“Don’t Set Yourself on Fire Trying to Keep Others Warm.”—Penny Reid

Lindsay's Story

Lindsay was the picture of perfection. In her late twenties, she had a successful career, a bustling social life, and a reputation for always being there when someone needed her. She was the colleague who never said no to extra work, the friend who always showed up with a smile, and the partner who nurtured her lover's needs without complaint. To everyone around her, Lindsay seemed to have it all together. But beneath her constant smiles and agreeable demeanor, she struggled silently with resentment and exhaustion.

From the moment Lindsay woke up to when she went to bed, she was in a constant state of stress. She rushed to her laptop upon waking to respond to early emails, juggled multiple projects at work, and always volunteered for additional tasks to maintain her image as a dependable team player. Even during her lunch breaks, she ran errands for colleagues or attended meetings she didn't have time for. By the end of the day, Lindsay was drained, but her obligations didn't stop there.

In her personal life, Lindsay's people-pleasing continued to take its toll. She never voiced her preferences in her relationship, always deferring to her boyfriend's choices for dinner plans, weekend activities, and even major life decisions for fear of upsetting him. This dynamic left her feeling unheard and dissatisfied, but she feared that speaking up would cause conflict or disappointment. Her anger built silently, creating a chasm between her true desires and her life.

One afternoon, Lindsay received the wrong order at her favorite coffee shop. Instead of politely asking for the correct drink, she smiled and thanked the barista despite disliking the syrupy soy concoction she received. This small moment encapsulates her larger struggle: a life lived for others with little regard for her own needs and happiness.

Understanding People-Pleasing

As a therapist, I've seen the detrimental effects of people-pleasing behaviors, especially among women. People-pleasing, also known as the "please and appease" response, often stems from our earliest experiences. It’s a behavior pattern rooted in the need for safety, much like seeking a safe harbor in a storm. While it creates a temporary sense of security, over time, this behavior erodes one's sense of identity and self-worth, leading to emotional and psychological burnout.

Childhood Experiences and Family Dynamics in People-Pleasing Behaviors

Early Attachment and People-Pleasing

Attachment theory offers a powerful lens for understanding how early relationships with caregivers shape people-pleasing tendencies. Children with insecure attachment styles, especially those categorized as "anxious-preoccupied," often grow up feeling that their worth is tied to pleasing others. This attachment style is characterized by a heightened need for approval and acceptance, which often stems from inconsistent or neglectful caregiving during childhood.

Imagine a child who never knows whether their caregiver will be loving or distant, attentive or neglectful. To gain some semblance of control and security, this child might constantly strive to please the caregiver, hoping to elicit a positive response. This behavior, initially a survival mechanism, can solidify into a default mode of interacting with others.

Family Dynamics and Role Assignment

In many families, children unconsciously take on roles that shape their behavior patterns well into adulthood. One common role is that of the "peacekeeper" or "caretaker." In families where conflict is frequent or where a parent may be emotionally volatile or anxious, children often adopt people-pleasing behaviors as a way to maintain harmony and alleviate parental distress. These behaviors are their way of mitigating tension and securing a sense of safety within the family unit.

Take, for example, a child growing up with an angry, alcoholic father. This child might learn that by being exceedingly helpful and agreeable, they can reduce the likelihood of hostility or punishment. They may become the protector of their younger siblings, standing as a frontline defense against their father's unpredictable behavior, striving to maintain calm, safety, and peace in the household.

Another example might be a child in a family with a deeply grieving mother. This child might step into the role of the emotional caretaker, comforting and attending to their mother to alleviate their own distress and confusion over her despair and emotional unavailability. By trying to fill the emotional void left by their grieving mother, they hope to restore some semblance of stability and order to their world.

In both scenarios, these children are not just reacting to their environments; they are actively trying to create a safer, more predictable space for themselves and their loved ones. These early roles, born out of necessity, can become deeply ingrained patterns, influencing how they interact with others long into adulthood.

Modeling and Social Learning

Children are keen observers, absorbing the behaviors and attitudes of the adults around them like sponges. When a parent or primary caregiver consistently engages in people-pleasing behaviors, children often internalize these actions as the standard way to interact with others. This modeling effect teaches them that their value is tied to how well they can serve or appease others, perpetuating a cycle of self-neglect and the constant pursuit of external validation.

Imagine a child watching their mother always put everyone else’s needs above her own, smoothing over conflicts and saying "yes" to requests, even when she is exhausted. The child learns that to be loved and accepted, they too must prioritize others, often at the expense of their own needs. This behavior, seen day in and day out, becomes the blueprint for their own interactions, embedding the belief that self-worth is earned through endless giving and people-pleasing.

