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Why Can't I Make Everyone Happy?

Mandy Leonards, MSW, LCSW

Do you consider yourself an empathetic person? Someone who can easily put themself in someone else's shoes? I know I can. As a therapist, it is kind of a trait we carry -- we spend our days listening to others and holding space for them -- and so it becomes second nature to us. However, even before I was in this line of work, I was this kind of human. I would listen to the news and feel stomach knots when the stories were sad; I absolutely hated it when I saw my mom upset (still do) and wanted nothing but to help make her feel better. When I children -- oh my goodness- this feeling amplified by about a million and then some. However, as I have grown older and wiser as a human being, a parent, and a therapist -- I have learned how much this chronic people pleasing quality can end up being detrimental to your own well being.

Let me make a distinction. This blog post is not about telling you to not give a crap about other people and do whatever you want all the time. There is a difference between being attune to your own needs and desires, and just being a selfish asshole. In fact, by paying attention to your own needs, and respecting them, speaking up for them, you are actually doing the other person a favor by showing how to create boundaries. This takes practice, and to be honest, is still hard for me to do sometimes! I find myself often sneaking backwards into "muscle memory" behaviors -- saying yes when I really don't want to, doing things just to make other people happy even when it doesn't feel completely right with me; but the more I am able to stop myself and redirect myself, the more I respect myself. You can do this too.

Have you felt any of this?

  1. You need others to like you and you can’t stand it when someone thinks badly of you. Other people may have more control over you than you’d like them to and can easily manipulate you into feeling guilty.

2. You find it hard to say no and as a result you struggle to prioritize your own health and wellbeing. You constantly find yourself serving and saving others and sacrificing your own needs.

3. You’re sensitive and compassionate. You may feel responsible for other people’s happiness and/or health. As a result, you may constantly obsess over another person’s circumstances and wellbeing. You may obsessively research ways to help them and shower them with advice even when they fail to listen.

4. You feel guilty for having things in your life that another person doesn’t have. Such as- money, happiness, a caring partner. You may obsess over how you could change their situation. You may also feel like you don’t deserve to have those things in your life or like the other person deserves them more than you do. This can ultimately stop you from enjoying your life.

It's taken me a long time to realize that my empathetic nature can become taken advantage of -- and honestly most of the time people aren't doing it on purpose. They usually have deeply rooted issues and when they sense a safe person, they gravitate towards it. This doesn't meant they are bad or you are bad. You CAN have compassion for them and be kind, but also be sure to recognize that you are not responsible for fixing it. If you start to work on these boundaries with people, there are going to be those who don't like it. They don't want you to change because it no longer serves them. They might call you selfish, they might act out or be shocked that you’re not at their every call anymore. It’s essential that you don’t give in and act on your guilt, and that you learn how to tolerate disapproval.

Trust me when I say that keeping everyone around us happy is a fight we’ll never win. I, myself am still working on this and I definitely am not perfect at it. I am getting better. I still worry a LOT about what certain people may think of a decision I make, and still to this day, intensely deeply dislike when someone is mad at me or says something negative about me - to the point that I will feel extremely anxious and scared. However, the difference today is that when I feel this I can USUALLY notice it, and find a safe person to even talk to but not make responsible for making me feel better; and then get through it on the other side. I've been in therapy myself (being a therapist doesn't automatically mean we have perfect emotional health!) .

We simply cannot be in charge of everyone’s emotions, nor should we be. That’s what this whole “free will” deal is about. Everyone gets to choose their own adventure here. In order to truly honor someone else, it’s essential to step back and let them have their own choices and their own reactions.

If people-pleasing is an issue for you, consider working with a good therapist who can get to the root of your reactions and help you see things differently.


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