This post: How to overcome fear of criticism and living for other people’s expectations.
I know you probably already know this, but I’m going to say it anyway.” The counselor paused and looked me straight in the eyes. I held her gaze, although everything within me wanted to look away. Just like I desperately wanted to pull a veil over some of the less-than-pleasant topics we’d discussed over the past 90 minutes.
Having my family issues analyzed and cross-examined by a complete stranger is far from my favorite thing to do, but I’ve found it to be a necessarily part of living well. Much like surgery to remove a malignancy, sometimes counseling is a bit painful; but it just might save your life.
On this particular day, I was feeling the knife, so to speak, and the therapist wasn’t offering any anesthetic to dull the pain.
“Kristy, this isn’t about what people think of you or your family,” she said shortly. “What people think doesn’t even matter. This is your family’s life.”
I nodded in agreement and found myself letting out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. Our conservation went on for another ten minutes, but for days my mind mulled over that simple sentence: This isn’t about what people think.
Ten years ago, I would have had a hard time swallowing that statement.
Twenty years ago, not even an inkling of how to stop being a people pleaser. Or even the realization that I was tangled in an unhealthy pattern.
That day in the counselor’s office, I offered up a silent prayer of gratitude. My family still had a long way to go, but thank God we’d come that far.
Why is People Pleasing Such a Problem for Pastor’s Families?
Vocational ministry and people pleasing seem to be mutually inclusive. The latter sort of follows the former.
Fear of criticism and living up to people’s expectations have literally shaped (and misshaped) my life. That’s part of the baggage of growing up as a pastor’s kid and marrying a minister. But why?
I think a lot of ministry families would attribute their people pleasing tendencies to any of the following reasons:
- trying to be “good enough.”
- wanting to do the “right” thing.
- fear of criticism.
- feeling obligated to live up to people’s expectations.
- the desire to be a “role model” or “good” example.
Personally, I believe that most pastor’s families, and many well-meaning Christians in general, struggle with people pleasing because we’ve misunderstood what it means to love and serve both people and God.
Underneath all the other reasons is a core belief that ministry is about living your life for others.
At first glance, this belief seems admirable. Even biblical. But is this ministry mantra truly aligned with the Gospel?
I say it isn’t.
Let’s Call It What It Is: Fear of Man
Many oft-quoted passages from the Gospels are used to prop up the idea that living your life for others is actually a form of service to God, and is thus acceptable and even good. I’ve heard dozens of sermons about “surrender” and “denying yourself,” and you likely have too.
And, when taken in context with the rest of Christ’s teachings and the Gospel narrative in general, these are important Christian principles.
But we begin to err as believers when we equate a lack of healthy boundaries as godliness, and an inability to say “no” as Christlikeness. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, God has a name for behavior fueled by people-pleasing: it’s called the fear of man, and is addressed many times in Scripture.
10 Bible Verses About Fear of Man
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.Psalm 118:8
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.Proverbs 29:25
Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?Isaiah 2:22
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.Matthew 10:28
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.I John 4:18
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’Romans 8:15
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.Galatians 1:10
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.Colossians 3:23
For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.II Timothy `:7
So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’Hebrews 13:6
Bottom line: Call it what it is: living to please people is a trap (Proverbs 29:25).
How to Stop Being a People Pleaser
There’s no 12-step plan for overcoming people pleasing.
For me, it continues to be a lifelong process of becoming aware, processing my mistakes and misunderstandings, and learning to live with healthier patterns.
Let’s look at three necessary beginnings for letting go of people pleasing.
#1: Admit that you have a problem.
This necessary first step is why most well-meaning people stay stuck:
We have to admit that this endless obsession with living your life for others is actually a problem, not a virtue.
Interestingly enough, my journey of getting over being a people pleaser didn’t start in a counselor’s office, although those have been helpful milestones along the way.
I had a dream in my mid-twenties that rocked my world and opened my eyes about my problem with the fear of man. God used this dream, and other situations in my life at that time, to bring me to a place of humility and willingness to change my thinking patterns.
God meets us where we’re at and speaks to us in ways that we can hear. For me, it was a dream. For you, it could be a hundred different things. The important thing is to pay attention to the lessons God wants to teach you through life situations.
Here are a few red flags that people pleasing and fear of man might be an issue for you:
- How people perceive you feels more important than the actual reality of your life.
- You’re often exhausted from serving those around you.
- You practice little or no self care.
- Your fear of criticism drives your decisions more than your personal priorities or preferences.
- You may not even know what your personal priorities or preferences are.
- You are the first to volunteer to help others, but struggle to ask for help yourself.
- You sometimes lie, exaggerate, or otherwise misguide the facts so that people will think well of you.
- Being vulnerable or authentic scares you.
- It’s common for you to feel unappreciated, or secretly resentful about all the work you do for others.
- You want to be liked and admired more than just about anything else.
- Your spouse or kids resent how much energy you spend “doing” for others.
- You equate being overly busy with spirituality or godliness.
Bottom line: How to stop being a people pleaser? Start by being honest with yourself. Ask your spouse, your kids, mentors or emotionally healthy friends to give you some honest feedback. Or, find a Christian counselor and get some professional help.
#2: Start bringing your SELF to the table.
As a pastor’s kid who grew up and married a minister, I believed (for many years) that the best way I could love God and serve people was to be a constantly extendable blank slate.
In other words, whatever I perceived that someone needed of me is what I would seek to be.
- Need a meal? I’ll cook it.
- Looking for a “role model” pastor’s wife? I’m your girl.