The Role of Trauma and the Fawn Response

Traumatic experiences in childhood, such as emotional abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence, may create a heightened state of vigilance, making children hyper-aware of others' needs as a way to avoid further harm. This response, often referred to as the "fawn" response, involves ingratiating oneself with others to defuse perceived threats and ensure safety. "Fawning" becomes a survival mechanism where individuals try to maintain safety and harmony by placating the source of the threat. Over time, the need to please becomes a default setting, an automatic response to any perceived conflict or discomfort.

Neglect, in particular, can have a profound impact on the development of people-pleasing behaviors. Children who grow up without the necessary emotional support and validation often develop a deep-seated need for external approval. They may believe that their worth is contingent upon being liked and avoiding conflict. This unmet need for validation and fear of rejection drives them to prioritize others' needs over their own.

Understanding the role of trauma in shaping these behaviors can provide a path to healing. By recognizing these patterns, individuals can begin to unravel the deeply ingrained responses and start to build healthier, more balanced relationships.

Socio-Cultural Influences

Society often socializes women to be nurturing, accommodating, and self-sacrificing. From a young age, girls are praised for being "good" when they are compliant and helpful. This social conditioning ingrains the belief that our value is tied to how well we meet the needs of others. Many women can recall being told to smile or to stop being "a bitch" or "difficult." Assertive women are often labeled disparagingly, reinforcing the idea that dissaproval and personal boundaries makes us unlikable.

These experiences shape our behavior as we strive to fit in and be accepted. In many cultures, women are expected to be caregivers, prioritizing others' needs over their own. This expectation extends into professional environments, where women might feel pressured to be agreeable and cooperative to avoid being perceived as difficult or unlikable.

These societal pressures can create a pervasive pattern of people-pleasing that is difficult to break. Understanding these influences is the first step towards challenging them and reclaiming our authenticity. By recognizing the impact of social conditioning, we can begin to redefine our value based on our true selves rather than how well we accommodate others.

The Double Bind in the Workplace and the Backlash Effect

Research has shown that women who assert themselves in the workplace are often seen as less likable compared to their male counterparts. This phenomenon, known as the "backlash effect," describes the negative reactions women face when they display assertive and self-promotional behaviors that are contrary to traditional feminine stereotypes. According to a study from Standford Business School, women in leadership or technical roles are particularly vulnerable to this bias. The study found that engaging in confrontations and assertively pursuing positions of power evoke negative reactions. This 'double bind' where women must be assertive to succeed but are penalized for being too assertive creates a challenging environment for those striving for leadership positions and perpetuates self-sacrifical, people pleasing behaviours.

Other Cultural Considerations

In many collectivistic cultures, such as those in the Philippines or other East Asian societies, the emphasis on interdependence and communal well-being fosters a high tolerance for behaviors that prioritize group harmony over individual needs. This cultural backdrop often celebrates caretaking and accommodating others as virtues essential to maintaining social cohesion. For example, in Filipino culture, there is a strong emphasis on "utang na loob," a concept that emphasizes gratitude and the obligation to repay favors. This cultural value can manifest as a strong inclination towards people-pleasing behaviors, as individuals strive to honor their familial and communal obligations.

Canadian women raised by parents from collectivist cultures might inherit these people-pleasing behaviors, which can sometimes clash with the more individualistic values prevalent in North American society. For instance, a Canadian woman with Filipino heritage may feel torn between the expectation to prioritize family and community needs and the North American encouragement to assert personal boundaries and pursue individual goals.

Consider Lindsay, who is half-Filipino. She feels a profound sense of obligation to attend every family event and mediate family conflicts even when her own mental health is at risk. Her Filipino mother often reminds her of the importance of family and the sacrifices everyone must make for the sake of harmony. Despite feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, Lindsay fears that setting boundaries would disappoint her family and make her appear ungrateful.

This cultural conflict can make it challenging to identify when people-pleasing is a healthy social behavior and when it is detrimental to personal well-being. Behaviors such as caretaking and accommodating others are often seen as virtues and are integral to maintaining social cohesion. However, when these behaviors lead to significant personal distress, it is crucial to address them within the framework of the individual's cultural values and personal experiences.

Understanding these cultural considerations helps us see that people-pleasing behaviors are not just personal habits but also reflections of deeply ingrained cultural values. By recognizing the influence of cultural norms, we can begin to navigate these behaviors with greater awareness and compassion, creating a balance between honoring our cultural heritage and fostering our own well-being.

The Cost of People-Pleasing

The consequences of chronic people-pleasing can be profound and far-reaching. Here are some of the common costs:

Loss of Identity: Constantly prioritizing others' needs can lead to a disconnection from your own desires and goals. You might find yourself unsure of what you truly want in life. Like Lindsay, you might realize that you've been living a life designed to make others happy at the expense of your own fulfillment.

