My word for 2012 is clarity, and recently I had a moment of clarity that I’d like to share with you.
I’m committed to meditating every evening. I’m just finishing up a book that offers some meditation tips, and I was trying insight meditation. The idea is that as you sit, rather than trying not to think, you passively observe the flow of your thoughts. As you observe from a more detached position, you can start to see patterns and gain insights into the way you think. And what I realized as I tried to observe my thoughts is that I spend a whole lot of time worrying about what other people think of me.
I think it’s normal and natural to want other people to like and appreciate you. The fear of being alone is one of the biggest dragons that many of us face. As a result, we consider the way that our choices will be viewed by others. We choose our words, our clothes and our actions, at least in part, in order to help us fit into the broader society that we live in. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be part of a group, and wanting to forge positive relationships with others.
Behaving like a professional at work, working to get along with your child’s teacher, or doing something nice for a friend to lift her spirits are all good things. However, many of us (myself included) can take this drive to get along a little bit too far. When you find yourself spending far more time worrying about what others will think of you than you spend worrying about what you think of yourself and your own life, it’s a sign that things are out of balance. After all, this is your life. It doesn’t belong to your co-worker, your brother, the fabulous woman who styles your hair, your partner or your aunt.
The truth is that you can’t make everyone else happy. You just can’t. Like most of us, you likely have people in your life with conflicting interests, for example. If you please one, you upset the other, and vice versa. As well, many of the people in your life may not be entirely sure what they want themselves. We’re all subject to uncertainty and changing opinions, which means that trying to keep everyone happy is a constantly shifting game that you can never win. The more time that you spend trying to please others, the more energy you’re wasting on an impossible task.
Giving up on working overtime to please others doesn’t mean that you have to be rude or uncaring, and it doesn’t mean that you will not longer be concerned about other people’s opinions. Rather, what you’re aiming for is giving your own needs and desires equal billing – if not more. It also means learning to let go of the things you have no control over. You can’t force someone else to like you, so your time would be better spent building a life you can hang your hat on than trying to please your toughest critic.
This is all well and good, but how do you give up your people-pleasing ways? Clearly, as you can tell from the amount of time I spend worrying about what other people think, I’m still working on this myself. However, there are some steps you can take that will help:
- When someone asks you to do something, don’t respond right away. When you’re accustomed to pleasing others, you’re likely to answer yes without thinking to almost any request. By asking for some time to think about it, you’re giving yourself the space to reflect on whether or not this really works for you. And if it doesn’t, it’s totally fine to politely say no, I promise.
- Spend a little bit of time at the end of every day thinking about what you did well. This can be as little as three minutes while you’re showering or washing the dishes – it doesn’t have to be big or elaborate. But by giving yourself the approval you absolutely deserve, you’ll be less likely to look for it outside yourself, where you may or may not get it.
- Be willing to ask yourself the big questions. What do you want out of your life? What do you want your kids to say about you when they’re all grown up? What is your personal mission? You don’t have to know the answers to these questions, but the more time you spend considering them, the clearer your picture of the kind of life you want for yourself will become. When you know what you want, you stand a chance of making yourself happy, rather than wasting time trying to make others happy.
Clearly, I still have a long way to go. It’s okay if you do, too. By working at it, you will make progress, and you will free up time and energy you can spend on building the kind of life you actually want, rather than the kind of life you think someone else wants for you.