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  • Writer's pictureMaria Diaz

Is People-Pleasing a Trauma Response?

On the surface, people-pleasing seems to be a benign desire to make people happy and maintain harmony. People-pleasers can go to extraordinary lengths to be helpful, often struggle to say “no,” and can even minimize their own needs and desires in an effort to appear agreeable. But under the surface lie complex emotions, internal motivations, and potentially underlying trauma.

This begs the question: Is people-pleasing a learned behavior or a coping mechanism for unresolved trauma? Let’s take a deeper look to find the root of this behavior.

People-Pleasing and the Fawn Response

People-pleasing is often born out of a deep desire for validation and acceptance. Those of us who struggle with people-pleasing often prioritize the wants and needs of others at the expense of our own well-being.

This pattern of behavior can be linked to childhood, where the approval and validation of our caregivers are vital for healthy development. However, if we experience neglect, overt criticism, or emotional abuse, this can taint our development. We become hyper-vigilant and keenly attuned to the emotional shifts in our environment as a form of self-preservation. When we internalize the belief that our value is based on how helpful we are to others, we can develop a fawn response to those around us.     

Fawning is a kind of people-pleasing behavior used to meet another person’s needs, wishes, and demands. It involves changing our typical behavior to appease another, withholding our own opinions and beliefs, and avoiding any type of conflict. 

People-pleasing often comes with a cost. In order to be liked, we need to prioritize others. To be accepted, we need to place our desires last. In time, this behavior leads to more complex behaviors of seeking validation from others rather than finding internal validation. 

What Signs are Present in People-Pleasers?

Unlike some of the other trauma responses (fight, flight, or freeze), people-pleasing can be more subtle. There are certain nuances that may not even be noticed by ourselves or outsiders as anything other than personality traits.

Common signs of people-pleasing include seeking opinions of others before making our own, having difficulty determining our own feelings, lacking identity, and shifting into a new gear at the first sight of conflict. We may experience difficulty setting boundaries, feel like we’re walking on eggshells around others, and feel uncomfortable disagreeing.

Additionally, more noticeable signs include a constant attempt to please someone else and neglecting our own beliefs and values to accommodate others.

What are the Emotional Responses Related to People-Pleasing?

The hidden cost of people-pleasing is that it creates a perpetual cycle of dysfunction. When we prioritize the needs and wants of others over our own, we continue to feel powerless and see our value only in service to others, further reinforcing this response. We can quickly become burned out from always putting others first, which can lead to anger, resentment, and guilt.

We may feel overwhelmed and exhausted from constantly seeking validation. Due to these behaviors, we might feel trapped. Added stress and anxiety can accompany each action and our overall behavior. Relationships can become co-dependent, leading to additional problems.

Resolving Any Past Trauma 

People-pleasing has roots in trauma, but more specifically, complex trauma. For many, there is a series of events that has encouraged this behavior to develop and continue.

Through a personalized treatment approach, we can work through exploring the cause of people-pleasing behavior, develop new-found strength, learn about the response, and break the cycle. This includes challenging negative thought patterns, learning to create boundaries, practicing self-care, building confidence, and cultivating healthy relationships.

If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma from the past and displays people-pleasing behaviors, we can provide an effective means for working through it. Contact our office today to learn more about the available options.


About the Author

Maria Diaz is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in NY, NJ and CT. She's certified in EMDR and trained in modalities that are trauma focused. She is focused on healing and providing compassionate treatment to best support clients who are looking to feel better.


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