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The Perils of People Pleasing

June 2017
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I had to smile when I found the above picture to include on this blog post. People pleasing is an epidemic that nobody really likes, but many people are affected by it in varying degrees. Women especially tend to fall victim to it (see article titled, How Women Can Overcome People-Pleasing and Perfectionism,” by Sharon Martin, LCSW, published in PsychCentral.com in November 2016). Another article titled, Field Guide to the People Pleaser: May I Serve as Your Doormat? by Elizabeth Svoboda, published in PsychologyToday.com, takes a closer look at what situations trigger our people pleasing behavior and why.

As a famous quote states, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” There are two authors attributed to that quote: (1) John Lydgate, (1370-1451) a Benedictine monk and a prolific writer of poems, allegories, fables and romances (source here); and (2) Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States (1861-1865), who paved the way for the abolition of slavery in America. When the briefer version of that quote came to my attention this afternoon (e.g., “you can’t please all of the people all of the time”), a song with a story behind it came to mind.

Back in 1974, Joni Mitchella Canadian singer/songwriter who settled in Southern California and wrote popular songs like Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock (also sung by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), which became a counterculture anthem that helped define an era and a generation (source here), wrote a song titled Free Man in Paris (YouTube Video available at this link). Here are the opening lines to that song:

The way I see it, he said, you just can’t win it
Everybody’s in it for their own gain
You can’t please ’em all
There’s always somebody calling you down

The song is about a music agent/promoter who was a close friend of Mitchell’s in the early 1970s, and she describes him in the song during a trip the two made to Paris, France. While the music promoter is never mentioned by name, Mitchell describes how he worked hard creating hits and launching careers but finally finds some peace from it all while vacationing in Paris. Mitchell sings “I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody calling me up for favors. No one’s future to decide” (quote source here).

Granted, most of us will never be famous or find ourselves in the same shoes as that music agent/promoter, but we’ve all felt the stress of trying to please “all of the people all of the time” (which is impossible). Yet, some of the “them” out there often try to get us to conform at times and in various and sundry ways, but nobody usually ends up happy–not “them” and certainly not us, either. Well, the “them” might be happy if we keep catering to their wishes that disparage us.

I ran into a brief devotion titled, People Pleasing Is Idolatry,” by Rick Warren, founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church, an evangelical megachurch in Lake Forest, California. Here is what he had to say on the subject of people pleasing:

In life, you only have to please one person. And that is your Creator. You only have to please the Lord, the one who made you and has a purpose for your life.

That simplifies life enormously! You only need one person’s approval: God’s.

Jesus said it like this in John 5:30: “I don’t try to please myself, but I try to please the One who sent me” (NCV). He said, “I’m living for an audience of one.”

You may have never realized this, but people-pleasing is a form of idolatry. The first commandment in the Ten Commandments is, “Don’t have any gods before me.” Anything you put before God becomes a god. So a boat could be a god. A career could be a god. A girlfriend could be a god. Golf could be a god. Anything that becomes number one in your life that isn’t God becomes your god.

The second commandment is, “Don’t make any idols.” Anything that replaces God in your life is an idol. Success can be an idol. Money can be an idol. Sex can be an idol. A relationship can become an idol. If that relationship to your girlfriend, your wife, your boss, or your friend is more important than God, it’s an idol.

When you are a people-pleaser, you have allowed something other than God to take first place. All of a sudden it becomes god in your life, because you are allowing the opinion of others to matters more than God’s opinion. What they think of you matters more than what God thinks of you. You don’t want to tell them you’re a Christian because they might think less of you. For example, you don’t want them to know you go to church because they may not like you. At that point, you have another god in your life. You have an idol.

You only have to please one person. Paul says in Galatians 1:10, “I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant” (NLT). (Quote source here.)

In an article titled, How to Overcome Being a People Pleaser,” Joyce Meyer, author, speaker, Bible teacher, and president of Joyce Meyer Ministries, states:

There is only one remedy I know of to avoid being a people pleaser and that is learning to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in all we do. That is one of the most exciting things about being a Christian.

