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Demystifying people pleasing

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

People pleasing is not a personality flaw.

It is a response to trauma and stress that can over time 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.

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, earn others’ approval, is usually encouraged and conditioned as the right and best thing to do.

If you want to free yourself from this automatic response and have more choices in how you respond to difficult situations, then keep reading.

Which one of these describe your life experience?

  • Experiencing violence of a parent, caregiver, or partner

  • Having an emotionally unavailable parent

  • Being in a relationship with a emotionally abusive parent or partner

  • Growing up in a family that avoided conflict or had a lot of conflicts

  • Growing up with a parent or family member who struggled with physical and/or mental health issues

  • Experiencing and/or being a part of a group of people who experiences racism, discrimination.

Each of these situations helps create an unsafe environment 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.

While at times it may feel impossible to free yourself from this automatic response of people pleasing, 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 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 recognising 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 counsellor/ therapist can help. It can give you a safe place to process feelings that arise, practice new responses, and discuss 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.

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