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if only i’d known: sometimes it really isn’t you

Friends was arguably one of the greatest shows of the ’90s and early 2000s. Even those of us too young to watch the consistently hilarious modern day Archie and the Gangas they aired the first time around, have been privy to the ongoing reruns. It’s a known fact amongst my own circle of friends that I liken many moments in my own life to an episode of Friends. Sadly the parallels don’t stop there. At times, my personality is similar to that of Monica Geller, sister to Ross Geller and BFF to Rachel Green. She’s known as an avid people pleaser with a trace of OCD. Since I’m only supposed to discuss one issue a fortnight we’ll leave the OCD for another time.

People pleasing can present itself as an inability to say ‘no’. The constant chorus of ‘yes’ as in ‘yes I can have that to you by Friday’, ‘yes I would love to give up my weekend to help you move’ and ‘yes I would love to do all the work while you take all the credit’ often results in great unhappiness on part of the yes-sayer, while the naysayers are free to attend to the things in their own lives that require their immediate attention.

People pleasing, in my case at least, has also been seen as ‘cultural guilt’, or as Amal Awad put it in her debut novel Courting Samira, ‘Arab guilt’. Arab guilt usually comes in the form of pleasing ones parents by giving the broader community reason to praise you, or at the very least not give them reason to remember you negatively. A tight knit community plus a much larger, very involved extended family can often mean you’re trying to please more people than you ever intended. While this strong sense of community is one of my favourite things about being an Arab woman, it can also cause me a substantial amount of anxiety, when I feel my own life decisions do not align with the hopes, dreams and wants of those around me.

Over the years I have unsuccessfully tried to flush out all traces of people pleasing behaviour and I still find myself agreeing to an array of things I’d really rather not. I do not like to be the cause of anybody’s unhappiness, unintentionally or otherwise. I have a tendency to manage the feelings of those around me and am (generally) sensitive to how others will react in any given situation. Occasionally I fail miserably but mostly I successfully navigate the situation at hand, coming to a compromise that seems reasonable to most involved. It’s a skill I’ve developed over time but one that appears impossible to perfect.

In time all people pleasers learn that the act of people pleasing is as delicate a balancing act as a juggling clown, on stilts at a rodeo. It’s about knowing where to draw the line at making those around you happy or at least not upset and keeping yourself happy enough. Not enough attention to your own needs and you can easily find yourself resenting the same people you were a moment ago trying to please.

If you do resign yourself to the role of a people pleaser, for better or worse there are some things you have to accept will be part of the territory. One of these things is that others will often expect things of you that they don’t expect of other people. Often these expectations present themselves in the form of assumed perfection and nine times out of 10 you will meet these expectations. But in 10% of cases you’ll feel excessively guilty for being unable to oblige every request.

The inclination of a people pleaser is to internalise this inability to be everything to everyone all the time (i.e. to be human) as a sense of failure, when the reality is you simply need to accept this is not a shortcoming but a fact of life. Recognising your own limits is essential to being able to continually give so much of yourself and your time to others. To assist with this I’ve compiled a few tips that I found useful in assisting me to say ‘no’ once in a while.

1. When somebody asks something of you, resist the urge to say ‘yes’ immediately. Tell the person you need some time to think about it and will send them an email or give them a call in a couple of days.

2. Don’t commit to things you can’t actually do.

3. Re-establish your boundaries with those who you feel have the greatest expectations of you. You can’t be everything to everyone all the time; that’s why people believe in God because He can.

4. Think of your own needs. Attending to the needs of others all the time, means we often become resentful of the caring role we choose to take on. You must tend to your own needs before you can be of any use to those around you.

5. Don’t feel guilty when you can’t do what someone asks of you. The other person will usually understand.

6. Remember that ultimately you have a choice. Sometimes we feel obliged to do something for another person, whatever and whoever they may be, but if you are a people pleaser and really don’t want to do something there’s usually very good reason for that. Acknowledge that reason and articulate it if you feel that you can.

7. Remember your self worth is not determined by how much you do for others. People worthy of your time will not love you any less because occasionally you have to say ‘no’.

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