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The Trouble with People Pleasing... by a People Pleaser!

Is it more important to be liked or to like yourself?

Big question to open with but it's an important one to ask yourself. My gut instantly screams; "Like yourself, obviously!" But if I'm being completely honest, my actions are the complete opposite. Past experiences such as bullying, social misinterpretations, breakups and grief have seen me default to keeping everyone happy at the expense of my own feelings. Paralysed by a fear of people leaving or being disliked. But there's one crucial problem - you can't control how someone else is feeling. You can only do you.

I've recently become obsessed with Kara Loewentheil's podcast "UnF*ck Your Brain". Episode 4 is all about people pleasing. As I listened, I suddenly realised I was sitting there ticking off all her examples of people pleasing and when Kara revealed the obvious; “you can't control how other people feel” and “you're only making yourself miserable”, I just laughed in disbelief! It was so true, I was miserable. Miserable, and then jealous of everyone else being able to say how they felt or do what they wanted, when in reality it was only me telling myself that I couldn't do that too.

What makes the whole thing even harder? My incredibly strong willed, fiery inner self that I actually kind of love. If I just allowed myself to be this person, I'd be in this happy place where my head and heart/gut work in unison. Sadly, she's tangled up in a web of people pleasing and has no other choice but to erupt, with zero notice when it's all just gotten too much.

People leave, whether they want to or whether they'd have given anything to stay. That is simply out of your control. You can only do you.

So, come on. This is a classical music blog, how exactly is this relevant? In truth, music has provided most of the examples as to when my people pleasing held me back the most. I look back at certain situations and realise it was not just me but my friends and colleagues who were desperate for me to be open and honest but I was so paralysed, I just couldn't.

When I started at the Royal College of Music, pretty immediately I was asked to join a new quartet called Arcus. Arcus was one of my favourite musical experiences to date. Together we performed at some of the most amazing concert halls, toured and just had an insane amount of fun together. My biggest struggle though, was the idea that three musicians would want me in their quartet. I thought I was constantly on probation. That at any minute, they would ask me to leave because I wasn't good enough. The reality was, they asked me to be in the quartet because they liked my playing - simple as that. In 2018, my master's project was to take the quartet on tour and this is where the people pleasing really started to make me miserable. I was ambitious with my tour (a common theme with me), but because it was my project, I didn't want to pester or bother the quartet too much because it wasn't their project.

This was my first mistake! Yes, it was my project, but they'd all agreed to it which meant it was a group venture. What I needed to do was to calmly ask the group for help. Split the load. We all had our own responsibilities in the quartet as it was, I could have found parts of the tour that matched existing roles. One stressed, overwhelmed "I'm the only one doing anything" outburst later, we worked on splitting up some of the responsibilities and the tour was a real success. But the outburst could have been totally avoided if I'd have just stopped people pleasing and announced I needed a little bit of help. No-one left and they even let me do another tour a few months later.

Photo taken by Julia Wesley

Lessons are another interesting one. When do you start cultivating your own ideas in terms of bowings, fingers and phrasing, becoming your own musician and not just celloing-by-numbers? It's a natural progression, right? As a music graduate, I'm still having lessons but this is definitely the time when I'm in charge of my musical decisions. I have to be, otherwise how do I go on to teach my students or perform the pieces I want to when I don't have time to go to my teacher? Currently in my lessons, I use my teacher’s bowings and fingerings, but I've had a few instances start to creep in where I had a different idea. But I don't change. Why? Because I worry that in the next lesson, they'll think I didn't listen to the bowings they gave or that I'm disrespectful. Assumptions again! I wonder what would happen if I actually just said; "I tried it, but I like it this way instead because of x, y, and z." In the name of research and also because I was feeling a bit brave, I asked my teacher what he'd say. His response was as follows; "If it works well then all good, if it doesn’t then try and find another solution". Seems like a bit of an anti-climax after the amount of worry I'd put in - doesn't it!

So why share this personal story with you? If you haven't caught on by now, this is a new change I'm making. The past six months have been such a whirlwind for me and that's without counting COVID-19. I've experienced huge loss, moved to London, acquired housemates for the first time in 7 years and started new teaching positions. Life is disorientating and unpredictable. If I'm shutting my inner voice up in a bid to please people, I'm not going to find any stability and I will inevitably end up frustrated and lonely. This blog has become an Aladdin’s Cave of the big issues facing young professionals and students in the classical music world - this is currently my big issue as a musician and from my experience with the blog I'm rarely alone.

People leave, whether they want to or whether they'd have given anything to stay. That is simply out of your control. You can only do you. I hope that with time and practice, my battle with people pleasing will be one of the past. Life's too short to be your own worst enemy.

What experiences do you have with people pleasing? Are you at the beginning of tackling the issue or have you been working on it for a while and want to share your journey so far? Comment below, I'd really love to hear your story.

Till next time. Ruth x

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