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The job of my own happiness
People pleasing, seeking joy, and prioritizing creativity.
I am slowly disengaging from people pleasing.I think.
It’s so hard. I want everyone around me to be comfortable and happy. I want YOU to be comfortable and happy too. My whole life, every time I see a person, I think maybe I can help you in some way. Maybe I can encourage you, cheer your victories, recommend a recipe, or help you shop for shoes.
I have a varsity letter in putting you before me.
I am adept enough at people pleasing that I can pretend it’s part of my job. I have to please the people so they’ll buy my books, so I’ll make money and can live. I will write pleasing things and be a pleasing person, and please please notice me, read me, like me.
This newsletter is a push-pull space for me as far as people pleasing. This is a space where I work out what I’m thinking about. I write whatever is on my mind, without trying to figure out what subscribers might want. But once I post something, I do check (sometimes a lot) to see if anyone has responded, and if people are pleased.
Last month, I saw a kitchen appliance in a thrift store that was a combination of a mixer, blender, and sausage maker. This thing, from a brand called Kuppet,was huge and unwieldy. I don’t know anyone who has space in their kitchen for this thing.
I am this kitchen appliance. It’s trying to be everything all at once and in the end isn’t great at any one thing. I appreciate a kitchen multi-tasker but this thing would have been better doing one thing well. It’s trying to be too much, to be everything you might need.
Me too, Kuppet, me too.
I feel embarrassed to tell you what a revelation it was when I realized (recently!) that: it’s not my job to keep other people happy.
For so long I acted like it was my job, and it was mind-blowing to really realize that other people’s happiness is not up to me. It probably doesn’t even have anything to do with me.
I like being pleasing, but my people pleasing habit was incredibly inefficient. If I spend all my time trying to anticipate what everyone else might need, I don’t have much time left for my own things. I spent so much time trying to make sure everyone was happy and satisfied. Everyone except for me. I figured I’d get to my own stuff after I tended to everyone else, but after doing things for all those other people, the day was done. No more time. No time for me.
The really big revelation came from realizing not only is it not my job to make other people happy, it is my job to keep myself happy.
I wrote it in my journal:
It is my job to keep myself happy.
And immediately felt a combination of calm and confusion.
Isn’t it selfish to put my happiness first?
Does it mean I don’t listen to what other people need?
Does it mean shouting “my way or the highway, buster!” whenever anyone wants to do something I’m not into?
Well, no. I didn't say it’s my job to be a jerk about ensuring my happiness. But – of course my own happiness is my job.We can make other people happy but it’s up to us to make sure our own happiness is accounted for. Of course I can listen to what other people are asking for, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore my own needs and desires to make sure everyone else is taken care of.
It may be my job to make sure everyone in my house is safe and healthy, but it’s not my job to anticipate every need and ensure happiness.
It’s not selfish to make sure my own needs are being met. Blocking off time for writing, making roasted vegetables and grain bowls because I love them, reading a book that appeals to me and no one else I know, watering my plants, sewing a skirt, playing with my new stand-up paddleboard, watching a little bird go hop-hop-hop down a path — my needs aren’t impossible to meet. And who is going to make sure they’re met, if not me?
Telling myself I needed to tend to others has also been a way to avoid the work of my own desires, the hard work of looking deep inside myself to figure out what I even want to do and what sounds fun to me.
Let’s say there is a clown. We’ll call her Kuppet, after that overburdened kitchen appliance. Kuppet the clown (Kuppet the Klown? oh gosh no). Kuppet is very good at her job, good at making people happy. She’s hilarious. She’s fun. She’s not a scary clown. But if Kuppet is miserable, if she is not happy clowning, then she should figure out something else to do, something that does make her happy. Society might say, “Hey, Kuppet, you’re really good at this! Ignore your internal misery and keep making us laugh!” But I say: No one likes a miserable clown. That’s why there’s so many songs about crying clowns. Kuppet should stop people pleasing and figure out what makes her happy. It reminds me, too, of one of the tips from stand up comedians I talked about a few months ago: have fun! If you’re happy, the audience, the readers, your family, will be happy too.
One of the directives in Overcoming Underearning is that no one else is holding you back. It’s all on you. Which is ultimately empowering, because if I’ve been in my own way, then I can get out of my own way. I allow myself to be interrupted, and I interrupt myself (often in the form of clicking around on the internet looking for people to please, so I can call it my job to respond to them).
I want to write. I want to access my creativity. I want to hear the voice of my intuition and inspiration.
I always feel better when I write. The process of it is alchemy – my anxiety and annoyance evaporate as the words get written, even if what I’m writing isn’t great yet. I don’t need outside validation because the act of writing is validating. It says – you’re doing it; you’re a writer, writing.
The fact is, my happiness benefits everyone. If I write from a place of desire and joy, the writing will be better. If I focus on the job of my happiness, which conveniently often overlaps with my actual job of writing, then how I should be spending my time is clearer.
The other day I was walking my dog. He was off leash, and walking slowly behind me. I slowed down for him. And then he slowed down because I slowed down. And then we were just standing still. I wanted to make sure he was comfortable and happy, so I waited. And he is a people pleaser, because he is a dog, so he waited for me. My people pleasing is so ingrained that I will stand still on a path, my dog and I staring at each other, unable to move.
Here’s what I know is true for me right now:
I will be the alpha dog of my own life.
I will not be a kitchen appliance or a sad clown.
I will pause before saying yes to everything.
I will remember that what I want is to write books, and the way to write them is to write them.
I will pursue hobbies and activities that sound fun to me. Even if the people in my life don’t like them.
I will set boundaries around my time.
My own happiness ripples outward.