As believers, the Holy Spirit lives inside us. He desires to lead us in everything we do, from how we handle our finances, to the type of job we have, to the house we live in, to what we do or don’t do for others. He does not want to just be involved with the spiritual side of our lives; He wants to be involved with the natural side of our lives too.

I love what Romans 7:6 says: “But now we are discharged from the Law and have terminated all intercourse with it, having died to what once restrained and held us captive. So now we serve not under [obedience to] the old code of written regulations, but [under obedience to the promptings] of the Spirit in newness [of life].” What Paul is saying is, when we follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit, we experience newness of life—peace, joy and contentment—that cannot be experienced when we live under the “shoulds,” the “oughts,” the obligations and the expectations of being a people pleaser.

It All Comes Down to One Thing…

Motives… Why are we doing (or not doing) something? Are we being motivated by fear, personal gain or a sense of obligation? Are we being motivated by a desire to be in control, accepted or seen? These are all the wrong reasons for doing something. Our motive for doing anything should always be because God has prompted us and we want to please Him. Following the leading of the Holy Spirit means we are motivated by the fruits of the Holy Spirit, such as love, kindness and goodness. What the Spirit leads us to do or not do, He will give us a peace about.

Remember, whatever you and I do, if we will do it as unto the Lord, our lives and the lives of others will be blessed. If you help a family member, do it as unto the Lord. If you visit with relatives, do it as unto the Lord. If you work in the nursery at church, do it as unto the Lord. If you are getting dressed, washing the dishes, driving to work, cutting the grass, or going to the grocery store, do it as unto the Lord.

In other words, with everything you do, do it with the motive of pleasing God. The result will be a new measure of joy and enthusiasm in your life—even in the everyday, ordinary things.

I encourage you to shake off the way people think or feel about you and just begin to do what you feel God wants you to do. If you need strength in this area, and I think we all do, pray and ask the Lord for His grace to follow after His voice instead of the pressures and demands of others. That you may walk (live and conduct yourselves) in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him and desiring to please Him in all things… (Colossians 1:10). (Quote source here.)

Creflo Dollar, televangelist, pastor, and the founder of the non-denominational World Changers Church International, states the following in his article titled, Avoiding the ‘People Pleaser’ Trap”:

It’s human nature to want people to like us, and the need to be accepted can be a powerful force. We become acquainted with this at an early age, learning who the most popular kids are in school and trying to determine how they became that way. Some people take the need to be accepted one step further, and abandon their values and what they know is right just to please others. But the Bible warns against being a people-pleaser.

In our relationships, trying to please others instead of God can twist us into knots and lead us into places where we know we shouldn’t be. It can cause us to compromise, just to fit in with the crowd. We trap ourselves by fearing confrontation, or what others may think of us if we stand firm in our faith. “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe” (Proverbs 29:25, NIV). We can either cater to others and their whims, or please our heavenly Father by doing what we know is right in His eyes, but we must choose.

Seeking others’ approval is like being on a treadmill, running, running, running, but never going anywhere. It causes stress, anxiety, and tension. Letting fear of people’s opinions bully us into doing this makes us miserable, and that’s not what God wants. During Jesus’ ministry, a number of influential people fell into the trap of worrying about what others would say and do if they listened to Him. “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:42, 43).

Nothing productive can come from placing people’s opinions before God’s. His children are bound to step on a few toes, because they do everything to please Him. The world’s standards aren’t His standards. When we live according to His spiritual laws, we can expect some people to withhold their approval. “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10, NIV).

Realize, however, that Believers can still receive goodwill and approval from others, as long as we remember that God’s approval comes first. “When a man’s ways please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Proverbs 16:7, AMP). It pleases Him when we live according to His will, and His favor often manifests through other people. It happened with Esther when she went before the king (Esther 2:15), and it can happen with us.

Relationships blossom when each person focuses on pleasing God, not others. He knows our need to be liked and accepted, so in addition to His liking and accepting us, He wants to bless each of our relationships. Who will you choose to please? (Quote source here.)

