Isn’t it a good thing to want to make others happy? What do people mean when they complain of being a people pleaser?
There’s an iconic line from a Friends show episode in which Chandler, a notorious people pleaser, finds himself unable to let a woman know that he does not want to date her anymore. Each time he swears that he will break it off but right before the close of the conversation, he says, “ok I’ll give you a call sometime!” He can’t stop those words from coming out of his mouth because he can’t bear to make the woman that he’s dating feel sad.
Chandler is a people pleaser.
A people pleaser is someone who senses the real (or imagined) distress of the other person and can’t stand it! They feel compelled to rescue the other person from their distress. Not rescuing the other person feels like too much of a risk to take!
What’s really going on for you if you identify with the people pleaser persona?
Most people are familiar with the terms “fight, flight and freeze.” which are the brain’s responses to a perceived dangerous situation. You may not be aware of the other response in the brain’s toolbox which is “fawn.”
Fawning is an attempt to ingratiate or flatter the other person in a relationship when the other person is seen as superior. (See Chandler above). Fawning behavior aka people pleasing can be incredibly frustrating for the fawner.
Most people who fawn describe the experience of a subservient attitude taking over their bodies and speech without their volition. There is something about the other person that they are interacting with that makes them feel inferior and the fawning behavior gets turned on.
Fawning can look different for different people but the bottom line, you don’t feel grounded. You don’t feel relaxed. You don’t feel like yourself. You’ve become a people pleaser.
How people pleasing developed in your childhood
When you’re a people pleaser, you lose a sense of your own body awareness of what you’re feeling/needing. Experience tells us that when you’re a people pleaser, you temporarily lose contact with your own needs and emotions and instead, focus completely on the other person.
This is a learned habit from early childhood. This “habit” develops from an early childhood situation in which you needed to focus on the needs of your parent(s) out of fear or anxiety that you wouldn’t get your needs met otherwise. Instead of being able to relax and receive love, you were busy trying to take care of your parent(s)!
If you are “people pleasing,” then you’re definitely in a state of anxiety.
The main task of parents is to create a safe environment for the child to explore who they are as a human being.
The child needs to know that he/she can be themselves without constantly having to make sure that the parent is listening or supporting them.
If you were chronically afraid that your parent(s) wasn’t really listening, you probably walk around with the belief that people in your life aren’t really paying attention.
If you had the experience of one or both parents shaming you for your body or thoughts, you’re probably afraid to show yourself to others.
If your parent(s) had a short temper, which can be terrifying to a little person to experience, you might be very anxious at the possibility that the person you’re with might lose their temper at you.
Any of these experiences might trigger your “people pleasing reflex.”
It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect parent. We all make big mistakes many times when we are raising our children. However if we are generally consistent, kind and not afraid to look at our mistakes and improve when necessary, the child comes to believe that people are generally safe and that he/she can develop satisfying relationships.
Why people pleasing is harmful for you
Human beings are mammals and the brain of a mammal is wired for interpersonal connection. It is therapeutic, healing and necessary to communicate with others. There is a reason why solitary confinement is considered a form of torture!
When you can’t share your thoughts with others it is lonely. Being a “people pleaser” means that you cannot have a fully unburdening social interaction with the person who triggers the “people pleasing reflex”. To the extent that you are fawning, to that degree will your connection and intimacy with the other person be limited. You are not going to feel fully supported if you are so occupied with “taking care” of the other person’s ego.
How to heal people pleasing through somatic therapy
Somatic Psychotherapy can help you become aware of when you are people pleasing vs. expressing your authentic self. You may have never had the experience of expressing yourself fully. You may constantly minimize or reduce your self expression because you’re worried about the reaction of the other person.
Maybe you’ve always “people pleased” and don’t know what it’s like to fully unburden yourself emotionally to another person. Maybe you’re always holding something back.
The healing process of Somatic Psychotherapy begins with becoming aware of how “people pleasing” is a defense that you developed in early childhood to protect yourself by trying to take care of your parents. You never decided consciously to be a “people pleaser”. You simply felt at the time that you had no other options.
The development of a learned set of behaviors or defenses is called a character strategy. A Somatic Psychotherapist can teach you how to notice when you are in “people pleasing mode” and to notice how it feels to be in “people pleasing mode”.
Eventually, you can learn how to free yourself from this character strategy when it turns on. You can learn how to make yourself feel relaxed, grounded and safe by recognising that the “people pleasing mode” that you developed as a child is no longer necessary.
The quality of your relationships with others and your internal world can feel safe and supported.If you have trouble with “people pleasing” or other troublesome character strategies from your childhood, you may be a candidate for Somatic Psychotherapy. You may check out schorcounseling.com to schedule a free 15-minute consultation.