Don’t get me wrong, I love to people please. Not out of a desire for approval, at least not anymore. I just love making people happy. But there’s a fine line between enjoying making people happier and beating yourself up because you can’t please everyone.
My journey to realising I don’t have to please everyone began years ago, back when my marriage first started cracking. I was talking with one of our school counsellors and out of the blue she asked me: “Where does this need to please everyone come from?”
Reader, I Was Shook.
Did I have a need to please everyone?
Where had it come from?
It took me ages to work it out. Closest I can make it is the lesson I learned first as an 8 year old and then again as a young adult dating – it doesn’t matter how nice and kind and pleasing you are, people will still leave you if they think you aren’t ‘good enough’.
That’s clearly an oversimplification of the complex dynamics of playground friendships and dating. But, on reflection, I realised it was an internalised certainty. If I don’t make everyone happy and twist myself into all sorts of compromises and take the blame for their negativity (basically if I fail to please them) they might leave me. They might hate me. Or just think I’m ordinary and boring (I’d prefer antagonism to be honest).
It has taken me a Long Long Time to be fine with the fact that not only will I not please all the people all of the time, but that I can’t. None of us can.
Hear me out. I know no-one enjoys a toddler tantrum, but as I drove past a park the other day I saw a mum trying to lift her toddler off the ground. Said toddler clearly didn’t want to leave the park and was embracing gravity for all they were worth.
It struck me all at once how this little scene was in fact a lesson for how to deal with all sorts of people, tantruming or not. I mentioned it to my teen who immediately understood what I meant and why I thought it related to him, and his peers.
Parents lift toddlers all the time. They’re heavy, but moveable. Mostly because they’re all ‘up! up!’, and hold themselves up.
Toddlers who refuse to be lifted are a different story. It’s like they’ve sucked in gravity and it’s holding them bound to the earth. When you finally heave them up, you might get a kick in the stomach for your pains and a screech in your eardrum.
We can try and lift people, and help them, and support them, but sometimes they aren’t ready. Sometimes they’re lying on the ground refusing to get up. Sometimes they’re frightened to get up. They push us away, shout, cover their eyes.
Emotions are tricksy beasts. Especially the negative ones. They build up until they’re a roiling mess of sobs and anger and UGH lying just under a thin film of ice. At any moment the control can snap, the ice shatter, and everything just cascades out.
Negative emotions are not inherently bad. Sadness can have its place, as can concern and worry. It’s when they layer one on top of each other so you can’t breathe, or when they appear hand in hand with negative self-talk, that the problem starts.
Suggested ways to deal with emotional tsunamis
These are ideas that work for me, or at least can help a little.
One: Write it Out
Maybe because I’m naturally happy writing, but I’ve always written out my emotions. In letters that I don’t send (and some that I do), in diaries, in endless lists and mind maps and jotted notes in planners and bits of refill.
Research shows that writing out your problems and emotions can be just as, if not often more, effective than talking it out. This article explains it well, and this one gives some advice on how to do it. Writing your feelings helps you to structure your thoughts – we naturally think in paragraphs or bullet points when writing. We edit ideas and words and definitions. This earlier post of mine shows the process I often go through. Writing can help me parse my thoughts and reframe my catastrophising.
Rollercoasters are pretty cliche for describing a life journey but that’s the image I find myself returning to again and again when trying to pin down the last ten years. Those highs, sometimes reaching such pinnacles that you can feel the drop downward about to hit, leading to twisting paths that have you careening out of control with no idea where you’re headed or why, and the lows *shudder* the terrifying or stomach churning lows where you’re sure this is it–there’s no further to go. And then a jolting lift upward again.
It gets very exhausting.
Then when we factor in the way the world is going…Eeek. Sometimes we want to get off the rollercoaster. Have a break for a bit. You know, a cuppa and a nice cookie and tune out for a while. Look at some cats.
This last decade gave me some mighty lows and some real scares. It was the decade my marriage ended. The decade I had to get used to sharing custody of my children. The decade I had emergency bowel surgery and up to six members of my family in hospital in one year. I gained weight–lost weight–gained it-lost it and, yes, gained it again. I’ve spent thousands of dollars at the dentist and hours in pain. I spent years working myself into burnout and a solid year suffering clinical depression. I lost myself–found me–lost me again. My dogs died. My aunt died. My grandmother died.
Looking at it like that makes me glad I try not to focus on the negative things because there were some major bad things and they hit more than just me. The bad things that hit my friends and family, and the downward spiral so much of the world has sunk into, wraps around me as well.
