I first want to say that I loved my father very much. He was my whole world after my mum was killed. I was 11 years old when she died in a car accident, and to say that losing her was devastating is an understatement. Her sudden death shifted everything in my life. My mum had been my internal compass, guiding me through my life, and then suddenly that guidance was gone. I was lost. I was lonely, and I was despondent. Suddenly it was just Dad and me. We were two lost souls searching for the person who had grounded us, but we couldn't find her anymore. She had slipped through our fingers like sand through an hourglass. It did not matter how often we sifted through the sand; we would never find her again.
We both fell into a depression. I cried during the day and had nightmares at night. Dad seemed to become numb. I think he drank more to numb his pain and distanced himself from me. I needed his strength, but at that time, it was nowhere to be found. As a child, I did not understand. There seemed to be no security which caused an anxiety within me that was hard to control. We were lost, yet there was a small amount of comfort in this chaos together.
I desperately wanted to see my father smile. I wanted him to laugh again. I wanted to see that light in his eyes again, but at 11 years old, I did not know how to make that happen. I didn't understand that it wasn't my responsibility. All I knew was that I wanted him to be OK. Maybe if he were OK again, I would be OK too.
I started to notice that he perked up when he heard specific stories on the news. He would become fired up about an issue they reported, and his fog would lift just a little. I remember sitting at the dining room table with him thinking, while we ate our supper, what if I could come up with exciting news stories? Maybe he would come alive? Maybe his numbness would thaw? As an adult, I know the pain my dad was feeling would not disappear due to a news story, but as a young child, I was desperate to try anything to lift his spirits.
I now understand that this is when my people-pleasing began. My desperation for my dad to be happy lit the flame within me to please others. His happiness was important to me on a very primal level. Children are dependent on their parents for survival. We are born helpless babies who rely on our caregivers for our most basic needs; food and shelter. If our caregivers are not OK, then our survival is threatened, and our most primal instincts will kick in. We will do whatever it takes to survive. For me, it was doing what I believed made my dad happy, always having something exciting or witty to say.
As time passed, my dad did end up remarrying and as a troubled 16-year-old, I did my best to adjust. I was stumbling through my grief, not knowing how to get through it. I tried befriending my new stepmother, but soon it became apparent that I was an inconvenience to her and not something she wanted as a part of her marriage. So I learned how to lay low. I kept my head down, spoke little,, and just did my best to keep everyone happy. I created a passive existence where I no longer shared my thoughts. I no longer watched TV in the living room because it was always met with, "Turn it down!" I no longer went into the kitchen because it was always met with, "What are you doing in here?! Go away!" I was told never to go into their offices or bedroom, so I hid in my home. I felt that the only way to possibly make my dad happy was to not exist. I became a ghost and I became suicidal. I only appeared when I had to. I learned how to walk small. Not only for my survival but in hopes my dad would smile.
I moved out three days following my Grade 12 graduation. I did not go back for at least three years. Not until I knew they were separated. Things were strained between my dad and I. As time went on, they realized that their failing marriage was not due to me but due to their incompatibility. I couldn't fully process all that had gone on within their marriage, and honestly, I am unsure if I cared. I had become numb, and I had started to harm myself. I think I just wanted to feel something. I started to go to Psychotherapist. This is where my healing journey started. I began to learn that I was worth something on my own and that I did not have to have a relationship with family members who hurt me, just because they were family. I learned that my health and safety were more important than keeping family ties. I started to value myself.
Then I met a man who slowly undid all of my healing and growth. My people-pleasing shifted to him. All I wanted was for him to be happy. I thought if I made him happy his bitterness and anger would go away. If I filled his emptiness with enough love, everything would be OK, but there was never enough. It was like I was filling a rusty bucket. As I poured in my love, it leaked out of the bottom of the pail.
During this time, my dad married again. I was wary and did not want to get too close to this marriage. Yet I still wanted my dad. That little girl in me desperately wanted her dad's love. She wanted to be held and told that everything was going to be OK because it hadn't been OK since my mum had died. What I wanted and what happened were two different things. Dad moved away and started a new life with his new wife and her boys and I continued doing my best to balance mine.
