People Pleasing or Serving?
Within the church context we are called upon to be humble servants of Christ. Only how does this look in the everyday? How can we make sure we are serving God rather than just people or church pleasing?
Character traits of a people pleaser: Helping others first, before their own needs.
Character traits of a server: Choosing to serve and honour God by helping others.
These character traits can look similar, only that people pleasing is not a character trait God wants us to grow in. The difference between the two is the choice and the motivation. A people pleaser will struggle to say no and feel that they have to do what is asked, where as a server may choose to put themselves out and serve God willingly but also has the ability to say no and know that their self worth/salvation is not dependant on saying yes.
People pleasing can be looked upon as being weak or putting people before God but there is a reason behind this behaviour. Each people pleaser will have their own story of mistreatment that put them on this course and so I thought I would share mine to help others see where this behaviour can develop and why its not that easy to stop.
I was a people pleaser (now in recovery) without realising it, so not everyone will know the why's behind their behaviours or recognise them, until they have faced and walked through it. I thought I was a server - I knew the right words to say about why I served and believed them but when push came to shove, I served out of a place of fear rather than thanks to what God has done.
There is a need in me to feel safe. There is a need in me for the people around me to be happy and content, so I can feel safe and secure. In the past, I would go to any lengths to do this - deny myself, push myself - anything to make others happy because I felt this would keep me safe from harm. I want the people around me to be happy because I have been so unhappy - I recognise how awful this feeling is and I don't want anyone else to feel like this. To be in need and no one to help you. This is due to trauma I experienced as a child.
When I was younger I was bullied through most of secondary school. It was a horrible time and I just couldn't seem to get out of. I didn't yet have the skills to know how to change my circumstance and I felt I could not confide in the adults around me (in case they turned on me too) and the teachers that were aware, just turned a blind eye and seemed to condone it. I hope today, bullying is taken more seriously rather than - it will sort itself out - approach that I experienced. I had no voice, no advocate, no one to turn too. I wasn't raised in a church background and at this time, I did not know Christ or had church community. I felt alone.
I believe at the time the thinking was - you can't force people to like you. So teachers aware did not help or give me strategies to cope. Perhaps they weren't fully aware of the extent I was suffering. I was a child trying to figure out a complex situation with no guidance and (believed) with no one I could trust to ask for help. I believed I was worthless and in fact only worthy of their comments. I wanted them to stop but they didn't.
I quickly found out that confrontation and sticking up for myself, definitely brought me a lot more trouble - it led to physical attacks, on top of the verbal - it fired them up to hate me more and drew in more crowds of people to spectate/participate. Unfortunately it wasn't just a couple of peers, I could avoid - it was a lot. It was both males and females. I couldn't fight everyone. Everyone felt they had the right to say what they liked and it was believed - true or otherwise. I think it brought solidarity to my peers. Those who did not comment, just kept quiet and I believe that is because they didn't want the attention to turn to them.
I would try to get others to like me, do what I could to please them, so they would stop - so I could at last feel safe and secure. It helped, well it worked better than confrontation. Slowly over time, I won back friendships - I say friendships, but in reality they were just 'friendlier'. They could/would turn on me at any point. It was really hard holding this together. I learned to put others needs first and deny any of my own wants/feelings/needs in order to satisfy the basic need to be safe. This strategy depleted my self worth and I only felt of any worth if I was doing something for someone else/serving.
Unfortunately, it was a strategy I took into adulthood - to people please, accept all the bad things, hide difficulties or negatives from others - to not tell others of my problems - what was the point? no one would help me and allowing others to see my weakness could mean I would be punished/bullied further, so I would morph into whatever I needed to be, to keep others happy. My problems were mine, and I was the only one to sort them out. I was always happy to help other people who had problems because I knew how awful it is to have problems that you feel stuck in and so having someone to help you, is something I had always wanted. I didn't know how to accept help - I did not have any experience of this so I just tried to be for others what I would have wanted. Being this for someone else felt good - almost righting a wrong. I avoided confrontation because of my past experiences - I just didn't know how to do it successfully. I felt confrontation would always end negatively and I would be the worse off. This is what I had learned - whatever you do, don't rock the boat!
So what's wrong with People Pleasing?
This strategy of people pleasing doesn't work, denying myself and putting others first in this way to get my basic need of being safe, led to much greater needs. Ultimately, It led to my destruction.
As a child, I did not have a relationship with Jesus and then when I did, as an adult, I took to denying yourself and putting others first, easily (this is what I thought serving was). It was already ingrained that it happened, without me thinking about it. I couldn't understand why others struggled with this and why more people didn't serve/volunteer at church. It felt good to serve and for this part of me to be appreciated, to even think of it as a Godly trait, made me want it more.
