One of the things I have discovered in recovery is that I am a people pleaser and a chameleon. After years in recovery and in therapy, I can tell you all of the reasons why and how these traits used to serve me. The short version is that I was raised to believe dissent equated to a lack of loyalty. Contorting myself to please others no longer serves me. Instead, people-pleasing and being a chameleon finally led me to a place where I had no choice but to start stepping into my own ideas and opinions.
The interesting thing about being a chameleon and a people pleaser is that you don’t do research or gather data to formulate your position on a particular topic. You rely on others to create your opinions. Sometimes, you rely on people you know, like coworkers, friends, or even acquaintances. Other times, you depend on the opinions of public figures or influencers. You do not hold space for yourself to take in information and make an informed decision. Whatever you do, you don’t go out on a limb and commit to your own opinion. Remember, it’s easier to agree with other people (until it isn’t).
A People Pleaser at a Fork in the Road
My people-pleasing chameleon turned in on itself in 2020 and I found myself at a fork in the road. I first encountered Holly Whitaker while listening to Melissa Urban’s Do The Thing podcast and I remember enjoying the podcast. Later I saw that Melissa had recommended Holly’s book, Quit Like a Woman. The next time I heard about the book, a friend in recovery was sharing Veronica Vallis’s response to Holly’s “The Patriarchy of Alcoholics Anonymous”, an opinion piece in The New York Times. Let’s just say that Veronica Valli and my friend were not big fans of Holly’s perspective on AA. The people-pleaser in me was conflicted and didn’t know who to believe.
Not only have I been following Melissa Urban and the Whole30 since 2013, but I am a Whole30 Certified Coach. If Melissa Urban was endorsing this book, I had to like it. On the other hand, AA saved my life, so if Holly Whitaker was trashing AA, how could I like it? I downloaded the book, burning pitchfork in hand, ready to be part of the AA mob that was pounding at the gates.
As you might expect, I hated it. I nearly punched my own dashboard at some of the things she said. So I returned it. I also told anyone I could why I hated the book. At the same time, I downloaded Laura McKowen’s We Are the Luckiest. It was the warm hug that I needed and gently prodded me into realizing that alcohol and drugs weren’t my only things. I had more work to do.
Discovering My Opinion
Fast forward a few months and I realize that not only am I following Holly on Instagram, but I like a lot of what she has to say. As an avid listener of The Shair Recovery Podcast, I find myself listening to her interview and again liking what she had to say. I also found myself facing a situation in my own recovery that made me recall some of what I heard her say in her book. The very patriarchy she referenced was standing in front of me, pointing his finger at me and telling me to toe the party line to the detriment of my own recovery. The irony of another person in recovery demanding that I align my opinion with theirs, just as my parents had required, is not lost on me.
Dammit! Maybe she had a point?
I went back and read the book. I still don’t agree with everything she writes. There was no eating kale or doing yoga in my drinking days. Seriously though, I don’t agree with it all, but I respect her putting herself out there, telling her truth and asking us to think. Taking on big institutions like AA and the liquor industry in one book is bold. As I reread the book, I realized that it was not a choice between burning her book or making it my Bible. Middle ground does exist. It also wasn’t about swearing allegiance to others. I don’t owe anyone my opinion.
Instead, it was about me taking in information, processing it, and deciding what I thought. And, in the end, I have to agree that we’ve been asking the wrong question for too long. My identity does not have to be rooted in the word alcoholic. Nor should my questioning of the term indicate that my sobriety is in danger. My recovery is not meant to be people-pleasing.
It’s Not about People Pleasing
Podcasters, authors, and other public figures present information based on their own perspectives, experiences, opinions, and interpretations of the facts. So do the people in our lives. It’s really all any of us can do. What I learned from my crisis of whose recommendation to take is that I have to look within myself to see what I think and believe. Forming opinions has nothing to do with people-pleasing or loyalty to others. Instead, it’s about being true to ourselves.
Others’ experiences don’t invalidate mine, but a willingness to question my own beliefs is key. Somone’s bad experience in AA does not negate that AA saved my life. On the other hand, AA’s saving my life does not mean that I have taken an oath to never re-examine how it functions and its role in my life. Most importantly, I’ve learned that someone’s honest and open sharing of their experiences is normally not meant to shame or condemn others. Let’s face it, all any of us really have is our life experiences and who am I to tell you that yours are wrong?
A Side Note About Alcoholics Anonymous
Overall, I believe that institutions become dangerous when the goal becomes preservation over all else. We’ve seen it play out time and again in the headlines – the Catholic Church, Pennsylvania State University football, the American women’s gymnastics team; the examples are endless. Still, when an institution I believe in seemed to be under attack, I was right there ready to circle the wagons and keep out the intruder. It’s much easier to be skeptical and critical of institutions I’m not attached to in a personal way. I still believe that AA saves lives, but that doesn’t mean it is above reproach. A faulty life raft is better than drowning, but that doesn’t mean repairs should not be made.
And, to use something I learned within the AA rooms – if we’re collectively pointing our fingers to those on the outside, there are a lot of fingers pointing back at ourselves. Perhaps there is some sliver of truth in Holly Whitaker’s observations that hits too close to home.
All of this learning around how I view recovery and the recovery community has provided me with lessons for dealing with much of the world around me. I have learned that it’s not anyone else’s job to spoonfeed me information. Instead, it is my responsibility to seek out learning. There is a hidden blessing in not relying on others to do the research for me. It provides me with the opportunity to interpret information through my eyes and that is powerful. None of this means that I don’t ask for or consider recommendations. I do love to hear how others view the world but I no longer listen with the goal of people-pleasing. Instead, I know that it’s my own internal compass on which I must rely. It’s just like Dr. Seuss taught me so many years ago.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
Dr. Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go!