How to Love Mindfully When You’re a Socially Anxious People-Pleaser

Relaxation

“It’s okay to care about what people think. Just know there’s a difference between valuing someone’s opinion and needing their approval.” ~Lori Deschene

My date—an attractive student in her twenties—talked away excitedly, but all I could think of was this:

“How can I make her like me?”
“How can I impress her?”
“How can I make her laugh?”

I agonized over every word that I said, every response from her, every moment of our interaction, and I poured every single detail that I could find—or imagine—under the microscope of my mind… and all of a sudden, the date was over!

As we said goodbyes and as I walked out of the cafe, I recalled the conversation. Wait. What did we talk about? What did I say?

To my horror, all I could remember were my anxiety-filled thoughts. I said the wrong thing! She frowned! I mumbled! It got even more awkward!

At that very moment, I felt trapped in a hell of my own. And I had no idea how I’d ever get out.

For years, I would remain stuck in the seemingly eternal loop of social anxiety and romantic failure.

I was mostly unsuccessful in sparking new romantic connections. Even if there were sparks of chemistry, they fizzled out by the end of the first date.

And when I did have a girlfriend? I sacrificed my needs to please her in any way possible, which led to me eventually resenting the relationship and lashing out (which I’m not proud of at all.)

Desperate for change, I embarked on a multi-year journey of learning and reflection…

I read dozens of books on relationships and communication. Took multiple mindfulness courses. Journaled and meditated daily. Sought advice from a therapist.

After four years, here are the four things I’ve learned about loving mindfully, with less worry.

Loving mindfully is about accepting your insecurities.

Whether it’s feeling not successful enough, not rich enough, not smart enough, or not attractive enough.

What’s your biggest insecurity?

That might just be at the heart of your social anxiety. And when you’re socially anxious, you’re more sensitive toward judgment—especially if it’s about your deepest insecurities.

For example, if you’re feeling insecure about your looks, a passing comment on your pimple might feel like they are critiquing your entire appearance. The anxiety amplifies the criticism, making it a lot louder and stronger in your mind.

The stakes? When you aren’t aware and accepting of your insecurities, they can shape the entire dynamic of your romantic relationship. When you don’t feel worthy of love, you might engage in excessive people-pleasing and even hide your true personality

Tara Brach, a celebrated clinical psychologist and meditation teacher, calls this the Trance of Unworthiness. In her words:

“Basically, the familiar message is, “Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are.”…

When in this trance, we are living in an imprisoning perception of who we are. When strong, our beliefs and feelings of deficiency prevent us from being intimate and authentic with anyone; we sense that we are intrinsically flawed and others will find out. Because the fear of failure is constant, it is difficult to lay down our hyper-vigilance and just relax. Instead, we are consumed with hiding our flaws and/or trying to be a better person.”

My biggest insecurity was—and still is—that I’m not successful enough. As a result, I’d say and buy things to please my partner, since I felt that I had to “win” their affection and make up for my inadequacy. When I shared this with Raz, a close friend of mine, she said something profound:

“You can still date while becoming more successful.”

The power of what she said is psychological flexibility: accepting your insecurity and your desire to improve, without shying away from romance. Rather than an “either… or…” story, you focus on a  “this… and… that…” story instead.

Loving mindfully is about accepting disagreement and disappointment.

For socially anxious people-pleasers like me, disagreement and disappointment can feel like relationship-ending threats. If your partner or date disagrees with you, you might see it as a sign that they dislike you, or that you need to change your opinion.

For example, if you love dancing and your date says, “Nah, I would never try dancing,” you might start thinking, “Are they hinting that we aren’t a good match?” You might even backtrack on what you said: “Actually, I don’t like dancing that much.”

As a result of your fear of disagreement and disappointment, you avoid conflict and you often become overly accommodating. Over time, you lose your sense of self in a relationship. You’re no longer the full, vibrant you, and that’s a tragedy, isn’t it?

I know all this too well, because this was my default mode of interaction for years. Rather than being an equal romantic partner, I became a servant to my partner’s needs and preferences. Now, I’m learning to be okay with letting others down and accept that I will feel bad doing so.

The truth is, even the best relationships experience disagreement and disappointment. And the reason is simple: no one can 100 percent agree with each other or meet each other’s needs all the time.

Loving mindfully is about accepting and respecting their choices.

Here’s how Hailey Magee, a codependency recovery coach, defines codependency:

“Codependent relationships exist between partners who rely predominantly on each other for their sense of value or purpose. People in codependent relationships tend to neglect themselves while over-prioritizing their partners’ values, needs, and dreams. The result? A painful and tangible loss of self.”

Sounds kind of like people-pleasing, if you ask me.

In fact—based on my experience, at least—there’s a lot of overlap between people-pleasing and codependency. When you’re a people-pleaser, you put your romantic partner’s needs above yours, and your happiness depends on their happiness.

In my case, I took excessive responsibility for my girlfriend’s feelings and problems. If anything wasn’t going right in her life, I tended to assume fault and went out of my way to make her feel better.

Over time, I learned that love isn’t about helping your partner solve their problems or feel good all the time. It’s about this instead: support and encourage them as needed, but never become their babysitter. What does that mean? ”

  • Not “fixing their feelings” (as Dr. Aziz Gazipura, a clinical psychologist, would say. I highly recommend learning from him, by the way.)
  • Not giving unsolicited advice (a telling phrase is “you should…”)
  • Not making their decisions on their behalf

Loving mindfully is about accepting the possibility of breakup.

When your partner breaks up with you, it can feel like a blow to your ego—that you’re not as desirable or lovable as you thought. To many, it’s the ultimate form of rejection. You might be so afraid of a potential breakup that you spend all your time with your partner looking for signs it might be coming and trying to prevent it—and then you might end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy,

You might also end up settling for a good-but-not-great relationship. As Eliora Porter, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, suggested:

“…socially anxious individuals may be more inclined to stay in a less than optimal relationship for fear of having difficulty finding a new partner if they were to end the relationship.”

So how do you accept the painful possibility that your relationship might end one day? Accept that a relationship doesn’t have to be permanent to be successful. Even if it doesn’t last forever, you can enjoy each other’s company and help each other learn and grow. Adopting this mindset will enable you to get out of your head and appreciate the relationship for what is in the moment.

Also, see the silver lining in heartbreak. When a relationship ends because you weren’t a good fit, it gives you another chance to find a better match.

In the past, I stayed in unsatisfying relationships for much longer than I wanted to, as I was scared that I’d never find someone else. So, what changed my mind? Going on Tinder when I was newly single and getting more matches than I thought I would. That made me realize that “hey, I’m not that unattractive after all.”

To sum it all up, mindful love is about:

  • Accepting your insecurities.
  • Accepting disagreement and disappointment.
  • Accepting and respecting their choices.
  • Accepting the possibility of breakup.

And above all…

Mindful love is a dance between your needs and your partner’s.

While you balance both with empathy, you’re always acting from a foundation of self-awareness and compassion—and that’s what gives you the strength in any relationship.

About Ian Chew

Ian Chew is the founder of Deeper Conversations. Despite his social anxiety, he’s had conversations with over 10,000 people, and he’s been featured by top media outlets like CBC, Inc. Magazine, and TEDx.

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