Always putting other people first ripples inward, into me, and makes me grumpy.
I will write! I will write! I will write!
It is not my job to make other people happy. It is not my job to hold other people’s burdens, complaints, and grudges for them, so they can be light and free.
It is my job to listen to myself, to ensure my own lightness, freedom, and joy.
Two of my upcoming picture books were officially announced: Chester Barkingham Saves the Country, which will be illustrated by Eva Byrne and will be out just before the 2024 US Presidential election, and Figdor Makes a Friend, illustrated by Marissa Valdez, and publishing in 2025. Both will be published by Simon & Schuster.
Also, I just saw color art for another picture book that comes out in 2024, Help Wanted: One Rooster, which is illustrated by Andrea Stegmaier and published by Viking Children’s Books. More info on all of these books to come!
Behind the Paywall
Our study of a college creative writing textbook continues! We’re going through the book Dreams and Inward Journeys, and there is a lot about diving into our pasts and ourselves to shape our writing. Here are the posts for chapters one, two, and three. Chapter four (which is about myths and fairy tales) will post in the next week or two.
Stay tuned for another project I’m going to have for paying subscribers in September, where we’re going to read short stories and write picture books inspired by them. It’s a method I have found incredibly useful for generating a lot of ideas and working through blocks. More info on that next month.
Thoughts and Links
I bought the CUTEST cards at the farmer’s market a few weeks ago, from Portmantoad. They had a booth set up and I loved everything they made. ALSO they told me about Make & Mend, an art supply thrift store in Somerville, MA, which is just a skosh too far for me to justify driving there, but I’m tempted. It sounds amazing.
I loved Ruth Franklin’s essay in the NY Times (unlocked link) about the reaction to “The Lottery” and how we need stories and books that disturbs us. Franklin wrote a terrific biography of Shirley Jackson, and also writes the Substack.
Also in the NY Times, this essay by Daniel Hahn about translating picture books was so interesting. The words in picture books might be for kids, but they carry weight, nuance, rhythm, and poetry — not an easy thing to translate. I have a copy of Hahn’s Catching Fire and I look forward to reading it.
- interviewed on their Common Shapes podcast a few weeks ago, and one of the things they talk about is this book by Melody Beattie where you make a list every morning, which is kind of a gratitude list, but is really a list acknowledging your big, messy feelings about things going on in your life. So instead of gritting my teeth through figuring out what I’m hashtag blessed about, damn it (and sure! there’s a lot I am truly grateful for!), I write things like “Today I am grateful that my back is stiff because I forgot to stretch again and am I someone who can listen to what her body is telling her or not? I want to listen to my body” (actual thing I wrote this morning). I listened to the book while I was packing for camping, and you won’t be surprised to learn I am super into this anti-gratitude gratitude list. I love a list, I love writing in the morning, I love figuring out what my feelings are and why I’m having them.
Books I read recently and loved
Disclosure: book links in this newsletter are affiliate links to Bookshop.org, a site which supports independent bookshops.
- and illustrated by is a raucous relatives romp, and a perfect read aloud.
Ellie Engle Saves Herself by Leah Johnson ofwas such a fun read, and one of those books where halfway through I realized I couldn’t figure out how it was going to end (I love an unpredictable kids’ book). Regular girl turned maybe superhero, just trying to figure out who she is. Ramona read it first and threw it to me with justified enthusiasm.
- is the dual timeline YA rom com we all need.
The picture book Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond and illustrated by Daniel Minter is fascinating. I honestly didn’t know much at all about blue and how it’s made (for much of history: not easily!), and now I do.
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Yes, this old saw. I’ve already talked to you about people pleasing, in this video which is the precursor to this whole essay and in this video about realizing my people pleasing is pleasing no one.
I have these socks that say “More Me, Less You Kind of Day” and I don’t know where I got them, but every time I wear them, Dave says, “Wait, what do your socks say?” and I reflexively say, “I’m sorry!” before telling him what they say. I wear the socks because I should feel more me, less you more often, and I do not, historically, feel that way.
Which I’m choosing to believe is a portmanteau of kitchen and Muppet.
I keep talking about happiness here, but maybe what I really mean is joy. I’m still thinking hard about whatwrote about the differences between happiness and joy, and so I’m shifting my thinking toward seeking joy rather than happiness. However, for so long, I’ve thought it was my job to keep everyone else happy, rather than to keep everyone joyous, so I’ll continue to talk about happiness for this essay.
It does get tricky with, say, parenting. I have found it to be especially difficult to transition from the stage when my kids were small and legitimately needed me to cater to them, and now (they’re teenagers) when they can and should handle many/most things themselves. The people pleasing part of me wants to make sure they know I’m still here for them. And listen: they know. They do not need reminders of my existence. I’m here all the time. Too much, they would probably say. I should take the freedom I have, the time I have. I was just talking to a neighbor of mine who has an 8-month-old baby, about the strange phenomenon where you finally manage to get time to yourself, and all you can do is run in circles. You have so much to do you can’t do anything. I feel like I have that and I want to make sure everyone knows I still exist, but then I get annoyed if they interrupt me to ask me to buy movie tickets. It’s complicated.
I am trying so hard to avoid referencing “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” because it’s making me feel like I’m writing something trite that can be hung up on a wooden sign in your kitchen, but at this point it’s starting to feel weird to not acknowledge, at least, my awareness of this phrase. I’m also realizing that the existence of this phrase and all the wooden signs means that there are many, many people who have already figured all of this out and are tending to their own happiness before the happiness of those around them. Maybe I’ll carve this entire essay into a piece of wood and hang it in my kitchen.
I recognize my privilege in having this be the case.