But – through it all there were highs. I applied for and achieved two promotions. I’ve presented at two local and two national conferences on something I’m passionate about. I took on a mortgage on my own house and I like my house a lot. I have a study with a nice computer to write on. I may have lost my way fitness and health wise after finding it again BUT I’m not going to let that diminish my accomplishment of working hard for it in the first place. I took my kids on holidays.
Writing wise I’m proud of myself. I started the decade with no real intention to write, just a ‘wouldn’t it be cool to write a book one day’ kind of thought. Since 2014 I have written five (unpublished) books, and a host of beginnings of other ideas. I started a blog. I had a story published in an anthology. I entered and won contests. I queried and had full requests. I haven’t got the agent or the publishing deal *yet*, but I’m feeling much, much closer to it than I had thought possible at the beginning of 2010. More importantly (to me, anyway) I began to identify as a writer. Not just a teacher who writes part time. That’s been an important and wonderful shift for me.
It strikes me that one of the things I look back on and am proudest of is often the struggle, or the striving. I’m not just proud I wrote and entered contests, I’m proud that in the middle of severe depression that targeted negativity around my writing, I still wrote. I learned to revise. I had the courage to query and to push the ‘send’ button even though my heart raced and my stomach churned at the thought (and I’m not hyperbolising – I genuinely panicked every time I pushed send on my first 30 or so queries).
I’m so glad I didn’t give in to the panic. I’m so proud I felt the fear and did it anyway.
I am proud I learned to deal with and accept rejection.
I went to school and did my job even as my health and mental wellbeing staggered along. I’m proud that as I tried to balance teaching with parenting and a marriage break up and finding a new passion – I still managed to inspire and touch students’ hearts. That’s what keeps me going back to teaching, the connection to students. I noticed that over this Christmas with my son in hospital. I saw three ex-students working in pharmacies or in the hospital and one of his nurses was the aunt of an ex-student. It makes me feel part of a community.
The most special part of this decade has been my children. Their support and joy and humour and how they’ve learned to deal with pain–all of it has been a privilege to see. Watching them become who they are, the leaps they’ve taken, has been so amazing. I look back and I feel that HERE, with this important job, I did my best. I don’t know what I did to be so blessed, but I do know I’ve tried my hardest to teach my boys about kindness and empathy and social responsibility and awareness of inequality. They might not keep their rooms tidy, but their hearts are huge. I know which I see as a bigger achievement.
I’ve learned so much over this decade. Some of it through experience, some from advice from others, and some from giving advice to others that I’ve realised I should follow myself. I’ve learned that vulnerability terrifies me–until it doesn’t. I’ve learned that my tendency to run away from and avoid big problems CAN be overcome. I’ve learned to appreciate the small beauties of life and that spending time stargazing or stopping to look at the daisies in the field is never time wasted. I’ve learned that humour makes life a gazillion times better. I’ve learned I’m strong, even when I don’t want to be. I’ve learned that I’m worthy of being treated better than I was. I’ve learned that letting others help you and be your cheerleaders doesn’t make you weak. I’ve learned to apply my own oxygen mask first and that boundaries are important-to refill my jug before filling others’. I learned to say No.
When I think back on the good things though, what really made this decade is very clear to me. They are the small things. The conversations with my children. The kindness from strangers. Laughing with old friends. The dewdrops on a rose. I’m so pleased I kept my happy jar going for so much of this decade. Looking back on years of small moments of happiness is such a good reminder that yes there are dark times and sometimes we can’t escape those, but there is goodness and kindness and joy to be found as well.
Ultimately that’s my belief about the world. There is darkness and many (far too many) people living in awful times and facing racist and increasingly authoritarian and elitist power structures. But there is too much kindness and too much hope to give up. Resistance and ally-ship and tagging in to help those who can’t, refusing to lose ground on the progress society has made – those things help make the world a community. And I have met, and taught, too many great kind people to think that the world is all awful. That doesn’t mean I think we can relax. This decade also showed us how much we’ve taken for granted and how desperately bigoted and small minded people cling to their harmful ideals. This is the time that we must pick up the torch and keep pushing, keep striving, keep trying. And not just to save ourselves but to save others.
I’ve been so incredibly lucky to have the most amazing people in my life: a wonderful family who support and encourage and love me; friends new and old who lift me when I’m down and remind me I don’t have to be anyone other than who I am – that I, in and of myself, am enough.
They are the ones who have made this decade – this turbulent, bizarre, uplifting decade – what it is. They are the ones who have helped me to make me what I am.
And I find, at the end of this decade, I like who I am.