People pleasing is not a flaw in personality.
It is a way to cope with trauma and/or stress. In this way, people-pleasing may look like who you are, but it’s actually something you learned to do.
That’s because we are wired to automatically protect ourselves in different ways. Pleasing (or “fawning”) is now recognized as one of four trauma responses (i.e., fight, flight, freeze, and fawn). According to Peter Walker, licensed psychologist and expert in complex trauma, “Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others.”
Since pleasing is at first an automatic response, this protective strategy starts mostly outside our awareness. It becomes our default strategy for protecting ourselves emotionally and relationally when we feel unsafe. Or, we learn flexibility and the ability to choose other responses.
It is natural that you will want to agree or please with anyone you feel threatened by. This is especially true until you are able to get some space. If this is how you handle everything, it will eventually lead to a decline in your happiness, physical health, and relationship satisfaction.
Pleasing can be a difficult response to change, as it is often reinforced culturally and socially in the home, in the workplace, and in education systems. What starts as you trying to make others happy, keep the peace, or earn others’ approval, is usually encouraged and conditioned as the right and best thing to do.
If you’re ready for more freedom from the automatic response and greater flexibility in how to respond to difficult situations, read on. We will work together to discover the ways that the pleasing strategy can be activated in you.
Experiences that Can Reactivate the People-Pleaser Response
Which of these describes your life experience? (It could be one or more.)
- Experiencing GewaltA parent, caregiver, partner
- It is possible to have an Emotionally unavailableParent
- Being in a relationship is a great way to meet someone. Narcissistic parent or partner
- Growing up in a family who avoided Conflictor were involved in a lot conflict
- Growing up with a persistently ill parent or relative, Issues relating to mental and/or physical well-being
- Being a part of or experiencing a group of people who experience it Exclusion, racism, and discrimination are all possible
Each of these situations creates an environment that is not conducive to feeling safe saying no, disagreeing, and being different. You have two options when it comes to coping with these situations: you can either try to be invisible, keep the peace or prioritize the needs and wants of others.
Whew! Take a deep breath. Acknowledging what you didn’t receive growing up or in your adult relationships can bring up grief, anger, and hurt. Give yourself compassion and understanding for not receiving what your needs were. Today is the beginning of your journey to learn how to give yourself the best you can.
Your strategy of choice is to find happiness after people are pleased
Despite the fact that it can sometimes feel impossible to get rid of this automatic response, there are still ways to overcome it.
You may feel like you are alone if your parent is ill. You learned over time that it was better to be patient, not push the envelope, to listen to your parents and to support your family in any way possible.
There is a good chance that you have been praised by your family or school for being the smart, strong, talented or intelligent one. No one, probably not even yourself, knew you needed more. Because it happened slowly, you may not have known that you were giving up your own dreams, needs, and beliefs.
Then, you enter the workforce and/or relationship as an adult, and you are both praised for being such a hard worker and assigned more work when others don’t do their part. You take on more and more, absorbing what others don’t, both in terms of tasks and feeling responsible for others. You end up feeling burnt out, resentful, or unhappy.
That’s when you start craving something different and recognizing that you have been ignoring what you need and want. You may even start to speak up, but are met with others’ reactions, anger, and guilt. You may find that you need support from someone else than the one you have.
Working with a counselor, therapist or trauma-informed coach is a great way to help. It can provide a safe space for you to process your feelings, practice new responses and determine what is working for you.
You may decide to liberate yourself from roles you’ve had in your family and/or relationship for most of your life. Even though you may experience loss or conflict, asking for help can help you maintain your connection with yourself and what you want. The more you connect with yourself and what’s best for you, the more choices you can find. When pleasing is less your go-to, it becomes more of a choice and one of many possible responses.
I’d love to hear how this lands for you. What was the biggest takeaway, or a-ha?
Here are some additional resources courtesy of the GoodTherapy Psychology Encyclopedia:
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Marci Payne MA, LPC, is a A licensed therapistMissouri Coach for self-love globally. She assists ambitious adults with past hurts, perfectionistism, and people-pleasing issues so they can be themselves. Receive her free “Emotion Self-Care Guidelines” and begin listening and giving yourself what you need too, even when others don’t.
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