Let’s just call the elephant in the room what it is — a massive, dirty, grayish, tusk-adorned, tail-swinging, giant-legged, big-bellied creature with ears that some cartoon creators believe make them able to fly. And it’s in our space. We see it. We navigate around it. We let it take up room. But we don’t want to acknowledge it. Still, it’s there, stinking up the place, and I want to talk about it. We dread saying yes but feel powerless to say no. Why? Because of the elephant called people pleasing. I want to dive right into the heart of the struggle.
We are afraid of people not liking us. Not admiring us. Not being pleased with us.
So we spend the best of who we are doing a million things we know we aren’t supposed to be doing. Well, let’s usher that elephant out of our living spaces and follow it all the way to where it will take us. Let’s run alongside its clunky gait and earth-shattering footsteps. And see what allowing this elephant to be present is really costing us.everything. Why? Because it is impossible to please everyone. And wearing yourself out trying will often make you the unhappiest person in the room. I once heard a great message from Dr. Howard Hendricks called “keeping the elephants Off Your Air Hose.” It’s been years, possibly decades, since I heard that message, yet I remember that title as if it were yesterday. Why? Because I need to remember it. When an elephant sits on your air hose, you can’t breathe. And if you can’t breathe, you can’t live.
We fear disappointing people. And you know that elephant is sitting on your air hose when you start operating under the assumption it is possible to do enough, give enough, sacrifice enough, and then surely everyone will like you. And be pleased with you. And talk nice about you. And name their next child after you. Welcome to my brand of crazy. Hello, my name is Lysa, and I want people to like me. I try and try and try to make sure I please them. And it gets me in trouble. Like when an elephant sits on my air hose. Because it is impossible to please everyone. I think we need to repeat that. Close your eyes, take a long sip of that Diet Coke or grande latte you’re drinking, and let this truth sink in as deep as that drink. Take it all the way in. And don’t just ingest it. Digest it. Make it part of how you live and how you make decisions.
It is impossible to please everyone.
Take it from a girl who has certainly tried.
When my kids were little and I was just starting to travel and speak, some of my fellow mommy friends didn’t understand. I sometimes got comments that made me feel very insecure and uncertain. Instead of just discussing their concerns with them, I started trying to reshape their opinions of me. In my mind, I heard them communicating that good moms stayed with their kids 24/7 and bad moms worked outside the home. I stopped talking about my ministry work and instead wove statements throughout our conversations that lined up with their thinking. When we were together, I verbally painted pictures of my life around what I thought would please them. Make them think I was a good mom. And then they’d like me. I not only wove these people-pleasing threads into my conversations with other moms, I used them with my family.
My little mantra with the kids was, “You know Mommy’s favorite place is at home with you, right?” We’d be sitting on the couch reading, and I’d throw in a quick, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world except right here with you.” And after bath time, I let all the kids pile on my bed for a quick snuggle with Dad and I’d say, “This bed is my favorite place in the world.”
I meant those words. I did. I meant them with everything in me. But I wasn’t just saying them as sweet, reassuring statements for my kids. I also said them over and over in hopes of my kids repeat-ing them in front of those mommies with opinions. More than once I overheard those other moms asking one of my kids, “Are you sad when your mommy has to go off to work?” Ouch. It hurts when people corner your kids. I wanted to build a good script into my kids so they’d know with confidence how to respond. Going to work wasn’t a proclamation that I preferred work over them. I was just a young mom trying to balance two wonderful callings. Maybe it was a misguided attempt to shape the opinions of my people so that those mommies who weren’t pleased would be pleased. Ugh. Why did I care about their opinions so stinkin’ much?
It is impossible to please everyone. Am I saying to back out of every situation you find yourself in where you are trying to please someone? No.
Time to Check Our Hearts
While not all pleasing is bad, it can easily be taken to unhealthy extremes. When you have a pattern of saying yes when you know you should say no, it’s time to reevaluate some things. And a good time to reevaluate is now. Before you sign up for something new. Or make another commitment. Or sign your name to that volunteer sheet being passed around. Wait. Think. Take a powerful pause and consider some stuff. We’ve already discussed the reality that it’s impossible to please everyone. Let me build on that layer with something else even harder to understand. Some people won’t be pleased, no matter what.
If the person you are trying so hard not to disappoint will be displeased by a no, they’ll eventually be disappointed even if you say yes.
Bold, but true.
Imagine you say with all honesty and integrity, “I’m so sorry but I can’t sign up for that job.” Or, “I can’t drop everything else and help bail you out.” Or, “I can’t make fifty-five Rice Krispies treats for tomorrow’s end-of-grade party.” If they get upset, just step back and think about what’s really going on. You said no because saying yes would invite crazy into your life. And you’ve been telling yourself over and over, No more crazy. If they push back when you say no, that’s disrespectful on their part. And if you play along, it’s dysfunctional on your part.
You won’t ever be able to keep up with unrealistic. Unrealistic demands lead to undercurrents of failure.
So don’t allow the unrealistic demands of others to march freely into your life. Resolve instead to make decisions based on what is realistic — not on trying to earn the approval of or impress another.
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It’s a vicious cycle, I tell you. Those who constantly try to impress others will quickly depress themselves. That’s not love. We must not confuse the disease to please with the command to love. When someone makes a request of you, you should be able to make that decision without emotional consequences. And if you anticipate that telling them no will make them not like you — then you saying yes isn’t going to help that situation. It just won’t.
There is a verse that might add some clarity to this discussion:
For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him. — 2 Chronicles 16:9
Great verse. But taken out of context, we might develop the faulty belief that this is proof the Lord is looking for people who will say yes to everything in front of them. After all, isn’t that what “fully committed” means? No.
There is a big difference between saying yes to everyone and saying yes to God.
We don’t need to take this to such an extreme that we never step in to help people — or that we never have people depend on us, or that we never serve, or that we never fulfill tasks that are before us. If God has put an assignment to serve, give, and help in front of us, He will give us what we need to fulfill that assignment. And through serving in that way, we will be refreshed and refueled. Being resistant to serving and helping is not at all what I’m saying. What I’m talking about is letting people depend on us to such an extreme that we become their every answer.
At the end of the day, a healthy relationship isn’t void of service. Of course we must serve, love, give, be available, help, and contribute to the greater good. But we must have the freedom to say yes or no responsibly without fear of emotional consequences.
The sooner we can make peace with the facts we can’t please everyone and some people won’t be pleased no matter what, the sooner we can be freed from that elephant sitting on our air hose. We’ll have the oxygen and the energy to simply and generously love. After all, love, real love, is a very Best Yes.
Excerpted with permission from The Best Yes by Lysa TerKeurst, copyright TerKeurst Foundation.
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Is your natural bent to be a people-pleaser? I hate to say that that’s the truth for me. I want people to be happy with me and it’s a huge weakness that can clobber not only me, but my ability to really love others well, too. Come share your thoughts with us on our blog about the way to say no in order to live your Best Yes! We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full