Does People Pleasing Lead to Holiness?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2520 describes purity of intention as, “seeking the true end of man: with simplicity of vision, the baptized person seeks to find and to fulfill God’s will in everything.” It then references this admonishment from St. Paul:

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.

Romans 12:2

Bad habits are ways that we “conform our minds to the age” rather than to the will of God. For various reasons, many of us have developed the bad habit of “people-pleasing.”  We set aside our own needs, or sometimes even what is the right thing to do, to make someone else happy or “pleased” with us. This sort of behavior has the immediate reward of being appreciated, accepted, or liked, but the long-term effects are less beneficial.

In this habit of people pleasing, we gradually lose a sense of what makes us happy, and ultimately what are the right and wrong things to do. Our self-worth becomes tied to other people’s responses to what we do, rather than to who we are in God’s eyes. We lose simplicity. We become complicated. We might even become depressed and not know why.

A quick, false reading of Christianity could lead a person to believe that putting other’s needs before one’s own is virtue. At times this may be so. But continually putting our own legitimate needs last is not necessarily holiness. It may in fact be people pleasing. Discernment in these situations comes back to purity of intention.

When you are hoping to go see a movie, but your friend calls and needs a ride to the ER, putting that friend’s needs first likely isn’t people-pleasing. But, if you were planning to make a much-needed hour of adoration, and that one needy friend calls to talk about the same problem you’ve already counseled him about time and time again, and yet you choose to listen rather than spend that planned time with the Lord, you might be people-pleasing.

In these difficult moments, when lifelong habit rubs up against God’s will for our lives (or for our afternoons), we can sift through the complications by asking ourselves, “Am I choosing this option because I believe it is God’s will?” If the answer is anything other an uncomplicated “yes,” God may be inviting you to stop people-pleasing and start living in the freedom of his holy will.

Hear this: it is not un-Christian to say “no” to a request for your time, help, or anything else. It is not un-charitable to put your own needs before what others are requesting of you. It is not loving to let people walk all over you with unrealistic expectations or demands. In the dignity you have as a child of God, you can let go of wrong motives that are robbing you of peace, and instead walk in the joy of doing God’s will in each moment of your day and life.

Ironically, once our intentions have been purified, and we live to do God’s will alone, we will be helping his people in many beautiful ways. But we will be doing so from a place of truth and freedom that acknowledges our own legitimate needs and fills them as God would have us do. Now, in our newly found freedom from people-pleasing, if we do something good for someone, and that person is not “pleased,” it no longer affects our self-worth because that self-worth is based on God, not anyone else.

As Mother Teresa famously said, “We are called to be faithful, not successful.” When we leave people-pleasing behind in favor of purity of intention and God’s holy will for us, our best efforts are enough for us, and peace grows in a soft bed of humility.

Make no mistake, finding your way to purity of intention is going to cost you. Saying “no” to people who are used to you fulfilling their requests is going to make them unhappy! You may experience feelings of shame, guilt, or even fear. But if you are moving towards the goal of doing God’s will in your life, it’s a cost you can willingly pay. In the midst of those unpleasant emotions, remember purity of intention! You can get through the momentary upset, and you will have new peace when the emotion fades, and your new freedom remains.

Be like St. Paul and count it all loss for the Kingdom, for Jesus. You are on the road to becoming who Jesus created you to be. No people-pleasing reward can compare to that. We are each unique. We are not created to mirror someone else’s desires of who we should be or what we should do. We are created by God to shine as an unrepeatable images of Him. By setting aside people-pleasing in favor of God’s will for us, we fulfill our purpose in life as we grow in deeper union with him, one decision, one day at a time.

Lord, we desire to do Your holy will with our lives. Please help us to trust You as we let go of bad habits like “people-pleasing.” Help us to know that as our intentions become purer and simpler, our ability to discern Your will for us will grow and mature. We wish to walk in freedom as Your children, for Your glory, for the salvation of souls, and for our own good. Grant us the grace of living in the freedom and truth of purity of intention. May Your holy will be done!

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

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Suellen Brewster is a wife, mother, and happy revert to the Catholic faith. She helps lead the local Ignatian Exercises and is a member of the Dominican laity. Suellen writes from her home outside of Buffalo, New York, where the long winters invite souls into quiet prayer and reflection.

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