How I’m Learning to Love Myself, Not Change Myself

Confessions of a textbook people-pleaser.

By sheer coincidence, in all of my independent friendship circles, we happened to talk about how we would describe each member of the group around the same time. It was fun to decide which adjectives we would use when describing our friends, the people we know very well, to others who don’t know them.

“Very Type-A,” someone said to me, about me. “You’re always organized, you’re always on time, and you’re always very put together.” I smiled, pleased by the description. It matched what I’d worked to cultivate in this particular circle, and I was happy it was coming across like this.

A few days later, I was with a different group of friends, discussing the same topic.

“A bit of the hyper-creative sort,” one of my friends decided about me. “You can be a little disorganized, but it’s always fun to hang out with you. Maybe a bit on the ‘extra’ side,” they finished, while others nodded.

Unsurprised, I shrugged and said, “That’s me!”

Finally, with my third group of friends, we happened to talk about the same topic. “A princess who can’t take criticism,” said someone. “Yeah that’s so true,” reflected someone.

They were right — a spot on description of my persona in that group. I laughed along with everyone else.

My personality can be wildly different depending on who I’m with.

All three of those personalities are diverse. But if you, like me, are a classic example of a people-pleaser, you won’t be shocked by this.

Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures. — F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This is because a lot of who we are and what we do on a daily basis, depends enormously on what others expect of us. Depending on the situational context, you might find yourself more extroverted, more confident, more emotional, louder, quieter.

If the makeup of your group already has a quiet, shy bookish person, you might change to meet the expectations of a different role. If your friendship circle likes to go out a lot, you might find the group rewards more outgoing, social behaviors, and so you change your personality to suit.

You might find that a group of people find it funny when you’re a bit of a princess, in my example, and so you can’t stop. It’s so rewarding to make people laugh by putting on this character, and they’ve come to expect it after so long of putting it on, that when you don’t do it, people think you’re not feeling yourself.

Additionally, and harder to pin down, is the fact that people like to be able to put others in boxes. We like to say, “Yeah, you’re definitely a Monica fromFriends,” and we feel satisfied when we’re able to correctly identify someone’s key personality trait.

In short, we enjoy judging others, and we like it when we’re right.

Knowing that, when others make a statement or claim about our personalities… sometimes we find it easiest to make them happy. Say they’re right. Even if it contradicts what we believe about ourselves, we know that others like to label us, and they’ll like us more (at least in the short term).

So it boils down to two factors which contribute to each other in a cycle: first, we change our behavior, sometimes drastically, around different groups. Secondly, when people make judgments about us, from specific as “You like organization,” to strange as “You’re quiet when you’re hungover,” the path of least resistance is to agree, and then to incorporate that in later behavior.

Some of this might sound alien to people who are sure of themselves.

Maybe you find it ludicrously easy to remain true to yourself, in defiance of expectations or norms. Perhaps you’ve never experienced the subtle or even overt manipulation of your own personality to match what people think of you.

But for some of you, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Some of you will be all too familiar with the deep-seated need to fit the bill of other’s expectations of you, and even to exaggerate beyond.

And I’d urge most people to think twice if they really believe they don’t alter the way they behave, at least marginally, around separate groups of people.

I don’t mean simply being more professional at work, and more relaxed with pals. What I’m describing is the phenomenon of building a completely different personality, to a lesser or greater degree, around others.

Maybe this stemmed from making people laugh when you did one particular thing and wanting to continue that. Perhaps it came from putting on an act around new people you wanted to impress, that you feel you can’t then stop.

Can we really change our personalities?

There’s some debate in psychology as to whether people can even “change their personalities.” The true core aspects of what makes you, you, are immutable, some say.

If that’s so, what I’m referring to might be called by some a “demeanor.” That is, external characteristics about myself which are changeable. My core personality traits remain the same.

But in my opinion, that’s just different words for the same thing: I change around people, a lot. Whether external or deep characteristics, down even to tone of voice, the Zulie with friends from college is different from Zulie with friends from Masters degree is different from Zulie with friends from where I grew up.

These characters I put on feel a bit fake, as though these Zulies are all thin, two-dimensional personas I put on around others.

I’m going to try to be more authentic.

I used to believe that being malleable was the best way to make friends. Give them what they want. Don’t surprise them. Meet their needs.

But I’m coming to realize that what I admire so much in other people is steadfastness. It’s that they’re reliable. I can count on them to be the same, no matter who they’re around or what they’re being asked to do.

It’s not so much a desire to defy expectations — it’s more a wish to obey myself.

Rather than trying to match what people expect of me, I’m going to work on being more resolute on understanding my own feelings and reacting based on that. Gauging the room, changing myself, all in order to make other people happy, well, it’s not making me happy.

The shocker realization that the reason I’m anxious about nearly all my friendships is that I’m worried that they’ll see through the facade of who I “pretend” to be, should not be that shocking to me.

Coming into 2019, I only had one resolution: to be more resolute. In January, I took that to mean I wanted to be less flaky and commit more when I said I’d do things.

But there’s more to it than that. If I work on this, I can be more like myself. Fewer people may like me superficially, but more people will like me genuinely. I’ll be less worried about being caught out, and more confident in myself.

I don’t know if I’m organized, a messy artist, or a princess. I wish I did, but I’ve changed myself so often I don’t know who I really am, deep down. But I’m looking forward to the process of finding out.

Biology MSc. Psychology nerd. She/her. Get my FREE 5-day Medium Starter Kit to make money writing about what you love:

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