How to Stop Being a People-PleaserBy Christine Carter | September 19, 2016 | 0 comments
Does total integrity mean always acting on our feelings? No, says Christine Carter—but we do need to acknowledge our feelings, and not confuse a false self with a real one.
Many commentators took issue with my claim that happiness comes when we live with total integrity—when we stop people-pleasing and start living more authentically.
I understand entirely why a lot of people fear the sort of transparency and honesty I’m advocating. We are clannish beings, with nervous systems that evolved to profoundly fear being rejected by our tribe. Acceptance can feel like everything, and for some people, it can be a matter of survival.
At the same time, for most of us, it is far better in the long run to be ourselves and risk having people not like us than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone we’re not.
Does this mean, though, that we never act in a way that doesn’t resonate with our mood? That always express what we’re feeling? That we always say what we’re thinking? Sometimes it’s simply not safe, or smart, to do that. As one commenter recently mused:
Is there anyone reading this who has not had an interaction with a law enforcement officer for at least a minor traffic issue? a tail light out? a parking ticket? And during such an interaction, is telling that officer that you resent being stopped because you believe s/he hasn’t met their quota of fines for the month a wise idea? Or if taking a ticket to court, is it wise to tell the judge you think s/he is a fool? You might think that—but saying so may lead to needing a good attorney.
Granted, a traffic stop is a racial flashpoint and a huge public issue. For some people, a run-in like this one could be lethal, especially if they were to express hostility—however authentic that might be. But there is an enormous difference between living your truth and always saying what’s on your mind. I don’t think that it’s necessary, or even a good idea, in instances like this one to “speak your truth.”
Nor do you need to pretend to be happy about the situation. Being pulled over can be extremely stressful (even life-threatening) and pretending that it isn’t will simply ratchet up your fear response, which is not a good thing. Inauthenticity—in this case, actively pretending to be happy when you’re terrified—tends to increase the fight-or-flight response in both people, and in that way could actually make a scary situation more dangerous.
But it’s entirely possible to internally acknowledge your feelings, while remaining quiet or emotionally unexpressive to those around you.
This is where it gets tricky again. Say you are feeling afraid; is it best to indulge your fear? Even if you don’t tell the officer how frightened you are—or even if you don’t pretend to be happy about the situation—how does one behave authentically in this situation? If you are resentful, is it best to be transparent about your resentment? Should resentment dictate your behavior?
Often this is the way it works: Something happens—or we have a thought or memory—that triggers an emotion. In turn, that emotion triggers behavior.
Sometimes, the behavior is repression—the act of pretending that we aren’t feeling what we actually are feeling. Or an emotion triggers a numbing behavior, so that we don’t really feel something, as when we start to feel bored or anxious and we immediately check our phones. (This doesn’t work, by the way; physiologically our emotions get bigger when we stuff them down. But let’s leave that for another post.)
Emotions trigger loads of behaviors. They may cause us to hug someone we love, or lash out when we feel angry.
So again: If we are trying to live with total integrity, if we are attempting to “live our truth,” does that mean always acting on our feelings?
Again, I don’t think so. Why? Because often it simply isn’t effective. It won’t necessarily make us feel less stressed or more honest. In the same way that we don’t always need to say out loud everything that is on our mind, we don’t need to act on our every emotional impulse. We need to be aware of what we’re feeling, for sure, but we don’t always need to act in the ways that our emotions would dictate.
It can be even more effective to “act as-if” we are already feeling something else. Before you write me off as contradicting myself entirely, hear me out.
Just as emotions tend to trigger behaviors, behavior can also trigger emotion. We know that facial expression alone, for example, without first feeling a corresponding emotion, is often enough to create discernible changes in your nervous system. When you lift the corners of your lips and crinkle your eyes, for example, after a couple of minutes your body will release the feel-good brain chemicals associated with smiling. Or think about the wise (and almost cliched) advice to take some deep breathes when you are feeling stressed. In each of these cases, a particular behavior can help to create a different emotional state than you may be feeling initially. We often think of this as the “fake it ‘til you make it” path to happiness.
There is a catch here, which gets confusing. “Faking it” only works when we aren’t pretending or performing. Consciously faking a smile, for example, to cover negative emotions (what researchers call “surface acting”) tends to increase our distress. This kind of toxic inauthenticity is corrosive to our health (especially our cardiovascular system), and it damages our relationships with others. It also makes it hard for us to access our intuitive or visceral intelligence.
Suppressing or numbing our emotions doesn’t work the way we often want it to. UNLESS—and here is the trick—we consciously foster the emotions that we want to feel in our lives. This is what researchers call “deep acting.”
Deep acting is when we genuinely work to foster specific feelings. When we make an effort to cultivate real happiness, gratitude, hope, and other positive emotions in our lives, we can dramatically increase our well-being—authentically.
Deep acting is what this commenter is asking about:
I’m wondering…if you would suggest that the idea of “acting as if” for treatment would never work? I suggest the use of breathing, self-imagery, posture…to feel better and improve relationships.
When we are talking about the types of research-tested behaviors this commenter suggests, “acting as-if” can be quite different than pretending to feel something that we don’t.
Here’s the difference: Pretending is about hiding or denying our emotions, while “deep acting,” or “acting as-if” is about proactively fostering emotions, starting with an action or behavior.
It’s a fine line, to be sure. Here’s a method I teach my coaching clients for remaining in integrity when when they have an impulse to pretend.
- Ask yourself what you are feeling. Are you afraid of what someone else is thinking of you? Are you avoiding an inconvenient truth or difficult emotion?
- Allow yourself to feel whatever it is that you are feeling. All emotions are okay; they are a key part of our intelligence and the human experience.
- Assess the situation. Can you safely share your feelings with others? Would it make you feel better to do so? If yes, go ahead and share. This might feel risky, but authenticity and vulnerability usually create intimacy and connection—two keys to happiness.
- Decide on an appropriate behavior based on how you’d like to feel. If you are afraid, for example, you might want to choose a behavior to calm your fear, like taking deep breaths. If you are feeling low-energy, you might want to do a few jumping jacks to get your blood circulating.
- Finally, check back in with yourself to see how you are feeling. Allow whatever comes up for you. You may now be feeling both a sense of calm (from taking a bunch of deep breaths) and a little frightened. It is entirely possible to experience more than one emotion at a time. Or, your blahs might have vanished now that you’ve taken a little walk outside.
Does this work for you? When does it still seem untenable for you to be truthful?
We sometimes become pretty invested in our false selves, in the “representative,” as Glennon Doyle Melton calls it, that we send out into the world instead of showing up fully and authentically as ourselves. We create representatives to protect ourselves, often in response to unstable or abusive situations.
Sometimes, we aren’t yet able to separate our false selves from our real ones. We want to defend the important representative that has worked so hard for us for so long. And that’s okay…so long as we can see where our representative is holding us back, and that it is, of course, the truth that will eventually set us free.
My latest eCourse, The Science of Finding Flow, focuses on so many of these topics — how to really feel your feelings, how to live with total integrity, how to prioritize friendships and nurture important relationships. In 9 self-paced units, you’ll learn to allow your most joyful, productive, energetic, and successful self to emerge. Enroll now or learn more here.
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About The Author
Christine Carter, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work (Ballantine Books, 2015) and Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents (Random House, 2010). A former director of the GGSC, she served for many years as author of its parenting blog, Raising Happiness.