Where People Pleasing Comes From


Fallen people are not a personality defect.

It is a response to trauma and/or stress that can become one of the most important ways a person deals with challenges. It may seem like you’re pleasing people that way, but it’s actually something you’ve learned.

This is because we are programmed to automatically protect ourselves in different ways. Please (or ‘flatter’) is now recognized as one of four trauma responses (i.e., fight, flight, freeze, and fawn). According to Peter Walker, licensed psychologist and expert in complex trauma, “Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wants, needs, and demands of others.”


Since liking is initially an automatic response, this protective strategy usually begins outside of our consciousness. Over time it either becomes one of our main strategies to automatically protect ourselves when we feel emotionally or interpersonally insecure. Or we develop some flexibility and ability to choose different answers.

It makes sense that one of the automatic responses would be to like or agree with someone you feel threatened by, especially until you can get some distance from that person. But if this is how you approach almost everything, over time your happiness, physical well-being, and relationship satisfaction will suffer.

Pleasing can be a particularly difficult response to change, as it is often socially and culturally reinforced in families, in the workplace, and in educational systems. What begins with you trying to make others happy, keep the peace, or gain the approval of others is usually encouraged and conditioned as the right thing and the best.


If you’re ready to break free of this automatic response and have more choice and flexibility in responding to difficult situations, then read on. Together we will explore the possible ways in which the enjoyable strategy has been activated in you.

Experiences that can activate the people-pleaser response

Which of these describe your life experience? (It can be one or more.)

  1. Experience force a parent, caregiver or partner
  2. With a emotionally unavailable parent
  3. In a relationship with a narcissistic parent or partner
  4. Raised in a family that avoided it conflict or had many conflicts
  5. Growing up with a parent or family member who has persistent, physical and/or psychological problems
  6. Experiencing and/or being part of a group of people having experiences Racism, discrimination, exclusion or micro-aggression
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Each of these situations contributes to creating an environment where one does not feel safe or safe to say no, disagree, or be different. And one of the ways to deal with these situations is to either try to become invisible, keep the peace, or put the needs and wants of others ahead of your own well-being.


Furious! Take a deep breath. Acknowledging what you didn’t receive as an adult or in your adult relationships can bring sadness, anger, and pain. Offer yourself some understanding and sincere sympathy that you didn’t get what you needed. And know that today can begin the journey of learning to give yourself what you need.

Finding hope after people please is your go-to strategy

While it sometimes feels impossible to break free from this automatic response, there is hope.

When you grew up with a parent who was emotionally unavailable due to their own physical and/or mental health issues, you may feel like there is no one there for you when you also need support. Over time you have learned that it is more important not to rock the boat, to put your needs aside and to help your parents or family in any way you can.


You’ve probably even received praise at school or in your family for being the good, the strong, the talented, or the smart. And nobody, probably not even you, had any idea that you needed more of them. You may not even have known that you were giving up your own needs, dreams, or beliefs because it was so gradual.

Then you enter the work force and/or relationship as an adult and you are both praised for working so hard and assigned more work when others are not doing their part. They always take on more and take on what others don’t, both in terms of tasks and a sense of responsibility for others. And finally, you’re burned out, upset, and unhappy.

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That’s when you start craving something different and realize you’ve ignored what you need and want. They may even start speaking out, but are confronted with the reactions, anger, and guilt of others. Often you find that you need a different type of support than what is available to you.


This is where working with a counselor, therapist, or trauma-informed coach can help. It can provide you with a safe place to process emerging feelings, practice new responses, and identify what works for you and what doesn’t.

You can choose to free yourself from the roles you have played in your family and/or relationship for most of your life. And you may face loss and/or conflict, so asking for support can help you stay connected to yourself and what you need and/or want. The more you connect with yourself and what is best for you, the more choices you will find. Then liking becomes less of a goal and more of a choice, one of the possible answers among many.

I’d love to hear how that goes down with you. What is your biggest takeaway or a-ha from reading this?

Here are some additional resources from the GoodTherapy Psychpedia:





The GoodTherapy Registry might be of help to you. We have thousands of therapists listed with us who would love to accompany you on your journey. Find the support you need today.

Marci Payne, MA, LPC is a Licensed Therapist in Missouri and Self-Love Coach worldwide. She helps ambitious adults please people, heal perfectionism and past hurts so they are free to be themselves. Get her free Emotion Self-Care Guide and start listening and giving yourself what you need, even when others aren’t.

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