One of the many things I learned from working with junior high students, is that the biggest question we all have in 7th and 8th grade is “do people like me?” Before then, I always just assumed that in 7th grade, I was the only one who desperately wanted to be liked and accepted. My time with students helped me see that insecurity in one’s early teen years is a universal experience. But–through working with parents, volunteers, and other adults–I also realized that for many of us, our desire for people’s acceptance doesn’t leave once we move past early adolescence.
Mine certainly didn’t. At times, it only got stronger.
It was kind of my uninvited companion, until in my twenties when I began to realize that my solution to being accepted–people pleasing–was leaving me exhausted. I had had a lot of unhealthy friendships, and at one point, I was able to look back and trace a whole string of them that were more about me giving, than give and take.
So, I started to pull back from some of those friendships that were still in my life, while realizing that it wasn’t those friends that were the problem. I was. I had played an active role in giving and not expecting anything in return. I had valued those friendships more than I valued myself or being healthy. I had been living as if I needed to earn people’s acceptance or friendship–expecting them to reject me otherwise.
I was using people pleasing as a shield, keeping people from really knowing who I am, in case they would decide they didn’t like me.
Not only that, but I was using it as a shield from truly knowing myself. I was allowing everything outside of myself–my friendships, people in my life, my job–to define who I was, instead of embracing who I am on the inside. So much of my people pleasing was about protecting myself, yet I was beginning to realize it was actually doing the opposite.
What did I do? I started counseling. I started working to change the ways I related to people and I started learning to put up healthy boundaries. Things began to get better, and I began building healthier friendships. But, like building up the walls of a faulty structure, I was still caving on the inside.
Honestly, I am still caving on the inside. But, over the past year of being out of work, I think I am beginning to realize why: I need to change the question that has kept me company since I was twelve years old. I need to stop asking “do people like me?” and instead ask myself “do I like me?” Not, “what do I need to change to like myself?” But rather, “can I accept and embrace myself, flaws and all?” God loves me, brokenness and all–can I live in light of that truth?