I scoffed at the weak and undisciplined among us. I felt superior to anyone who struggled to control his or her sweet tooth. At a restaurant with clients or friends, I boldly drank my dessert, choosing Irish Coffee over the Creme Brulee everytime. I drank extra-bitter, extra-strong IPAs. When I drank a bourbon and Coke, I asked the bartender to hold the Coke. There was nothing sweet about me…just ask my wife.
Then I stopped drinking.
It had never occurred to me that beer – even a bitter IPA – is basically carbonated sugar water. What the hell did I think malted barley was? As I weaned off of alcohol, I discovered a ravenous sugar addiction lurking just behind the booze bottle.
My ignorance about myself extends far beyond my alcohol-induced addiction to sugar. I also had a misguided interpretation of my relationship to other people – especially people in power who exerted influence over my direction and activities.
I’ve never been afraid of conflict. Back in college, I ran my mouth quite a bit. Mostly I got away with it, but not because I was cautious or physically intimidating. I mostly avoided being pummelled because I had a really big best friend, and no matter how drunk I got, I never forgot to check my shoulder to make sure he was there before I made a crude joke at the expense of another.
Even now, I don’t shy away from conflict. I recently returned home from a contentious meeting where my opinion about a business expansion was solicited. I was positively giddy as I stood in my kitchen and explained to my wife that I was on the dissenting side of the argument, and how much I enjoyed trying to persuade the majority that I was right. She said the very thought of a combative conversation made her want to vomit. Her discomfort made my smile even wider.
I have always worn my willingness to engage in conflict as a badge of honor. When my writing is deemed offensive, I am thankful that enough people are reading for some of them to voice a disagreement with whatever it is I am trying to say. There is no such thing as bad publicity, right?
But don’t let my lack of conflict avoidance fool you. Just like the smokey burn of straight bourbon masked my sweet tooth, my willingness to argue, disagree or dissent is just a rouse to cover my desperate need for approval.
You see, I am a people pleaser, through and through.
When we were considering a venture into a whole grain bakery franchise business, I had very specific instructions for my wife during our visit to the company headquarters. “Give them the answers they are looking for,” I insisted. “Don’t be overly forthcoming with information about our fears or hesitations. Make them like us so they will approve us. Then, later, we can consider our real concerns and make our own decision about whether or not to move forward. Let’s take the decision out of their hands and put it in ours.” In other words…say and do whatever it takes to make those people happy.
Please the people.
It was strategic thinking. It was logical. It made perfect sense. For all of those reason, I was proud of the tactics we employed in gaining the trust of our eventual franchisor. Had I been accused of people pleasing at the time, I would have scoffed at my accusor. People pleasing is a weakness. I was strong. I would have been happy to tell you all about it over a round or two of bourbon and Cokes. Hold the Coke.
People pleasing is an ingrained weakness masked in false confidence. It turns out, the trait is rampant among alcoholics.
Underlying causes. It took me years to understand that I didn’t just drink compulsively because I liked the taste and effect of booze, and because my brain had been hijacked. There was a medicinal component to my addiction. Something was not right that I used alcohol to soothe. That something was elusive for years.
Just as our culture traditionally depicts alcoholics as piss-stained bums sleeping under bridges and drinking gut-rot vodka from brown paper bags, we also assume the underlying causes for addiction must be just as a obvious and despicable. I was never molested as a kid. I was never beaten or attacked or raped or otherwise overtly victimized. My parents didn’t have a violent relationship that ended in a brutal divorce. No one close to me died other than of old age or normal age-related diseases.
I didn’t have underlying causes worthy of making the headlines of my own story. Honestly, the lack of obvious trauma was a little embarrassing for me as an alcoholic. You mean I just couldn’t control my drinking because my drinking was out of control? That’s it? No, that was not it. I just needed to dig deeper.
I have lots issues that underlie my addiction to alcohol. None of them are displayed in flashing neon lights. None of them are so traumatic that my subconscious has hidden them from me by locking away the memories. But they exist, none the less. And my desire to please the people around me is an underlying cause toward the top of my list.
We are taught to get good grades, to work hard in sports, to obey all the rules and to eat all of our vegetables. None of those things are inherently wrong. They are just not as right or important as I internalized them to be. “Good grades and an impressive degree are the key to success and happiness,” the adults around us insist. But are they? Is there really a direct and incontrovertible link between achievement and happiness?
There is a shit-ton of societal evidence to the contrary. So if the correlation between achievement and gleeful peace isn’t as direct as we were once made to believe, why do we prioritize it so instinctively?
Maybe because it pleases the people around us. Maybe because there is acceptance in those straight As. Maybe because the expectations have been passed down for so many generations that we can’t see a way out.
You can please some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time. And it all might just drive you to drink.
My wife doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks about her. I am profoundly jealous of that attribute. Sure, she considers regurgitation at the very notion of direct conflict with other human beings, but she doesn’t give a second thought as to what they might be thinking or saying about her behind her back.
I have a good friend who has never been on time for an event – work, familial or social – in his life. As a people pleaser, timeliness is a virtue to me. I couldn’t fathom disappointing people with my tardiness. I am profoundly jealous of my consistently late friend, too. He is late so often that he doesn’t bother with excuses when he shows up. He shrugs his shoulders and give a sideways grin that says, “Take me or leave me…I’m here now.” I always smile back, thankful that his calming influence has finally arrived.
My wife and my friend could never be alcoholics. They don’t possess the instinct to please others, so they don’t have the associated pressure and stress to self-soothe. They are comfortable in their own skin. Can you imagine that? I wish I could.
I am all about accountability – even now as an enlightened former alcoholic who has worked hard to understand my underlying issues. I still believe that grades are important, effort is far more desirable than half-assedness, and being early or on time builds character and results in positive relationships. But I see the mental and emotional dangers to overemphasizing the importance of achievement. Like all things addiction and recovery, the answers are nuanced. Just because people pleasing isn’t healthy, being consistently late and disrespectful has a big pile of pitfalls as well.
Can we find the healthy middle?
Can we bring about an end to the subtle but persistent trans-generational trauma that leads to stress and anxiety that needs to be medicated (professionally or otherwise)? I honestly don’t know. The only thing I am sure of is that in order to solve a problem, we must first be open-minded enough to understand the problem. We probably need to lead with truly unconditional love and a prioritization of joy over wealth and power.
When a people pleaser marries someone who doesn’t give a shit about the opinions of others, maybe their kids will be genetically predisposed to find peace and happiness somewhere in the middle. Maybe. Time will tell.
For now, our kid still have to eat all of their vegetables.
If you can relate to the need to medicate the stress from trying to please the people, we hope you’ll join us in SHOUT Sobriety.