Sunday, March 7, 2010

Coat of Many Colors

I read that in interviews that the French writer Romain Gary often told a story about a chameleon being put on a succession of different-colored cloths. The chameleon changed color effortlessly until it ended up on Scotch plaid and went insane.

I thought it sounded like a good allegory for how I got to Al-Anon.

I always had a hard time relating to people who shared about people pleasing. I couldn’t even relate to the term. PP sounded like something you trained young kids to do on the toilet.

Surely, I was too selfish to fall into that category. I thought of myself first. Made sure I got my needs met. Had this whole self-care routine. The only person I tried to please was myself.

Until I met a man.

When I met a man, I was all about what he liked. If he liked to two-step, I liked to two step. If he liked to drink beer, I liked to drink beer. If he read science fiction, I read science fiction.

I came across a line in a book recently that reminded me of this. It said, “I’m a vacuum filled with the folks I’m with.”

For a long time, I didn’t even see that I was doing this. Then, when I did, I didn’t see it as people pleasing, because I believed I did it because I wanted to.

It never lasted, of course. Eventually, I would resent the target of my affections for “making me” give up everything I enjoyed. Then I would swing 180 degrees the other way and insist that everything be my way. I’d pick fights to sabotage the relationship or just break things off and move on.

No doubt, I left a lot of bewilderment in my wake. Because no one ever asked me to give up a single thing. It was all me.

I even did this with my husband, with whom I’ve had the longest-lasting, most healthy relationship of my life.

When I think of the things I used to do to please him early in our marriage, I think I must have been insane. Once a week, on a weeknight, we hosted a dinner party for six or eight. I was working full-time, of course. I would go to the grocery store on my lunch hour and buy provisions, then come home and prepare elaborate, made-from-scratch meals because I thought everything had to be perfect, homemade and awe-inspiring.

We had beautiful gardens, both front and back, filled with potted flowers that had to be watered and deadheaded twice a day. I spent about two hours a day on the gardens. I did enjoy them, but they wore me out. My husband would tell people that the gardens were a lot of work, but I didn’t seem to mind doing it. I’d just smile.

I watched TV at night because my husband did, even though I preferred to read.

I did everything around my husband's schedule. If he got up earlier than usual, I cut my exercise routine short to accommodate him. God forbid if he had to wait five minutes for me to be ready. If he did, I was all apologies. When I started going to Al-Anon, I tried to arrange my schedule so it would not affect his.

Little by little, I re-claimed my life. I learned I didn’t have to say yes to everything. I began to say, “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have 10 people for a dinner party this Tuesday.” But sometimes we have two people, or four, we know well, for a casual dinner.

I do enjoy hosting a really fine dinner party on occasion, maybe once or twice a year. But I no longer feel I need to make every dinner a big production. I’ve learned to keep things simple. In fact, this is what my husband always advocated.

We now have fewer flowers and more plants, all on a drip system.

The table next to my spot on the couch now has a lamp, so when my husband watches TV, I can read.

Now, when my husband wakes up early, I don’t cut short my routine. I don’t even know whether he’s up or not. I shut the door to the exercise room. I do what I need to do, then I come down for breakfast. Sometimes he waits for me. But I try not to keep him waiting too long.

Today, instead of having everything my own way, I try to meet him in the middle. Neither of us gets our way entirely. But we both get our needs met. We’ve settled into our life together. It’s a good life, and we are happy.


  1. You told my story today. Little by little, I got in the practice of stopping and asking myself good questions. Is this what I really want to do. What is my motive? Am I expecting approval? It this adding to my life? Amazing what just stopping and thinking can do for me. It took me a long time and I still have to be vigilant but my life is more my life now than ever.


  2. Thank you for this good message,I enjoyed reading it.what you described is a great recipe for a healthy relationship.Give and Take I learned that in A.A..

  3. You say "Today, instead of having everything my own way, I try to meet him in the middle. Neither of us gets our way entirely. But we both get our needs met." That is it in a nutshell. Right on. Living with someone and wanting the relationship to work, we do think of the other person. But it does not take over our entire life. I had to learn to say no to my hubby and it has taken awhile but I don't feel guilty any longer. In the early years with him I would accommodate his schedule and stop what I was doing to do something "with him" thinking it was the right thing to do. We are both much happier with the open honest life we live today. Sounds like you are too. Hugs.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story. It's always amazing to me how sharing like this is just holding up a mirror....

    When I started going to CoDA, I did just as you described. I put off attending a meeting for eight months after I started looking into it because there were no meetings at times that I was certain my husband or children would not be home.
    It took six months of attending meetings for me to get comfortable with saying "no, I can't go out that night because I have a meeting" or "You will have to find a ride home from practice because I have a meeting."

    Today, I feel more like a "real" person. I have a life! What a concept.

  5. Last night my husband and I sat on the couch together, him watching tv, flipping through the channels which drives me nuts, him rubbing my feet which makes up for the channel flipping...with the dog snuggled in between us, and me reading my book. I thought, "This will be our old age. I am so glad that we both have learned to do what works for us. Thanks for sharing...a great post.

  6. ..we usually put this pressure on ourselves.. and than we get mad at others when we get tired of all this pressure.. lol. I know... I done the same. :) You sound great now...!!!

  7. What awesome growth!
    Sometimes I say my life is so hard b/c of my own mind - my mind makes my life so much harder to get through than it is in actuality.
    Since starting Al-Anon I have been working SO hard to stop people-pleasing (now that I have also identified that is what I do!). I can also relate the the chameleon - interesting.
    Thanks for sharing your growth experience :)
    God bless.

  8. I found your blog because of a Google alert for my blog. I've been a grateful member of Al-Anon for several years, and your story resonated with me. I'll be back!

  9. Nail on the head once again Kathy. "I’m a vacuum filled with the folks I’m with.” Could this be said any better? And snap to start resenting the man for 'wanting me to give up everything that is me' when it has been me all along. Shivers!
    As you said, no one has asked me to give up anything, and still my life feels like an empty shell I have just returned to, and empty shell that is no longer fully alive. One step at a time I have to learn to feel myself, to remember to feel anything at all.

  10. wow, kathy, what an awesome post! so inspiring. and so illuminating. i know i have problems with people-pleasing. but how specific you were helped illuminate for me many things i do and ways i behave that i had not connected all the dots together with people-pleasing. thank you for sharing this. and i'm so glad for you that you no longer deny yourself, and bend to fit the other person. i'm so inspired to see you living as you do. thank you~