Last November was a season of loss for me. Big losses, little losses, just loss. The saddest loss was the death of my 94-year-old Nana. Not an unexpected death given her age, but a transition for our family roles and traditions. Suddenly everything we used to do every year was about to change.

The changes continue to this year as I host my first Thanksgiving dinner in my own home. A first that was actually planned for last November.
My Nana possessed a wicked sense of humor and exquisite timing. The timing of her death served as one final gift to me.

I hate cooking, meal planning, and really anything related to the producing of food. I truly love hosting and decorating for parties, I even enjoy cleaning up after my guests depart. But the actual act of planning the menu, procuring the food, and preparing the food leaves me puzzled and full of worry.
Oh, I enjoy eating, I just don’t enjoy having to be responsible for other people’s eating experience. And yes, this includes my own children.

So when Nana died right before Thanksgiving last year, I canceled my first big family holiday event and didn’t have to plan on feeding people.
More importantly, I did not have to face my fear of in wanting to please everyone, I would end up pleasing no one.

Thanks, Nana, you also knew my place was not in a kitchen.

Wanting to Please

Part of my lack of effort around meal planning is my anxiety about other peoples’ experience of the meal. I worry they won’t like it, the taste will be bad, or somehow I end up giving everyone food poisoning. I mostly just worry that people won’t tell me how they really feel about the food. That they just won’t be honest if it sucks. That they will smile and say they like it just to please me. My dilemma also involves meal planning. I am better at identifying one dish to prepare. Once I had kids, I realized we needed more than just popcorn and apples for dinner. I had to provide the whole veg/protein/starch plate.

I had to attempt to please more than just myself.

While childless, I conquered meal planning by ordering out. This was before the endless apps and food delivery services. This ordering occurred in the days of a kitchen drawer full of menus.

I did not have any responsibility for creating the menu or preparing the food. And if the result was bad, that menu was thrown out, and more importantly, I did not have to lie and say I liked something.

Fast forward to life as a single mom of three-year-olds, and the take-out menus had to be replaced with actual meals.

I turned to my own mother. She filled my freezer with grandkid-approved things I could defrost. 7 basic meals were developed which I rotated and mastered. I filled in the gaps with breakfast for dinner and some reliable restaurants.

My kids grew and met all the growth milestones and on we went in our 7 meal rotation. I actually never asked if they liked it. They kept eating it and I kept making it.

Food is NOT my Love Language

Enter my boyfriend, he comes from a family that loves cooking. Being Italian and preparing favorite dishes is one of the many ways they communicate love.
My 7 basic meals were not going to survive in this environment. My table became populated with homemade pastas, zuppa di pesce, risottos, whole branzinos, ricotta pies, and even french macarons.

A lot of things I thought you could only eat in restaurants.

I happily ate them all and as long as there was no appearance of asparagus, I was pleased.

But not all of us like all of what he prepared. My daughter finally mustered up her courage to speak her truth about the stir fry all of his kids adored.
At first I was proud she told him, then I was sad she had eaten it at least three times before she said something.

He does not make it hard for people to tell him they don’t like his cooking. He is completely comfortable when one of us says we don’t like it. And he actually likes honest food reviews.

My daughter had not consistently seen me be entirely honest about some of my own food experiences. She was parroting what she had observed.
My boyfriend does not just make things to please us; he also cooks to challenge his skill set. But more importantly, he has raised his kids to tell him the truth about their experiences.

And when we don’t like what he cooks, it is okay.

It doesn’t make his choice bad and it doesn’t mean he did something wrong. It just sometimes means one or a couple of us don’t like something.

Going along to get along

My daughter is not the only member of the family that ate a meal she didn’t like multiple times.

Back in my early 20s, I dated a man who lovingly and routinely brought me coffee in bed. Except it was black, and I hate black coffee. I dumped most of it in a plant, and by the time the relationship had ended, the plant had also died.

In a former job, I drank Muscat at every work function because a boss loved it. I don’t even like to drink sweet tea. But I drank it because sometimes it’s easier to go along to get along.

