When I read the emotional and angry email, my eyes widened and my heart started pounding. There was a misunderstanding— an unfortunate mix-up between a former neighbor and me. I immediately called, texted, and emailed the person to make things right, but it didn’t work. She wanted to believe the worst— about me and about the miscommunication. There was nothing more I could say and I hung up the phone feeling crushed.
I tend to be a people-pleaser, so this scenario is the worst possible nightmare for me. I can’t stand the horror of unintended conflict, and the fear that someone will think badly of me and talk about me to others.
Even though I love a good debate, and can’t imagine enjoying literature, movies or political drama without the ingredient of conflict, I grow physically ill when I encounter it in my personal life. I can’t sleep, my stomach turns sour, and I find myself turning the matter over in my mind until I am filled with anxiety. My husband calls me a napkin ripper because I will unconsciously squeeze, twist, and shred a paper napkin into pieces under the table if I sense discord at dinner. I realize this is crazy: “Um, yes, waiter, can you bring me some more napkins? I seem to have destroyed the ones you already brought.” Naturally, I avoid conflict since it makes me feel this way. There is hardly anything I consider worth all that angst.
That’s A Good Thing, Right?
I always figured that meant I was a noble peace-lover. Being a people-pleaser felt like one of those strengths you might call a flaw if asked for one in a job interview. Surely only an unselfish person who wants everyone to feel happy and comfortable would want to avoid disagreements, right? Not necessarily. I recently stumbled upon Lou Priolo’s 2007 book, “Pleasing People: How Not to Be an Approval Junkie,” (P&R Publishing) After reading it, I see my resistance to conflict and disapproval for what it is— a nasty fruit produced by the underlying sin of pride.
When I shy away from disagreements- that isn’t just because I want to be polite. When I go to great lengths to correct misunderstandings— that isn’t just because I am concerned with truth. It’s because I only want to be liked. Always. By everyone. And that, my friends, is pride.
Who Is My Master?
Misunderstandings, conflict, disagreement, disapproval— all this can fill me with anxiety because I often care more about what people think of me than what God thinks of me. That can be exhausting. As Priolo points out, a life lived to obtain the good opinion of fickle people is a life lived for very cruel taskmasters. A life lived for One Master is the only way to enjoy peace— especially since “God is wiser than man and will neither misunderstand you nor treat you unreasonably” (p. 98).
Changing bosses is pretty difficult if we value our relationships and reputations more than we value living lives that God finds pleasing. My pride keeps me from wanting to live for Christ because doing so means I must actively squash the people-pleasing habits that tempt me: Flattery instead of uncomfortable truth-telling, damage control instead of prayer, and a fluctuating emphasis on my beliefs depending on whom I am around.
It’s All About Our Motives
These habits tempt me because I long for the good opinion of others— a desire that isn’t always sinful, writes Priolo. We should always do good to everyone, promote harmony, and seek a solid reputation— considering the Bible says “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver and gold” (Prov. 22:1). However, my motives should be to “[establish] a good name for the cause of Christ” and to act out of love for God and love for others— not love of myself and my own honor (pp. 39-40).
What does that look like? According to Priolo, if my first thought is, “what will they think of me?” I should transform the thought into, “how can I minister to them?” It means taking 1st Cor. 13:1-3 to heart: If I gain all faith, if I understand all mysteries, if I give everything away to feed the poor, but I do it out of motives other than love, “…it profits me nothing.” If everyone in the world thinks I am a good person, but God knows my unloving motives are to please people and gain praise, I might as well have done nothing. Conversely, if everyone thinks I am terrible, but God judges my heart as pure, I have everything.
Jesus: The Perfect Example
When I slow down and meditate on Jesus, I am comforted that he had reams of people disagree with him, hate him, misjudge him, talk bad about him (did I mention want to kill him?). If Jesus was perfect and still incited such disapproval, then a sinner like me (who deserves far more disapproval than I get) should attempt to accept it with humility— repenting of sin when I deserve disapproval, and quietly walking in peace with God when the Holy Spirit comforts me that I don’t.
Perhaps God let my recent trial occur to give me some much-needed practice in putting on humility and putting off people-pleasing pride. As badly as I want all to be well again, it might not be. It hurts. It takes all the restraint I can muster not to do back flips to make my former neighbor like me again. Once I stop striving to make sure everyone thinks well of me, I can ask myself the one question that matters: Does God think well of me? If not, then I have a problem. If so, then what better approval could I hope for?
Rachel Blackmon Bryars is a writer and a mother of four young children— a fifth is due in January. Follow her on Twitter @RachelBryars