Illustration: Deirdre Spain

LIFE HONESTLY

A lesson learnt in 2016: integrity is far more important than people-pleasing

People-pleasing is cowardly and manipulative, and it left Dolly Alderton feeling empty and unhappy. So, she stopped

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By Dolly Alderton on

There’s little I haven’t done to make people like me. I’ve stayed up all night to make three batches of lemon birthday macarons for a colleague I had known for all of a month. I’ve picked up a £250 bar tab for a group of people I barely knew, rendering me penniless for rent day the following week. I once stayed sitting in my gym’s sauna, despite wanting to leave, because a boring American man started telling me a long, rambling story and I didn’t want to interrupt him (side note: who hobnobs in a sauna)? I vomited immediately afterwards but, in my 24-year-old head, it was worth it. A stranger I would probably never see again thought I was a good listener. He liked me!

I have spent my twenties ripping off huge hunks of myself and giving them away to people who haven’t earnt it, whether it’s telling my darkest secrets to a stranger in a pub loo, or gossiping about people I like to people I don’t like, or staying out until dawn when I would rather be in bed. Being a people-pleaser is a round-the-clock role in which you say or do basically anything anyone wants – be it at the cost of your bank balance, health and sense of self – to create intimacy and conviviality. I know it sounds like the pursuit of a madwoman when written as plainly as that, but the tricky thing is it sort of works. People-pleasing makes you social crack for others and you soon find that everyone wants a hit. But it comes at a very high cost.

All too often throughout my twenties, I have found myself unable to sleep. Night after night, I have fixed my wide-eyed stare on an Ikea shelf outlined by the soft moon that has felt as bright as floodlights and I have frantically rifled through my thoughts like I was looking through a filing cabinet. I couldn’t work out why I felt how I felt: a low-level panic, an acute self-loathing, a galloping heart, a churning stomach. I had a phone that wouldn’t stop pinging with messages from people asking to see me for drinks and yet I felt an unsettling detachment from myself and everyone around me.

2016 was the year I finally realised that what I was missing was a sense of integrity. Such a grandiose word for such a simple thing; my actions were not aligning with who I felt I was inside. I remember the fierce force of integrity as a child – when I was a chum to the weak in the playground, when I asked to leave the birthday party because I wanted to go home – but, somewhere along the way, it got lost. In its place came a big, wobbly nothingness – a shape-shifting presence that would stretch and remould into whatever shape I thought people wanted.  

I sat with a cup of tea and tortured myself with all the things they might think – she’s a shitty writer, she’s not a good public speaker, she’s an irritating posh girl – and I decided to accept it

This year, I’ve faced the very difficult task of accepting that some people will not like me. I sat with a cup of tea and tortured myself with all the things they might think – she’s a shitty writer, she’s not a good public speaker, she’s an irritating posh girl, she talks too much, she’s not smart, she’s not funny, she’s not pretty – and I decided to accept it. I finally grew tired of running around, trying to control everyone’s opinion of me – it’s cowardly, it’s manipulative and it left me feeling empty.

So, instead, I am now at the beginning of what I’m sure will be a lifelong mission to be as honest as I can be. To send back the plate of food in a restaurant with green peppers when I specifically asked for no green peppers. To not laugh at the offensive joke because the man telling it is cool and handsome. To not retweet something I don’t find that interesting to garner favour with its writer. I’ve taken heed of the words of Sharon Horgan’s character in Catastrophe: “Not everyone has to like you. You’re not a puppy. Honest people who tell people how they feel when they feel it have people not like them. OK? That’s what I do. I have earnt the right to have people dislike me. I am very happy to have people not like me.”

People-pleasing can only take you so far in a relationship; the other person will sense the creeping disingenuousness and they’ll sniff it out like out-of-date butter in the fridge. People like to know your boundaries and edges: what you do and don’t like, what you believe and don’t believe, what you will and won’t do. No one can have none at all and, ultimately, people find that facade confusing.

I am never going to be someone who doesn’t care about what people think of me; I’m never going to grow a skin as tough as leather. I will always love feeling connected to others and the warmth of their affection. But I do not want that affection because I have bent myself every which way to get it; I want that affection for being myself – boundaries and edges ’n’ all. I want to be able to relax into deep and true connections with people, rather than feeling fraught in flimsy bonds because I sought their approval. And if that means some people may not like me? Well, that seems like a very small price to pay.

@dollyalderton

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