I am recovering box-checker and people-pleaser. I can't quite tell you when I started people-pleasing but I suspect that it has a lot to do with the fact that I was raised by African parents.
Soundcloud audio version available at the end of this post.
Now before I even delve into that, let me start by saying that I have the BEST parents in the world (and no that is NOT the parent pleaser talking). My parents were and are ahead of their time. My dad at 80 is an avid texter and would impress you with his typing skills and his use of emojis. My mum on the other hand is the number one career slay mama boss lady and you can't mess with her and her business acumen or when she bursts into singing to Tevin Campbell, Boyz II Men and Beyoncé. I would love to share more on both of them and the fact that I am the #careerslaymama that I am today because of them.
That being said, something that is a universal truth among African parents is that: their number one goal for you is to go to school and to "make it". Not that you be happy along the way, although if this happens that's a bonus. BUT that you be "successful" read Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer, Architect: Rich (whatever results in riches - business would be acceptable if you're a rich business man/woman). Why? A lot of our parents grew up surrounded in poverty and swore to work their way - read - study their way out of it. And if they did not succeed in getting out then you automatically got passed the baton which comes with a lot of responsibility not just for you but also for the family.
This often leads to either
1. Completely rebellious children who go in the total opposite direction that their parents are forcing/leading their kids OR
2. Doing what your parents want you to do just to please them while they are supporting you financially and then doing your own thing once you're independent OR
3. Doing what your parents want you to do but never being happy
The last option is the subconscious option which involves becoming a box-checker without realizing it. This is the category I fit into. My parents didn't pay for my university education so I didn't owe them in that regard. However, as people-pleasing was basically ingrained in my DNA, I set about box-checking.
What is box-checking anyway? Having a list of things you think you should have accomplished by a certain age. That list may come from your own expectations, your community/parents, society, Hollywood, Nollywood, Church family - you name it. It often looks like
I should be married by X age
I should have Y number of kids by Z age
I should be working as A in a B type Company by C age
I should be a property owner by D age
This is supposed to some what lead to happiness so the happiness formula looks like
(Married by X age) + (Y kids by Z age) + (A career in B Company by C age) + (Property by D age) = Happy
And you can then understand why there is so much pressure from church, parents, society to check off these boxes and hustle to have the above. If you remember from my welcome post, I was all in a panic when 30 was looming and none of the boxes seemed to have been checked.
One thing that helped me a lot was that I had been through the wringer of dead-end relationships through my 20s and I had seen enough people get married because they hit the 30s and panicked but were then unhappily married that I was clear that when it came to marriage I did not just want to check a box - it needed to be the real deal. And that HELPED a lot because my husband is the real deal. That being said, my head was in the grind for so long that I forgot to come up for air and actually ask myself what made me happy.
So during my year of time-out in 2019 (catch up here), I had a lot of time to reflect. Pretty much all my boxes had been checked. In the eyes of any African parent - I was the successful child.
Married - check
Children - check
Permanent job - check
Home owner - check
But I was miserable. And I was confused. Because I thought that the happiness lay in the box checking. I realized that I had literally lost myself into marriage, motherhood and career box checking that I had lost a sense of purpose and more importantly: JOY.
Now don't get me wrong, it's very easy to self-reflect from a pretty house with a litany of accomplishments. BUT a Word to the wise is that those degrees don't keep you warm and they don't replace true joy from within. And even with a husband that keeps you warm - he cannot give you joy from within and expecting him to be the source of your happiness is a recipe for disaster - trust me I went through that path as well - and that wont work if you only married him to check the marriage box and not because you actually wanted to spend the rest of your life with him.
So what is the antidote to boxing? I don't have the perfect answer, BUT here is some of what has worked for me:
1. Learn to say NO!
Most of us recovering and struggling people-pleasers don't know how to say NO. For me it stems from my positive outlook which sometimes clashes with reality. Learning to say NO is hard. Particularly when it comes to our culture whether in the diaspora or back home. No is something culturally that is rarely respected. And because within our culture respect particularly for elders is often placed above everything else it becomes even more challenging to insist on boundaries, and then we internalize this and take on more than we can chew. Being conscious about this helps. Not waiting for permission to say no and putting our mental health and wellbeing first is key regardless of how it is perceived by others.
2. More school will neither make you happier nor richer
Listen, my lovely people, particularly my people of African descent: school is good. Get an education. Learn. Get on the career path. Get yourself at least a Bachelor's degree. Get some experience under your belt and then get a masters in an area that aligns with where you want to be - especially after working for at least sometime to get a feel of what your career preferences are. BUT know that more school is not always the answer. I'll say it again: MORE SCHOOL IS NOT ALWAYS THE ANSWER. I know this is completely counter intuitive to what our parents have taught us. Don't keep going to school because you think it will get you further professionally. Your parents WILL NOT stop you. I have a PhD and when I talk to people they think I am hating. Truth is a PhD is NOT like a masters degree - it is a long drawn marathon that is NOT for the faint of heart. I will expand on this in the next few weeks but just trust me on this one.
3. Surrender control to God
Here is the other thing: there is a sub-set of box-checking that is not just about pleasing, it is about FEAR: fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of a lack of purpose. So we set about trying to counter that fear by doing and doing the most. And this is not really considered bad because what we seem to be doing looks "good" it looks like achievements BUT it rarely is driven by purpose.
There is no fear in love but perfect love drives out fear. Because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18 (NIV)
This scripture hits me every time. Fear has to do with punishment. What may look like control and doing cannot be perfected as long as it is steeped in fear. The opposite of fear is FAITH. Trusting, trusting in the Lord with all your heart and leaning NOT on your own understanding of what needs to happen by when and what age.
What I find to be so interesting is that every time we surrender to God - He does it, in His own time, faster and better than we would have ever done it on our own. Which leads me to the next point:
4. Get deep in the Word
Healing, true deep healing comes from the Word of God. There are so many gems for us people-pleasers to apply to our daily confessions to help us overcome this. One thing that always facinates me about God is the fact that He doesn't impose His will on anyone. He's so big and gracious that He allowed us to be whatever or whoever we want. This I find is often in direct clash with our culture particularly when we are being manipulated and when it comes to how our community interprets religion. There is FREEDOM in Christ. The more we get to know Him the more we discover the beauty of that freedom. Alot of the people pleasing comes from not truly knowing our worth and not understanding that nothing we do nor achieve can make God love you more. You are born loved and accepted as you are. God's desire is for us to fulfill our purpose and our destiny and leave this earth empty of all the amazing talents and gifts He has placed inside each of us, but our worth doesn't come from anything we do: it comes from who we are. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made from Day 1 before He formed us He knew us. Every time I get deeper in the Word, I know who I am more and I find less and less the need to please people because I am complete in Christ.
5. Get profesional help
We really need to get to a point where seeking mental health support is not stigmatized. There is alot of help available through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and through psychologists. The value of this is that you get resources and skills that can help you adapt and cope better. Passion coaches are also amazing in helping you work through all the layers to get to the core of your purpose. Don't be afraid of seeking a professional help. I have and it has done wonders for me and I look forward to sharing that in another post - stay tuned!
So please, let us make the shift for our own sake and the sake of our purpose. Say no to people-pleasing and yes to purpose.
You got this!
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