One of the most common behaviors I see in my therapy clients is people pleasing. I think it is one of the hardest behaviors to break because it is usually present for an entire person’s life.
So how does it originate? What leads someone to develop people pleasing behaviors?
As with most psychological questions, there are multiple answers.
People pleasing seldom exhibits itself in the same way in all environments. For example, I had a client who was very crisp, direct, and perfectionistic at work. That same client struggled with overextending herself with friends and being straightforward with how she felt. At home, she tried to voice her opinions, but often felt like she ended up catering to what her husband wanted. She sought out therapy due to the amount of marital discord.
All of her behaviors came from a place of wanting to be liked. Wanting to be liked can be further broken down into the very human desires of needing to be seen, heard, understood, valued, and belong. There is nothing wrong with these needs. We should want them.
Women are often taught and socialized that the way to “belong” is to be nice. Furthermore, women do not have as much power within our culture. Let me be very clear on two things. One, I am speaking in general terms and I understand there will always be exceptions. Two, women are extremely powerful - it’s just that our patriarchal culture has discounted them for centuries.
If a woman was able to speak, be heard, and be respected by those in her audience, there would be no need to resort to “being nice” to belong.
People pleasing is a tool that people without equality, mutuality, or power often rely on.
For example, a woman may worry that her friends will not like her as much if she doesn’t show up to their social gathering.
This example leads us to another force behind people pleasing - safety. This internal force typically operates at the unconscious level and originates in childhood. When a child grows up in environments where there is physical or emotional violence, a child often learns to appease others in order to keep the environment calm and thus ensure their own safety. This behavior of "taking care of others" then extends into adulthood and other relationships.
Less noticeable is when children grow up in environments where their emotional needs are not met. For example, children who grow up in strict, demanding religious households who are told how to behave and what to believe. There is little space for individuality, let alone their own emotions and thoughts. They do not have the opportunity to express their own emotions and learn that they are important messengers from their intuition. They are robbed of the opportunity to develop a strong relationship with themselves. As a result, they continue trying to please the environment around them.
Another way this shows up is through overly demanding parents. In these environments, kids quickly learn that the only way to please their parents is to do as they say and achieve success by their parents’ standards - usually through accomplishments in school, sports, etc. This instills in them that by “performing well,” they will be praised, liked, and accepted. This is why some people develop into perfectionists at work - it gives them a sense of being liked and belonging.
So what’s the harm or cost of these behaviors?
In the clients I see, they are typically exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious, unhappy, and deeply out of touch with themselves.
In therapy we explore the root causes of their behaviors. The foundational understanding we develop helps to dismantle the shame that there is something inherently wrong with them. They can understand they unconsciously learned people pleasing behaviors to survive or thrive in difficult environments.
We then begin to enhance their connection to themselves. We look at how they can express and honor their feelings, as well as the needs beneath them. This restores connection with their intuition. This connection helps them to acknowledge what they truly want (such as genuine connection, rest, etc.) and we explore different strategies to achieve that.
We also look at how to establish and assert boundaries, as well as how to themself - even when it displeases others.
As with most things in therapy, it is a process. I find the work to be enjoyable, for I get to witness individuals shed the familial, cultural, and social confines of people pleasing to step into their full selves.
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