Only it's not Godly. God did not create me to be whatever other people wanted/needed me to be - He did not make me with emotions and feelings, just for me to deny them. He made me, me - on purpose, for a purpose. This was not Holiness. Unknown to me at the time, this was feeding a pride within me that had came from a place of hurting and fear, from my past trauma. My emotions are indicators, they are important - they tell me if I'm doing too much, right from wrong etc. They are not to be worshipped or ignored. They are a signal and we can choose what to do next but to deny them is wrong. It's denying the mechanics of our body, it's denying our humanness, Gods creation.
I guess I was agreeable and happy to serve, which is what the church looks for (on the surface - an organisation mainly run by volunteers) but my heart wasn't really in the right place and I did not understand. I was technically serving and doing what was asked - but this gave me a sense of validation, of earning my self worth and salvation - I wrongly built my identity around this. I didn't need to do this - Jesus had already done this for me. Not only was people pleasing robbing me of the person I am, it was robbing me from truly understanding my faith.
I used the bible and Gods word to affirm these beliefs - that confrontation was bad and that I needed to continue to serve others by denying myself. If I ever chose not to help, I would be riddled with guilt and blame. I believed I was doing God's work and that there was nothing wrong in what I was doing - putting others first or in other words - Jesus first, Others second and Yourself last. It's like my mind was happy to forget certain parts of the bible and just pick up on the parts that validated my behaviours. It's like I skipped the parts where Jesus rested and took time out to pray. Jesus looked after his earthly body's needs! Yet I seemed to gloss over this. He wasn't selfish and He didn't put himself down for when He couldn't help every single person - He did what He could. He also stood up for what He believed in, without fear of confrontation or of man. He stood up without resorting to violence, passive aggressive behaviour or snarkiness. He was righteous. Satan knows the scriptures and could use them to further his ways, it's hard to compare yourself to Satan but I was twisting something good albeit subconsciously, to feed a need I was unaware of. I used scriptures to justify my actions. Focusing on scriptures that fed my need to not look after my human body, fed my false identity and kept me in bondage to sin.
People pleasing is not Godly - I put the needs of others before God without realising it by denying His creation (me). I would justify keeping others happy and making myself miserable as 'serving the Lord' and this is completely wrong. This can lead to resentment rather than joyfully serving. We serve others because we are so in awe and thankful for what God has done for us. We serve using the gifts God has created in us, including the limits He has placed. Accepting our limits, is accepting our humanity and Gods creation. I am not saying do not serve if it costs you - because there is always a cost. Nor am I saying serving is ungodly - I'm saying the reason behind why you serve is very important.
It got to the point where I no longer knew what I liked or enjoyed anymore. I had denied myself so much, even to the point of how I looked or how much I weighed that I no longer recognised the person I had become. I hit a breakdown. Putting everyone's needs before my own, made me stressed and depressed. I was stressed because I had taken on too much, ignored too much of my self but felt I couldn't possibly stop doing any of the things I was doing - that's what validated me as a person - I believed that is what made me good and right with God. It became wrapped up in my identity because my children were at school and I was at home (without a job the world would recognise). At breakdown, I could no longer fulfil any duties. God brought me to a standstill, I had to admit I needed help.
I took medication, therapy, asked for help (which for me was very hard) - when I understood my situation I could confess my sin and ask for forgiveness. I sought prayer and healing. This did not happen overnight. I learned who God the Father was and who I am, as His daughter. It took a long time and I practised saying yes and no to the things I wanted/liked/enjoyed. I learned to speak up for myself as an adult. I learned boundaries to relationships and in serving. I learned who I was.
I do still serve God but I am not first in line every time a request comes in. I weigh it up and recognise my gifts. I know my priorities, where God has called me. His daughter, wife, mother, home and then church. I serve on the worship team at my church and I also serve in the youth team. Just the 2 teams - it used to be a lot more!
I serve in the youth team because I felt God tell me too. It is not an area I would have chosen but in the quietness, I could hear His voice and I obeyed. I actually really enjoy serving on the youth team and am so glad I wasn't too busy being a 'good serving christian' that I heard His voice and direction. I do try and help others whenever I can, because part of my story is having compassion and empathy for others going through difficulties but I do it within the priorities and boundaries God has set for me. I recognise what God has done for me and I choose to serve gladly and intentionally.
I'm still learning this new skill but its one I hope to continue to grow in - learning to be kind to myself and not to put myself last on the list, that it never gets done. Honestly, at times I still find it hard to prioritise my own basic needs but I am following Jesus example and I cannot help others if I am not looking after myself. We are all different and some reading this perhaps have the complete opposite problem and find it very difficult to prioritise others or commit to teams. Whether you relate or not, praying and seeking counsel is a great first step to recovery.