In this article, you will learn how being a people pleaser stems from trauma. You will also learn steps to heal from trauma and stop being a people pleaser.
As this article discusses trauma, please be mindful as you read this. Take breaks and practice deep breathing as needed.
Signs of Being a People Pleaser
People pleasing can manifest in many ways. Most basically, you may act as a chameleon in your relationships. If you are different things for different people this is a clear sign of people pleasing.
You may also frequently say “yes” when you may need to say “no.” If you always help others but then resent when they don’t do the same for you this is a sign of people pleasing.
You may feel like you have to pretend to always be happy or agreeable. You may believe it’s not ok to ever have a bad day – or at least, be honest about this.
Being a perfectionist is also a sign of people pleasing. When you try to do the impossible – be perfect – this is typically to gain approval from someone or a group of people.
If you relate to being a people pleaser, know that this is completely common and understandable. You developed this behavior for a reason. There’s nothing wrong with you – and you can heal!
Before exploring why trauma leads to people pleasing, it’s important to first define trauma. The easiest way to conceptualize trauma is a wound. The word “trauma” itself stems from the Greek word for wound.
Trauma are wounding experiences which negatively impact your sense of safety. These injuries may stem from wounds to various parts of yourself including your mental, emotional, and physical self. Some examples of trauma include a car accident, being bullied, or abuse in your home growing up.
The Role of Trauma and Being a People Pleaser
There are too many examples of trauma to list here. Also, an exhaustive list of trauma can be highly triggering. But to clarify, there are wounds which are more likely to lead to people pleasing than others. The wounds which occur within your relationships, whether in childhood and/or adulthood, more greatly predict becoming a people pleaser.
It understandably may feel unsafe to be authentic if you ever were treated in ways which made you feel unlovable or not good enough. An example of this is being harshly criticized if you made mistakes growing up. Or another example is being told that you shouldn’t think or feel in certain ways.
Trauma isn’t Always Obvious
People pleasing can arise out of clear wounds from your past which made you feel not good enough. However, it’s completely common to not be able to identify exactly why you feel you must hide your true self.
Trauma can be covert or overt. Overt forms of trauma are clear such as abuse, neglect, and mistreatment. However, wounds can also be covert or hidden. A covert trauma which can lead to being a people pleaser is moving a lot growing up. For many, this is not an obvious trauma. However, not being able to form last friendships may have made you feel you had to adapt to fit in. Or alternatively, it would be understandable if you built up a wall around your authentic self to stop hurting so much when you had to move next.
Trauma and Society
While it’s often not discussed, it’s possible to experience wounding from societal or cultural messages. If you grew up going to Church, for instance, you may feel worth-less than others subconsciously if your sexuality was shamed. You may then naturally feel you have to be a chameleon to avoid being judged negatively.
There are many narratives around gender too which can hurt your ability to be authentic. For example, there can be a lot of pressure to be a “nice” as a girl and woman. If you picked up this message you may understandably then feel you must always be friendly, polite and agreeable to be liked as a woman.
Your Feelings are Ok
When discussing trauma, it’s natural to feel complex feelings. Feelings of anger, hurt or not wanting to forgive are completely ok and understandable.
Yet if you’re a people pleaser, you may be more likely feel guilty or ashamed for even contemplating your trauma. It’s natural to have a part of you that wants to protect your loved ones if they wounded you in the past. You may want to defend them and highlight all the good they have done for you too.
No One Has to Be Wrong
Here, it’s important to consider dialectical thinking to heal. Dialectical thinking reveals that one, or more, things which seem like opposites can both be true.
If your mom pushed you to get straight As, she may have done this out of love. She may have pushed you to perform out of the hope that you could find success. At the same time, this pressure may have led you to be a people pleaser because you learned you can’t make mistakes.
Your mom doesn’t have to be wrong, or bad, for it to be true that her pressure was wounding for you.
You are Not Bad or Wrong
One of the saddest lingering impacts of trauma is how frequently it distorts our sense of self-worth. Commonly, people make up that because something bad happened to them, then they must have something wrong with them. For instance, a person may understandably yet mistakenly believe, they were bullied because they’re too “stupid” or “ugly.” Yet this is not true.
Sadly, hurt people who lack emotional skills hurt people. Their choice to hurt you was a sign of their lack of healing and immaturity. You are innately worthy and valuable despite how others may have treated you before.
Have Compassion for Yourself
Hopefully, you can have compassion for yourself as you honor people pleasing comes from trauma. Again, any wounds which made you believe you weren’t ok as you truly are can lead you to pretend for others. There is no shame or weakness in this. In fact, belonging is a core human need. It’s completely understandable that you have acted in ways which are inauthentic to have others in your life.
