Am I Pleasing Others to Make Myself Feel Loved and Good?

Steve Goodheart Essay

The path of awakening, of liberation, always includes self-observation and self-inquiry. Without them, we tend to repeat the same unskillful ways of thinking and acting over and over again. That’s what is called samsara in Buddhism.

In this essay I’m sharing my thoughts and observations on something I’ve struggled with much of my life: a compulsive need to please others in order to feel good about myself. Using what I’m learning from the Buddha’s teachings, I am developing the skill of catching myself right at the moment I begin to do this habitual behavior so I don’t act it out.

Part of me knows that unless I feel genuinely good about myself, it will finally make little difference if I feel good about myself because someone else likes what I did. This sense of self-worth is ephemeral, dependent on another, and can vanish in a moment if another rejects, ignores, of disapproves of the effort to please or make them happy. (And often, if the other person senses you are doing something merely for approval, or to look good in their eyes, they will consciously or unconsciously have aversion to that motive.  They will sense the clinging and attachment involved in what is being done “for” them, but that is really, for ourselves, to make ourselves feel good or approved of.)

Catching  Yourself in the Moment An Urge Arises

So here’s what I’ve been practicing. The Buddha points out many times how important it is to catch the beginning or arising of some thought or feeling and to arrest it and look into it, bringing it to a halt before it mindlessly cascades into actions.  (This is what kamma, or karma, is all about.)

So first, I establish the intent and aspiration to catch my habitual pattern of wanting to please others. (And I try to love and cherish this aspiration with all my heart.  Also, I want to stop suffering!)  Cherishing this aspiration, when I notice the urge arising to do something for another, I stop. I get in contact with my breath and center and smile to myself.

When I am quiet and present, I then look and see what is really going on. I look to see if there is the desire to please another, to placate another, to deflect another, perhaps because we are afraid of them. I look to see if my desire to do something is selfless, open, and free, or if it comes from a lack of self worth, or nervousness about being myself, or just for stimulus and response, like a kind of drug.

See What Arises But Don’t Judge or Condemn Yourself

If through mindfulness and attention, I see these other motives, I do not reject them, or fall into self-condemnation or self-loathing. Rather, I see them just as they are—as something arising out of my present sense of self and the past conditioning that created this present sense of self. These motivations are not inherent; they are not a permanent part of my nature. They are fabrications that come as “me,” as “I”, as “mine,” that are truly not-self. They do not really say anything true about me or real about me other than I am habitually identifying with them as myself.

If I can see this not-self nature of my less-than-healthy motivations to feel good about myself, then usually a great compassion arises in me. This compassion is for myself—for my humanity, my frailty, my inexperience, for my hungry needs that I can’t take very good care of much of the time. I see that I need to stop hating and condemning myself for the things in me I don’t like, or even despise, and to start truly loving myself, right where I am, warts and all, so to speak.

This kind of love, which in a certain sense is impersonal, because it’s not dependent on anything, and just is, does not ignore what needs to be let go of or unidentified with. Rather this kind of love holds the whole human being in its arms, without question and without objection. Like a mother tenderly holding a child, this self-less love hold one in compassion, with a great wisdom that deeply understands how hard life is, how much we suffer from thoughts and feelings we identify with, and how hard it is to just be a human being.

The Importance of Metta, Loving-Kindness in Deep Self-Inquiry

This kind of love is called metta or maitre in Buddhism, and is rightfully called one of the divine abidings. To abide in selfless or unselfed love is truly divine, a taste of release from the suffering that comes from what we ignorantly or willfully cling to as “I” and “me” and “mine.” While metta, or loving-kindness meditation is a practice of its own, I have often found that the deep concentration and insight of Buddhist meditation often brings such pain and suffering to light, that I have to stop and do this loving-kindness work for myself. There’s nothing wrong with this if you have to do it!

You aren’t spoiling your meditation by stopping to do metta, nor are you spoiling your loving-kindness work if you stop to really look deeply to something that arises while doing metta. I see metta and meditation as two wings of the dharma, so to speak. You need both wings to fly, to soar. If one neglects, or resists, either wing, our progress will not be as swift, and we will tend to flutter around and wonder why we aren’t doing better.

Finally, to me, the distinction between love and wisdom, between loving-kindness and insight, is artificial, even bogus. Distinctions are of course important in order to learn a skill or understand how something works. But the deeper one goes into the dharma, the more one sees the unity of these various skills. You see how they all inter-are, as my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh likes to say. Love has inter-being with insight. Compassion has inter-being with wisdom. Equanimity has inter-being with generosity of spirit. Sympathetic joy in the happiness of others has inter-being with selflessness.

Doing for Others Skillfully and with Love and Wisdom

This sharing of mine has broadened out from the initial problem of doing things to please others, but I hope this discussion shows how these skills and this loving, mindful approach could be used for anything we do that is causing us suffering in our lives. The big thing is to pay attention, to notice what we do, and then to stop, breathe, get quiet, and look into what’s going on. As we do this, arising compassion and loving-kindness help us “un-self” ourselves from what we identify with.

Doing good for others, I want to add, is a very natural and good thing, and is an integral part of the Buddhist path.  Another one of the “divine abidings” is dana, or generosity, and the ways of being generous, with wisdom, are endless.  What I’ve been talking about is motivation for doing good, and how to purify it and set it free from needfulness and lack of self-worth.

