There is a revelation that I have come to in the last few weeks that has been percolating for years, but that finally has made sense to me:. Thanks to my little challenge of wearing the same four items of clothing on rotation for the last two weeks, I have discovered a truth that has provided an electroshock to my system: No one thinks about me nearly as much as I think about myself.
As a child, I had an outsized personality. As I watch my youngest scalawag grow, I see in him so much of the sparkly entertainer-type of child I must have been. A bit of a whirling dervish, a bit of an empath. He is funny and charming and witty and empathetic, and this makes me so, so sad.
It makes me sad, because I watch him do mental gymnastics: I see him try to read in others’ expressions the kind of answer he thinks we might want him to give to any given query. He is a little itty-bitty people pleaser when he is not comfortable with his surroundings (this does not make him well-behaved, though. It is a paradox.) He, like me, has antennae to read the subtle shifts in the energy-level of a room, and he is constantly looking for ways to understand it and make it something he can help balance.
This gets him in trouble when he brings the full force of his enthusiasm to turn a situation into one he can manage (by making it chaotic), very often in an otherwise calm environment. This also gets him in trouble when he is asked what he wants for dinner and refuses to answer, only to be unhappy with what he ends up getting served.
Why do we people-please?
Even before my little mini-me came along, I spent a long time trying to figure out when and how I became a people-pleaser. I tried to understand why it was so hard for me to express what it was that I liked or didn’t like. I desperately tried to remember the first circumstances in which I said “yes” to something simply because I didn’t want to disappoint someone else, even though everything in my soul wanted to say “no”. Or when I started making stupid jokes just to relieve tension in a situation that made me uncomfortable.
While there may be a few compounding situations from my childhood, I have come to believe that this is also very much written into my genetic code. I realize that in all the ways my little one is like me, I am very much like my Gigi, my grandmother who also believed that everyone was always thinking about her.
I have only come to this conclusion because honestly, I have tried at every possible occasion to give my youngest scalawag sovereignty over the decisions that he is old enough to handle: like what he will wear and what he will eat, what we will read and what activities we will do. Nine times out of ten, he will ask me “what do you want to do?” or, “you decide.”
It is as if he didn’t trust his own decisions. Or, that he would rather not have to choose, at the risk of displeasing me.
Of course, that one time out of ten that he does chose an activity, it is usually something messy that I would rather he not do: like finger painting or playing dirt on the balcony. If he chooses what to wear, it is going to be that Cavaliers onesie that is literally five sizes too small, or one of his crazy ensembles that becomes a hill he is willing to die on.
So he knows what he wants to do. He just doesn’t want to annoy me. (Which ends up annoying me. Why are we so complicated?)
Why we think everyone is thinking about us
The answer, in the end, for all that we are complicated, is actually quite simple. For whatever reason, my littlest scalawag, my Gigi and I were born with emotional antennae that are constantly scanning the frequencies. We are constantly wondering what other people are thinking. We pick up the signals others emit, which we wrongly or rightly interpret as having something to do with us: something we have done or said.
When the signal is positive, we are happy. We feel validated. We feel like we exist for a reason. When the signal is negative, we are disoriented and want to rectify the situation, or at least understand what we might have done wrong.
These antennae make us hypersensitive to the desires of others, making us dependent on their approval.
These antennae also make us miserable when the signals are mixed, or, by some misfortune, prove that we have done something wrong.
Why do we think others are always thinking about us? Because we are always thinking about others: and not always in a benevolent way. We are apprehensive of others and are worried that our reactions and behaviors will impact others the way theirs’ impact us.
So we become excessively and darkly self-focused and more and more inclined to put on the mask of the entertainer so as to control the thoughts others have about is.
Finding where we fit in
Being this kind of person is exhausting. It is not sustainable over the long-term, as I am discovering as I age. I watched Gigi become ridiculous in her old age as she suffered from this complicated way of thinking. Determined to figure out how not to become like my grandmother, I am only just learning how to get off of this hamster wheel, at the same time as my youngest is stepping on it.
My first job out of college was working at Walt Disney World. About three quarters of the people I worked with there were people like me: people-pleasers whose desire was to give other people a truly magical experience. Working at Disney meant I was being paid to be me, which for a first job out of college was a pretty sweet deal.
