Competitive people pleaser seeks self-identity.
April 15, 2014 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I have a deeply ingrained habit of being both a people pleaser and caring a lot about accomplishments, winning prizes, receiving accolades, getting praise and recognition from others. However, so much so that it clouds what I really want to do in terms of my career. Was this you? Did you recover from it? How did you sort it out?

I feel like I can't sort out what I want out of life and my career from my desire for others to like or admire or praise me. It really sucks. I got a lot of praise growing up, and continued to be competitive and achieve and do prestigious-kinda things throughout college, getting my doctorate, and afterwards. I question if I did any of that because I wanted to for myself, but think maybe I just liked how it made people view me. I used to be so unhealthily entrenched in needing to achieve or "win" or get awards that I was very very very depressed when that wasn't happening on a regular basis. I have done a lot a lot of therapy and meds and am WAY more stable and happy, but when plotting out next steps in my life, particularly with career, I look at job openings and reflexively think, "what will people say?". Or, for example today, I see "Pulitzer prize announcement" and think "I want that job that will lead me to THAT." That doesn't seem right or a healthy way to think. I feel like I can't identify what I truly want to be doing on a day to day basis, even without any 'recognition'. I want to stop trying to please all of the people all of the time, and want to stop being competitive for no reason/to the point it stresses me out. Has anyone ever been like this? Did you recover from it? How did you sort it out?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
1. Are you on Facebook, Pinterest, etc? Quit those -- you don't have to delete your profile or anything, just stop posting (and liking and sharing) and make a rule to only check X times per week (or day, if you're obsessive about it, then wean yourself down to checking less and less often).

2. Stop telling people about yourself and what you're doing. People can't form an opinion of what you're doing, if they don't know what you're doing. Thinking of going into writing so you can get that Pulitzer? Great! Keep it to yourself. Eventually the only feedback you'll be getting (positive or negative) will be from yourself. Then you can start thinking about what you want to do for you, rather than for someone else's reaction.
posted by melissasaurus at 12:38 PM on April 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you want attention for attention's sake, then seek a career in entertainment. But since you have a PhD, I'm guessing entertainment is not your field.

I can relate to a degree. My friends are advancing in their careers in ways that leave me feeling like I'm not exercising my full potential.

So I would say this: learn what that feeling of self-satisfaction looks like. Its pleasant! Start to make that feeling a motivator.

So complete this sentence: I feel good when I....

the catch: don't let it contain anything that someone else sees.

I feel good when I analyze a proper dataset and find cool trends.
I feel good when I put together a tight outfit that matches my zest that day.
I feel good when I grow a tomato from my garden and put it on my salad.
I feel good when I can finally fully articulate my idea.

and so on, and so forth.

When you do what you are passionate about, often the recognition follows. But you have to do the work first. So focus on the work you find intrinsically motivating.

Also read up on Maslow's hierarchy of needs and self-actualization. You are motivated by a deficiency in attention/esteem. You will always be motivated by this until you have internalized this feeling of attention & being worthwhile. So ask yourself what activities will you judge inside yourself to be worthwhile & good? Make a list of your values, and give yourself a hug when you live up to your own value system.

Be picky. Watch people. Watch what they say. Watch what they do. Who do you admire? Who do you want to be like? Don't collect complements from just anybody. Find someone meaningful to you. When THAT person complements you, then it means something. If a sales lady complements you, jeez, that doesn't mean anything! In fact, she might just be using flattery to manipulate! Yuck.

Finally when someone complements you, you'll likely feel that heat of satisfaction / recognition. Instead of eating it up like a starving puppy, say to yourself "this flush I'm feeling is THE link that keeps me bound to the opinions of others." It's a weird little trick but it helps you from getting swallowed by the praise.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:40 PM on April 15, 2014 [12 favorites]

Who doesn't love to be praised and admired and liked? I can see you in myself and a lot of my friends. For many of us, it had to do with the fact that we came from families that put a high emphasis on achievement. I used to feel like a puppet, dancing on a strings in front of an audience that could never be satisfied. The fancy degrees, the awards, the praise--they made me happy for a month at most, and then I was back in the pit of misery, trying desperately to claw my way to the next one. I thought that if I wasn't able to achieve, then I was worthless. So I had to achieve.

In the past few years, I've really changed my outlook. I began volunteering in a really dangerous, disadvantaged neighborhood. It really made me feel silly to be complaining about not getting some award when I knew there were children who were scared to be shot on the way to school. At the same time, I began reading about history, culture, the news, watching documentaries, and trying to really listen to people's experiences. Now my self-worth comes from the fact that I am a loyal friend, a good listener, a hard worker, a decent person, a member of a community, not from the scores or titles I've acquired.

