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Understanding People Pleasing as a Trauma Response

As a psychotherapist, I often encounter clients who struggle with people-pleasing behaviors. While the desire to help and support others is natural, chronic people pleasing can be detrimental to one’s mental health. It’s important to understand that for many, this behavior isn’t just a personality trait but a response rooted in past trauma.

What is People Pleasing?

People pleasing involves prioritizing others’ needs and desires at the expense of one’s own. People pleasers often go to great lengths to avoid conflict and seek approval, sometimes to the detriment of their own well-being. This behavior can manifest in various ways, such as:

  • Difficulty saying no

  • Constantly apologizing

  • Suppressing one’s own needs and desires

  • Feeling responsible for others’ emotions

  • Seeking validation and approval from others

The Connection Between Trauma and People Pleasing

For many individuals, people pleasing is a learned survival strategy developed in response to trauma. This trauma can take many forms, including:

  • Childhood Abuse or Neglect: Children who grow up in abusive or neglectful environments may learn to please their caregivers to avoid punishment or gain attention and affection.

  • Emotional Manipulation: Being subjected to emotional manipulation, such as gaslighting or excessive criticism, can lead individuals to doubt their own worth and seek validation externally.

  • Unpredictable Environments: Growing up in unpredictable or chaotic households can lead individuals to develop hyper-vigilance and a need to control their surroundings by keeping others happy.

How People Pleasing Develops

When faced with trauma, the brain’s primary goal is survival. People pleasing can be seen as a form of the “fawn” response, one of the four common trauma responses along with fight, flight, and freeze. In the fawn response, individuals try to appease their abuser or potential threat to avoid further harm. Over time, this coping mechanism becomes ingrained and continues to influence behavior long after the traumatic experience has ended.

The Impact of People Pleasing

While people pleasing may have once served as a protective mechanism, it can lead to several negative outcomes, including:

  • Burnout and Exhaustion: Constantly catering to others’ needs can be physically and emotionally draining.

  • Loss of Identity: People pleasers often struggle with understanding their own needs and desires, leading to a weakened sense of self.

  • Resentment and Frustration: Suppressing one’s own needs can lead to feelings of resentment and frustration, which can strain relationships.

  • Mental Health Issues: Chronic people pleasing is associated with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

Healing from People Pleasing

Healing from people pleasing involves understanding and addressing the underlying trauma. Here are some steps that can help:

  1. Therapy: Working with a therapist can provide a safe space to explore past traumas and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

  2. Self-Awareness: Increasing awareness of people-pleasing behaviors and their triggers is the first step towards change.

  3. Setting Boundaries: Learning to set and maintain healthy boundaries is crucial for self-care and respect.

  4. Self-Compassion: Developing self-compassion helps individuals to treat themselves with the same kindness and consideration they offer to others.

  5. Assertiveness Training: Learning assertiveness skills can empower individuals to express their needs and desires confidently.


People pleasing as a trauma response is a complex and deeply ingrained behavior that can significantly impact one’s mental health and well-being. Understanding its roots in trauma can help individuals approach their healing journey with compassion and patience. As a psychotherapist, my goal is to support clients in uncovering these patterns, addressing their underlying causes, and building healthier, more fulfilling relationships with themselves and others.

If you find yourself struggling with people-pleasing behaviors, know that you are not alone and that help is available. Through therapy and self-exploration, you can learn to prioritize your own needs and cultivate a more balanced and authentic life.

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