Do you think you're too nice to say no? Do you avoid conflicts at the risk of being stepped on? Do you often worry about what others think?
These are some of the traits of people-pleasers. Although an easily recognized behavior, the causes of people-pleasing are not widely spoken of. Like many other behavior patterns, it has roots in childhood.
If we know more about people-pleasing behavior and what causes it, we can prevent our children from growing into people-pleasing adults.
In this article we'll cover:
- What people-pleasing is (and why it's harmful)
- What causes people-pleasing
- The opposite of people-pleasing
- 3 strategies to prevent our children from turning into people-pleasers
People-pleasing is the need to please others to build relationships. It involves fear of rejection or fear of saying no or both.
Common qualities of people pleasers
People-pleasers are often:
- Afraid of being abandoned
- Worry about what others think and feel
- Can't say no or set boundaries
- Afraid of looking mean
- Seek validation from others
- Too busy taking care of others
Is it all bad?
People pleasers have a great work ethic. They are committed to their responsibilities and they usually overdeliver. They are considerate, agreeable, and polite. They take the temperature of the room, blend in, and put others' opinions first.
"What's so wrong about being thoughtful of others?" I can hear you asking. Helping, giving, being considerate are all great acts of kindness. When done in moderation, pleasing our loved ones is nothing but good for us.
But if a line is crossed for us over and over again, its consequences can be harmful. Interestingly, people-pleasers don’t see themselves as such. Their visible complaints can be: being stuck in an abusive relationship, low self-esteem, fear of saying no, stress, and burnout.
People-pleasing behavior and depression
People-pleasers bottle up deep resentment because they don't express anger. They are so exhausted from trying to please others, that they lose touch with their authentic self.
People-pleasers are highly self-critical. They rarely ask for help. They tend to be perfectionists. They fear failure and regret missed opportunities. They don't have personal boundaries and their vulnerability is often exploited.
In short, people-pleasers so desperately want to be liked that they cannot be. They are trapped inside their own expectations of themselves. People-pleasing individuals are vulnerable to depression when faced with a threat or a loss.
What causes people-pleasing?
People-pleasing stems from 3 main causes:
1) Culture: Cultural pressures can lead to putting the needs of others first. Meeting the expectations of society can become a knee-jerk reaction to survive. For example, in most cultures, women are expected to be more agreeable than men. A little girl's aggression is often less-tolerated than a little boy's.
2) Temperament: Some people are naturally other-oriented, some people are sensitive to stimulations, and others to conflict. This was coded in their DNA and has little to do with the way they were raised, although the parenting they received can strengthen their tendencies.
3) Attachment: The most important cause of people-pleasing tendencies is the attachment style we have with our parents. But first, let's see what attachment style is.
People-pleasing and attachment
Attachment style is known as our primary way of getting our needs met in relationships. What is the first and most important relationship that we have? Of course, our relationship with our parents. The way our parents met our needs determines our attachment style.
Attachment theory is one of the most prominent theories in child development and continues to be so after decades of research. In laboratory studies, attachment patterns can be identified as young as one-year-old. With 70-80% accuracy, that child’s attachment style at 18 years of age can be predicted.
People-pleasing is a way to get our needs met. It's a strategy for being loved, appreciated, and accepted. It makes up for the lack of security in our relationships. It's a strategy we learn through very early experiences in life, that is in our relationship with our parents.
Secure vs. insecure attachment
According to attachment theory, a parent has 2 crucial roles. First one is to respond to the child's desire for care and the second one is to encourage the child to explore the world.
A secure attachment provides an "umbilical cord" for the child the safely explore the world without feeling lost. Securely attached children see themselves as being able to help themselves and as worthy of being helped if they ever need it.
Insecure attachment, on the other hand, happens when our parents show overprotection or lack of responsiveness. Insecurely attached children see can be overly dependent or see themselves as unworthy of love.
A child's need for survival
Insecure attachment creates the perfect atmosphere for people-pleasing behavior patterns to develop because of 2 things: unmet needs and lack of encouragement to explore the world.
