People Pleaser

I keep trying to write about how it’s weird I was able to volunteer for major abdominal surgery when I wasn’t sick, and have a fairly intense fear of needles and hospitals, but it winds up sounding like I’m fishing for compliments. Like when a person interviewing for a job asks: “What’s your biggest weakness?” And then you say, “Gosh, I don’t know Ken, I guess it’s that I try too hard.” My biggest weakness is that I talk a big game, but chances are, I’ll never say no to a request, even if it’s stupid, and even if it’s not being requested in good faith. My people pleaser gene doesn’t really let me say no to much of anything, at least not without feeling eternally bad about it. I like to impress people, I like making them happy, and while it typically winds up being super beneficial to those who are on the receiving end, it often results in me feeling lousy.

People pleasing took a real hit when I was in Grad School. No one seemed pleased with me as a first year student in the Jewelry and Light Metals department at RISD. They were probably right, and again, I am not fishing for compliments. When I applied to grad schools, I picked a sure thing, a who knows, and a long shot. The sure thing (Wisconsin) rejected me within days. My undergraduate professor called her friend who chaired the department to ask why and was told they weren’t accepting any students that year for the grad program. But they happily took my application fee! The who knows, (UMass Dartmouth) put me on a wait list. And the long shot, the no way am I going to get into THAT school (Rhode Island School of Design), accepted me and gave me a scholarship. This had a strange effect on my brain. I was ill prepared for this outcome and I panicked. So I deferred for a year. And then I almost didn’t go a year later because I really and truly had no idea why they accepted me. My sister yelled at me over the phone as I was trying to casually weasel my way out of going, as only a sister can do.

When I arrived in Providence I was in over my head. I hadn’t saved enough money from my bank teller job to bridge the gap between physically getting there and when my financial aid would be released. And because I didn’t want my parents to be disappointed in me after they had already floated me a small loan, I bought $1 slices of pizza that I made last for 3 meals. After two days of greasy pizza, I made my way to the financial aid office on campus to ask about when the money would arrive because I was trying to plan my first non-greasy pizza meal. The woman behind the counter was kind and patient and assured me it wouldn’t be much longer. Then she asked me to wait while she went to her desk. “Listen, it’s not much, just a ham and cheese sandwich and an apple, but it’s better than pizza, right?” She slid the paper bag over the counter to me and I felt so ashamed. I had managed to guilt trip this nice woman into giving me her lunch. She took my hands and whispered, “Just take this. I’m not even hungry.” I shook my head but ultimately decided to accept the apple because I could feel the cells in my body reaching out for the fruit.

Two years later, after my thesis was defended and I was waiting to walk across the stage to get my diploma, I went to the fancy grocery store in town and picked out a beautiful gourmet looking basket with fruit and cheese and crackers and went back to my old pal the financial aid office. I could see the woman who had given me that apple when I was feeling my most vulnerable at her desk working. Her boss was at the counter and looked at the big basket I was carrying with a puzzled look. “Hi, may I speak with Elise?”

(I should stop and point out that I have no idea what her name is. I am horrible with names. Names of People I Know is located in a part of my brain that refuses to allow me to access that sort of information when needed, so I’ve named her Elise which is the name of a woman I used to work with and who was very nice. Listen, I know I just said that I can’t remember names, and here I am, recalling a name from my past like it’s no big deal, but that’s mostly because I don’t need to know her name right now. If you asked me in a week: “What was the name of the woman you used to work with at Crate & Barrel, the one who hired you, and then moved back to New York?” I would say, “Uhhhhh. Give me a minute… it’s um… nope. No idea.” That’s just how it works in my BrainTown.”)

“Is everything all right?”

“Oh yeah, everything’s great, I’m graduating tomorrow and I want to give her something.”

“Elise, a student would like to speak with you.” Elise came over, took her glasses off, and adopted the same puzzled look as her boss.

“Two years ago, when I was waiting for my financial aid check to arrive, you offered me your lunch because I told you I was really looking forward to not eating greasy pizza anymore. I just wanted you to know how much your kindness has stayed with me and I am here to return the favor.”

Elise burst into tears, the boss was hugging her and I was flush with the warm feeling of pleasing a person who had pleased me. That’s the thing about being a people pleaser, sometimes it feels really good. Especially when you’ve pleased a person who really deserves to be pleased. Pleased now seems like the strangest word. Pleased. Please please me?

