“It Wears Me Out”: The Painful Pursuit of People-Pleasing

Ross Lester | October 9, 2020 Christian Living Anxiety, Faith, Identity, Spiritual

I turned 39 a couple of weeks ago, and my birthday ended up being a day of significant self-reflection for me. Getting a year older isn’t usually a big deal in my life, but this year was seriously reflective. It is probably due to all the changes we have experienced, but it also felt like the Holy Spirit was bringing about circumstances to cause me to look at some things afresh in my life, things that don’t glorify God and don’t do me any good at all.

The day started off really well with Sue and the kids bringing me coffee and presents in bed. I felt very loved and valued, Sue always does a great job of marking these sorts of occasions, but the day unravelled pretty quickly from there. After dropping Daniel at school, I got pulled over in a traffic stop that, um, went a bit south. There I was, outside of my son’s elementary school being quizzed by police and being stared at by the clearly troubled parents of Daniel’s schoolmates. It was a very stressful situation, and it caused me a fair deal of anxiety. What was interesting to me though was that I wasn’t anxious about how I was going to pay the seemingly exorbitant fine (that came later), or what impact the ticket would have on my driving and insurance record, or what I could have done differently to avoid the situation in the first place, or even if I was physically safe in that interaction (this is a luxury and privilege that I am very aware is not shared by everybody).

My primary concern, if I am honest, was what people thought of me at that moment. What would the parents think? I wanted them to like me. I still really do. What was this cop thinking? I wanted this cop to like me (which is messed up, I know). I didn’t care that much about the ticket, but I didn’t want him to think that I was an idiot who didn’t know how to drive or that I might be an irresponsible member of society in my adopted nation.

When I got home, I poured myself a stiff coffee and opened my Bible for some time in the Word. One of the texts for the day was Esther 5, where the tragic tale of a nasty individual called Haman is outlined. Haman had a deep desire to be loved and respected and it drove him mad. In verse 9, Haman had his joy totally taken from him because Mordecai wouldn’t bow before him. His career was flying, everyone else bowed before him, he had the king’s ear, but he could only think of Mordecai. It drove him totally mad, and ultimately led to his destruction. I identified more with faithless Haman than with faithful Mordecai than I cared to admit. My anxiety rose.

Later that afternoon, still nauseous with anxiety and adrenaline, I decided to go for a run. I hoped it would ease some of the tension, or at least contribute to slimming my increasingly stubborn dad-bod. About half way through the run, one of my favorite songs came blasting through my headphones. It is called “Fake Plastic Trees,” off of the brilliant Radiohead album, “The Bends.” I stopped on the side of the road, partly because of the stress of carrying my previously-mentioned dad-bod around, but mainly because the lyrical refrain at the end of the song stopped me. I had heard it and sung along to it hundreds of times, but suddenly it described me.

“It wears me out …”

“It wears me out …”

“If I could be who you wanted …. all the time.”

That’s how I was feeling. Worn out. Worn out from people-pleasing. Worn out from wanting to be what other people wanted, all of the time. It’s my idol, being liked and respected and approved of, and it can be relentless and damaging if left unchecked.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is plenty of instruction in the Bible about being likable and respectable. The antidote to this isn’t to adopt the mantra of the day that says, “I am who I am and I don’t give a …”. That isn’t a Christian worldview or posture, that is just being a jerk, and the Bible doesn’t actually want us to be one of those. But, gaining my sense of self-worth and identity from anything or anyone outside of my Creator is clearly not a biblically-faithful or even selfishly-happy way to live , and I was reminded of it on the side of the road, covered in sweat, and a long way from home. On the run (more like forward lean that inevitably causes some form of largely indiscernible motion) home, I started to make a list of tell-tale signs in my life that I am letting this need govern me to a damaging extent. Here is my list, and I simply hope and pray that it might help some of you to recognize why you are so worn out.

  1. FOMO governs my decisions. I end up doing things I don’t want to do, because I really don’t want to miss out on things that seem to gain other people’s acceptance and approval. Ironically, this is why I started running in the first place, but now I can’t stop.
  2. I get addicted to social media. My wife has been helpful in calling me out on this, and while I typically enjoy social media, this is another thing altogether. This is posting and then constantly checking to see if that gained any approval. This is a desire to be first to know, first to share (and be credited for sharing), and to win at the appearance of life. (I do get the tension that I am posting about this in a public space that will likely be shared on social media. I am wrestling through this hot mess hypocrisy.)
  3. I run from conflict, even when it is necessary. I am not typically afraid of conflict, except when I really care what the person thinks of me. This has left some really important stuff unsaid in my life, because I fear the rejection of the people who need to be confronted.
  4. I care more about reputation than I do about character. Again, the Bible tells us that a good reputation is something to be defended and protected, but I know when my public reputation is significantly better than my private life, and I know when my efforts are spent making sure that gap isn’t exposed. It wears me out.
  5. I believe every criticism and dismiss every affirmation. A thousand people can tell me I am doing great, and my family can love me like I am the best ever, but one critique (or seeming critique) can leave me questioning my value.
  6. I find myself thinking, “I wonder what so and so would think of this … ” in situations that really shouldn’t be influenced by them. This has become stark to me since we moved countries, as I realize that I am still tempted to make decisions to please people who will never even see them.
  7. I start to question the love of God, and the certain acceptance found for me in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The antidote of this of course is to go back and re-believe the gospel. To embrace the good news, that my dignity, value, worth, and purpose are established in my creation as an image-bearer; solidified in my salvation through the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ; and secured forever in the fact that God is happy to dwell within me through His loving and limitlessly powerful Holy Spirit. None of that comes because of what I do. All of that is tied up in the goodness of God, which brings an end to striving, straining, and stressing about my status. I am loved, in Christ. I am accepted, in Christ. I am secure, in Christ.

What freedom this brings when we believe it.

So, I am 39. I am bad at running. I occasionally commit traffic offenses. I might be addicted to social media. And I am deeply loved by the only One who really matters.

Don’t get worn out friends. You can’t be who they want, all of the time.

And you don’t need to be.

Christian Living Anxiety, Faith, Identity, Spiritual

About Ross Lester

Ross Lester is the Pastor of Preaching and an elder at The Austin Stone. He previously served as the Lead Pastor of Bryanston Bible Church and Network Director of Acts 29 Southern Africa. He and his wife, Sue, live in Austin, Texas with their two children.

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