Maybe it’s so easy to switch flavors of Christianity because at heart, most of them share the same humanity-crushing underpinnings. One of the worst of those underpinnings involves the systematic destruction of a person’s sense of boundaries and self-worth–and then the outlawing of any way for people to refuse impositions on their time. In that vein, here’s how Christianity programmed me to be a people pleaser.
(This post was originally published in Ex-Communications on March 13, 2015. Since then, I’ve cleaned it up for readability and clarity. While I convalesce a back shot, please enjoy this blast from the past!)
Not Too Far a Leap.
I converted from Catholicism to the Southern Baptist Convention at sixteen. Only months later, I converted to Pentecostalism. Back then, most people regarded this flavor as dangerously overzealous and culty.
But it really differed very little from my childhood religion. I’d only leaped from one sizzling frying pan to another.
One thing that Catholicism does well is indoctrinate children. In this case, they convinced me that self-sacrifice is both noble and required to be a good Catholic. Its cardinal virtues–poverty, chastity, obedience–stress denying oneself anything that isn’t totally necessary for survival. (And I’m sure they planned to amend that last bit after I got older.)
They gave the party line reasons for these teachings. See, denying oneself comforts and pleasures kept one’s mind on “God.” It also apparently trained Christians to live out those all-important virtues.
These teachings thus represent a major way to judge women in particular.
Consequently, I don’t know many fervent Catholics who don’t feel at least a twinge of guilt whenever they buy something just for themselves or engage in self-care. Oh, and especially whenever they deny someone’s request for their time!
The old jokes about Catholic guilt exist for a reason: self-denial resides deep in the DNA of Catholicism.
The Examples At Home.
I grew up with the examples of my Catholic clergy relatives held before my eyes. As well, I daily beheld the sheer selflessness my mother and grandmother exhibited. Both of them devoted their entire lives to their families. They vanished into their roles.
In fact, because of that attitude of selfless service, my husband Biff knew he was in like Flynn during a visit to my grandparents’ house early on. See, one morning he discovered that a serious tear in his coat had been mysteriously repaired. The job appeared to have been done by house elves. Of course, we knew that my grandmother did it. She was the only person in the house at the time who could have.
When he thanked her, she acted downright embarrassed.
And from then on, the family embraced him as a son.
I’ll never know if my mother grated at her indoctrination. Maybe she did. However, I do know that she derived a great deal of her own sense of worth and value from serving others. She bit her lip and spent the time and energy needed to make sure everything that needed to be done got done. She did it even if she ran on fumes that day.
Habitually, she went without so that others could have what they needed or wanted. Without a word, she sacrificed her health, her own precious leisure time, and her own future opportunities.
Safety in Self-Negation.
As time went on, I saw in myself the same desire to negate my own needs to meet those of others.
I felt safe pleasing others. If I could figure out what someone else wanted and give it to them, I felt like I was safer. Everybody liked someone who was nice and helpful, right? So I was as nice and helpful as I could be. It was a survival mechanism more than anything else. And I carried it into adolescence and beyond.
Things didn’t get a lot better when I became a fundamentalist. They don’t have nuns or priests the same way, of course. They also lack formal vows like Catholics have that encourage that kind of self-denial. However, their leaders teach the same concept all up and down the ladder. Folks in that tribe regarded women who carved out a little time for themselves as vaguely heretical. They had to justify their heretical behavior with extensive excuses and pleading for compassion.
Men can develop this habit as well. In fact, I know a bunch of male people-pleasers struggling to figure out how to respectfully assert themselves in their post-Christian lives. Women, though, get a special variant of the indoctrination, especially in denominations that adhere strictly to sexist gender roles.
Sure, everybody is a slave to someone in that hierarchy, including men (to their leadership). That idea represents one of the biggest lessons evangelicals teach. But evangelicals view women as servants to absolutely everybody: parents, husbands, pastors, even children.
We know how evangelicals feel about servants, right?
The Promised Rewards.
My leaders from childhood onward taught me that I needed to “die to myself.” They promised that if I did this thing, then I’d be richly rewarded. Somehow. Jesus himself would grant me an appreciative husband and family as well as many spiritual rewards. I’d gain peace, happiness, joy, love, and a close connection to my god that couldn’t be had any other way.
But to get all of that great stuff, I had to bite my lip like my mother once did. I’d need to spend a great deal of extra time laboring while others around me enjoyed leisure time. And I’d need to go without whatever I needed so others could have those scarce resources instead.
These same leaders assured me that everyone around me would also do the same thing for me. In this manner, we’d all progress further, faster together than we could manage alone. It sure doesn’t sound like something ultra-capitalist, Ayn Rand zealots would come up with. But that’s how it was sold to me. Now, I see variants of it on ideological-marketplace shelves all the time.
Yes, my tribe looked at “the world” and derided its attitude of each partner in a relationship giving 50%. Instead, we all give 100%, we crowed to ourselves. And that teaching makes our relationships much better.
I wish I’d known at the time how false that saying is in practice.
In evangelicalism, “selfish” functions as the worst accusation anybody can ever fling at a Christian woman. Instantly, it cows them into compliance.
There’s a reason for it. Any time I wasn’t conforming and complying, any time I said “no,” any time I tried to make time for my own needs or put myself ahead of anybody else, my fellow Christians accused me of sinning. With that accusation, they also implicitly threatened me with Hell.
One day I had the audacity to ask my then-husband Biff if we could maybe go get something to eat after a particularly long Sunday morning service. My stomach was growling and I was miserable with hunger while he was goofing around with his buddies. One of my (male) friends snapped cheerily, “Mortify your flesh, sister!” and Biff applauded his comeback.
