Where People Pleasing Comes From

GoodTherapy | People Pleaser

People Pleasing Is Not a Personality Flaw.

It is a response to trauma and/or stress that can develop into being one of the primary ways a person deals with challenges. 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 initially an automatic response, this protective strategy begins mostly outside of our awareness. Over time, it either becomes one of our go-to strategies for automatically protecting ourselves when we feel unsafe emotionally or relationally. Or we develop some flexibility and ability to choose different responses.

It makes sense that one of the automatic responses is to please or agree with whomever you feel threatened by, especially until you can get some space from this person. But if this becomes how you handle almost everything, then over time, your happiness, physical well-being, and relationship satisfaction will suffer.

Pleasing can be a particularly difficult reaction to change since it is often socially and culturally reinforced in families, the workplace, and in educational 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 are ready to liberate yourself from this automatic response and have more choices and flexibility in how you respond to difficult situations, then keep reading. Together, we will explore the possible ways the pleasing strategy became activated within you.

Experiences That Can Activate the People-Pleaser Response

Which one of these describe your life experience? (It may be one or more than one.)

  1. Experiencing violence of a parent, caregiver, or partner
  2. Having an emotionally unavailable parent
  3. Being in a relationship with a narcissistic parent or partner
  4. Growing up in a family that avoided conflict or had a lot of conflicts
  5. Growing up with a parent or family member who struggled with persistent, physical and/or mental health issues
  6. Experiencing and/or being a part of a group of people who experiences racism, discrimination, exclusion, or micro-aggressions

Each of these situations helps create an environment ripe for not feeling or being safe saying no, disagreeing, or being different. And one of the options in coping with these situations is to either try to become invisible, keep the peace, or put what others need and want above your own well-being.

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. Offer yourself some understanding and sincere compassion for not receiving what you needed. And know that today can begin the journey of you learning to give yourself what you need.

Finding Hope After People Pleasing Is Your Go-To Strategy

While at times it may feel impossible to free yourself from this automatic response, there is hope.

Growing up with a parent who was emotionally unavailable due to their own physical and/or mental health struggles may leave you feeling like no one is there for you when you need support too. Over time, you learned it was more important to not rock the boat, to put your needs aside, and to help your parent or family in any way you could.

Chances are you may have even gotten praised in school or your family for being the good, strong, talented, or smart one. And no one, probably not even you, had any idea you needed more from them. You may not have even known you were giving up your own needs, dreams, or beliefs, because it happened so gradually.

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. And eventually, you find yourself burned out, resentful, and 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. Often, you find you need a different kind of support than what you have available to you.

This is where working with a counselor, therapist, or trauma-informed coach can help. It can give you a safe place to process feelings that arise, practice new responses, and discern what is working and not 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. And you may be met with loss and/or conflict, so asking for support can help you keep connecting with yourself and what you need and/or want. The more you connect with yourself and what’s best for you, the more choices you can find. Then pleasing becomes less of your go-to and more of a choice, one of the possible responses among many.

I’d love to hear how this lands for you. What is your biggest takeaway or a-ha from reading this?

Here are some additional resources from the GoodTherapy Psychpedia:

Trauma

Narcissism

Mental Illness

Abuse

The GoodTherapy Registry might be helpful to you. We have thousands of Therapists listed with us who would love to walk with you on your journey. Find the support you need today.

 

Marci Payne, MA, LPC is a licensed therapist in Missouri and self-love coach globally. She helps ambitious adults heal people-pleasing, perfectionism, and past hurts, so they are free to be themselves. Receive her free “Emotion Self-Care Guide” and begin listening and giving yourself what you need too, even when others don’t.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • admin

    June 21st, 2022 at 8:48 AM

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    June 21st, 2022 at 9:29 AM

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  • Andrea

    June 30th, 2022 at 12:25 AM

    This article struck a chord with me in thinking about how I interact with others and how utterly unhappy I am with my life now. I am also thinking about my ten-year-old and how my mental health challenges have affected her social interactions with others. I have experienced every single trauma listed, 1-6. I am a people pleaser; it sucks, especially at my age. I have always been frustrated with myself for being like that. I often wish I would speak my truth to people and was not afraid of how they would react. I now know I do it to protect myself from getting hurt and receiving a negative response.
    I see my daughter doing this with her friends. She often talks about incidents where her peers have been rude to her, but she doesn’t speak up. I always tell her to speak up and express her feelings if something makes her uncomfortable. They (her peers) are expressing their true feelings. She also has the right to do the same. But she doesn’t speak up, she says mom, they’ll get mad, or I rather ignore them. But I can tell these incidents bother her. I don’t want her to be like me, so I am constantly telling her to speak up for herself even if others don’t like or disagree with what she says. But I am having a hard time reaching her. I am trying to teach her not to be a people-pleaser, while at the same time, I’m struggling not to be one myself. I desperately do not want her to be like me.

  • Marci

    June 30th, 2022 at 5:54 PM

    Andrea, thank you for your reflective and heartfelt response. I hear how much you care about your daughter and yourself. It’s because you care so much that you want the best for both of you. We all have parts of us that want to protect us. Over time, we can learn how not to let the protectors lead so much. Sometimes it takes both support from others and ourselves to be able to express ourselves even if hard decisions. May you continue on your journey to being more fully yourself and finding your voice. And your daughter too.

  • Jacob

    July 25th, 2022 at 6:20 PM

    i am so afraid what people will say when i express my honest opinion that’s a real struggle for me i am afraid that i will lose them or upset ehm as i was always worried to upset my parents and was trying to be the best and got anxiety

  • Marci Payne

    July 28th, 2022 at 10:39 AM

    Jacob, may you find the support you are looking for to feel like you are freer to express yourself, even if others don’t always agree. I find there are some people that aren’t respectful and accepting when I express my true self, so that helps me lower my expectations and re-direct my energy to other relationships. Knowing where you feel safe to be yourself has different levels depending on the relationship.

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