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Is People-Pleasing a Trauma Response?

The effects of trauma vary from person to person. Some people have more ‘obvious’ signs of trauma, like anxiety, depression, and even aggression. For others, it can manifest in less conventional ways. 

Fight, flight, and freeze are generally considered to be the usual responses to trauma. But what about fawning? Is people pleasing a trauma response?

What is People Pleasing?

Fawning, or people pleasing, is a form of trauma response where the individual seeks to give in to others’ demands in their attempt to seek safety. To them, the price of the relationship is that their needs and boundaries are to be forfeited (Walker, 2014).

The potential source of danger here is the other person. To avoid conflict, you have two options – to leave (to forfeit your relationship) or to give in (to forfeit your needs and preferences). Fawn types will opt for the latter.

Most often, people pleasing is a result of trauma perpetrated by a primary caregiver because children who face abuse tend to fawn and give in so they can avoid any further abuse. Because the child is unable to defend themselves (fight) or run (flight), the only way they can prevent their abuser from becoming abusive again is to keep them happy.

This usually carries on into their adult lives as a learned behavior where they seek to appease others in their interpersonal relationships in an attempt to protect themselves if there was ever to be any conflict. 

Signs of People Pleasing

Fawning isn’t always easy to determine. Many people may not be able to identify the problem because fawning is often chalked up to personality traits rather than a trauma response. However, there are some common signs that may be noticeable: 

● Seeking others’ thoughts and opinions to determine their own

● Lack of personal identity

● Constant attempts to please others

● Neglect of oneself in favor of others

● Difficulty with identifying personal feelings

● Instinctively giving in at the first sign of conflict (Gaba, 2020).

Why People Pleasing is Actually Harmful

Beyond the fact that people-pleasing can result in self-neglect, there are also other negative effects. For one thing, it can build up resentment over time because you may start feeling like you are being taken advantage of. In fact, if it keeps going, people may actually start taking advantage of you, too, just because they know you can’t say no.

It could result in stress and even other mental health problems like depression and anxiety, which can worsen over time. 

There are ways to go about limiting your people-pleasing tendencies as well. For example, stalling, rather than saying no outright, can help, as can setting physical or time limits to how far you’re willing to go for someone else.

However, since people-pleasing is a trauma response, the most important thing is to get help to address the root of the problem. 

References:

Walker, Pete. Complex Ptsd: From Surviving to Thriving: a Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma. , 2014.

Gaba, Sherry. “Understanding Fight, Flight, Freeze And The Fawn Response”. Psychology Today, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/addiction-and-recovery/202008/understanding-fight-flight-freeze-and-the-fawn-response.