On this mindful, loving path, we can never really lose or fail. Everything teaches us, even what we see as failures.  And remember, the kind of unselfed love I’m pointing to never, ever, gives up on us. It just is. Through mindfulness and presence, this unselfed love can grow and grow, taking us all the way home to freedom.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

5 Responses to “Am I Pleasing Others to Make Myself Feel Loved and Good?”

  1. I always appreciate your posts Steven.
    I have put a link to your Blog on my Blog as I think your words can benefit so many.

  2. Another great post for me, Steven. Was just at a breathwork practitioner weekend, getting home last night, and this issue of other-pleasing and lack of loving kindness for self came up for me in the rebirthing pool – so your timing, as ever, is immaculate. Many thanks.

  3. Sarah Goodheart Reply 2011/02/19 at 9:34 PM

    Dear Steve,

    What a beautiful article! I can’t tell you how much it helps for you to write out each step you take in loving yourself through the slow process of stopping a habitual thought process or behavior pattern. And, even more importantly, you show how to change your way of thinking about yourself to a much more loving and compassionate view.

    We all have the tendency to want to use the “force of will,” to make any kind of change in ourselves, but that kind of thing does about as much for an adult as it can ever do for an actual child. You write about watching the undesired thoughts of self arise, then stopping and looking at them and seeing them for what they are, then having so much compassion for yourself for having them instead of condemning yourself. You can’t beat yourself up or into submission, that won’t CHANGE anything. The way of change is the way of love, of appreciating the reason, the need for the undesired way of being and how it got there in the first place.

    It reminds me of trying to communicate with a very difficult and trying person. Punching them in the face won’t help. Talking over them won’t help. Continuing to say what YOU mean will not help them understand your point of view. What WILL help you communicate is to see where the other person is coming from, to see the merit in their point of view, even if that merit seems very small or misguided. Appreciating even a kernel of merit in what someone else is saying can land with great import and meaningfulness to them. By the same token, seeing, for example, that in pleasing another person, one is experiencing some modicum of love and that one needs that love, is very important. It is important, not only to see, “WOW, I really need to find some source of love for myself,” but also to realize that, one way or another, one was trying to love oneself, to provide for oneself, when one had no clue as to how to take care of themselves.

    I believe that it is this recognition of the smallest bit of merit in even the most toxic way of seeing ourselves or habitual way of thinking or acting that allows us to release our hold of that way of seeing ourselves. It’s almost as if we’re seeing why we were holding on to acting that way, loving ourselves for trying to come up with some sort of solution when our resources for loving ourselves were very limited, and now it’s okay to let that old habit go. Now we have something better, more loving to supply to ourselves as a way of loving ourselves. But, I say from hard experience, one does not let go of the old ways, no matter how toxic, until one gets to the very root, the very inception of the toxic ways of thinking. These roots so often are the child’s way of looking at the world, so unschooled in the ways of humanity, yet trying so hard to provide the love that child desperately needed. And somehow it seems that only by acknowledging the very best motive of what that child-sense of love was trying to do, the love that child was trying to get, does one release the hold, the tie, to that toxic way of thinking or acting.

    So this is why, at point of doing the very needful thing of seeking love for oneself when one does not know how to provide that love for oneself, these words of yours, which were so beautiful I didn’t want to paraphrase, but rather just quote here, struck a chord deep in my heart:

    “Rather this kind of love holds the whole human being in its arms, without question and without objection. Like a mother tenderly holding a child, this self-less love holds one in compassion, with a great wisdom that deeply understands how hard life is, how much we suffer from thoughts and feelings we identify with, and how hard it is to just be a human being.”

    What I also loved about your article is how it can be applied toward any behavior or thoughts of worthlessness towards oneself that one wants to stop. It can be applied to any form of suffering. What your article is describing, and what is so amazing to me to see spelled out here so beautifully, is the hard, consistent work of love. Constant love, constantly taking the child in our arms, seeing the smallest bit of good, loving it, and then, as the adult that we all now are, bringing more love to ourselves. Seeing that even more important than the behavior we want to change is to bring the change in the way we are seeing ourselves. Because it is the lack of love in seeing ourselves that causes the pain that causes the behavior we wanted to change in the first place. So the point becomes now not to just change a behavior, but to learn how to hold ourselves in a loving embrace, the loving embrace that truly brings life and makes things grow.

    Thank you for the gift of your post, gassho, and namaste.

  4. Judy Worth Friedsam Reply 2011/02/19 at 2:23 PM

    first of all, what a phenomenal photograph Steven…..

    I too have felt the same regarding pleasing others..I would ask myself all the time, is this selfish of me ? Am I being nice to others simply because I want them to be nice to me ? Was I just clinging or holding onto them by means of making myself look good ?

    It took many years but I finally learned to change my seat in the garden. Sought out another view… My perception changed…and I was glad it did because what a horrible feeling thinking you are doing what you do for others just for their approval…

    When we study Buddha’s teachings about compassion and loving-kindness we are constantly reminded to not only show this to others but also to show it to ourselves ! I learned if I do not love, respect and care for myself, how then will I be able to love, respect, and care for others ? AND to please others without a motive or personal gain…

    Not only do I feel good about myself when pleasing others, or helping or teaching others, but they, I would hope, would feel good too ! Two for the price of one !



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