What is People-Pleasing?
People-pleasing is an orientation to others, instead of an orientation to the Self. People-Pleasing is built on a deep, globalized belief that we cannot trust ourselves so we must look to other people in order to know what is acceptable, lovable, and OK.
This loss of self-trust almost always happens early in life when we learn in some way that who we are is unacceptable, and in order to maintain connection we need to self-censor. We learn that we need to hide who we really are and come to believe that if people actually knew us, they wouldn’t like what they see.
The People-Pleasing Trauma Connection
So, how do we get this way? How do we get to a place where revealing our true selves is terrifying? Where we’re so scared of rejection or abandonment that we're willing to completely betray ourselves?
Often people-pleasing and codependency are trauma responses. The trauma can be “big T” trauma—traumas that are obvious and widely acknowledged as traumatic—or “little t” trauma, which are smaller traumas that occur more frequently over long periods of time. More often, it's “little t” relational traumas over many years throughout childhood that lead to people-pleasing. Remember, trauma is subjective. What one person finds traumatic might not be traumatic to someone else.
Mainstream parenting (at least in the Western world, which is all I can speak to) has historically been based on methods that are inherently traumatizing for children. There has been an over-focus on children “behaving” at the expense of their emotional well being and long-term development. Parenting in the West normalizes emotional manipulation (withdrawal of affection and approval) as a legitimate and effective way of controlling children’s behavior.
The result? We have a lot of traumatized adults (and children) walking around! Many of whom learned to cope by doing whatever they needed to do to ensure that they wouldn’t lose the affection and approval of other people. This is how people-pleasers are born.
The Fawn Response
Most people have heard of the Fight, Flight, Freeze responses of the nervous system. These are a series of built in biological responses that are intended to help us survive dangerous or life threatening situations. The fight response floods us with adrenaline so we can fight off physical danger, the flight response helps us flee quickly, and the freeze response is designed to protect us by shutting our awareness down to shield us from terror and pain. The Fawn response, as a explained above, is when we’ve learned that being authentic and asserting ourselves is a dangerous thing to do.
People who are stuck in the fawn response have often been functioning this way for so long that they’ve forgotten, or maybe never had the chance to find out, who they really are. When we're constantly focused on what other people want and need from us, we don’t have the chance to tune into what we want and need. This leaves us without a center, without a compass to guide us in life.
How to Heal
Healing means turning inward with curiosity and compassion in order to give your wounded, scared parts (the inner child) the attention they need. Self-awareness is the first step in all healing, and this is why an attitude of curiosity is so important. This work is best done with a therapist whom you feel completely safe with, but journaling is another powerful tool for healing these kinds of inner wounds.
Questions for self-reflection:
Looking for an Online Therapist in Kansas?
Ready to turn your attention inward and stop people-pleasing?
My Lawrence, Kansas counseling practice specializes in providing therapy for codependency, therapy for anxiety, therapy for self-esteem, therapy for Highly Sensitive People, and grief and bereavement counseling. I help people overcome shame and the fear of being their true selves. Breaking the cycles of people-pleasing and self-abandonment is possible, and I'm here to help.
I offer online counseling throughout Kansas. Reach out today to schedule your free 15 minute phone consultation. I'd love to hear from you!
Other Services Offered by Maggie
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