In more recent years, the people pleasing has taken an interesting turn. If someone is trying to manipulate me into doing something that I don’t want to do and I don’t feel they really need me to do, I manage to sort of weasel out of it. Here’s my favorite technique employed by the narcissistic woman I used to work with, though others have certainly tried this with me over the years with varying degrees of success. “Oh Logan, you’re so good at doing [X], and I am just dreadful. Could you do it for me? Please?” It’s taken a long time for me to see this technique for what it is, and that is something I am ashamed of, but here we are. The particular request I am thinking of was not work related, it had to do with an Excel spreadsheet, it was a personal project she was working on, during work hours, on work property, and she was trying to get me to help her, which would have prevented me from doing actual work that I was being paid to do. This is a sure fire way to make me salty.

“Have you tried typing your question into a Google search bar? Because that’s what I do! That’s how I figure out most things. Try it! It’s really satisfying.” I said this as nicely as possible, probably suspiciously nice if you know me really well, but it was important to me that it not sound snarky. It had to sound 100% sincere. And then I walked away and returned to the work I was being paid to do. With this particular person, I also made it a point to drop everything to help people I know truly needed help and were not using me  or trying to manipulate me, so she could see—though she wouldn’t, because narcissists are really the worst—what a good interaction with me looked like.

Of course at the heart of all this is an inability to say no to anything. Even in the aforementioned Google scenario, I didn’t actually say no, and my suggestion for searching for the thing she needed resulted in her figuring out the question, so I did indeed help her out, which in hindsight is probably why I still feel so icky about it. And that’s the other thing about people pleasing: It feels especially bad to please someone who doesn’t deserve to be pleased.

Deciding to have major abdominal surgery in order to help someone else out might be the ultimate in people pleasing efforts and it’s only recently that I’ve wondered if that was my primary motivation for donating 60% of my liver to my husband. Was I trying to please him? I mean, yeah, of course I was. I was also trying to make sure he would continue living. When people tell me that I was brave or selfless because I became a living donor I usually reply with: “There was no way I was going to lose Derek and have to return to dating. No. Way. This was the most proactive way for me to help ensure I would get to keep my husband around. So really, it was a pretty selfish act.”

They laugh and I smile, but I am not joking. Derek is the one person, and I mean the only person in this world I don’t get sick of. Sure, sometimes he’s annoying and does things I find irritating, but he is the perfect partner for me. He’s also—and this is important for a person like me—almost impossible to impress. I don’t really trust people who compliment me, and that’s really more about me than the person dishing out the compliments. But when Derek compliments me I know I have done something spectacular. I believe him. Because it takes a lot for him to be impressed. And so of course I offered up my liver to him, to save him, and to save me from a lifetime without him. There were no guarantees it would work, but after years of watching his health decline and his disease slowly ravage his body I was ready to do something more than just make soup and sit quietly while he succumbed to hour long naps on the sofa, multiple times a day.

There were times when he was not pleased with my decision; suffering through the indignity of his disease was something he felt uniquely equipped to bear. He was not happy when my anxiety after a CT scan resulted in tears and apologies. This was his problem, not mine, and he was not sure he could handle watching me suffer along side him. But I reassured him that this was my decision, not his and that I was the right person for the job, and I could handle the stress of needles and surgery and he reluctantly acquiesced.

Prior to surgery we were both told walking and moving around would be essential to our recovery. We were told to prepare for being coaxed out of bed roughly 24 hours after surgery to go for a walk, to wake up the bowels and move the blood around. I anticipated the coaxing and decided to volunteer to get up out of bed when the nurses were making rounds in the middle of the night. I was also interested in being the best possible patient and didn’t want to be the person who whined and refused to get up. It took two strong women to help me sit up and stand and then we walked to the doorway of my room, a rolling IV cart and my urine bag in tow. The pain was shocking and forced me into a hunched position, but the drugs were strong enough to make me not care. We walked a few feet down the hall in one direction, turned around and walked back. In hindsight it was a pathetic walk, but it was a walk all the same and I was able to check it off the list. “Did not need to be coaxed out of bed, volunteered.”

Derek found out about my little journey when a nurse who was checking his blood pressure mentioned seeing me in the hallway. He told me later he was first impressed and then felt fiercely competitive and insisted he should get up and walk as well. It is rare that I best Derek in any kind of competition, I am no match to his physical or mental prowess in nearly every area, and so this tiny victory was a real success story for me. One that would ultimately be overshadowed by a rapid decline in his health and eventual need for another transplant. No one was pleased when he was put back on the transplant list just 7 days after the first attempt to save his life began to fail. But for a moment, in the weird late night light of the 6th floor hallway, I was a people pleasing champion.

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