays, we had the option of purchasing an ice cream sandwich for a mere 15 cents. My mom would often treat me to one, along with whatever friend I happened to be sitting with that day. Naturally, lots of people wanted to be my friend. I mean, who doesn’t love a chocolate-cookie-covered slab of icy vanilla creaminess? (Grabs phone to add “ice cream sandwiches” to her app grocery list.)
It was this kind gesture by my mother that taught me an important life lesson: make someone happy and then they’ll like you. And since my single-digit-year-old self didn’t relish the feeling of not being liked, I resolved to never let that happen, if it were within my power. Gifting a fellow classmate with a frozen dairy confection wasn’t my only tool for maintaining friendships. My behavior in other areas ensured that I would feel wanted and loved. I dished out compliments I really didn’t mean, nodded in agreement just so as not to bring any tension or create any conflict, and, of course, I joined forces with mean girls who didn’t like someone else in our class. I had to. What if I didn’t and the mean girls all turned on me?
I soon became an approval junkie—longing for belonging, addicted to acceptance, craving the calm of no tension in a conversation, and the security that being liked seemed to bring my young soul. But here is the thing about living like this…
To keep it up, you have to become a skillful liar.
Yes, you heard me. People pleasers are also deceivers. We do not always speak the truth. We shade it. Skirt it. Dress it up just a tad before taking it for a spin. Or—worst of all—we leave truth completely out of the picture.
When asked what we think of lying, we “yes girls” will assert that lying is wrong. After all, isn’t the Bible bursting with warnings about the sin of shading the truth? But take a good look at our lives and a different reality materializes. Often, on occasions of people pleasing, we do not tell the truth. It was a colossal wake-up call for me the day I admitted this reality. That aha moment helped to put me on the path to becoming a recovering people pleaser. Notice I said recovering, as in present tense. I have not arrived, nor will I ever. Learning to deal with this relational issue is a tension to manage. It’s not a problem that can suddenly be solved with a snap of the fingers. (But oh sister, do I ever wish it were!)
Guess what else people pleasing does to us? Although it may gain us a reputation for being helpful and competent, it also creates a ton more work for us. Is that not totally true?
In what ways has appeasing others made more work for you? Did you stay up late to bake a ton of brownies for your child’s soccer team, even though you were low on sleep and had an extremely busy week, when there were tons of other soccer moms who hadn’t made a solitary sweet yet this season? Did you agree to go mow the yard for your aging grandparents nearly every week in the summer, even though you have a half-dozen cousins who could easily have taken a turn? (But you didn’t want to speak up and suggest that they give you a break.) Are you the only one who ever cleans out the coffee maker at work and—now that you’ve been doing it so long—people expect it of you even though they themselves are perfectly capable? And so, you just keep on serving as the designated breakroom butler.
The work we create for ourselves isn’t limited to physical work. We also make more emotional work for ourselves—draining, exhaustive, and exasperating emotional work. I’ve had feelings of regret for the things I agreed to do that I really didn’t want to do, or that I even strongly felt God would not have me to do. I deal with anger at times when I get a sneaking feeling that I’m being used or taken advantage of. I experience deep despondency when I feel powerless to break the habit of taking on tasks that others could easily do themselves. But most of all, it’s the overall feeling of emotional exhaustion that blankets my mind as I juggle the responsibilities and tasks I have added to my own plate simply to be liked and approved of. And I replay the scenarios of these draining decisions over and over in my mind, imagining what I could have—and should have—done differently.
Our inward selves—deep in the secret conversations of our minds—really are able to come up with all sorts of ways to say no. To politely decline. To not volunteer once again. To let the person who’s pouting just keep on pouting, rather than agreeing to something they want us to do. Yes, in our minds we may have riveting reasons and logical explanations that could finally result in some straightforward and honest living. The trouble is, our approval-addicted outward selves just can’t seem to send the proper message.
People pleasing brings such detriment to our lives. We make ourselves miserable. We lie. We create more work for ourselves—both physical and emotional work. We lose grasp of our joy. We offer a standing invitation to regret. This is all so profoundly discouraging. But do you know what is the absolute worst of all?
When we behave this way, we’re putting people in the place of God.
Adapted from When Making Others Happy Is Making You Miserable: How to Break the Pattern of People Pleasing and Confidently Live Your Life by Karen Ehman. Click here to learn more about this book.
Bestselling author and recovering people pleaser Karen Ehman offers stories and helpful tools from her own life to equip you with practical and biblical advice on how to break free from the pleasing game and reclaim your peace and purpose.
Feeling overwhelmed, burned out, and pulled in too many directions by the needs of others? If you wish you had a little more freedom and margin in your daily schedule, this is the book for you.
Author and speaker Karen Ehman knows firsthand how people pleasing locks us in a prison, trapping us in unhealthy habits which distract us from our true selves and our God-given purpose. With honesty and practical wisdom, Ehman explores why we fall into people-pleasing behaviors and offers advice for how we can break out into the freedom God has called us to. Because the truth is we cannot fulfill our divine purpose if we’re too busy living everyone else’s.
With vulnerable and humorous stories, biblical insight, and encouragement from someone who’s been there, Ehman will help you:
- Discover how to live out your priorities despite the opinions and expectations of others
- Cultivate a strategy for knowing when to say yes and how to say no
- Implement boundaries with the pushers, pouters, guilt bombers and others who try to call the shots in your life
- Learn to navigate the tension between following God and loving the people around you
When Making Others Happy Is Making You Miserable is the key you need to quit the pleasing game, reclaim your life, and walk with God in peace and confidence.
Karen Ehman is a Proverbs 31 Ministries speaker, a New York Times bestselling author, and a writer for Encouragement for Today, an online devotional that reaches over 4 million people daily. She has written seventeen books including Keep It Shut, Pressing Pause, and Keep Showing Up. Her passion is to help women to live their priorities as they reflect the gospel to a watching world. Married to her college sweetheart, Todd, the mother of three, and mom-in-law of two, she enjoys antique hunting, cheering for the Detroit Tigers, and feeding the many people who gather around her mid-century dining table for a taste of Mama Karen’s cooking. Connect with her at karenehman.com.