At first I laughed (weakly) at them and tried to ignore my growing hunger. But then the more I considered it, the more I wondered why their goofing-around was more important than Biff leaving with me for some food. He was definitely not giving his wife 100%! Rather, he was letting me go hungry so he could screw around. Around a dozen of his friends watched this incident and offered nothing in my defense.
We hadn’t eaten all day, and I was involved in strenuous athletics at the time. I was dizzy by the time we left–and seething. But Biff didn’t see what the problem was. He got angry that I was angry. He’d gotten what he wanted, after all! So why hadn’t I been happy that he was getting such great fellowship? Why hadn’t I been able to choke back my hunger long enough for him to spend three hours horsing around with his buddies after the service?
Most of all, why didn’t I care about what he wanted?
I don’t know if that snappy friend ever realized that something awakened in me when he and Biff so callously dismissed my distress. Either way, that’s when I began to seriously examine this whole people-pleasing, self-sacrifice, serving mentality I’d learned was our god’s perfect plan for women.
I finally noticed what’d been before my nose all along:
This whole serving thing ran in only one direction.
I gave, and men received. Men, especially husbands and fathers, sat atop a vast heap of the denied and suppressed needs of “their” women. From there, they enjoyed the benefits of being a man in fundamentalist society. And they did so at women’s expense.
When I had a legitimate need, those same men laughed at it, mocked it, scorned it, belittled it, gaslighted it into nonexistence, and then denigrate me for having it. And that’s if they didn’t just ignore it. However, if I insisted on meeting my own needs or expressed anger about the injustices I routinely faced, out came their attempts to cow me back into line. They deployed the biggest guns my religion possessed for controlling women: accusations of selfishness.
Don’t imagine for a heartbeat that my peers and leaders took my struggle toward consciousness with grace.
I don’t think Christian culture deals well with people asserting themselves or their needs or standing apart from the herd. Indeed, I represented a threat to the entire hierarchy.
Thus, my tribe needed to deal with me with swiftly and decisively.
What “Selfish” Really Means, in Christianese.
Nothing about the Christian concept of self-sacrifice is really healthy, taken to extremes (but then, what is?). Over time I saw that people-pleasing looked a lot like codependence and that I was slowly losing myself, drowning in a sea of others’ needs and wants–many conflicting and contradictory, many impossible to fulfill without hurting myself emotionally or physically. Like many Christian women, I couldn’t refuse demands on my time, body, or emotions without incurring serious penalties from the tribe. No street-legal ways existed to do it.
More than that, though, when a Christian reprimands someone for not people-pleasing enough, some complex power dynamics are at work. The people doing the reprimanding consider themselves to be in a superior position compared to the person they seek to control. The accusation itself functions as their pointed reminder of the proper social order–as well as representing a demand for compliance.
As for myself, as for my own needs, my leaders taught me to lean on “Jesus” to help me meet everybody else’s needs and still somehow scrape through without losing my mind.
But Jesus was nowhere to be found.
Slowly I began to assert myself.
Those around me were startled and didn’t like it–Biff especially–but it got easier and easier every time to refuse their demands.
Soon enough, I began to laugh at those who denounced me as “selfish,” since I’d already worked out the secret code behind that accusation. It was painfully obvious to me at that point that I was being manipulated and controlled! I already knew that if I gave and gave and gave, those around me would happily take and take and take till I’d withered clean away–simply because they could.
See, not only was “Jesus” not magically making it possible for me to give past my capacity, he also wasn’t stopping anybody from taking advantage of me. Even worse, I’d been promised many times that if I became a people-pleaser that I’d be treated well and protected by my leaders and husband. In lived reality, I discovered that the opposite was what actually happened.
People don’t value what’s given to them for free; they learn to treat with contempt those who don’t treat themselves with respect.
Who’d’a thunk that the only person watching out for me was me?–And that if I wasn’t doing the job, then nobody else was going to do it for me?
Color me shocked!
The Failure of People Pleasing.
I wasn’t buying my way into emotional safety or impressing anybody with how incredibly nice and sweet I was. Instead, I was just turning into a doormat and wasting my finite lifetime giving myself a serious psychological disorder to benefit people who only cared about what I could do for them.
I’d focused so much on being a “helpmeet” that I barely had any idea who I was when I deconverted or what I enjoyed or wanted from my life.
Christianity had taught me my entire life that my value lay in how others valued me. Finding my own value and learning to set limits on what I could and couldn’t do for others was difficult, but I got there in the end through trial and error–and despite everything Christianity put in my way to stop me.
Now I know: if people ask me to do something and then accuse me of selfishness if I refuse, then I made the right decision.
Now I know: nobody possesses a right or expectation to my time, resources, or energy.
And now I know: it’s okay to take time for myself, to assert my needs, to ask for help, to say I’m overextended, or to object to unfair or poor treatment.
And At Last: Moving Past People Pleasing.
I still like serving others and do so often–ironically, probably more than I did as a Christian and with a more joyous heart. Now, however, I do it on my own terms and with my own abilities and time constraints in mind.
Could I have figured out how to do that even as a Christian? Sure, maybe in some other flavor of the religion. I’m sure lots of Christians manage the trick. However, a sizeable culture within Christianity praises self-sacrifice to the point where people get threatened with Hell if they don’t comply. And it’s a testament to how non-divine and non-benevolent the religion itself is, in my opinion, that Christianity doesn’t grant more compassionate Christians any tools at all to put a hard brake on their abusive peers and leaders.
That culture is so pervasive and that expectation is so harmful that when people escape religion, they often discover that their journey has only just begun. There’s so much to learn past that first conclusion!
And our growth, like that of children, often begins with that little tiny word that parents often dread, that word that establishes boundaries and declares the existence and borders of self against the sea of not-self:
NEXT UP: THANKSGIVING SOOOOOPER SPESHUL! See you soon!
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