- Expect me to be musically inclined? A leader? A follower? A decorator? A hostess? I’ll step up to the plate, even if it means turning myself inside out.
I don’t have to tell you that this kind of living wasn’t any kind of life at all. And it isn’t an authentic or meaningful way to serve people, either.
Just a few years into vocational ministry, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and depressed by “serving others.” Really, I wasn’t serving people. I was trying to please people, avoid being criticized, and meet every perceived expectation anyone threw my way.
And the ironically sad thing? No one, not even myself, knew the real me.
I once heard a wise woman say, “The church world likes to talk about surrendering yourself on the altar for the kingdom of God. But no one talks about the fact that you first have to have a ‘self’ to surrender.”
A very undiscussed topic in ministry life is the fact that, first of all, we must know who God created us to be before we can offer our “self” to God.
What are the skills and interests and strengths you bring to the table? What personality has God given you? What fills you up? What drains you?
If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, it’s likely you’ll end up:
- rushing around trying to be “all things to all people.”
- spending lots of time and energy doing things you’re not good at.
- spending no time or energy doing the things you love.
- resenting living your life for others.
- feeling lonely and emotionally isolated.
If you would stop being a people pleaser, then the imperative nosce te ipsum (“know thyself”) is a great place to start. There’s so much we say on this topic of having a sense of SELF, but here’s a quick acronym to remember:
What are you naturally good at? What comes easily for you that other people find difficult? This is part of who God created you to be. Sharpen those skills and don’t spend a lot of time trying to be good at what someone else thinks you should be good at.
What makes you feel alive? Drains your energy? How do you relax or re-center? Are you an introvert? An extrovert? Explore these questions until you can answer them.
What are your passions in life? Do you love nature? Creating things? Being around people? Entertaining? What you love is often related to your skills, but don’t confuse the two. One of my skills is that I’m a great editor, but my love is writing and communicating, not proofreading. Name what you love. Those are your God-given passions.
Emotions are a huge part of being human, and especially a woman. My personality doesn’t “do” emotions well; I’d rather stuff them (or deny them altogether), and get busy doing something productive. Part of having a healthy sense of self is knowing how to sit comfortably with your feelings. Whether what you’re feeling is “good” or “bad” is non consequential. Own your feelings. Process them. Learn from them. Feelings make you a relatable human.
Bottom line: God created you with skills, energies, loves, and feelings. Start learning how to bring your whole SELF to the table and give God something to work with. Don’t let fear of criticism block your SELF from growing into its God-given potential.
#3: Create a safe place.
The answer to “how to stop being a people pleaser” takes us back to that uncomfortable seat in the counselor’s office. The place where I sat and heard the words, “Kristy, this isn’t about what people think.”
Thank God I already believed those words. In fact, I was trying very hard to live by them. But, without knowing it, I’d failed in one important area: I didn’t create a safe place for my kids.
You see, this particular counseling session wasn’t about me or my depression. (That’s another session and another story.)
I was sitting in a therapist’s office because part of my parenting had gone very badly. Maybe it was a side effect from the lies I’d believed for so many years. A byproduct, if you will, of two decades of people pleasing.
My child was suffering. And because of that, I was suffering. So we began the painful process of peeling back the layers of wounds, finding the malignancy, and starting the healing process.
I’ve learned (the hard way, if you can’t tell) that healing only happens in a safe place. Growth only happens in a safe place. That’s true academically, spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. We need safety in order to thrive.
And living in fear of criticism- people pleasing- is never a safe place. Not for you, not for your spouse or your kids, and not for the people you are serving.
How to Stop Being a People Pleaser: Summarized.
I had to get over worrying about what people think about me, how I dress, what I’m good at, and what I stink at.
I had to get over being concerned about people’s opinions about my kids, my parenting style, our family dynamics in general.
I had to learn who I am in Christ and be okay with that. To create an emotionally safe place, and then be brave enough to live in it.
And it’s only from this safe place that I can truly and authentically begin to love and serve others.
- Without fear of criticism (because I don’t need approval).
- Without worrying about how people will perceive me, or if they will reject me (because I know who I am in Christ).
- Without fear of failure (because I know I’m growing and learning, just like everyone else).
- Without stifling my husband or kids with expectations that are actually based on other people’s opinions and criticisms.
- Without expectation of other people meeting my needs (because I’m not looking outside myself for fulfilment).
As I’ve begun to live in this place of emotional freedom, I find that my kids are thriving. My marriage is thriving. My personality is thriving. My friendships are thriving.
Am I pleasing- or pleasing to- everyone? No, although my heart is to always be gracious. At the end of the day, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s okay. Not everyone likes my personality, or agrees with my theology or personal preferences.
But I’ve learned to be real with myself, and to truly be real with others. In turn, people are more honest with me and friendships are deeper. There is safety because I have nothing to prove, nothing to hide.
In summary, the answer to how to stop being a people pleaser is to fear living a small life more than you fear displeasing others.
Since God broke the mold, don’t be afraid to live outside the box, color outside the lines, change the tune, or write the second verse.
There is freedom, friends, when we choose to replace the pattern of people pleasing with a pattern of-
- A sense of SELF.
- Willingness to create safety.
Let’s do it.
Want to learn more? The following resources have been life-giving to me on this journey of living free from people pleasing and fear of criticism. Check them out, and drop me a comment with your own recommendations.
- Boundaries, by Dr. John Townsend + Dr. Henry Cloud
- Boundaries.me membership/coaching (starts at just $9 per month)
- Own Your Life, by Sally Clarkson
What would you add to this post about how to stop being a people pleaser? Do you struggle with this?