Dr. Henry Cloud, leadership expert, psychologist, and best-selling author, has devoted an entire chapter to the topic of people pleasing in his book, Never Go Back: 10 Things You’ll Never Do Again (2014). In an excerpt from Chapter 4 titled, “Never Again… Believe You Can Please Everyone,” he states (on pp. 65-68):

Reaching for the Possible, Not the Impossible

Successful people eventually go through a doorway that is essential to making their personal lives, as well as their professional lives, work: they realize that they do not have to please everyone or have everyone like them. In fact, part of what fuels that realization is the bigger realization that not only do we not have to please everyone, we can’t–even if we wanted to. It is impossible.

The reality is that everyone likes something different, has different agendas, tastes, interests, beliefs, and experiences. It is literally impossible to make everyone happy, even within your closest circle of friends. You are going to like and choose some things that some people won’t like or choose. That is reality. Basically the only way to avoid upsetting anyone is to believe, say, or do nothing at all. Not a good option. Once you realize that, and really, really get it, something happens.

You give up what is impossible,
and begin to focus on what is good.

Playing Offense

Once you get that it truly is impossible to please everyone, you begin to live purposefully. You begin to play offense. You start spending your time and energy on things that bring meaningful results, rather than on the impossible goal of making everyone else happy. Spending energy to get results is “playing offense.” A nice thing about playing offense is that your fruitfulness will actually please people who allow you to be you, provided you are pursuing truly good and fruitful things. The ones who want you to be or do something other than what you are cut out for won’t always be pleased–but when we understand our end goal, to do good, this matters a little less.

And once you begin to play offense, you’ll discover the difference between playing offense and being offensive or offended. Some will take offense at your not doing what they like or want; but that’s the time you need to stand firm, knowing that you can’t please everyone. As we used to say on the golf course, “Every shot makes somebody happy.”

In a memorable movie scene, a son makes a life decision that his father does not like. His father says indignantly, “How could you do this to me?”

The son looks at him and says, “Dad, I am not doing this to you. I am doing this for me.” Big difference. He was not being offensive, he was playing offense, doing what he was called to do. He realized that he was not being offensive nor was he offended because his dad did not approve.

Choices Always Divide

Successful people realize that just because someone is unhappy with them does not require that they give up their purpose, fold their cards, or change. They realize that making some people unhappy is just part of the deal–and they keep going. I once heard Tony Blair say that when you realize that every decision divides, it really helps. It is just part of life. When you turn to the right, there will be some who want you to go to the left, and vice versa. It is the nature of making choices. When we accept that every decision divides, we quit trying to do the impossible, i.e., pleasing everyone, and we begin making the right choices, knowing that our choices will divide.

Psychological research and experience tell us that people-pleasing is not a formula for happiness or success. Happy people do not compare themselves to others or overly concern themselves with others’ opinions of them. They are directed from the inside–their personal values and convictions and staying true to themselves is an inner compass they will not violate. Research shows that people with intrinsic motivations–motivations that come from their own hearts–are the successful ones. The people who reach goals are the ones who do what they themselves have decided to do, from their own hearts, not because of pressure from others. The Bible agrees with the research when it says, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9, HCSB). Our hearts and God guide us, not the opinions of others.

This does not mean that successful people ignore correction and input from others. Far from it… The most internally directed people are the most open to feedback. Why? Because they do not fear it. They welcome it and use it to become better directed–internally. When it is good, they make the feedback part of them, which is way different from trying to live up to the expectations of others. As they make changes based on feedback, they are not trying to please the ones who provided the feedback; they are trying to become better versions of themselves.

It turns out that seeking people’s approval is one of the things that God warns us about over and over. Proverbs 29:25 says that “the fear of man is a snare.” Paul says that if he were seeking the approval of men, he would no longer be a servant of Christ (see Galatians 1:10). Jesus unpacks this further and gives us a stronger warning, in the strongest language: “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you.” (Luke 6:26a, NIV). (Quote source: “Never Go Back,” Chapter 4, pp. 65-68.)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, people pleasing is epidemic, and we all tend to do it for whatever reasons; however, as we can see from the articles above, it is very detrimental not only to us but to others, too. So the next time we are tempted to try to please someone out of fear or just to get along, stop and think about what God would have us do in that situation, and remember . . .

Fearing people is a dangerous trap . . .

But trusting the Lord . . .

Means safety . . . . (Prov. 29:25 NLT)

YouTube Video: “Warrior” by Steven Curtis Chapman:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

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