I say that three-quarters of the people were like me. There was another quarter of the people I worked with who were serious, intentional people with career aspirations. We started in the same job, but they were the ones who found ways to move upwards. And quickly. While I believed that I had all the talent they did, (and, frankly, I did), they managed to move up through the ranks far faster than I did. Why? Because they didn’t have the antennae.
I hated those people. I was jealous of how unaffected they were by the emotional stories of guests and how their vacations had been ruined by rain or fallen ice cream cone.
On the other hand, I became the person to whom every single very unhappy guest was sent. Why? Because I felt their pain. I listened and showed compassion. I took on their emotional baggage. They felt heard, they walked away lighter and I walked away feeling like their bad experience was all my fault.
Those antennae kept me in a prison of wanting to make everyone happy: including my bosses, who I believed were happy to have someone on their team who made our guests so happy. I was afraid to apply for another job with more responsibility, out of fear of disappointing my boss. My antennae kept me waiting for it to please my bosses to offer me more responsibility. That was never going to happen. I brought them too many positive comment cards.
This was not tenable in the long-run.
Finding where I would fit in professionally meant that I would need space to make magic, on my own terms, to do the things others could not do creatively without having to take on the emotional baggage of those around me. I liked always getting positive feedback (because that was the only acceptable option, as we have established.)
After several misfires, I found the perfect job.
Figuring out what to do when I grow up, knowing who I am
Although in an unlikely industry, I found a job making magic every single day, with a boss who gave me the space to do it. In that job, I was so convinced that what I was doing was important and that I was doing it well, that I never craved his approval. That said, he gave it, and abundantly so. And when he did, it often felt exaggerated, so firmly did I believe in what I was doing.
After we moved to France, I also had a pretty splendid run doing something I knew was important, and that I was uniquely gifted to do. If I had known what I know now about how easily I take on the emotional baggage of others, I probably would have lasted longer without burning out.
Here I am now, a mom. There is none of that firm belief in the rightness and soundness of what I am doing. I literally have no idea what I am doing and I can forget about ever getting positive feedback. On the other hand, I am learning about myself.
So what is next?
The only way I can see for me to move forward is as a professional creative person. I see myself as a person who must be her own boss, because as long as what I am creating feels like a moral imperative then I’m genuinely happy. I’m getting pretty good at validating myself. Any other feedback is bonus.
Arriving at this conclusion is scary, because it means that I have to start thinking in terms of the financial viability of my projects. Any growth I want to see in my various creative projects will require financial investments. How I know this is the right thing is that this thought doesn’t scare me. What I am creating feels like a moral imperative and this makes me happy.
There are costs associated with having that podcast I am training for this summer. There are the materials I want to create to help the ladies who are working on their Ideal Life Project with me this summer, in an organized way. I am seeing how this method that I truly believe in is helping exhausted moms who have found themselves wiped out and dragging on the floor to get back up and start living with purpose.
But all those costs, compared to how deeply I sense that this is the right thing seems like an easy choice.
The very very big picture
What I really, really want, and it brings me to tears to put it into words in white on black, is to set an example for, above all, my littlest scalawag: that by listening to what his heart tells him to do and not what his antennae tell him to do, that he will make the world a better place.
If God went to all the trouble of announcing to me four times on three separate occasions that we would have a baby, when having a baby wasn’t possible, then getting me through vaginismus, and giving me these two little boys, it is because these little boys have destiny that is phenomenally great.
This is one of those truths I remind myself of daily. It puts the inconveniences and the discomforts into perspective. Heaven and earth had to move for these two to be here. I better be willing to put up with some shouting and some messy fingerpainting for something that important.
I want my littlest scalawag to spend as little time as possible on that hamster wheel I worked out on for most of my life, the one that my grandmother never managed to escape. I want him to see me forge my own path and be inspired by it. I want to save him some forty years of living to gain the approval of others, and to start living for something so so so much more meaningful: the phenomenal destiny for which he was created.
In my Ideal Life, I am a person who pursues her destiny and brings her children along for the ride.