Burnout: Overcommitting and taking on too much to please others can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion. This burnout can affect your performance at work and your overall quality of life.

Unhealthy Relationships: People-pleasers often attract partners and friends who take advantage of their accommodating nature. This dynamic can lead to one-sided relationships that drain your energy and self-esteem.

Stifled Growth: By avoiding conflict and going along with others, you might miss out on opportunities for personal and professional growth. Standing up for your ideas and asserting your boundaries are essential for advancement and self-fulfillment.

Recognizing the Signs of People-Pleasing

People-pleasing can show up in various aspects of our lives. Here are some signs that you might be a people-pleaser:

Difficulty Saying No: You often agree to things you don't want to do, fearing disappointment or conflict. If you find yourself constantly saying yes to requests, even when you're overwhelmed, it's a red flag.

Seeking Approval: Your self-worth is tied to the validation and approval of others. You might find yourself constantly looking for praise and reassurance from those around you to feel good about yourself.

Avoiding Conflict: You go to great lengths to keep the peace, even if it means sacrificing your own needs. This might mean staying silent when you disagree or going along with things that make you uncomfortable just to avoid rocking the boat.

Overextending Yourself: You take on more than you can handle to be seen as helpful and accommodating. Your schedule is always packed, leaving little time for yourself because you’re always prioritizing others' needs.

Suppressing Emotions: You hide your true feelings to avoid upsetting others. Whether it’s masking your frustration, sadness, or anger, you put on a brave face to keep everyone else happy.

Recognizing these signs is the first step toward reclaiming your authenticity. By understanding the patterns and the reasons behind them, you can begin to make changes that honor your needs and true self.

Breaking Free from People-Pleasing

If you identify with Lindsay's story, you might be thinking, "Okay, what's next? What do I do now?" Overcoming people-pleasing involves a combination of self-awareness, boundary-setting, and self-compassion, but it is possible. Here are some strategies to help you reclaim your authentic self:

Cultivate Self-Awareness: The first step in breaking free from people-pleasing is to become aware of when and why you engage in these behaviors. Reflect on situations where you feel compelled to please others and consider the underlying fears and beliefs driving these actions.

Ask yourself:

  • What am I afraid will happen if I say no?
  • How do I feel when I prioritize others over myself?
  • What do I hope to gain by pleasing others?

Set Clear Boundaries: Setting boundaries is crucial for maintaining your well-being and protecting your time and energy. Start by identifying areas in your life where you need to establish limits. This might include work commitments, social engagements, or family obligations.

Communicate your boundaries clearly and assertively. Remember, setting boundaries isn't about being selfish; it's about honoring your needs and fostering healthy relationships. Lindsay learned to say no to additional work projects and politely decline social invitations when she needed time for herself. This helped her protect her time and energy, ultimately reducing her stress and burnout.

Practice Self-Compassion: Be gentle with yourself as you navigate this process. Breaking free from people-pleasing can be challenging, and it's important to practice self-compassion along the way. Recognize that it's okay to make mistakes and that you deserve kindness and understanding, just like anyone else.

Reclaim Your Voice: Start expressing your opinions and desires, even in small ways. This might involve sharing your thoughts in a meeting, stating your preferences with friends, or speaking up when something bothers you. The more you practice using your voice, the more confident you will become in asserting yourself. For Lindsay, this meant gradually starting to voice her preferences in her relationship and at work, which helped her feel more in control and respected.

Seek Support: Consider seeking support from a therapist or counselor who can help you explore the roots of your people-pleasing behavior and develop healthier patterns. Therapy provides a safe space to work through your fears and build the skills needed to prioritize your well-being. Lindsay's journey to reclaiming her voice was significantly aided by her therapist, who helped her understand her patterns and develop new, healthier ways of interacting with others.

Embracing Your Authentic Self

Lindsay's story is a powerful reminder that change is not only possible but also profoundly rewarding. By prioritizing her own needs and setting clear boundaries, she improved her mental and emotional health, enriched her relationships, and found a renewed sense of self-worth and contentment. Her journey wasn't easy, but it was worth every step.

If Lindsay’s story resonates with you, know that you are not alone. Many people struggle with the need to please others at the expense of their own well-being. The first step towards change is recognizing these patterns and seeking support.

Final Thoughts

Change begins with the courage to acknowledge that you deserve to live a life that reflects your true self, not just the expectations of others. By taking steps to understand and overcome people-pleasing behaviors, you can reclaim your power and start living authentically.

As a counsellor in Sidney, BC, I invite you to explore counseling with me. Together, we can work towards breaking free from the cycle of people-pleasing and building a life where you feel empowered, valued, and true to yourself. Click here to schedule your first appointment.