Last year I read a book on the Enneagram, a personality tying tool that has been around a long time and helps people understand the way they think and react. I’m no expert on it – unless reading one book on a subject makes me one (it doesn’t). If you want to read more about the Enneagram, I’d recommend “The Road Back to You” by Ian Michael Cron and Suzanne Stabile, who are actually experts. They helped me think more about how I’m wired, and maybe this tool will help you too.

The People-Pleasing Predicament

The Enneagram confirmed what I’ve long suspected about myself: I’m a people-pleaser. I am a number nine (the enneagram breaks people down into nine basic personality types), which means I’m a peacemaker, a conflict avoider, and a harmonizer in my relationships. In other words, I want people to be happy and I really want them to be happy with me.

Like any personality, there are strengths and weaknesses, elements of light and dark, and helpful and hurtful tendencies associated with my predisposition. Because of my people-pleasing bent, people generally like working with me. However, I struggle with a lot of anxiety, and I worry a lot about whether people like me. In case you’re wondering, I’m worried right now about whether you’ll like this blog post too.

It’s never a good thing to find your identity in making others happy – it’s something I’m working on. Not only is it not healthy, there’s another problem I, and other people-pleasers, face: people are all different! It’s hard to please people because it’s a moving target that constantly shifts.

For example, I’m married to a number one on the Enneagram. She’s also number one in my book (okay, that was cheesy, but doesn’t mean it’s not true). Ones are perfectionists. They care about details, following rules, are incredibly hard on themselves, and notice when things are wrong or out of place. My wife is a nurse, and believe me, it’s a great thing if your nurse is a one. You want your nurse to care about details! But, because she’s a one and I’m a nine, we think differently sometimes. We see the world through our lenses.

Take house cleaning for example. My version of clean is different from her version of clean. Not only am I a nine on the Enneagram, I’m also a big picture kind of person, so if a job is 80% done and looks good from a birds-eye view, that’s what matters most to me. Since she’s a detail person, she doesn’t see the 80% that is finished as much as the 20% that is yet to be done. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate the 80%. She does! But as she has described to me, that 20% sticks like a splinter in her eye, begging for attention and bugging her till it’s fixed.

We often don’t know how to please others because our brains process life differently.

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Neither view or personality type is “wrong.” But, it emphasizes the challenge in pleasing people. When I try to make my wife happy in my nine kind of way, it can be frustrating when it’s not received that way because my wife is a one. And when my wife painstakingly does detail work around the house, it can frustrate her to no end when I don’t even notice, let alone appreciate it.

It’s the predicament all people pleasers face. In fact, it’s a problem every person faces: we are all different. It’s what makes all relationships challenging. In general, I think most people have a desire to make the other people in their life happy. The problem isn’t typically motivation. It’s execution. We often don’t know how to please others because our brains process life differently.

As I’ve wrestled with the challenges of people-pleasing, it’s also become clear to me how shallow it is. There are better and far richer ways to approach people than simply trying to make them happy all the time.

People Appreciating

Instead of settling for being a people-pleaser, I want to be a people appreciator. I hope to recognize and celebrate the unique personalities and strengths of others who think differently than I do.

When I’m in people-pleasing mode, my tendency will be to stick around those who are most like me. It’s way easier to know how to get them to like me when they process the world in my big-picture, number nine-personality, sort of way. But, a casualty of that tendency is missing out on the richness of others. We need diversity. This isn’t just true about race, gender, and generational diversity. It’s also true with personalities. I am better when I gain perspective from my wife and her one personality.

We shouldn’t run when people initially frustrate (or even infuriate) us. It’s possible they simply see the world differently than we do. Instead of worrying whether they like us, we should try to be in “people appreciating” mode, recognizing that their wiring is valid too. In fact, they have strengths that we don’t.

People Seeking

I’m tired of only asking the question, “Are you happy with me?” That’s a people-pleasing question. It’s also short-sighted and not very helpful. When I ran cross country in high school, I typically wasn’t happy with my coach. But that wasn’t his goal. He wanted to help me run better.

A far more helpful question is, “How could I have done better?” I think trying to make people happy is too shallow of a goal. But, I do want to be more effective in how I live and lead. If I want to do that, I need to hear from people who process the world differently than I do. My work or words will hit them differently. In short, I need to be a people-seeker, someone who actively asks for feedback from others with a variety of personalities and perspectives. That’s the only way I’ll get better.

People-pleasing can be a painful and paralyzing way to live. No one is successful at it all the time. But, the good news is we don’t need to be successful at it. There’s something better. We can use our differences to help all of us become better versions of ourselves. And, maybe, just maybe, that perspective will lead to a lot less stress and a lot more appreciation for others in all of our lives. I’m hoping it will for me.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash
Ever found yourself in a people-pleasing prediament? It can be a painful and paralyzing way to live. These alternatives can help.

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