My old mantra was that I'd rather be liked than most anything else. There was a constant check and balance going on in my brain weighing any new information against achieving that goal.
Striving at being in a perpetual state of liked always won.
The quick check-in was so habitual, I took it for granted and thought of it more like a stream of consciousness rather than blather about nothing, which was more accurate.
It made telling the truth tricky a lot of the times, because truths can often cause discomfort or disappointment or even hostility in others. Twisting myself around to a place where everyone else was happy with me required hours of prep time, practicing what someone else might say, and my perfect response.
After years of practice, I had become a master at reading other people and was usually spot-on with how a conversation would play itself out. Occasionally, though, variations occurred and would throw me into a rush of adrenaline as I tried to read facial expressions or tone of voice.
An unintended consequence was a requirement that my life stay small and with very little growth. Achieving new and lasting success of any kind would have required a certain amount of not knowing. The idea filled me with enough panic to sabotage myself. My need to be liked was that pathological, and as it turns out, very commonplace.
There are legions of us out in the world doing our best to please everyone who comes along.
The talk shows call us people pleasers, but hostage takers is far more accurate. In order to make someone stay around, which is a big part of being liked, I was willing to manipulate my hobbies or viewpoints or general outlook on life. Standing out as different was too risky. If someone insisted that I choose the activity for the day, my mind would go blank and words failed me.
I was also willing to volunteer to help out on a big project, even if I didn't know much about the topic. I always figured I'd learn how to do it, which I did, but that's not the point.
The point was actually that there was one glaring question I never asked. Finally, someone caught me at my game and pointed it out. Do you like yourself?
Trying to answer that changed everything, because, for the most part, I didn't know. Refusing to define who I was for so many years meant that I was never evaluating anything from a personal standpoint. I was basing choices on whether or not I liked the people involved in the activity, and if they welcomed me into their fold.
Imagine how badly that scenario can play itself out when everything is dependent on the other people always being reasonable. Life was a constant stream of roller-coaster events.
The only way to back out of the old arrangement was to go cold turkey. I started saying no to all sorts of things and without a long explanation. No, I don't want to go to watch you buy furniture or practice for an adult dance recital or trail behind in general.
The next step was to actually find better things to do with my time. The surprise was how much time opened up when I was no longer figuring out how to help Susie set up her web site, or babysitting Patricia's children for an entire day. There were hours of empty time to fill.
Some of the people have cleared out of my life. If I wasn't going to be there to applaud their every breath, they were no longer interested in my company. That made a space for entirely new friends, and the result has been that my life is a lot more balanced. I still volunteer my time as a tutor and in soup kitchens, and I go to friends' attempts at show business, but it's just as likely these days that I'm the one in the spotlight with others cheering for me. More adventures to follow.
Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at Martha@caglecartoons.com.