Personal growth expert Michael Hyatt often says he is a recovering people-pleaser. I can identify with that. Though some people might disagree, the fact is that internally I desire to make people happy. Early in life, and less frequently as I’ve gotten older, I found myself caving, going against my own conscience and judgment, just to avoid a conflict or to make someone else happy. In an odd balance of sorts, I was also very confrontational, but not always, and certainly not during some crucial times.
At some point a few years ago I looked back at my life and began recounting all the opportunities I had lost because I gave up me. And in that reflection I realized that many of those situations were not as dire as they seemed at the time, and that the people involved mostly no longer really cared what choice I had made years earlier. While it was true that there were many choices I made in those years where I was indeed true to myself, there was no pattern of being intentional with such decision making. And in the relatively few years since I had that awakening moment, I can tell you that I have had more clarity in moments of both simple and tough choices. It is still a work in progress, but I have more peace (along with less tension and resentment) with regard to decisions.
I would like to share with you a few things I have learned in this process that may help you to make better decisions, ones that are not based on what people are pushing you to do. And to be clear, I am not talking about choices to do wrong or to dive into immorality; I’m talking about choices where there may be no clear “right” and “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, but simply “this” or “that.”
Consider to whom you are accountable
There are three areas to ponder here: yourself, the people who mean most to you, and God.
Let’s talk about you first off. You ultimately have to live with the consequences of your choices. You either enjoy or endure those consequences. But long after many people who have an opinion have cycled out of your life, you are left with your own conscience. You may have heard of Bronnie Ware. She worked for a long time in palliative care, tending to the dying in their final days. As you might imagine she heard some very personal things from those who knew their time on this earth was short. And after a while she saw a pattern emerge: when people told her their regrets, a few particular regrets surfaced over and over. Ms. Ware was so touched by what she heard that she wrote a blog post entitled “Regrets of the Dying,” upon which she would later base a book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” And the number one regret by far, among male and female, was this: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Think on that. Those people expressed that regret while dying. Let us then have the fortitude to confess it while we yet live and likely have years to minimize that regret. You will live with your conscience the rest of this life. Do not die knowing you could have had a better, more fulfilling life.
Those you love
Whether you are married or not, whether you have children or not, whether your parents are close to you or not, there is someone in your life who means a lot to you. And while they occasionally (or perhaps frequently) want you to do things that are not true to you, the fact is that you owe it to them to be yourself. You will surely disappoint your loved ones from time to time by being you, but one thing I have seen is that they will almost always respect you for making your own decision. Conversely, something interesting happens to the people who give in, who cave, who try so hard to please others that they empty themselves of their very identity: nobody respects them. It is certainly important to think of the impact of your decisions on those you love, but it is equally important, for them and for you, that you remain true to yourself. People have no confidence in us when we constantly flap in the wind and change direction to conform to the strongest force. But we will build strong relationships by being who we are, not who others would like us to be.
This is a tough call, to be sure. It is very tempting to filter our decisions through the perceptions, approvals, criticisms of others. But we cannot afford to let those things detract from who we truly are and to push us down paths we feel we should not trod. Regret is a horrible reward for following others’ opinions.
As a follower of Christ, I believe we are ultimately accountable to God. As I said, we will live the rest of this life with the consequences of our decisions. But those same decisions often have an impact on the next life. The scripture teaches that “…every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). For the believer, that accountability is not to decide our entry into Heaven, but rather to determine what rewards we will receive and even roles we will play in God’s future kingdom. For me, that provokes solemn thinking. And what helps me more is to remember that God does not even wait until the next life to hold us accountable. Because he loves us, he will deal with us even in this life, not to keep us in bondage to his will, but to guide us to the correct path, for Psalm 37:23 reminds us that “the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord.” Such thoughts should not scare us, for our heavenly Father cares for us and truly desires an abundant and blessed life for us.
Think about the impact of your decisions
Particularly, consider what happens if you surrender your own judgment and violate your own conscience to please others. This requires two crucial tasks: that we think ahead and that we think for ourselves.
Today it is so easy to get caught up in the moment and to look at what may happen in the few moments or days after we make a decision. And that is important. But long-term thinking is just as important, if not more so. As I alluded to earlier, there are so many long-term consequences to many of our choices. And it is not possible to see every single one of them, but it is possible to see a lot of them. For example, if I tailgate a rude driver who cut me off in traffic, I may get the temporary pleasure of angering him or “getting back” at him, but I risk an accident, injury, damage to others, and possible death by being that stupid. If a man leaves a job because he isn’t getting along well with a co-worker, he may miss an opportunity to resolve the tension and build a great relationship, not to mention the potential for growth in that company. And sometimes the tough choice is indeed the right choice. I have passed up what seemed to be great job opportunities because I felt it was not the best thing for me to do, for my family, for my career, and for what God wanted me to do at the time.
Think FOR Yourself
This doesn’t mean you think only of yourself. What I mean is to do your own thinking. And I strongly advocate for getting input from as many wise, trusted people as you can. The scripture even teaches that seeking the counsel of others is wise. But ultimately, you must distill all that input and do your own thinking. Again, an example: I have more than once bought a car I had no business buying simply because I listened to the pressure and hype of a salesman or finance manager, and turned off my own brain in the process. Had I looked ahead and done my own reasoning, I would have easily concluded that I did not need the new car and that I could by no means afford the new car.
And this will get you into trouble with people, even people for whom you care and who care for you deeply. It will create conflict. But if you do your own thinking, it’s much easier to own it, to avoid blaming others, and to live a personally accountable and intentional life. Plus, it gives you great opportunity to learn from your failures.
The best moves I had made in life have come from me taking time to think situations through on my own, especially if I had previously been caving to the desires of others to keep peace. It created some very tense and emotional moments, but ultimately I felt peace in my choices and even gained the respect of others in the process. My wish for you is the same.
There is no path through the gauntlet of pleasing others that will leave you unblemished. Best to heed Oscar Wilde’s advice, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” It is only by being true to ourselves that we can remain fully in control of who we are, where we shall be, and what we shall do.