For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted people to like me. For years, I tried to please everyone, tried to juggle countless personalities and identities, hoping to please everyone and be universally liked. I tried to be everything to everyone, to the point where I didn’t know who I actually was. But as I’ve found my voice and begun to embrace who I truly am, I’ve come to realize that it’s not only impossible to try and please everyone; it’s harmful.
In the tattered scrapbook of old friends and extended family members, we all have one or two people with whom we continually clash. Perhaps it’s religious differences. Maybe it’s politics. It could be even be bad blood between other relatives or friends of yours. It could be anything. You may even learn to embrace the tension, to learn from the discord. But what if that relationship becomes more than a simple clash? What do you do when it turns toxic?
As women, we’re taught to maintain the peace, to keep our voices down, to smile, to be hospitable, to avoid stirring the pot, to brush the conflict off of our delicately feminine shoulders. We’re taught to politely pretend it isn’t there. We’re taught to be sugar, spice, and everything nice.
For years, I did as I was taught with a particularly challenging person in my extended family. I quietly tried to both reconcile my differences with this person and simultaneously appease the burgeoning tension between our families. I wrote numerous emails, explaining how I felt, where I was coming from, who I was, what I believed in, and how I respected and valued this person. I went to painstaking lengths to reach across that proverbial aisle, connect on a personal level, and make the relationship successful.
In the end, it just didn’t work.
I tried so hard for so long to understand why it wasn’t working, what I was missing, what more I needed to do, what the underlying problem was. And then one day, after a particularly hostile and dismissive interaction, I realized something: the underlying problem wasn’t me — it was a lack of respect.
I’m now estranged from this family member. I don’t speak or engage with this person. If they do try to reach out to me, I ignore those attempts. An avid social media user, I am disconnected from this person on every account I have. I have more or less cut them out of my life. Sound harsh? Maybe. But no one deserves to be in a relationship in which they constantly feel dismissed, debased, and disrespected. That’s not productive. That’s not healthy.
In the age of social media, of constant connection, and especially if you put yourself out there in a public way, people believe they are entitled to your time, to your space, to your energy. And there is something to be said for having a dialogue with people with whom you disagree, taking down your defensive walls, and engaging. That can be fruitful and worthwhile. But boundaries are essential. We must take care of ourselves, and that includes cutting ties with people who have become toxic to us and our own well-being. As the inimitable Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” When we prioritize ourselves and our own needs, especially as women, we are committing a distinctly feminist act. We are bucking the restrictive gendered norms that force us to appease others to keep the peace rather than take care of ourselves to keep our sanity. We are declaring ourselves worthy of love and respect, and in a society like our own that devalues and debases women, that is nothing short of revolutionary.
I don’t know what the future holds with this family member, but I do know that by cutting ties, I am taking care of me. I am prioritizing my own emotional health and well-being. I am declaring to the world that I am valuable and worthy. I am abandoning people-pleasing in favor of self-care. There is nothing selfish about self-care.
As the saying goes, you can’t please everyone. What a lovely truth that is.