My balancing act became quite tricky as the years passed. I had three beautiful children. So not only was I trying to please this monster I had married, I was also trying to protect these three blessings I bore. It was difficult trying to please a monster. Every day I woke to wonder how will today be. Will he love me or hate me today? The days he loved me were great, but the days he hated me...those were the days I did my best to please him. I missed work to keep him happy. I took out another loan or credit card to buy him his next new "toy," all to keep the beast at bay. Day after day of this drained me. The long-ago lessons from my therapist were forgotten. I no longer saw my worth. As he confessed to one more cheating, I died, a little more inside. I stopped eating and could no longer sleep. I knew that if the violence and chaos continued, I wouldn't be able to look after my kids, so I took a million deep breaths and ended it.
My actual extraction from the marriage was more intense than I write. Sometimes it is hard to go back. Just know that it was not easy. In fact, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. By the grace of God, my kids and I made it out alive and we haven't seen him in almost a decade.
When I walked away from this marriage I found a whole slew of new challenges. Challenges I had not been prepared for. Professionals don't tell you about these challenges when they tell you to leave, which I get. I wonder how many women would leave if they fully knew the difficult road that was ahead of them. It was full of many potholes and even sinkholes as I faced being financially ruined, a shattered self-esteem, children who were traumatized beyond what I could handle, and homelessness. I reached out to my dad during this time. It was a hard phone call to make, but I was beyond desperate to be able to feed my children. I could tell that my dad wanted to help, he told me that he would if he could, but he couldn't. His wife would not let him. I have tried looking at it from her point of view. At the time, I didn't know her very well, and I have no idea how I had been presented to her. If anything it wasn't in a good light. Still, I thought that if she got to know me, maybe things would be better (there's that people pleaser again). I started messaging her and tried explaining the breakdown in my and dad's relationship, but she struggled to hear that my father did anything wrong, and soon I was told what a horrible daughter I was, and I was blocked on social media. For a fleeting moment, I had him, and then he was gone.
As time went on I noticed that if you wanted my dad in your life you had to dance with his wife. Dad was in your life if his wife was happy with you. If she wasn't happy with you, she blocked you from Dad's life. I watched her do it with his grandchildren, and my sister and I learned that the best time to call our dad was when our stepmother was out of town. I hated playing this game, but it seemed the only way I could have my dad in my life. The funny thing was, when I had the opportunity to spend time with my stepmother I realized that I found her quite interesting, and I wanted to have a relationship with her. We did start to develop one but I learned that it was tenuous and totally depended on her mood. I was cut off once again if I stepped one step out of what she thought was right.
I danced this dance with my stepmother until just recently. My dad died suddenly in 2021 due to a brain bleed. It was unexpected, but I was allowed to say goodbye by video and tell him how much I loved him—the day he died, the little girl in me cried so much. She had always wanted her daddy but never got him back after her mum died. He seemed slightly out of her reach like he was afraid to let her close.
My grief around my father's death has been profound and painful. Different than my grief when my mum was killed. Child grief and adult grief are so different. I can understand things better since I am an adult. I don't fear being abandoned like I did when my mum died, but I still feel a profound loss. My stepmother surprised me by being quite gracious following my Dad's death. She included me in the funeral and even left his ashes with me for a while. I appreciated that. I wish Dad and I had been given that time while he was still alive, but that wasn't how it happened. And things have shifted once again between my stepmother and I. Events happened beyond my control and I haven't been able to do what she wanted, so I am in the wrong... again (in her eyes). This shift is different, though. With this shift I am sad for her and her reaction I also realize I don't have to please her anymore. If she doesn't like me, then she doesn't like me. She can no longer hold my want to have a relationship with my dad hostage. For the first time in my life, I feel free and my people-pleasing is at rest. An enormous weight has lifted from my shoulders.
