Whose life is it anyway?

If you're always looking for appreciation and approval from others, you're not living your own life

Happy woman gesturing OK with her hands

“When you say 'Yes' to others, make sure you are not saying 'No' to yourself.”
— Paolo Coehlo

There is a book titled What You Think of Me is None of My Business by Terry Cole Whittaker. I haven’t read the book so I cannot comment on how good it is, but I love the title. I know that some people may find it arrogant but I think it is witty and wise. There’s a profound insight in the title that resonates with a fundamental truth: we often place other people’s opinion ahead of our own.

“People striving for approval from others become phony,” says Japanese-born baseball champion Ichiro Suzuki. And this phoniness is instilled in us right from childhood—at home, and in school. We learn that it is important to maintain our image in the eyes of our relatives, neighbours, teachers... even complete strangers. Being obedient and behaving ‘appropriately’ is rewarded, while speaking our mind and doing what we feel like is discouraged. In the process, we learn to downgrade our personal preferences in favour of pleasing the others. We continue this pattern into our adulthood and make many of our crucial decisions in order not to displease others. We are so worried about how others judge our actions and behaviours that we allow their approval to become the driving of our life’s path.

Why you do what you do

Right now, consider how many of your decisions and choices are motivated by other people’s opinions. Ask yourself how your life would’ve been different if you had made your significant decisions without taking into account anyone else’s preferences and demands. It is possible that you discover that much of your current circumstances are the result of choices that did not arise intrinsically.

Arti Sharma’s heart was in music, but she decided to pursue medicine because both her parents were doctors and so she was expected to be one too. By becoming a doctor, she managed to get the approval of the ‘others’ but in the bargain she lost out on her own. Was the trade off worth it? Arti now lives in regret, dreaming of how fulfilling her life would have been had she listened to her heart.

Rakesh Dev is always careful about expressing his views to his friends and family. He sugar coats everything he says to avoid offending anyone. Occasionally, when he says something that someone disagrees with, he quickly retracts his statement, in order to align himself with the other’s viewpoint. Needless to say, Rakesh is an emotional wreck, with very low self-esteem and virtually no self-confidence.

When we begin to say and do everything to get other people’s nod, we are doomed. This is because, one—we cannot please anyone all the time, and two—we become vulnerable to exploitation by the others. People often use disapproval as a mean to manipulate us. Academy award winner Anne Hathaway knows the dangers of trying to please everyone. She says, "There's something very addictive about people pleasing. It's a thought pattern and a habit that feels really, really good until it becomes desperate."

Stop devaluing yourself

Whenever you sacrifice your interest for the sake of pleasing another, you not only lose out on your self esteem but also compromise your fulfilment. You devalue your own thoughts, ideas and actions and make them subservient to others. In other words, you become unfaithful to yourself and your life becomes a shadow of other people’s expectations.

By all means, enjoy praise and appreciation when it comes your way. But, for the sake of your happiness and peace of mind, don’t rearrange your priorities to please others. Remember, people pleasing is nothing less than slavery. Free yourself from it. You came here live your life, to discover who you are. Don’t end up living the life of others.

A version of this article was published in the July 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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