I used to say that if I could find a job making people happy for a living, I would take it. You can blame it on growing up the oldest child of multiple divorces, or losing a sibling at a young age and navigating my parents’ grieving process, or being reared with the Catholic urge to “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” Whatever the cause, when life was chaotic, it was reassuring to know that I could, at the very least, control how I was making other people feel. At first, it was a comfort, a coping mechanism. I was the consummate Yes Man. The kid everyone’s parents liked. But as I grew older, the tendency to put the needs of others before my own proved to be just as much of a detriment as it was a skill. Because people pleasing takes time and energy, and both of those things exist in humans as finite quantities.
So it shouldn’t be a shock to find that wedding planning can be a particular kind of hell for people pleasers. Wedding planning on its own means inviting unsolicited opinions into your life, but when you add in a compulsive need to try and satisfy as many people as possible, all at the same time, it can make a girl spiral. I’d like to tell you that halfway through planning I had an epiphany and realized that I couldn’t make everyone happy. Spoiler alert: I didn’t. (That came a few years later in therapy.) Instead, our wedding was complex mix of joy and frustration. But along the way (and in the years since), I’ve picked up some vital coping strategies that would have helped my engaged-self navigate wedding planning with just a little more sanity:
1. “no” does magical things. Saying yes is so much easier and more awesome than saying no. At least it is in the moment. But what happens (as I’m sure you know) is that eventually all those yeses start to add up, and next thing you know, you’re running yourself ragged trying to fit in everything you agreed to, and nobody is respecting your boundaries, because (whoops) you forgot to set some. I used to really, really suck at saying no. I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed or upset with me, so my brain would find ways to try and make yes-ish things come out of my mouth (we’ll see… maybe we can… etc.). Eventually I had to force myself to get comfortable with the idea of letting people down for the sake of my own well-being, so I came up with a script that still makes my people pleaser–self happy, while setting boundaries. “I really wish I could, but I can’t,” is both a gentle and firm no. After spending a lifetime spreading myself too thin for fear of making others unhappy, I’ve been surprised to find how quickly most people respect my boundaries now that I have them.
2. It’s OKAY to Disappear for an hour (or five). One of the unfortunate side effects of our modern technology is that we’re now expected to be available all the time. In my people pleaser brain, I generally feel pressure to respond to every email, text, or social media notification with lightning speed. And since owning a smart phone, I’ve been making things worse by enabling push notifications for all of my accounts. It got to the point that every ding of my phone would throw a tiny anxiety ball into the pit of my stomach, because maybe it would be the ding of something legitimately important. I mentioned this in passing to Meg one day, and she looked at me sideways. “Why don’t you just turn your notifications off?” she asked. Since it’s hard to reply to your boss with, “Because my boss might need me,” I did. And surprise, surprise, the sky didn’t fall down. I still check my phone more often than I should, but at least I don’t feel like a slave to it anymore. So if wedding planning has your phone blowing up with reminders that you need to book your caterer, or questions from your mother-in-law about what color dress she should wear, it’s okay if you only give yourself a few designated times each week to acknowledge and respond. Most things in wedding planning (and hell, in life) aren’t as time sensitive as they are made out to be, and it’s better to make informed decisions when you’re in the right frame of mind than to made reactive decisions simply because you’re trying to clear the notifications bar on your phone.
3. You really can’t control people’s happiness. This has been the hardest thing for me to accept as an adult, and it was the thing I failed to see while planning our wedding: you can control what you say to people, and you can control your intentions. But you can’t force anyone’s happiness, no matter how hard you try. Eventually it became kind of liberating. All I can do is my best. How people react is on them. (This comes with the caveat that if you’re a jerk, you can probably make people unhappy. But if you’re being kind and considerate and they’re still angry? That’s out of your control, friend.) So if you’re finding yourself running up against a wall with a certain person over and over again, and they simply refuse to budge, then you’re probably not the problem. And nothing you change about yourself will fix what’s wrong. The good news is, this means you can shift your focus onto important things—like what you need. Your person will probably still not be happy, but you won’t be exhausted and frustrated from failed efforts at fixing their mood.
4. Everyone does their own thing. A few years ago, we ran a great post about what happens when people pleasers plan weddings. It ended with this line:
Recently, I was feeling guilty about missing my family and friends spread out all across the country (warning: this is wedding side effect). To make me feel better, my very wise husband said, “Ultimately, everybody just does their own thing.” He’s right of course, and that’s how we approached our wedding. Sometimes it’s okay to be different. Sometimes it’s okay not to please everyone. Sometimes it’s okay to let your passion outweigh your practical urges. Because weddings and marriage should never be about taking one for the team. They’re about creating a new team with your partner, where you’ll never feel like you have to.
Whenever I get the urge to please others at the expense of myself, I think of the above passage. The truth is, most people are just trying to do right by themselves. It’s not that they don’t care about you; they just aren’t making decisions with your needs in mind. (I mean, think about who you’re trying to please all the time. Are they your most generous people? I’d wager a bet probably not. The exhaustive kind of people pleasing usually comes at the expense of trying to appease people who are very good at looking out for themselves.) Which is to say, it’s not your job to compromise all the time. Most people are pretty good at taking care of themselves. They don’t need you to do it for them.
And the beauty is, when you free yourself up from the obligation of taking care of everyone else, you might find you finally have the space to take care of yourself. Which is good. Because someone’s gotta do it.
Originally Published on APW in 2015