This may sound harsh, but when you're caught in the rat race of trying to win things, it's easy to become entitled and self-centered, when all you're thinking about is you and how you can win and how you are compared to everyone else. (This is how I was, for a long time.) Think about all the things you do to please people--are you doing them because you care about those people or because you want that reward? If you didn't get praise for them, would you still do them? If you wouldn't, then in hoping to 'please people', aren't you really trying to please yourself? The world is bigger than that. There's meaning to life beyond doing the best for yourself, and you can find it.
posted by placoderm at 12:40 PM on April 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also someone told me: what did you like to do when you were 10-12 years old? That is often a pointer to what you love to do, and what sort of things you find intrinsically motivating.

Did you like your PhD? Not the recognition, but the subject? The work? What came easily and what made you wish you'd never been born? This will help you figure yourself out a little.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:55 PM on April 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I actually would come at this from the other direction, and think about what careers would let you satisfy your desire for external validation. I say this from my own experience--I'm like you, and went into a career where you never really know how good of a job you did, nothing is ever really finished, and there is no real feedback other than the amount of money you make and not getting sued or disbarred. I have a hobby that satisfies my desire to earn titles and awards and it's SUCH A RELIEF to operate in a sphere where there are objective measures of achievement. I wish I could have this in my work life, and if I could figure out a job that would give it to me, that wouldn't be financially stupid to switch into at my age, I would do it in a heartbeat.
posted by HotToddy at 1:10 PM on April 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

When you start worrying about "what will people think?" make a list of exactly who those people are who will think badly of you if you do xyz. Write down their names. You may find it's a very short list, or that it's people you don't actually know, or that it's people you don't actually like.

Then make a list of people who will be happy for you if you tell them that xyz is what you want to do and you are doing it. That list is going to be a lot longer, I bet.

Also, I find it reassuring to think that there are approximately 1.3 billion Chinese people who don't care one way or the other what I do.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:19 PM on April 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel you.

Because I'm in a really competitive environment at the moment (post PhD program, trying to write and publish) I practice a kind of aggressive nonviolence when it comes to competition. It's really important to me to see the systems I'm involved in (academia, publishing) as the enemy, so I can avoid feeling that way about other people at my level. Since I really do believe these systems are exploitative and semi-evil, it fuels a feeling of solidarity with my fellow "competitors" that drowns out a lot of my instinct to compete. It's like the Hunger Games - you're set up to turn on the people who are most like you, but the ones you really have to fight are up above.

Think about it this way. You beat up on yourself for competing with other people, but our entire educational system is fueled by the idea that you prove your worth only by besting the people around you. It sorts children in rank-ordered groups from best to worst, and convinces them these tiny gradations of merit reflect something real about themselves and the world. If you have your doctorate, you've probably spent the majority of your life in an environment devoted to perpetuating the myth of the meritocracy: which is, in essence, the idea that the people who are on top in our society (money-wise, esteem-wise, power-wise) deserve to be there. The moment when I realized - when I really felt in my gut - how pernicious this myth is, and how poorly it reflects reality, my entire relationship to my schooling and my career changed. I've worked really hard, but in a fundamental way, I don't deserve what I have. I had to get lucky in a thousand different ways before I was even remotely in a position to obtain this success. I was a winner in a rigged game, so my previous success didn't actually reflect my self-worth, any more than losing did. It was a hugely freeing revelation.

I still feel the pull of competition, often, but I try to act non-competitively with an almost religious fervor. I share my work; I'm open about my mistakes; I do what I can to boost people up even if I think the odds are that they're going to surpass me. I feel like I'm in recovery from a lifetime's worth of brainwashing. The systems in place to reward you (on a smaller scale, academia, but on a larger scale, um, capitalism) are premised on competition, and they are broken, broken, broken. You can try and make your peace with that, or you can get mad about it instead. I am, and it actually feels pretty damn good.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 1:19 PM on April 15, 2014 [34 favorites]

I am super competitive and never really feel happy with myself when competing. I turn into an angry, envious, self-hating, judgmental, schadenfreude-filled, bitter person. So to be happy with myself (and others), I have to take myself out of the game completely, whatever type of game that may be (e.g., a certain field of work, playing sports in anything remotely resembling a competitive context, etc.).

If you are similar, is there something you enjoy doing that would be *really* hard for you to find ways of comparing yourself and competing directly with others? Do that.
posted by Halo in reverse at 3:20 PM on April 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I could have written this, so I'm not sure if I can offer much advice, beyond pretentious illiterate's excellent comment. I'm almost two years post-doc, and I've found the more successes I've had (papers published, methods developed etc) the more I've felt this feeling of wanting praise and recognition compared with colleagues. Now that I've made a (small) name for myself in the field, I have creeping thoughts of jealousy and competitiveness towards colleagues, that I didn't have during my PhD. I've tried to counter this by focussing on the admiration I have for them, focussing on learning, and on developing friendships, or at least professional collaborations, with those who are succeeding. I also recognise that I have impostor syndrome in a big way, and that seeking praise and accolades to overcome this is like binging on sugar to cure hunger.
posted by hannahlambda at 4:43 AM on April 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

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