If you are unfamiliar with the term people-pleasing, I thought I would share exactly what it is. A people-pleaser personality means that a person feels a strong urge to please others, even at their own expense. They may feel that their needs and wants do not matter or alter their personality around others. Being a "people-pleaser" is not a medical diagnosis or a personality trait that psychologists measure. A people pleaser is typically someone everyone considers helpful and kind. People pleasing is often developed due to a problematic past or abuse. Often the people-pleaser believes if they please their abuser, the abuse will stop. In my case with my father, I believed if I pleased him he would be happy again, and he would want to spend time with me.
How can you stop people-pleasing?
Be true to yourself rather than trying to fit in. In my journey, I lost myself. I tried to be who my dad wanted, who my stepmothers wanted, and who my first husband wanted (I have remarried). If you have lost yourself take some time to find yourself again. What are your personal values? What do you believe in? What makes your heart sore? Answer those questions and start getting to know you again.
Learn to say, "No." Yup, this is a hard one. I get that. When you are a people-pleaser you are used to always saying yes even if it hurts you in some way, but this is how you lose yourself and get worn down. It's OK to say no and not do something you don't want to do.
Set healthy boundaries. This is another tough one. As a people-pleaser you are used to your needs not being important to you. You are used to someone else's needs being your main focus. By doing this you don't create any personal boundaries and this is why it can be easy for someone who is abusive to walk all over you and well...abuse you. I totally understand that as I have been there myself. You may be unaware of what boundaries you need to set. First make a list of things that you are doing that make you unhappy or used, like getting a cup of coffee for a coworker, and rank them in order of importance. Then starting with the most significant items set a boundary around them. For example, if that coworker is always interrupting your work, asking you to get them a cup of coffee, then tell them no, next time. You don't have to be mean about it. You can just tell them that at this time you are busy and that they will have to get it themselves. This helps you stay true to yourself.
Spend time alone. As a society, we often say it is bad to spend time alone. We have become hyper-fixated on staying connected. We live in a digital world where we can make a connection with others in an instant which can be great, but it can also be overwhelming. It is important to take time to disconnect and be by yourself. This is when you can get in touch with your feelings and thoughts. For some people that can be a terrifying idea. They are afraid to feel their emotions so they have coped by always having a distraction, whether it's the TV always on or checking their phone constantly this is how they have survived. But this disconnection keeps them from being themselves. Yes emotions are powerful but they will pass. Think of an emotion as energy in motion. It will pass through you and you will probably feel better on the other side of it all.
You can't please everyone. This can be another tough pill to swallow especially for a people pleaser. The simple truth is you can't please everyone all of the time. Each person has different needs and acting a certain way to please one person may upset another person. Instead, be you and work on pleasing yourself.
Learn to be assertive and stand up for yourself. It is important to not let others dictate how you live your life. Being assertive will help you set boundaries and will make sure those boundaries are respected by those around you. Being assertive can feel scary if you have been abused. In the past standing up for yourself may have meant further abuse. My hope is that you are no longer in that situation and that you know that your needs and wants are just as important as everyone else. You can be assertive by being blunt and upfront, or you can be more subtle by using body language. Being assertive takes practice and it is an important life skill for everyone to master.
Ask for help. Asking for help is a big step but it might be the most important step you ever take. I know that it can be scary. I understand that from being a client myself and as a therapist. Make sure you find someone that you easily connect with and that the services they offer fit what you are looking for. Know that you can book a free 30 mins Discovery Call (done via video) with me on this site, www.rhodestowellness.com and we can see if we are a good fit. No pressure and no commitment.
Lastly, remember that your happiness is important. It can be exhausting being a people-pleaser and this habit can lead to anxiety and depression. You are not just on this earth to fulfill other people's needs. You are also here to fulfill your own.
PS. I mentioned abuse a few times in this blog. If you are a survivor of abuse or are currently being abused please know that you are not alone. Besides running my own therapy business, I am also the Director of a Non-Profit called DASH-Domestic Abuse Survivor Help Inc. We offer online support to abuse survivors through our free Mentoring Program. We have a wonderful group of women who are survivors themselves, and they now offer guidance and support, via email, for as long as you need. If you would like to receive this support, please visit www.relationshipabuse-recovery.ca/get-support