Today I was driving to an antique mall in Eaton, Ohio, and passed a house that was decorated with Christmas wreaths and red bows - though it's almost March - and the tall pine tree in the front yard was still adorned with colorful ornaments. Seeing those decorations triggered some memories for me. I don't know why that happened, but I thought I'd share them and perhaps let other "people pleasers" know they are not alone.
Long ago, I embraced the fact I'd been "blessed" (or cursed) with the pleaser gene. I do indeed like to help others, but I don't like to be taken for granted. For most of my life, I've had a difficult time finding a comfortable balance between the two. Today, my memory was jogged into focusing on a former church friend whose misfortune it was to lose her family's farmhouse in a fire, set by someone who rented a room from her. My friend, Ann, had grown up in that house and was devastated at the loss of not only her childhood home, but also a cherished elderly dog. The morning of the fire, I received a call from our church pastor who told me the sad news and asked if I'd meet him at Ann's farm and give her some needed support. I gladly did as he asked and that began a very long and sometimes intense, friendship with Ann, who I'd previously known only casually from church.
When I arrived at the farm, I was saddened to see such destruction and I hugged Ann and cried with her. I'd visited her and cared for her animals from time to time and to see her home in ashes was unbearable. I was more than happy to lend a hand in any way I could. Ann was a single woman, never married, with no children and no close relatives. Her parents had died many years prior, and she had retired from teaching. Her animals were her world.
After many people had stopped to ask if they might help, and her insurance agent had paid a visit, I took Ann to a number of places she requested to go, and then to my house for some needed rest and a meal. She stayed with my spouse and me for a couple days and we did what we could to help her through the trauma. She had lost nearly all her clothes, keepsakes, and home furnishings, but we were all thankful the fire had not spread to her barns. Her horses, other dogs, rabbits, and cats were safe.
Ann eventually rebuilt and began to restart her life. The church and its members did a lot to help her and she seemed to rely on all of us more and more, to the extent it became difficult to meet all her needs or fulfill all her desires. The church pastor was offering Ann counseling, but he was also becoming weary of how much Ann "needed". She began to expect us to donate anything she asked for and actually expected some of the men in the congregation to paint her barns and mend her fences for her - on their own time and free of charge. I will add, neither her barns nor her fences had been damaged by the fire. She simply wanted those things "spruced up", and apparently thought people should be willing to continue to help.
During this time, my spouse and I did feel empathy toward Ann. We knew she had no immediate family to offer her emotional support, so we took her under wing and provided what we could. Ann often reminded us that she had no family to acknowledge her birthday, Christmas, or Easter and she told me numerous times about how sad it was to wake up on Christmas morning and find no gifts under her tree. Now here is where the memories came flooding back to me today - we decided (or I decided and Spouse went along with it) to be Ann's Santa Clause, Easter Bunny, and Birthday Fairy. Every year. for longer than I can actually recall, we made sure Ann was remembered with gifts and cards on those special days. Every Christmas Eve, immediately after the early evening church service, Spouse and I would make a "Santa run" to Ann's house, and deposit a big shopping bag filled with gifts and home-baked goods, plus some special treats and toys for the dogs. We knew she would be headed to church for the midnight service, so we were fairly sure we'd not be discovered. At first, it was fun to look for special items throughout the year, then wrap them and pile them in the shopping bag for delivery on Christmas Eve, but one year, Ann ruined it for me. She didn't realize that she did, but nevertheless, it was just not a joy anymore after what I considered a very unkind and ungracious comment.
One year, and one year only, I was not able to get Ann's gifts delivered on Christmas Eve. My family and I had planned a huge surprise for my mother's 75th birthday (which falls on Christmas) and we needed to gather with out-of-town relatives. I had the brunt of the planning to do, so I delivered Ann's gifts a few days later and she was not happy. She let me know how disappointed she was that her gifts were not at her door on Christmas Eve and she never let me forget it. Ann was always outspoken and often fairly blunt, but what she said to me was very hurtful. I know what I should have said, but what I actually did was apologize and explain over and over about the responsibilities I had for my mother's birthday celebration, but all that fell on deaf ears. I realize now that I wasn't under any obligation to apologize nor explain, but that's how a pleaser's mind works. If someone is not happy, the pleaser absorbs the guilt.
That whole situation was a wake-up call for me, but apparently I didn't learn my lesson well, because I continued to provide Christmas Eve Santa runs to Ann for years afterward - until we moved to this house. I hadn't known how to let go of the self-imposed responsibility without hurting Ann's feelings, or worse, disappointing her again, or incurring her anger. Yet, I mustered some courage and sent her a Christmas card three years ago, explaining that we had retired and felt it necessary to trim our gift-giving budget. I expressed that, as much as we'd enjoyed it through the years, we'd no longer be doing Santa runs on Christmas Eve. To my relief, Ann didn't tell me how terribly disappointed she was, in fact, she said nothing. Perhaps it's best that our friendship (if it could actually be called that) has waned. I could tell many stories of helping Ann with her animals through the years - from helping deliver a colt in a dark muddy field at midnight one stormy evening, to helping get 12 rambunctious Airdale puppies to the vet to be vaccinated, to doing round-the-clock feedings for newborn kittens whose mothers abandoned them, to taking care of Ann's horses, dogs, cats, and rabbits when she was away, to receiving calls from her at all hours of the day or night, pleading with me to come and save kittens, that she let go too long until they could not be saved. I often bottle-fed the abandoned kittens because Ann preferred to sleep until noon instead of caring for them . . . and of course, knowing how much I cared for cats, she counted on me being there for them - and I was. Lest anyone think I'm complaining, I do accept full responsibility for allowing myself to be taken advantage of and yes, I finally did stop going to the farm. Ann would not, after all my years of pleading, urging, and offering to pay for it myself, have her cats spayed and neutered. So I knew there would be more and more kittens, she'd want more of my time, and more kittens would be lost. It became too emotionally painful to be there.
So there's my story . . . long and boring for some, but maybe a bit enlightening for others. Any of you who are pleasers like myself, please know you absolutely can extricate yourself from oppressive situations, but it takes courage and resolve. Love yourself enough to do what you need to for your own mental health and well-being. These days I call it self-preservation, and there is no guilt nor shame in looking out for oneself. I finally learned that lesson, though I'll freely admit, Ann was not the last person I allowed to take advantage of my "good nature", as my spouse and daughter have often said. I hope all of you find balance in your lives. Balance is a good thing and I continue to strive for it.