How Your Trauma Is Tied To Your People-Pleasing

Yikes, you volunteered to work that extra shift again for Sarah—even though you had plans, didn’t you? Or maybe you refused to send back the salad you ordered that had almonds on it—even though you are allergic—because you didn’t want to hurt the waitress’ feelings? Oof. Yeah, we’ve been there. But look, your people-pleasing tendencies may seem like a small or even good thing, but they are doing you more harm than good. People pleasing is often a coping mechanism for trauma and PTSD and we are here to show you how to stop putting others’ needs before your own, and how to start caring for your own needs in a healthy way.

What Does it Mean to be a People Pleaser?

But what does being a people pleaser even mean, anyway? Take a look at the list below and see if any of these seem familiar to you.

  • You don’t know how to say “no” to others.
  • You always put others’ feelings and needs above your own.
  • You feel guilty for your own feelings and needs.
  • You feel responsible for other people’s reactions and happiness.
  • You apologize for everything.
  • You make excuses for other people’s failings.
  • You avoid conflict at all costs.
  • You feel the need to flatter others, even when you don’t like them.
  • You’re always worried about what others think of you.
  • You feel deeply hurt when someone says something negative about something you did or said.
  • You value praise from authority figures and people around you.
  • You do favors for people, even if you don’t want to.
  • You feel compassion for others but not for yourself.

If you found yourself nodding (or wincing) as you read this list, please keep reading. People pleasers will put the needs of others (even strangers) before their own, and often to their own detriment. I know what you are thinking. “Doesn’t that just make me a good person? I’m not hurting anyone, I’m helping.” Wrong. You are hurting someone—yourself.

It is easy from the outside to confuse people-pleasing with kindness or compassion, but people-pleasing is not rooted in a place of morality, it’s rooted in fear and the survival instinct that you felt you need to protect yourself. You do not have to emotionally martyr yourself every day to be a good person. You are a good person by caring for yourself first, so you can be emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy enough to take care of the people in your life who love you the most. And you know who should love you the most first? That’s right, you!

Your Trauma Response

But before we get into recovery, let’s first talk about how you got here in the first place and why you feel the need to care for and please everyone around you. To understand that, we need to first understand trauma responses in general. There are four types of trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, and the last (and most commonly forgotten) fawn. Fawn, that’s the one we are going to be digging into.

young female looking at her phone while sitting down
Woman looking at phone screen (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Not that kind of fawn! But, you know what, it works. Just like that little fawn right there, when you were a young and vulnerable child you relied on your caregivers for everything. Food, shelter, comfort, praise, and everything in between. However, if you were raised in a house with a toxic or unstable caregiver—someone who was narcissistic or had a borderline personality disorder, for example—you may have learned to cope with your caregiver’s emotional instability or heavy criticism of you by using fawning behaviors. Fawning has also been seen as a trauma response in abusive and codependent adult relationships—most often romantic relationships.

These behaviors may look like this:

  • Not speaking up about where you want to eat or what you want to order. You let the other person choose first.
  • Feel like you always have to walk on eggshells or else your caretaker or partner may explode.
  • Thinking, “If I just try a little harder, they will love me more,” or “If I take care of them better, maybe they will take care of me.”
  • Complimenting your abuser, even when you don’t actually feel that way or it is at your own expense.
  • Being an emotional chameleon. Changing how you present yourself to the world—likes, dislikes, personality traits—depending on who you are with.
  • And likewise, shapeshifting yourself depending on your partner or parents’ mood so as to not trigger them.

These are all signs of a fawn trauma response. And before we go further I want to make this very clear. Having this, or any other trauma response is not your fault. Your mind and body respond in a way meant to protect you. The good news is, you are now capable of protecting yourself in a healthy way that does not include harmful people-pleasing. You can overcome the fawn response and free yourself from these fear-driven behaviors.

How to Say No to People Pleasing

Become Aware

You are already on the way to recovery by reading this article. Becoming aware of your fawn response, what it is, and why you are doing it is the first big step in being able to stop when you catch yourself falling into an old pattern.

Recognize Your Own Feelings

Start learning to recognize your own feelings and separate them from the feelings of those around you. If you have been people-pleasing for the majority of your life, this may take some concentrated effort. If you begin to feel anxious, confused, or nervous about a choice or an action you are asked to make, take a moment to think about your feelings and if they are influenced—directly or indirectly—by those around you. Learn how to say, “this is mine, and that is theirs” about your feelings.

How To Stop Being A People Pleaser ︱ Charisma on Command

Validate Your Own Feelings

Now that you know what feelings are really your own, it’s time to give them the power that they have been crying out for. Validate your feelings by treating them like they matter and are just as important—or more—than the feelings of others. Your feelings deserve respect and to be heard and tended to. Start with changing your self-narrative. Validating your feelings can sound like this:

  • “What happened was not my fault, and I am a strong and valuable person.”
  • “What I do in my life matters, no matter what anyone else says.”
  • “What I just created isn’t perfect, but I like it and that gives it value.”
  • “I don’t have to like (or dislike) something just because someone else does.”
  • “I choose to be happy, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about me.”

Consider Your Own Needs First

Most likely, people-pleasing has become so ingrained that it feels like second nature to you now. Prioritizing your wants and needs below others probably seems like it’s just a part of life. Next time you find yourself being asked where you would like to eat, what television show you want to watch, or where you would like to go, instead of replying with, “I don’t care,” or “Wherever you want,” it’s your time to choose.

You may not really care or have an opinion, but use these choices as an exercise to rediscover your own wants and needs and build the courage to verbalize what you want. This courage will lead you to be able to advocate for your own needs in more meaningful areas of your life.

Set Boundaries

Learning how to set healthy boundaries will be absolutely crucial in recovering from your fawn trauma response and building healthy relationships. As you begin to set boundaries that respect yourself and your time, you may quickly begin to realize who in your life has contributed to your trauma response and those who will be great assets in your recovery.

Make an effort to feed the relationships that have the potential to become strong, healthy relationships with people who respect your boundaries and limit relationships who refuse to respect your boundaries. You can set as many boundaries as you like but they mean nothing if you don’t keep them. This is the hardest part about setting boundaries. Communicate and keep your boundaries or else you will find yourself slipping back into old habits.

Man at a cafe drinking a cup of coffee, looking out the window and smiling
You can set as many boundaries as you like (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Final Thoughts

Now that you have an understanding of what it means to be a people pleaser and how these behaviors are signs of a fawn trauma response, you are now in control of making meaningful changes in your life. By following the steps of

  • becoming aware,
  • recognizing your own feelings,
  • validating your own feelings,
  • considering your needs first, and
  • setting (and keeping) boundaries

You will learn to love yourself and in turn, teach others how to love the true, authentic you.