Parents of future people-pleasers are usually overly occupied. They don't consistently show emotional availability to their children because they seem too busy to fix their own life. In this case, the child steps in to save their parent and make them available to show love.
How? The child can act as the parent, take on the caregiving role, or put on self-blame to protect the feelings of the parent. This way, the parent can assumably feel right and give them the love that she needs. But the parent never actually "heals" no matter how hard the child keeps trying.
In other cases, the parent pushes to be right all the time and the child can feel a lack of encouragement to be themselves. They might be shown love only when they are nice. They might also be losing the love for not meeting their parent's expectations. In these cases, the child associates being loved with being nice.
What is the opposite of people-pleasing?
The opposite of people-pleasing is not saying no to everything, being hostile or self-centric. In fact, it's possible to be kind and thoughtful to others, while protecting our own boundaries.
In most people-pleasing behavior patterns, what's seen to be missing is healthy narcissism and assertiveness. Let's see what these are:
When we hear the word narcissism, we often think of it as a negative thing. Narcissism can indeed become a disorder. What is less known is that narcissism exists on a continuum. A few narcissistic traits are considered healthy whereas at the other end of the continuum is a clinical disorder.
"Parents who saw him as he really was, understood him, and tolerated and respected his feelings. Such a child would develop a healthy narcissism."
Children start developing narcissism at around age 2. As they start to talk, the words they use most frequently are, "I," and "no." They want everything to happen as they please and don't care much about others' wants and needs.
Healthy narcissism is taking pleasure in oneself. It can be seen as a “love affair with the world.” As children grow, the world no longer revolves around them but they can still carry healthy narcissism into adulthood.
Healthy narcissism is important because taking pleasure in ourselves helps us go through difficulties. Self-love, joy for life, and resilience are results of healthy narcissism. It also protects us from burnout.
We don't want our children to be hostile but we also don't want them to be people-pleasers. Aggression and submissiveness have a soft spot in between and it is called assertiveness. Assertiveness is a behavior that involves the direct expression of thoughts and feelings in a socially acceptable manner.
Assertive children are more likely to identify their own feelings, speak up for themselves and others, disagree respectfully, say no without feeling guilty, and negotiate.
Like many other social behaviors, assertiveness is best learned by imitation.
How to prevent our child from turning into a people-pleaser
If we don't want our children to turn into people-pleasers, first we should accept that they are not parent-pleasers. Here are 3 strategies to prevent our kids from turning into people-pleasers.
1) Trust your children
Our children are capable of much more than we give them credit for. Starting from infancy, develop a mindset of trust for your child. Trust for their skills, trust for their sincerity, trust for their honesty, trust for their intuition.
"All you need is one person, just one person who trusts and believes in you, and then you feel you can do anything. Unfortunately, a lot of children don’t have even one person."
—Esther Wojcicki in “How to Raise Successful People.”
2) Make peace with "no"
Children benefit from learning how to respectfully say no. For instance, a kid who is comfortable saying no will have a more healthy relationship with sharing because she will be comfortable with placing boundaries and respecting other's boundaries.
This includes them saying no to you too. Although it might be triggering to hear no, it's important to notice our own fear of rejection and do not charge our children for saying no to us. Instead, we can teach them how to negotiate over relatively unimportant things, such as when to have a snack, how many books to read, etc.
3) Accept them as they are
Children have a need to be seen and accepted as they are. Do you tend to change the way your child looks, talks, walks, or dresses? Does your tendency to want to change your child find its way in your everyday communication?
It's important to accept children as they are because only through our acceptance can they form a healthy self-image. Only if we accept them as they are, they accept themselves as they are. This frees them from seeking validation from others later in life. This includes accepting and valuing their opinions and emotions.
Imagine your kid playing in a public area and a peer took away a toy she'd been playing with without asking for permission. How cool would it be to hear our child say this?
"Excuse me, I see that you've taken that toy. I wasn't done playing with it but I'm happy to bring it to you when I'm done." —an 8-year-old at the public play area
This is what being free of people-pleasing behavior looks like. And it's kind of magical to know that we can achieve this for our kids by giving them unconditional love, trust, and acceptance.
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