Overcoming the Pleaser Identity

As I Was Saying

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Having grown up as a favorite child in the family and an over-achieving student in school, I have depended on others’ approval. Coming to Christ reoriented my identity as a child of God, but the “pleaser” identity still lurked.

In the early years after my conversion, I opened up to others in church and cared deeply about what they thought of me. I rarely said no to tasks requested of me at church. I yearned for the approval of my pastor. This gradually became the comfort zone of my newfound Christian identity. So along the way, without knowing it, my inexhaustible need for affirmation from church members has almost become an addiction.

Recently, I have needed to speak up against abuse of power in the church, and quickly, I was brought face-to-face with this long-held pleaser identity of mine. In circumstances that require truth-telling, I found it most difficult to overcome this old tendency.

I feared saying no in church. I feared people’s disapproval. I feared being seen as a divisive element to Christian unity. Such a fear can become debilitating. As I looked into the inner abyss of my soul, I saw an unfree self, chained together with an old friend, the pleaser identity.

In many moments of private meditations, I often thought of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In this famous tragedy, the youngest daughter Cordelia refused to proclaim her love for the father just to get her part of the kingdom. Contrary to her two elderly sisters who boasted and bragged about their love for King Lear, Cordelia chose to remain silent. She refused to please her father just to get the inheritance.

Cordelia refused to be a pleaser, even though her love for King Lear was later proven to be most authentic. In fact, it was in that moment of refusal that she was guarding the authenticity of her love. She also refused to go along with others’ expectations. By doing that, she was guarding her free self.

Likewise, overcoming the pleaser identity is part of spiritual formation as a Christian matures toward his or her authentic and free self.

God puts us in situations where we have to let go of the pleaser identity. When churches enter into a phase of spiritual darkness where lies and falsehood spread wide, there is a temptation to succumb to it. I think of many #MeToo and #ChurchToo moments in the past year where silence often was the result of church members avoiding offending those in close-knit social networks and those in power.

The desire for external display of Christian unity might even contribute to the rise of such a pleaser identity among church members. As a result, most ironically, Christian groups today have become both controversy-adverse and controversy-laden. Or maybe it is because Christians tend to be too complicit in situations that require truth-telling and letting go of the need to please in the first place.

Sometimes we also need to rethink how we try to please God. Having seen many examples of excessive display of Christian devotion despite unethical practices, I became more alert. I say this as a personal struggle, not as a cynic.

And I do not attempt to generalize to everyone. Those excessive displays can be honest. In scripture, even David shouted, “Lord, I love you,” so passionately in the Psalms. He also danced like a child while expressing his love of God in public, despite the mocking of his own wife.

To me, what the pleaser identity brings about, either on a personal level or a collective level, is also about the intricate combination of our assured identity in Christ and a sense of constant restlessness in our spiritual journey. Both are realities in our human journey of wading through trials that test out our authenticity and faithfulness to God.

About the Author

Mary Li Ma, Ph.D., is a research fellow at Calvin University. She is a member of Plymouth Heights CRC church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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