Most of us are people-pleasers, at least to some extent. And I’m one of the worst. Whenever I enter a social setting, I enter eyes wide with fear and anxiety, hoping that I won’t meet the disapproval of the person or people in the room. I want to know what they expect and then meet their expectation. Do they want me to be funny? Sober? Profound? Do they want me to do most of the talking? Most of the listening? Do they want me to seem mature? Inviting? Laid-back? And what do you do when you’re in a group of people who want different things from you? It’s almost like I think that there’s some objective standard for social behavior, and I’ve got to anticipate exactly how “one” should respond to every comment and situation. Social settings are a dance, and you better come prepared with the right moves. Everyone else knows the beat, and they’re expecting you to know the beat too, otherwise you’ll ruin everyone’s jive.
I find that in social settings with peers, I have two fears: being boring or being annoying. And what a fine line that is! You try not to steal the show or talk too much, but then people get that glazed look in their eye. You try to entertain, and then you quickly become annoying and too demanding of other’s attention. You try to be the funny guy, but then you lose people’s respect. You try to be the mature guy, but then you’re no fun. And God forbid you just try to be you. Now that would be a real misfortune for everybody.
I hope at this point you’ve at least gotten a little chuckle about my social neurosis. On most days, I get a chuckle out of it, too. I mean, when you verbalize it that way, it does seem kind of silly. It’s just a room of other socially insecure people who are far more concerned about their own neurotic questions than whether or not you’ve been meeting their standards for your behavior. What am I really afraid of? What are you really afraid of?
But aside from laughing at how seriously we can tend to take social interactions, I think it’s also beneficial to analyze why is it that we can tend to try to please those we’re around, rather than just be ourselves. There’s probably a lot of reasons, but I’m wondering if part of it comes down to the safety of separation. If I go into a social situation trying to meet some mysterious standard set by my peers about how I should act, then the worst that can happen is that I fail to meet the standard. I’ll just do better next time. No matter how awkward the interaction, the problem isn’t with me: the problem is simply with my performance. If social situations become just a field of expectations, then we can walk away from them feeling like we either accomplished something or failed to accomplish something, but our personhood is left in tact. And if over time we notice that certain people don’t like us or want to spend time with us, we can just say: “well, if they really knew me, then they’d think differently.” And we can say that with confidence because we’ve never given them a shot to actually know us and reject us. They just rejected the person we tried to be when we were around them.
And yet we’re never very satisfied with that, are we?
I think I’m reminded how dissatisfying playing the people-pleaser is when I see one of my friends doing it. I enjoy them when they’re them! Why are they trying to be cool or funny or straining to look like someone they’re not? They’re trying to meet our approval, but in the process they’ve robbed us of something more valuable–they’ve robbed us of themselves.
And then I look at myself, and I realize I do the same thing. But when I think about the times with friends that have been particularly refreshing and edifying, it’s always been the times when I started to forget about what they might be thinking of me, and for a brief moment I just lived and talked and acted and laughed. I stopped trying and I started being. And in those moments I realize something: my friends didn’t approve of me tonight–they enjoyed me. And that is truly satisfying.
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For the past four years, I’ve been on a concerted quest to understand what it means to rest. And I think I’m still far away from mining the depths of such a precious gift. But over the past four years, I’ve come to appreciate to a far greater degree the importance of the Sabbath as the practical outworking of a theology of rest. For in the Sabbath, we are told to stop doing and to start being. Christ has already accomplished everything necessary; God’s expectations have been assuaged; the bar has already been met. So as we Sabbath, we celebrate the work already done, and we rest. Because the Sabbath is a gift to remind us that Christ’s work has already been accomplished and God is pleased with us, we’re free to savor the Sabbath by enjoying instead of striving. And by doing so, we enjoy God being God and us being us. What a restful and refreshing gift!
I think in a very profound way, friendships should be the same thing. Friendship as Sabbath rest. It is the place where strivings cease and enjoyment begins. Where we are enjoyed rather than approved of. Where we can stop doing and start being.
And it’s a challenge to me: do I enjoy my friends or do I seek to make them what I want them to be? Do I let them rest in the knowledge that there are no expectations, or do I place on them the burdens of my approval?
And while sometimes finding these types of friendships is difficult, it makes me so thankful for those friends who do enjoy me. For they have given me rest in a restless world.