Confessions of a pathological people pleaser
I used to lie a lot, and that’s the truth. It started in high school, innocently enough, even though that’s what everyone says. My father was super strict, and when he would pick me up from school, he would scold me if I wasn’t ready and waiting for him — unless I had a good excuse. So I started to invent good excuses: The bell didn’t ring on time! My teacher needed to see me after class! Usually, of course, I was just chatting with my friends and not paying attention to the time.
That was pretty standard stuff, but from there I moved on to what I considered “playing along” lies. I was so painfully shy as a teenager that if someone made an assumption about me that was incorrect, I didn’t have the heart to call attention to their mistake. During my job working the counter at a local gym, an (overly friendly) gentleman once came up to me and started chatting, asking me about my kids. I figured he mistook me for someone else, but I couldn’t think of a polite way to say this, so I went along with it. Oh, they’re getting so big! But they’re still pretty well-behaved, I replied. Another time, someone referred to a coworker from my old job. The only problem? The gym was my first and only place of employment. Nonetheless, I found myself promising to tell someone I didn’t know and had never met how much this other person missed them. What?! I could’ve easily said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I never worked there” or “I think you might be thinking of someone else.” There are a million different ways to have gracefully corrected these people, but I was so afraid of embarrassing them, even just a little, that I lied instead.
Looking back, I fail to see exactly what it was about the prospect that was so mortifying. I doubt they would have cared half as much as I did. Clearly, the truth would have been much less complicated than these invented stories, which, had my chicanery ever been discovered, would have been so embarrassing for me. It seemed deceit had taken root inside me. Out of some weird need to appear empathic and worldly, I fabricated. Once, when a friend was sharing some relationship troubles, she spoke as if I knew how hard dating could be. Of course I did! I intimated that I, too, was dealing with some boyfriend issues — even though I was single at the time.
Technically, these untruths were coming from a good place — I didn’t want people to feel alone or foolish — but soon it became hard to be honest about anything that I wanted or needed or did. When I moved into my college dorm, I was super excited to finally have some freedom, but because my campus was only 20 minutes from home, I felt enormous pressure to visit my parents every weekend. A few times, I wanted to stay on campus, to study or just enjoy some alone time, so when my parents would lay on the guilt trip, I would invariably offer some sort of excuse: My roommate was sick and needed someone to help her, or I had to meet with a group for a class project that weekend — anything to remove the heat from myself and avoid telling them the truth. And when I went home, I did the reverse: I told my roommates who were bummed to see me leave that studying at home was just easier or that there was an illness in the family. It got to the point that I would seemingly say anything to spare other people even the tiniest disappointment.
Obviously, I had become the most dedicated of people-pleasers. Most of this pressure I put on myself. Sure, my friends wanted me to hang out, but they weren’t devastated by my absence. If I’d said I just wanted to see my parents, it wasn’t like they would be so insulted that they would never want to see me again. Likewise, my job was pretty lax about tardiness, yet if I ran late I would still start babbling about my car not starting or the horrible traffic I’d encountered on the way in. I couldn’t accept responsibility for anything that may actually cause me to feel guilty. Did I forget to send an email to a classmate? My internet was out. Did I wear a hat to class when the teacher had a rule against it? Yes, because of a bad hair cut. (And, yes, this was an actual rule!)
The oddest part was that I had no problem accepting responsibility for the mistake itself. I wasn’t trying to pretend that I was perfect or that I never messed up. I just didn’t want anyone to be mad or disappointed in me as a result of the mistake, so I felt like I needed a preemptive and sound explanation. I wanted everyone to love me, or at least like me, and I convinced myself that if I had a reason for all of my mistakes, no one could ever feel anything but positive towards me (which, of course, was totally unrealistic).
The lying had become the warped offshoot of my almost pathological need to please, which wasn’t always the worst thing in the world. I once left a restaurant and drove 45 minutes out of my way to pick up a friend who was having a bad night and needed a ride home. I was nowhere near ready to be done with my evening, but I didn’t tell her that. So, yeah, there are obviously times when it’s more important to take care of other people, to put their needs before my own. For me, it was just a matter of realizing when exactly to do that, because “all the time” was not the healthy answer. It didn’t make me happy.
I finally started to realize that the lying was taking a toll on me, and the compulsion to do it was a problem of my own making. Nobody demanded that I shield them from the truth by hiding behind obligations instead of just saying what I did or didn’t want to do. It had just become habit. I suffered no consequences, but I realized that people trusted me, and I was abusing that. I vowed to not only stop lying, but also to accept that I couldn’t please everyone. When a friend begged me to chauffeur her one night so she could get out of the house, I was tempted to tell her that I had a stomach bug. (When it comes to lies, nothing is more effective than a gastrointestinal problem, because no one asks any questions.) Instead, I simply said, “Not tonight, I’d rather stay in.” It sounds simple enough, but for me it also meant acknowledging that what I wanted was valid, which was huge. And, to my surprise, she was OK with that.
After my first year of college, I vowed not only to quit lying, but to accept that I couldn’t please everyone. Stopping lying was the easy part, in many ways, because I didn’t really want to be doing it to begin with. The people-pleasing is harder to shake, and it’s still something I deal with daily. I fight to keep from tying myself in knots with guilt and instead accept that it’s OK to look out for myself. Ironically, sometimes the trick is to remind myself that, ultimately, nobody likes a liar.