Losing the Plan of Your Life

Others’ opinions of you can be funhouse mirrors.

Posted Dec 27, 2017

If it ever happens that you turn outward to want to please another, certainly you have lost your plan of life—Epictetus (c 50 CE-130 CE)

There is something quite right in what Epictetus claims. When you become too much of a people pleaser and too much of what you do aims at currying the favor of others, you lose your direction in life. When turning “outward to want to please another” becomes habitual, the opinions of others matter more than your own opinion of yourself. More to the point, you may not really have an opinion of yourself; you hold others’ opinions as your own.  You become a reflection of their views.

The problem with reflections is that they are always inaccurate; they are distortions. Mirrors provide good examples and funhouse mirrors the most obvious because they have the greatest curves. A concave mirror curves inward, making a reflection appear short and wide. A convex mirror curves outward, stretching the image tall and thin. The greater the curve, the greater the distortion. Convex mirrors are more likely to be hung in fitting rooms at clothing stores, which explains why pieces of clothing look so different once you get home where you most likely have a plane or flat mirror. A plane mirror provides a more accurately sized and proportioned image but it is backwards.

The persistent people pleaser internalizes these reflections and takes them as accurate. It is hard to have a plan of life based on funhouse mirrors. When you give others the power to chart your course by influencing your opinion of yourself, you cede over a crucial dimension of your autonomy. The danger is that most people do not realize they are losing their autonomy; its loss can happen slowly over time choice by choice.  As the philosopher Kierkegaard (1813-1855) notes, “the greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any loss—an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc—is sure to be noticed.”

The challenge is noticing the loss when everyone—including you yourself—is aiding and abetting that loss. You may catch glimpses that are sporadic and fleeting but enable you to see the distortions as distortions. Even for a brief moment, you may see both the possibility and reality of being different from how other people view you. You interrupt that quiet loss.

We do need to put some limits on Epictetus’s claim, however. As social creatures who are both dependent on and interdependent with others, pleasing others must play some role in our lives. The difficulties are identifying the right sort of others whom we want or ought to please and striking the balance between pleasing those others but not ceding over too much authority over us.

We often make mistakes about the people whom we want to please; we need to learn from them. Part of maturing is coming to recognize the moral traits and values we want to embody. What we value at the age of 20 will be very different from what we value at 50, 75, and 95. The types of people and relationships we have in our lives will change as well as the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been tracking for more than 75 years in a group of men and their families.

Striking the balance between wanting to please others and maintaining our autonomy is difficult but unavoidable. As Montaigne (1533-1592) astutely notes

Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of contrary things, also of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud….[A musician] must know how to use them together and blend them….Our existence is impossible without this mixture, and one element is no less necessary for it than another. To kick against natural necessity is to imitate the folly of Ctesiphon, who undertook a kicking match with his mule.

Pleasing others and maintaining autonomy are natural and social necessities; they enable us to navigate the world and relationships with some success. To reject habitually one in favor of the other is to undertake the kicking contest with the mule. In this contest, the object being kicked is you.  While you are busy kicking yourself, the mule is kicking you too.  

Afterword:

There are undeniable gender dimensions to the balance of pleasing others and maintaining autonomy. In a culture that expects women who are wives and mothers to always be caring to the point of self-sacrificing, for example, there will be consequences for those who chafe against these expectations. That many women internalize them provides even more torment; they will be their own judge and jury. This may only further the distortions and accelerate the loss of self. The greater the imbalance, the harder it is to recognize, never mind reset.