And the list goes on and on…….

My efforts to please people have often prevented me from having an authentic experience. I have struggled a lot with being honest in my reactions because I was afraid my reactions were wrong.

Sure, I can attribute this to my gender and the heteronormative, misogynistic society where grinning and bearing it as a cisgendered woman is expected and rewarded. Especially in leadership roles.

And oh, how I have grinned and born it.

But it is honestly not all because of that, it was also because I was afraid of hurting people’s feelings, of getting it wrong.
Of quite frankly being wrong in my not liking something.

I devalued my own reactions.

Yes, please and may I have another?

I spent a portion of my early career trying to please in a way that felt inauthentic. This resulted in not speaking up and acknowledging my true opinions and thoughts in meetings and discussions.

It resulted in my saying things and doing things just to please others, even when I knew I didn’t personally believe what I was saying and doing.
Do all work environments encourage speaking up in an authentic manner, no, but did I also truly try? No, because I was too worried people would not be pleased with my responses and choices. I was too focused on being liked that I agreed and went along to get along at the expense of being authentic.

When asked for input, I selected from a menu of sorts that I knew from past experience worked. A menu that would not offend was not too spicy, not too sweet. A bland, predictable menu with about 7 choices.

And with that menu, I climbed up and up. I grinned and drank all the black coffees and sweet wines along the way. And my blandness was rewarded.

Not on my Menu

One recent night at dinner, my stepson theatrically reviewed what was not on his menu. He is 14 and developing a razor-sharp wit with better observation skills than any of us have credited.

As he went through groups of food that were not on his menu, I marveled in his confident presentation. He wasn’t going to grin and bear it or even try to eat it things he knew he didn’t like. He was fine, saying that’s not on my menu. He wasn’t going to eat anything just to please someone.

Not on his menu is what I have been grappling with in 2022.

He started by identifying what he didn’t like. What he knows from experience he is not going to eat.
He did not start from a position of wanting to please others, and he was not bland in telling us what he did not like.

Creating my own Menu

Last November, my old professional identity was a smaller loss as I defined what the new professional me was going to look like in 2022.
Professionally, I knew exactly what I did not want to do. I was a little more uncertain about what I did want to do.

But in my heart, I knew what I needed to do. I had to stop worrying about how others perceived me and let my authentic voice come out.
When I began prioritizing my own reactions, it became somewhat easier for me to identify what I mean and what I want. I have been polite in my refusals and some no’s were instinctively easy.

Others, not so much.

One job offer was painfully hard to turn down, but the timing just wasn’t right. And taking it would have been, in part, about pleasing someone I really respect.
That no, while the hardest, was also the sweetest because it was the first time professionally I didn’t chase something to please someone else or just because I knew I could do it.

Somewhere in 2022, I stopped chasing pleasing others and just focused on pleasing myself.

That’s around the time my daughter said she actually didn’t like stir fry. My worst cooking experience resulted in a thoroughly burned bone-in pork chop that set the grill on fire. Luckily the house is brick, or part of that would have caught fire too.

I didn’t hide the fact that I had no idea what I was doing or that I actually thought you were supposed to cut a bone in pork chop open to cook it. I think I thought you were supposed to de-bone it.

The end result: we went out for sushi and agreed my boyfriend would happily cook, and I would happily clean in our division of house labor. Cooking remains off my menu. In a few weeks, I will truly enjoy hosting my family and not planning or preparing a single dish.

I am also prepared to tell everyone exactly what I think about eating a smoked turkey….

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About the Author: Dr. Heather Sheets
Hi, I’m Dr. Heather Sheets, a psychologist with a passion to change the lives of women and men struggling with life transitions, relational issues, depression, and/or anxiety. I’ve spent 15 years as a licensed clinical psychologist with a unique mixture of psychotherapy experience and leadership and executive training in both public and private practice. Learn more about me and my services.  Arlington, Virginia , 22207 Visit my Website

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