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I Aim to Please

Want to know my secret? I have a pathological need to be liked. That might not seem like much of a secret—after all, most people want to be liked. But I'm not talking about want here; I'm talking about a never-express-an-unpopular-opinion-in-the-hopes-that-all-people-will-adore-me need to be liked. Frankly, it's a bit of a problem.

I discovered this reality through the magic of television. I loved the behind-the-scenes look at the political process on one of my favorite shows, the now-defunct The West Wing. The way those fictional White House insiders disagreed or even flat-out fought with each other—while retaining deep respect and love for their colleagues—fascinated me. I admired their willingness to stand up for truth, goodness, and democracy.

More to the point, I marveled at their unflinching ability to state strong opinions with no concern about others' thoughts or their own unpopularity. I'd watch them and think, I wish I had the strength to do that.

These aren't real people, I know. In real life, such folks might have lots of principles and no friends. But fictional or not, these characters strongly contrast with people-pleasing me.

People pleasing may be the special territory of women. We're so relational, we often do everything we can to preserve a connection, even at honesty's expense. Instead of telling someone the hard truth or making a decision that may hurt someone, we backpedal, clam up, turn on the charm - anything to avoid being the bad girl. But I'm finding my people-pleasing ways not only hurt me, they hurt the people whose feelings I'm trying to save.

I have a friend who's in a terrible marriage, and I saw it coming. I knew the guy was a loser, but she loved him and wanted to be married, so I didn't say anything. I'm certain if I'd told her my concerns when they were dating, she would've been angry. I'm nearly as certain she would've married him anyway. Figuring I'd be straining a friendship for no reason, I kept my mouth shut. Five years later, we're still friends - and she's married to a guy who can't hold a job. I wish I'd been willing to lose a friend instead of watching her lose herself.

Here's the thing with being a people-pleaser: It isn't really about "people." It's about me and my fear that someone will think less of me if I'm not agreeable. It's about my incessant need to have people think I'm swell.

The biblical story of David and Jonathan has much to teach me. These men were best friends, but Jonathan's father, King Saul, was jealous of David. When Jonathan learned Saul planned to kill David, Jonathan risked his father's wrath to warn his friend (read 1 Samuel 20). Jonathan could've kept his mouth shut or tried to smooth everything. But he took the high—and unpopular—road and stood up for David.

That willingness to risk scorn takes serious internal strength and self-awareness that are hard to come by. But we're God's daughters, and we're connected to the ultimate source of strength: "For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline" (2 Timothy 1:7).

Whether we're debating foreign policy at the White House or mustering up the guts to tell the truth, we need to remember that pleasing people rarely does them any good. People want relationships with those who are filled with honesty and integrity. I don't know if I'm ready to be one of those people for good, but I'm willing to give it a try.

Have you ever had to put aside your need to be liked in order to speak the truth? Are you willing to give up a friendship in order to keep your integrity? How have you escaped the people-pleasing trap?

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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