People-pleasing: How it begins in childhood and can manifest in adults – ABC News
When Will bumped into his old school friends in Sydney one day, he came to a startling realisation — his friends knew nothing about him.
"They literally have zero recollection of what I did and who I am. They just don't remember anything," the 28-year-old says.
"I never quite fit in at school and I never got the emotional security I needed at home. [So] I spent the rest of my life becoming a really good chameleon to try and fit in with any group."
Will says when he was in school, he understood his friendships to be "transactional", like a business deal where each person has a clear role.
But what was his role?
"I make sure everyone is happy," Will says.
People-pleasers are often seen as helpful and kind, but it goes beyond this.
It involves continuously changing the way you act or speak for the sake of another person's feelings or reactions.
Melbourne-based clinical psychologist Jacqueline Baulch, says people-pleasing often emerges from childhood and it's "more than just being a nice person".
"A main sign in people-pleasers is feeling they [must] put other people's needs ahead of their own [the] majority of the time … they find it very difficult to put their own needs first," Dr Baulch says.
How do you say "no" when your family, friends and partner are so used to you saying "yes"?
Dr Baulch compares two situations: when a child has all their needs met and have physical and emotional support, they'll likely grow up with the confidence to trust others and maintain healthy relationships.
However, if a child doesn't have enough room or time for their own needs, "the effect is it becomes risky to think about those needs".
"It's a coping strategy to maintain attachment with the parents … and that's the primary goal of a child. If they're not attached to a parent and their survival is threatened, they'll do anything to maintain to that relationship," she says.
Will says he understands that the relationship with his parents, and how they related to him, stems from their own background. Both his parents migrated from Shanghai and experienced hardship as they built a new life in Australia.
"They hustled so hard and were often thinking about the next thing I needed. They had to fight so hard for every single thing: jobs, degrees, learning English, any sort of validation, space in society, and even having a community around them," he says.
"They had to build things from nothing and raise a child in a completely different environment."
Will's parents always had high expectations of him, whether it was academically, work, marriage, or any "important" area of life.
“Often instead of, ‘Hey you did well’, the question is, ‘Why didn’t you do better?’
"[So] I think a lot of kids, especially [migrant] kids, who grew up in these kind of situations become very good at lying [to please their parents]. It's just like a pure survival tactic."
Will says he knows it’s very difficult for parents to switch out of "survivor mentality" and to understand how your child is growing up in a very different environment that you’re used to.
"At the end of the day, they tried their best in their own way to make space for me. And I understand that emotional stuff or issues we went through is a result of intergenerational trauma, [and] habits and culture as well.
"I don’t blame them or feel it’s all their fault. I think just as much as we are products of our parents, so are our parents of theirs."
Dr Baulch says there's a name for Will's often unconscious behaviour to please — the fawn response.
In a nutshell, "fawning" is when you seek safety by pleasing the person threatening you.
Dr Baulch highlights that the fawn response is an adaptive one.
"People-pleasing comes about as an adaptive response to cope and get by in [a] situation," she says.
"If your parents or others want you to bend and mould to what they need … it can be very disempowering. So as an adult … [you're still] responding the same way," she says.
Over time, people-pleasers often feel quite resentful, emotionally used and taken advantage of, Dr Baulch says. There's also struggles with setting boundaries and saying no.
Being empathic isn't about being highly sensitive or constantly taking on other people's emotions and problems.
It was a critical realisation that suddenly pulled Will's people-pleasing mentality into frightening clarity.
"I don't even know what my own needs are," he says.
And not knowing his own needs played a role in his lack of identity and low self-esteem.
The relationship between low self-worth and social relationships is a complex one, and something that Will feels he saw play out in his life. He says there was a lot of "hurt and projection of his own emotional response onto others".
"So how do I know what to put first? It's like when you don't know what makes you happy or what kind of person you are," he says.
Will's realisation is a familiar sentiment.
"As the child gets older, it's like an outdated coping strategy they need to unlearn or update. They put their needs aside for survival," Dr Baulch says.
"People-pleasers can sometimes have trouble identifying their needs. So, it can be very tricky when you get to a place and realise that you're a people-pleaser, and you're not sure how to change the way you interact with people and the world.
"It can feel very threatening to put their own needs first, especially in an environment where they're already known to be a people-pleaser. People are used to them giving what they want, which can cause stress, anxiety, and conflict."
Will says there's been two character arcs in his life so far, which he has more understanding of since he saw a psychologist.
The first was a huge people-pleasing arc, while the second is looking out for himself more.
You might have heard of the term, but do you know what attachment style you have?
"As I get older, the more I understand people are fully fleshed-out humans with their own flaws. I've been doing inner-child work and [widening] my perception," he says.
"It's allowed me to have a better relationship with my parents too, because I see them as actual people now … and not just kind of weird gods with more power over my life.
"[It's also better] in normal life, working life and with friends."
And when he looks back at his old friendships, he doesn't blame them for being "transactional".
"There's like a side of me that desperately wants to fit in, even at a cost … I think recognising that is a part of me means I can be much more aware of the kind of impact I have on myself, my own identity, and the people around me."
This is general information only. For personal advice, you should see a qualified medical practitioner.
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