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From Parent-Pleasing to People-Pleasing (Part 2 of 3)

Children afraid of parental abandonment may abandon themselves.

milanmarkovic/123RF free photo
Source: milanmarkovic/123RF free photo

As children, people-pleasers generally felt loved only when they were conforming to the needs and desires of their parents.

Submitting themselves to parental preferences was rewarded; deviating from these preferences—maybe even dictates—was regularly met with some form of displeasure. That is, when such children asserted their will contrary to parental wishes, these parents typically reacted critically and withheld from them caring and support, positive time and attention, recognition, understanding or encouragement. In consequence, such children felt not simply disapproved of, but rejected and abandoned as well.

Dependent upon their parents' acceptance—and therefore fearful about its being withdrawn from them whenever their behavior didn't match parental expectations—their choice (if it can really be viewed as a "choice" at all) was obvious. Either they had to submit to the "rules and regulations" implicitly or explicitly demanded of them — and in doing so get as much love and caring as their parents were capable of giving them. Or, they could act counter to parental conditions for approval and suffer the consequences. And these consequences involved nothing less than a rupture in their attachment bond to their caretakers—a bond already experienced, anxiously, as tenuous.

Inasmuch as a break in parental attachment, however short-lived it might be, was yet a fearsome prospect, only one viable option existed. Feeling obliged to forfeit a vital chunk of themselves to garner a more secure place in the family, they determined to subordinate—or squash—essential needs of the self.

Renouncing the expression of many of their thoughts and feelings, needs and desires, they resolved to tow the family line. Experiencing this abdication of self as a necessary sacrifice, they made it willingly and rarely looked back. After all, giving up part of who they were was still far better than feeling forsaken by—or bereft of—their own caretakers.

Moreover, to not do everything possible to combat the danger of parental alienation was to chance being beset by horrible feelings of guilt, humiliation, and shame. In short, it felt far less hazardous to abandon the self than to run the risk of feeling abandoned by their parents.

And over time, this choice between self-abandonment and parental abandonment came to seem increasingly imperative. Without the resources to fend for themselves—and even needing to define themselves in terms of their dependency—they felt compelled to subjugate their budding individualism.

The longing to feel secure, prompting behaviors of compliance and conformity, necessarily had to prevail over the not-quite-so powerful yearning to hold onto their true selves. (And, in fact, it can hardly be overemphasized that foundational security needs—call them "lower-level needs"—universally take precedence over higher-level needs, which people feel free to pursue only after basic safety requirements have been adequately addressed.)

I should add here that when children can't figure out how to please their parents, or when their efforts at compliance never seem capable of altering this essential but nurturance-starved relationship, they may eventually renounce their efforts at people-pleasing—or more accurately, parent-pleasing. In such situations, based on the particular child's temperament, the likelihood is that they'll end up either seriously depressed or angry-defiant ... and quite possibly both.

That is, rebellious children—like people-pleasing ones—are made, not born. And their reactive anger (or even rage) may be designed, however unconsciously, to mask a depression grounded in the belief that they're hopelessly unworthy or unlovable.

Unable to tolerate such a degrading sense of self, they therefore require a potent defense to protect them from the immense burden of a shameful, "not good enough" identity. And so they may cultivate an attitude of belligerent, recalcitrant antagonism.

With such a dramatic shift in attitude, they can now tell themselves, adamantly, that they neither want nor need the love, caring and approval they've already convinced themselves will never be available to them (despite their many desperate attempts to receive it). In my professional experience, this marked negative reaction is far more typical among boys than girls, but potentially it can occur with either sex.

As a final qualification here, I should add that while I see the original cause of people-pleasing as stemming primarily from messages, both overt and covert, that people-pleasers get from their caretakers, I can't deny that other forces may also contribute to this dysfunctional personality type. In his web article, "The People Pleaser Pattern," Jay Earley, Ph.D., describes how the "training" to become compliant and agreeable (in a word, "pleasing") may come not just from a person's family but from their culture as well.

As Earley puts it, people-pleasers may have learned, in general, "to put other people first ... that it is [their] job to make them happy," and that their own "feelings and needs don't count." And as he further suggests, this training may come from school, peers, and indeed from society at large. Moreover, the "lesson" of compliance may also derive from being poor, female, from a minority group, or of a religious or national group considered outside the mainstream.

Part 1 of this post focuses on how people-pleasers look from the outside—as well as how their behavior feels personally, from within. Part 3 (considerably longer than the first two parts) centers on how people-pleasers can move beyond their defeatist, self-sacrificing patterns to a more self-respecting and self-affirming way of being in the world.

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© 2008 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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