What causes people pleasing?

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Hi, y’all– here’s my next installment in video series I’m putting together on mental health.  In today’s video, I tackle the topic “What causes people pleasing?” — take a look!

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What causes people pleasing?


I’m Ann Stoneson, I’m a therapist in private practice in Austin, Texas. Today, I want to talk a little bit about the origin of people-pleasing.  Most people when you ask them “Do you know what a people pleaser is?”— they can give you a pretty clear answer.  It’s folks who have a hard time saying no and setting limits, they’re usually chronically oversubscribed, they really hate conflict and they worry a lot about what other people think of them.

I really want to talk about where this problem comes from, because while people have talked a lot about this there are a number of key factors that work together to conspire to cultivate people pleasing in a lot of us.

So there are three main factors I want to talk about today and they are: culture, biological characteristics and traits, and a big piece about upbringing, attachment with the people who raised us.

Let’s start with culture.

Frankly, in American culture and a lot of cultures around the world, there is a focus on—especially for women and young girls—how to meet the needs of others before meeting your own needs. 

For women, there is a message that to love someone else, you need to put them first.  There’s an idea that to love somebody you will change for them, you will accommodate them.  I don’t really think there’s a similar script for men in that regard.

So there are cultural pressures that push for accommodating other people’s needs, avoiding conflict, being told if you do engage with conflict that you’re being bitchy, you’re being difficult, that you’re crazy. There’s some cultural gaslighting, frankly, that’s specifically directly at women that’s based in some toxic norms around patriarchal culture.

By the way, I’m a feminist therapist, if that wasn’t evident to you it is now, the gloves are off, hopefully you’re still with me.  So, cultural factors play a big factor in cultivating people pleasing.

And people pleasing is a problem for men and women both, I want to be clear about that.  There are some ways in which too, men are certainly taught that they have to set their needs aside in order to survive.  They need to relationally or emotionally cut off parts of themselves in order to be accepted.  And that’s really at the heart of people pleasing, which is “What can I do to earn your love?”

So, cultural pieces are certainly at play.  Biology plays a part as well.  I think there are some people who are temperamentally are just more vulnerable to developing people-pleasing.

Temperament, when I say temperament, that refers to innate biological characteristics within us, it’s how we’re born, it’s not something so much shaped by relationship, it can be mitigated by that but it really is about indwelling traits, you can see this even in small infants.

Some infants are more easily overstimulated by lights, by sound, by social engagement with others where they really need to take the world in a little more slowly, you have some infants that are really very bold, fearless, getting into everything.  If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about here—that kids are very different, and they come out that way, and then we have to choose how to engage with that and how to parent them in a way that’s complementary to who they are as they’re emerging.

So, temperament has a big place in this, in developing people pleasing.  For example, if you’re an HSP, a highly sensitive person.  That’s a trait found in about 20 of the population, and describes again that phenomenon of having a proneness to being deeply empathic and attuned to the people around you.  I’m an HSP by the way, hi.  It’s part of what brought me to the profession and makes me a skilled therapist. It also makes me avoid most holiday parties, because it’s just too much and it’s overstimulating.

So, people who are more introverted, there’s a lot of overlap between HSP and introversion though it’s not a 1:1 ratio.  But if you tend to recharge being alone rather than with others…

These are all traits that can make you more likely to be a people pleaser because what that means is you’re more tuned to the needs and feelings of other around you. You’re almost inherently more other-oriented and trying to make sure if others can be regulated, then you can also be regulated as well.

Being sensitive to conflict, I remember growing up, my parents would not have heated discussions particularly.  I know in some households, people will yell—that did not happen at all in my family at all.

If anything, conflicts were of the silent kind, which can also be really tough and very difficult, but when my parents would be having just a discussion, but I knew they were having conflict, I’d be like “Please don’t fight!”

And they’d be like, “Ann, we’re just having a discussion.”

And I’d be like “No, your tone of voice shows me you’re really upset!”

And that’s an example of my real sensitive nature plugging into this even though it was not that much expressed emotion relative to what you can see in some families.  I was just like “It’s too much!”

Biology and temperament is another thing to look at when you consider where does people pleasing come from.  So, if you’ve got a real sensitive person, someone who’s highly attuned and empathic, you’re inclined to see more of these behaviors as a way of coping, being in the world, and maintaining relationships.

And lastly, the factor nearest and dearest to my heart because it’s something I can work with quite a bit in the room—I mean, I work with all of these things, but– attachment.

What kind of experiences did you have early in life with your caregivers?  Who was looking after you and how consistent were they in being present and connected with you?  What were the rules, spoken and unspoken in your family about what was okay and not okay, and how were those rules imparted to you?

Was there a lot of shaming, was there silent treatment, was there emotional or physical abuse?  Or, were rules and conditions imparted with a sense of love and security.  And of course, in any family you’ll have a commingling of good days and bad days, but there’s a long continuum here about what this can look like.  People pleasing comes from a sense that “I have to earn love.  I don’t just get to be here and be myself.  I have to make sure that you’re okay.”

So people pleasers oftentimes in families found themselves trying to meet other people’s needs, often at a very early age.  When you see this between a parent and child, we call this role-reversal, or parentification, where the child actually takes the parent role and is looking after the parent in some way.

This can sometimes happen in really overt ways, like, a parent comes home totally drunk and the child is trying to retrieve them off the floor where they’re passed out and tuck them into bed.

You can also see more subtle examples where the child is just picking up on the parent’s feeling and becomes a confidante, the parent is maybe talking about conflict in the marriage with the child, that’s called triangulation by the way, which is another topic for another day.

When the child gets roped into regulating the parent, that’s called role-reversal.  That’s one example of what you can see in families oftentimes where children are likely to develop people pleasing as a relational strategy in the long term.

I’ll talk in other videos about the attachment side of things because I’m very passionate about that topic.

I’ve written about it at length in my article what makes a people pleaser.  I’m going to link to that in the description below.  If you liked this video, you’re welcome to subscribe so you can know when I have another one coming out.

You can also look below for the article, what makes a people pleaser, it talks extensively about this issue of attachment.  I’ll be coming out with more videos as well about attachment, secure and insecure attachment, and especially anxious attachment, which if you don’t know what that is and you’re interested in people pleasing, you should really read up more about it because there’s a lot of overlap between these two things.  I’ll be talking about that more in future videos.

I hope this was helpful, thanks so much for watching.

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