Please try to be kind and gentle with yourself when you notice you are people pleasing. Rather than criticizing yourself give yourself grace and love. The book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin Neff is a wonderful resource if you have a hard time being gentle with yourself.
Becoming More Authentic
The antidote to people pleasing is being authentic. You are authentic whenever you are real, and honest, about who you are with yourself, others, and the world.
At the same time, this is dialectical. You can both be authentic, and genuine, while having healthy boundaries. For example, you can be your true self at work but with healthy boundaries, your coworkers will know less about you than your best friend.
Knowing Who You Are
If you have a pattern of people pleasing, you may struggle with the idea of authenticity. It’s completely understandable if you find yourself thinking right now “But I don’t know who I am.” No problem at all. It makes sense that if you have focused on making others happy, you may have forgotten – or never learned – what makes you happy.
One of the first steps to breaking a habit of people pleasing is to simply give yourself space to contemplate your true self. Questions you may reflect on or journal about include:
- What do I genuinely like to do?
- When I was a kid, what were my favorite activities? Do any of these still interest me?
- What did I want to be as a kid if I had an idea?
- What would I do if I had a free day off from all my responsibilities and an unlimited budget?
- What sorts of things make me upset or angry? What do I not believe in?
- What do I believe in?
There are many more questions you may ask yourself to get to know your true self but you may start here.
You Can’t Lose Your True Self
The most beautiful thing about authenticity is your true self is waiting for you. Underneath all the noise, and pressure, to make others happy, your genuine self is there within you. You may connect with your authenticity by connecting with your heart and gut.
Of course, if you are a people pleaser, you may have lost this connection over time. However, you may cultivate it again with mindfulness such as by breathing into your body or by doing guided meditations. Yoga is also a wonderful asset to reconnect with your true self too. It’s also proven that yoga helps heal trauma.
Identifying Safe People
Another way to stop being a people pleaser is to consider if you have safe people in your life. Since people pleasing stems from trauma and experiences which made you feel emotionally or physically unsafe, it’s critical to create a sense of safety. Practices like yoga and deep breathing help with this.
However, if you already have people in your life that you know truly love and accept you, these are wonderful relationships to start practicing being more honest.
Practicing Being Authentic
Let’s say you feel safe emotionally with your sister but tend to always let her make your plans when you travel. To stop people pleasing, you may practice sharing your genuine opinions and preferences with her. For instance, she may like to do many active events like hiking when you travel but you want a spa day. Be honest with her that you want at least one day for relaxation.
Being authentic with safe people is a wonderful way to stop people pleasing. It also helps create a new narrative that there are people who can accept you as you are. This helps heal a traumatic narrative i.e., the belief that you will always be rejected if you’re real.
Boundaries work is a critical component of no longer people pleasing. This is because fundamentally people pleasers struggle to set boundaries. This often manifests as saying “yes” when they need to say “no.” Or over-giving to others and neglecting to self-care.
Developing healthy boundaries allows you to both stop people pleasing which creating a sense of greater safety. Boundaries exist to help you feel safe in this world both with yourself and others. You can set the boundary, for instance, to go to bed earlier at night. This helps you feel physically and emotionally better. You also show yourself with your self-care that you can rely on yourself to keep yourself healthy.
Or when you set boundaries with another person such as telling them that you no longer want to be criticized, you provide yourself the space to feel safer in this relationship. If this person respects your limit, great – they are showing themselves to be safe for you. If they are unable to be safe for you, then you can show yourself that you are safe for yourself by taking space or ending the relationship.
Have Patience with Yourself
Learning how to stop people pleasing while healing from trauma is a complex process. It’s completely possible to heal but it does take time and practice. Start with the steps in this article while remembering to always stay kind to yourself. You can’t heal trauma by being another unsafe, critical person in your life.
To heal from trauma, and cultivate greater self-love, a self-care routine is critical. To learn how to create a sustainable self-care practice, please read “How to Take Care of Yourself – 6 Simple Self-Care Strategies.”
Treat yourself like a loving parent and accept that you cannot heal perfectly. There will still be times you give into people pleasing. This is not a problem. Rather the important thing is every single time you discover something new about your true self. Or when you tell someone the truth of what you think or feel. Or when you say “no” when you need to. These are all the important things in your healing journey.
About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her third book, Therapy Within Reach: Setting Boundaries, will be released September, 2023.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or DM her on Instagram.
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