Lessons From People-Pleasing: Honoring Your Family AND Yourself, Too

Guest post by Dr. Toni Liu

An insidious disease that creeps up on you, and one deemed noble by society, especially for women, People-Pleasing is a slippery slope you don’t realize you’re on until it’s too late.

As a child of immigrants, I faced immense pressure to make my ancestors’ sacrifices worth it. They uprooted themselves, left their loved ones and culture in China, and started over in a foreign land. America was the land of promise at the time, with supposedly no economic ceiling.

So the pressure to achieve and make something of myself was ingrained probably even before I was born. (Did you know intergenerational experiences and trauma actually ARE passed down via genes and epigenetics?!)

But the core of it all was People-Pleasing — making my family happy and proud, especially my wounded mother who faced unspeakable hardships of her own.

I remember how her face would light up when I did something “right,” was a “good girl,” and how it became horribly angry and pained when I would make a mistake, no matter how small. She criticized me constantly with “well-meaning advice,” calling me fat, stupid, and lazy to try to motivate me to do better.

I felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells, not knowing when her next outburst would be. I remember the sound of her smashing dishes, yelling at my father, and angrily storming out the door, threatening to never come back despite me panickedly begging her to stay.

I can only imagine she adopted those “rules” and strict standards because of how she grew up. I know that now, but as a child, I thought it was my fault, that it was because I failed to be “good enough” to cheer her up.

So I tried and strived even harder. I learned to read and anticipate her needs, ignoring and then eventually forgetting my own. I became the most obedient child, straight A+ student, salutatorian, went to an Ivy League school, then medical school, erased my needs and never spoke up.

Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash

But it was no good. Nothing I ever did was good enough for her. She continued to dismiss my strengths and nitpick on what I was still lacking. “Not a rich enough specialty you picked” or “Your boyfriend is too short – do you want midget children?”

The exhaustion and resentment bubbled until a breaking point, when I couldn’t keep it up anymore. As much as I loved her, I couldn’t keep abandoning myself anymore.

Medicine was not the right path for me, so after working for a few years, at age 30, I finally started living true to my heart, which was to be a cartoonist, teacher, and global nomad.

While I relieved the pain of denying my identity, new pain with guilt and shame arose, of being “selfish,” ungrateful for my family’s sacrifices and not doing more for them even though I could.

I felt SO guilty I wasn’t wringing myself dry to offer every last drop of me to others. It felt “selfish” to prioritize me and my self-care even some of the time. To even HAVE needs.

That’s why people-pleasing is such a horrible disease – because it’s arguably more painful during recovery than staying in it.

My worst fears all came to the surface – the fear of abandonment, being rejected, outcasted, and disowned from the family, if not in name, then in action.

Photo by Ben Blennerhassett on Unsplash

But I realized I needed to finally face them (it was keeping me from forming authentic, healthy relationships with others), and know that if I am abandoned for simply being who I truly am, that is not real love to begin with.

That’s something I want all People-Pleasers to know as well — you should never have to perform for love. People should love you for who you are, not what you can do for them.

There will always be people who won’t love you for who you are; you will either be too much, not enough, or whatever other reason they come up with. That’s on them.

You won’t be a fit for everybody, and that’s okay. Your people will love you SO DEEPLY and THOROUGHLY you will know on a full-body and soul level that you are valuable, cherished, treasured, delighted in and deserve to exist. To take up space. To have needs, wants, opinions, requests. You don’t exist just for others. You matter too.

And I also needed to learn that I am not responsible for all of someone else’s feelings, if they cannot or will not do their part to tend to their own world. It’s a lot of work already to just take good care of oneself so that we don’t bleed on others.

Ultimately, their happiness is not primarily in my hands. If they need me to be a certain way so they can be okay, that is codependency, enmeshment, control and manipulation. Healthy love fully accepts, forgives, and encourages someone else to be more of who they are, not what they want them to be. 

Society paints it as noble, generous, and selfless to put others before yourself, to be a martyr. Women especially are conditioned to be givers and caretakers, the default parent and manager of household chores and the mental load.

Caring for someone by thinking of them before you IS beautiful and noble. But you don’t owe it to anyone to do that all of the time. Even if they did a lot for you. There is always a CHOICE and voluntary aspect to a healthy behavior. “Yes’s” don’t mean anything if there aren’t a few “No’s.”

And, there’s a way to do it that honors both them AND you. A way that feels GOOD to give, and leaves you energized with MORE to give later.

You find win-win or meet-in-the-middle solutions that honor both your values. And you make sure to take good care of yourself so your cup is full and can overflow to others, rather than pouring yourself dry.

A way to tell if what you’re doing is People-Pleasing is the effect it has on you afterwards and how you FEEL. If you have to compromise your identity or values to accommodate another’s, it’s not sustainable, or healthy. You can still find ways to give while also honoring your capacity and values.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

I’m still in my journey, but I’m hopeful there is a happy ending. I see now that me being true to and taking care of myself IS honoring my ancestors and their sacrifices, even if they can’t see it yet.

By honoring myself too, I will not pass on this shameful cycle of expectations or conditionality to my children. I will be fully emotionally attuned and present for them, helping them blossom into the truest versions of themselves too, which will have a ripple effect beyond our family.

I was given this opportunity to expand BEYOND an MD, a traditional doctor, to become the holistic healer, advocate and changemaker I always yearned to be. I always loved to draw to bring joy to others, enhance and enrich their lives, and now I get to do so as the fully expressed version of myself.

I am complex, multi-layered, and impossible to sum up with one role, or even a phrase. I don’t live in a box and help others see that they don’t have to, either.

I shine light on the beautiful complexity within us all so we can honor all parts of ourselves, especially the ones that have been shamed and discarded.

Hopefully one day they can see that. In the meantime, I will continue to overflow, love, and authentically give.

You are welcome to join me <3

Dr. Toni Liu is a Chinese-American physician, cartoonist, sex educator, self-love & relationship coach, matchmaker, speaker, and advocate for mental health, complex PTSD & intergenerational trauma, LGBTQ2IA+, social justice & women’s empowerment. She travels globally to understand gender discrepancies in different cultures and educate communities with limited access. She loves sketching, sunshine, anime, manga, animals, racquet sports, frisbee, dancing, baking, languages, and everything outdoors. Connect with her on her blog DrTooni.com, Facebook or Instagram @DrTooni.

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