Why people-pleasing is stalling your progress.

Dr. Melissa Shepard Smiling in white lab coat

By Dr. Melissa Shepard

I have (bizarrely) amassed a large social media following. And in doing so, I’ve been forced to confront my people-pleasing ways like never before.


Logically, I know that considering the number of people who see my work, not everyone can like it. But my heart has had so much trouble grasping this concept.

Woman sitting in front of computer with fingers pointing to her from the screen
Image from Shutterstock

Maybe it is because some of the stuff I’m putting out into the social media void is incredibly personal. So when someone responds negatively to what I’ve shared, they are also responding negatively to a very intimate part of me. Or maybe it is just because I’ve never had stellar confidence, so my veneer is easy to crack. Or maybe it’s because I know my intentions are good and if we could talk in person surely we would be able to work this whole misunderstanding out.


But I’m beginning to understand that having people who dislike me is actually okay. Of course, this is not to say that I enjoy pissing people off. If you know me personally, you know that I’m painfully thoughtful about everything I share so that my work can be a source of comfort, not stress, to most people.


Despite these best efforts though, I’ve landed on many a shit-list. Early in my social media journey, I shared a message encouraging people to practice self-compassion. I talked about how we all think everyone has it all figured out, but in reality, we are all just making it up as we go. It was a warm and fuzzy message with a relatively harmless subject.


Most of the comments were kind and insightful. But one comment, in particular, caught my eye. It said something along the lines of how I was an idiot and couldn’t possibly be a doctor because the closed captions on the video contained a grammatical error.


I was stunned by how out of place the criticism seemed. At first, I felt angry. I wanted to say, “Really? That’s your response to a pep talk?! I think your head would have exploded if I had said something controversial”.


But then I felt the warm rush of embarrassment fill my face. She had hit me right where it hurt: my constant fear of being less capable of everyone else. My inner critic excitedly grabbed onto the idea that I wasn’t smart enough to be a good doctor, speaker, writer, or whatever.


I froze and I stopped posting for a bit, as I often do when I get sucked into people-pleasing. With newfound proof that I was, indeed, an idiot, I told myself I needed to slow down and reconsider every word I said so that I would never leave myself open to this kind of criticism again.


It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know this person and they don’t know me. Their anger and harsh words won’t impact my life in any way. So why does it bother me so much? I think that it is, in part, because I think of my anonymous critics as unbiased third parties. They don’t know me, so their opinion must be less tainted than the opinions of my close friends, family, or inner circle.


But no one is truly unbiased, and that is why people-pleasing is impossible. You can contort yourself to try and please someone and still get it completely wrong. We each have a lifetime of experiences, fears, preferences, and memories that change how we interpret what is in front of us, no matter how filtered it is.


Changing our messages, and ourselves, to be more palatable to everyone isn’t possible or practical. I don’t need to focus on figuring out how to please each person and can instead work on accepting that I might simply not be meant for them.


I don’t mean to imply that all criticism is useless or should be ignored. Acting on respectful criticism can be vital to your success. But addressing every one-off anonymous keyboard warrior hurling insults my way just hasn’t proven to be a great strategy for me. I’ve come to realize that the more time I spend trying to win over every critic, the less energy I can devote to the people who might actually benefit from what I have to say.


My work is me. It’s messy and flawed like me. It’s a bit dramatic and self-deprecating, anxious, and scattered like me. It’s passionate and probably too revealing at times. But it’s me. And contorting my work to please everyone immobilizes me and accomplishes nothing.


Maybe, just maybe, we can all work on letting go of our desire to be everything to everyone and instead focus on moving forward so we can be there for those who want us.


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