There are many reasons we choose to do things that will please others. Those choices can be rooted in love or in fear. They can spring from generosity or obligation. We can do things for others with joy or resentment. Recognizing the difference is a key piece in shifting from depending on external validation to trusting ourselves more.
Those of us who can get caught up in people-pleasing tend to focus a lot of energy on our thoughts. We watch for clues about what the people around us might want or expect. We try to figure out how we can best give that to them. Then, we watch for a response and try to assess how we are being received.
My guess is that you are skilled at reading a situation and knowing what’s expected of you. (Although, of course, we sometimes see expectations and judgments that aren’t really there). Let’s set the thought portion aside for a moment and focus on feeling. This includes both our emotional state and the physical sensations that show up in our bodies.
First, a couple of notes. The purpose of this exercise is not to tell you how you should feel or make you wrong for what you are feeling. Emotions are not good or bad, even if some feel more comfortable than others. In paying attention to our emotions and our bodies, we are not dismissing our thoughts or disregarding our minds. Rather, we are giving ourselves a fuller understanding of why we are choosing what we’re choosing and how it’s impacting us.
Think of a time when you did what someone else wanted. Take a few deep breaths while you remember as vividly as possible. Use your senses to recall details and enter into your memory more fully. Where are you? Who else is there? What do you see? What do you hear? Smell? Can you taste anything? What about physical touch?
Once the scene is clear in your mind, notice any emotions you are experiencing—resentment, love, worry, jealousy, hope, longing, irritation, sadness, sympathy, nervousness, condescension, guilt… There may even be a mix of emotions. That’s totally normal. Just notice. Try to name the emotions you feel as specifically as possible. It might help to look up a list of feeling words (like this one) to help you express the nuance of what you’re feeling.
Now pay attention to your body. Where do you notice any sensations? What do they feel like? Are your palms sweaty? Is your heart racing? Is your jaw clenched or your stomach churning? If you’re not used to checking in with your body, this might seem a little strange at first. That’s ok.
If nothing is coming to your attention, make sure you are still grounded in the memory you’re working with and then try focusing on each part of your body one at a time to see how it feels. Check in with your stomach, chest, shoulders, neck, jaw, hands, etc. When you notice a physical sensation, how would you describe it? Is it a tightness, a churning, a trembling, an ache, a hollowness, a tingle, a warmth? Again, just notice in as much detail as possible.
Write down your observations. Repeat this exercise for a few more memories. You might want to explore a number of memories with the same person to see if you notice a pattern. Exploring a wide variety of memories may also lead to some interesting insights. Consider memories with different people and different situations. Try working with memories that make you proud and memories that don’t feel so good.
Now that you’ve had some practice, pay attention to how you feel emotionally and physically during your interactions this week. If you can do so in real time…great! If not, taking a moment to notice how you feel after the fact is valuable as well.
How easy or difficult was it to describe how you felt? Did any emotions or sensations surprise you? Did you notice any patterns?