I'm Sober, But I'm Still Addicted to People Pleasing
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I’m Sober, But I’m Still Addicted to People Pleasing

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I'm Sober, But I'm Still Addicted to People PleasingI once had a friend tell me that he could punch me in the face and I’d probably apologize for it. I remember the cold stab of that comment. I wanted so desperately for him to think I was stronger than I was, or that my confidence wasn’t actually paper thin. Of course, he was right. People routinely walked all over me and I guess, to some degree, I invited it. As an active alcoholic—with my time measured in happy hours, last calls and thirty-second disappearing acts into the garage where I’d stashed my bottles—I was consumed by making sure everyone liked me. That’s it. I needed everyone to think I was great. I couldn’t stomach the thought I was just another random alcoholic. I suppose it’s a lot like being a stand-up comedian who’s just absolutely destroying a room, but there’s still one person sitting there in the back, arms crossed. I’d zero in on that person, wondering what’s wrong and why they’re not impressed. I’d obsess over it.

People pleasing is a treadmill. Once you’re on it, you sort of keep ramping up the speed without even noticing, going nowhere. Every day was me bending over backward to make sure I could get through another alcoholic day. I figured that if other people liked me, it’d make up for the fact that I hated myself. And going out of my way to be amazing to acquaintances isn’t the same as being good to those closest to me. It hollows you out.

At one job, I had so many blistering hangovers that my memories of that job are blocky and scrambled, like a slow-buffering movie on Netflix. The only memories I do have are me sitting at my desk, pit in my stomach and wondering how I was going to make it to 10 am. Yet, there I was, telling senior management that their impossible deadlines were possible. I couldn’t be seen as the unreliable alcoholic—I had to go in the complete opposite direction. Sure. I can get this three-day project done by day’s end. No problem. It’s exhausting to have to constantly “kill it” just to be normal. When I was drinking every single night, that’s all I was actually doing: compensating. I was operating at such a high level, burning out my memory and logic and reasoning and morals, that I lost myself somewhere along the way.

I’ve wasted unimaginable stretches of my life making other people happy and content. Looking back, it’s downright sad to think of all the things I’ve done for other people (usually people I barely even knew) just so they wouldn’t see me for the ratty-sailed, rotten-decked pirate ship I was. I’d craft full PowerPoint presentations with custom graphics when all someone asked for was help with a single slide. I’d automate spreadsheets with fancy formulas when a co-worker asked me to check their figures. I’d help people move their furniture down narrow apartment stairs into their new houses. And if they weren’t amazed by those epic, alcoholic gestures, I got resentful. It reminded me of the kids’ book Fantastic Mr. Fox, where Roald Dahl’s main character says, “I think I have this thing where everybody has to think I’m the greatest. And if they aren’t completely knocked out and dazzled and slightly intimidated by me, I don’t feel good about myself.” That’s all that was important to me—making sure I appeared to be the favored Oscar winner when I was barely a two-star movie.

My sleight of hand (sort of) worked. People seemed to mostly look the other way. They ignored the nine am sweating; they tolerated the morning mood swings. I had an employee once tell me,“I’m never quite sure which Paul is going to show up to work.” That hurt, so I simply worked harder to win her over. That’s the only lesson I got from it. Don’t drink anymore never crossed my mind. I’ve since learned I wasn’t really fooling anyone about my alcoholism, but I sure as hell burned a lot of calories trying.

Truth be told, I’ve always been an approval junkie. Way before the drinking, I just wanted people to like me. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by old, shut-in widows with no kids around. All I know is that I’ve always had a crippling need to make other people be okay with me in their orbit. Drinking made me feel even more exposed and vulnerable than I already was. And when you drink to escape that feeling, chances are you’re going to make it worse. Like most of my bad behaviors, sobriety didn’t flip them off like a switch. Attending AA meetings, getting a sponsor and working a program didn’t suddenly make me a person who didn’t desperately care how others felt anymore.

For the longest time, I wrestled with whether I was a good person who did bad things, or a bad person who did good things. I started focusing on all the AA-approved next-right-things I was supposed to be doing. I found myself feeling so great about sobriety that I was pleasing others because I felt good about myself. A friend of mine in recovery used to caution others in meetings to “check your motives.” I used to laugh that off, thinking, “What does this guy know? He’s only a few months more sober than me.” Turns out, he was right. Alcoholics like me can always take a good thing and make it about themselves.

People pleasing is corrosive. It eats at your integrity, scours out your ability to be yourself, weakens all the connections you’ve forged in life. When you’re always giving yourself to anyone and everyone, it’s no surprise that there’s very little left. You’re just constantly in motion, collecting acquaintances and impressing people who don’t matter. In sobriety, however, I can catch myself before it happens. I can feel the reflex kicking in: Oh, do you need help with that? or the sudden urge to blow someone away with a five-page report instead of one. What that happens, there’s not a half-bottle of chardonnay fueling it. I do it because I’ve tapped into some part of myself that’s filled with honest waters.

If people don’t like me, so be it. And that’s a state of calm I could have never achieved back when I was downing a pint of vodka on Tuesdays. Those nights, I’d fold myself like half-complete origami and write saccharine emails and Facebook messages, laced with lies, to feel whole again. It’s the only way I felt complete: drunkenly connecting with others and offering to help solve their biggest problems. These days, I’m better about not seeking a cast of knocked-out, dazzled, and slightly intimidated people (I don’t think anyone was all that knocked-out by me anyway).

My sponsor tells me that I have to give myself to the program, not to casual acquaintances who vampire my time. When it comes right down to it, people pleasing didn’t distract others from my drinking—it distracted me from all the truths I couldn’t face sober. Today, I work hard to make sure that when I do something for someone, it’s not because it’ll benefit me in some sideways, back-door, elliptical, zig-zag way. Now, I just do good things because they’re the right things to do. And in the process, I please at least one person—me.

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About Author

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.