Perfectionists. People Pleasers.
Some will immediately relate to these labels, and some maybe not so much. Yet most people I work with exhibit at least some of these traits, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. For the perfectionists, it may come as an almost badge of honor. A commitment they’ve made to themselves to do everything the best they can, without fail, in every single category of their life. The people pleasers may not be as satisfied with that title. But they also understand it as a necessary skill to function in their lives, and as a way to get along with the people around them.
But what happens when life falls apart? Expectations for ourselves often remain the same, but how can they when EVERY SINGLE THING in life has changed? Do these old habits and old roles still work?
Let’s start by understanding what it really means to be a perfectionist or a people pleaser. While I work with (and know personally) plenty of people who possess both tendencies, there’s nothing saying that one has to go with the other. In order to understand where you may fit, it’s important to explore each on their own first.
There are a lot of perfectionists in this world.
It can show up in the way a person interacts with others, or how they keep themselves or their home. As a result, a standard and expectation becomes set and it can be very hard to do anything without having to do it really well, all the time.
People pleasers are a little different.
This behavior often comes from childhood, and is a learned response to safety and inclusivity with the world and people around us. People pleasers put others’ needs ahead of their own and for the most part, they’re doing this to the extreme.
So why does it matter in grief?
First: it’s not sustainable. The old habits and old ways of doing things only work when everything else in life is going okay. Next, competing with your “old self” will only create a greater contrast of who you are now, compared to who you used to be. This can add to the intense pressure, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty that a griever is feeling on a daily basis.
The problem with perfectionists and grief.
If you have always tried to do everything “right”, you may already be used to some of the pressure and stress that comes with it. But now you’ve had a significant loss, and you’re likely experiencing a level of stress that you never have before. You can barely think straight. How can you be expected to do the “right thing” when NOTHING feels right anymore?
In grief, being a perfectionist can actually equate to something that most would feel is far from perfect = procrastination. Decision making is a huge task in grief and if the old habits of perfectionism continue, a griever may find themselves making no decisions at all. The fear of doing the “wrong” thing may leave you feeling stuck, even hopeless.
Diminished self-esteem is also a huge concern for any griever, and if you feel that you are constantly falling short, your image and self worth will only sink lower.
The reason why people-pleasing tendencies can’t continue.
Unlike the perfectionists who are trying to make things just right in their own lives, people pleasers are trying to do it for everyone else instead. Here’s the problem when it comes to life after loss – a griever doesn’t even know what they need or how to make themselves feel any peace. So how can they be expected to anticipate the needs of anyone else?
It doesn’t help that some of the biggest challenges in grief come from those around you. Whether it’s in the form of real or perceived expectations, most people feel very disconnected from their loved ones following loss. Managing the emotions and needs of others takes the kind of higher-order thinking that a person in grief just doesn’t have access to. And for most it’s not a case of not wanting to be a help or support to others. They just may feel that they no longer can.
How to stop being a perfectionist or people pleaser today.
I often make comparisons to physical health when describing grief. When it comes to our physical health, we are much more understanding of what we can and can’t do. If you have a broken arm, you would never expect to be able to help a friend move their couch. And your friend wouldn’t ask you to.
But what about the brokenness that comes with grief? Can we take a more honest look at what we actually can and can’t do emotionally? And can we start reframing our interactions with ourselves and others accordingly?
This is where change begins.
First, in observation. Watch yourself and your thoughts. What are your expectations for yourself? Consider what old instincts are kicking in and how often you are telling yourself that you “should” be doing something. And then consider the reality of whether you really can (or want to).
Next, in practice. You’ve got to start somewhere. If you’re a perfectionist and worried about how clean the house is (or isn’t), consider changing your standards. For now. Maybe at some point you’ll decide to go back to having the cleanest house on the block. But for now that just may not be something you have the energy for. Grief is exhausting. Use your energy wisely.
What about my friends and family?
How will they react if I’m no longer a perfectionist or people pleaser? We all know what we expect from ourselves, but we can’t deny that the people in our lives are probably expecting a lot too. Especially with the passage of time. It’s all well and good for me to give you permission to put a greater focus on yourself and your needs, but will the people around you allow for the same grace? Especially with each day that passes since your loss?
Start by giving yourself permission and know that in a lot of ways, that will be the hardest part. Validate every single reason why you can’t or don’t want to hold yourself to the same expectations as before. And give yourself permission to only do or commit to what you can.
The people around you may need time to adapt, and that’s okay. Communicate. Don’t apologize. If they’re asking, let them know what this process is like for you. And why you need to make some changes in order to survive.
In the end, this grief is your business.
No one else gets to decide what you need in grief. It’s important to remind yourself (regularly!) that you’re doing the best you can. And when you’re feeling like that best isn’t so great, know that how you feel now isn’t how you’ll always feel. Grief is always changing and your needs, wants, limitations, and abilities will all change with it.
For all the perfectionists and people pleasers in this world, I leave you with this. If you’re going to please anyone right now, try pleasing yourself first. Find peace and comfort in little moments whenever you can. And remember that these tendencies were never good for you to begin with. There’s some real growth that can come out of the brokenness of loss. Start today by resetting the expectations you have for yourself, and find growth and perhaps a new strength, in the healing that follows.
Need help? Perfectionists and people pleasers may find they need some guidance in making these big changes. Remember, more support can be found here…