Selflessness is of course a virtue, and a beautiful trait to have when you know when to use it, but it can also be a trap. Putting others above yourself is admirable in the right circumstance – the danger lies in the inclination to put others above God.
The Problem with People-Pleasing
Are you a waggly wobbler who waggles and wobbles? Do you have the backbone of an inflatable tube man at a car dealership? Perhaps you’re staunch when it comes to sticking to your principles when no one but yourself is involved, but once the possibility of offending or upsetting someone is introduced, your principles keel over and die in a drawn-out wheeze.
If you were presented with an ultimatum between your values and death, perhaps you’d heroically die a martyr, but if someone important to you was likely to take fault with your stance and think you a rubbish person, you may find yourself as staunch as Mr Tube Man. With people-pleasers, it’s easy to be heroically sacrificial; playing the part of a hero fits nicely with the desire to be liked by all, and selflessness comes naturally to those who always put their wishes second. The difficulty is in standing up for your beliefs in the face of mass disapproval or even hatred; the difficulty is remaining principled even when no one sees and admires, or worse, when people see and ridicule.
Often the herd mentality is what motivates us, and the safety of a crowd becomes our comfort zone. Sometimes it’s the insatiable desire to be liked by everyone that keeps strings tied to our elbows and knees. People-pleasing is a deep, difficult-to-extract spiritual disease that is often mistaken for a virtue. When you find yourself perpetually putting the needs of others ahead of yours, even when it’s to your own detriment, you may be of that category.
Amicableness or amenability is often a result of the conditioning of one’s childhood, where they were disciplined into putting others above themselves, and putting “the people” on an altar where sacrifices are offered. This is particularly prevalent in women. Women, in general, are taught to always be nice, pleasant, and soft in a way that doesn’t corrode with the often assertive manner that men are taught to adopt.
This is a very dangerous mind-conditioning because those same attributes that make a woman pliant to her parents/family, will make her pliant to her abusers. Time and again, women end up in life-threatening situations with predators because they ignore their initial instincts that sense danger in favor of the socially accepted “niceness” that dictates their behavior. Rather than be firm against their abusers, and assert, perhaps in a perceivably rude way, their stance, some women are trapped into compromising situations by their conditioned amenability.
However, this problem can be found with both genders. In many cultures, men and women are instructed to be selfless and sacrificial to others. Traditional values are commonly about solidarity, family, loyalty, generosity, and hospitality (to name a few) – all of which require putting “the people” above everything. Selflessness is of course a virtue, and a beautiful trait to have when you know when to use it, but it can also be a trap. Putting others above yourself is admirable in the right circumstance – the danger lies in the inclination to put others above God.
Have you thought about what fuels your faith? Are you a believer because you want to be seen as one, out of a need to be admired or a fear of being ostracized? Is your worship directed to God or your image? Is reputation your qibla? Be careful about the intention behind your ibada because if it’s for “the people” above God, you may be committing minor shirk.
On the other hand, if you’re in a society that is against your religion, you may want to look inwardly and inspect your behavior and the intention behind it. Are you modifying yourself to appease the people while turning your back on your purpose in life? Are you adopting immoral behavior to fit in and be admired while your conscience suffers inside? Do you get asked things about your religion and instead of replying with the truth, you give a white-washed answer that is skewed so much it resembles an outright lie? Have you dropped your principles that appear “old fashioned” or not particularly western in order that you stop standing out among people who, deep down, may be spiritually starved and yearning for guidance?
Friends, your faith is an enormous blessing. It’s a treasure that equals the price of paradise, so don’t sell yourselves for anything less than paradise, as Ameerul Mu’mineen (ع) eloquently stated. This faith comes with values that must be protected in the face of social pressure. If you think you may have people-pleasing tendencies, recite the following Quranic chapter daily, or whenever you feel your resolve wobble. Many of you have this memorized already.
I find that it fortifies my heart with strength and almost physically straightens my backbone when I need the courage to say no. Sisters especially, who find saying no particularly difficult, please recite this and think upon the brave forthrightness of its wording, which teaches us how to stand our ground in the face of things that try to push us away from our faith. Bismillah.
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيمِ
In The Name of Allah, The Beneficent, The Merciful:
قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا الْكَافِرُونَ
Say: “You who deny the truth,
لَاۤ أَعۡبُدُ مَا تَعۡبُدُونَ
I do not worship what you worship
وَلَا أَنتُمْ عَابِدُونَ مَا أَعْبُدُ
and you do not worship what I worship,
وَلَا أَنَا عَابِدٌ مَّا عَبَدتُّمْ
and I will never worship what you worship.
وَلَا أَنتُمْ عَابِدُونَ مَا أَعْبُدُ
Neither will you worship what I worship.
لَكُمْ دِينُكُمْ وَلِيَ دِينِ
You have your own religion, and I have mine.”