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The One Thing Narcissists and People-Pleasers May Have in Common

A common denominator that connects seeming opposites.

Although a narcissist and a people pleaser act entirely differently in a relationship, they may have one thing in common: They both grew up with a parent who was unable to deal with their feelings.

People pleasers frequently swallow their feelings and perceive other people’s emotions as more important. Although they are often selfless, humble, and empathic, their generosity is frequently exploited. Yet stifling selfless capacities may not be the answer. These capabilities are essential to both emotional intelligence and healthy relationships. Honoring personal feelings and resurrecting healthy boundaries are tactics that may protect a person. Also, balancing the desire to be accepted with the awareness that some people manipulate is important.

Typically, a narcissist is the exact opposite. Narcissists prioritize their feelings first and anyone who disagrees is often chastised, bullied, harassed, or punished. Unable to consider an alternate viewpoint in the context of an interpersonal relationship, the narcissist constantly pronounces his perspective as the “right” one. The narcissist’s inability to act conscientiously in a relationship illuminates his or her lack of empathy. Although the narcissist is occasionally nice, his or her ulterior motive may be to regain the trust of someone he or she has hurt. Reeling the person back into the relationship allows a narcissist control.

Although people pleasers and narcissists are opposites in a relationship, the one thing they may share is a plethora of early experiences with a caregiver who was unable to cope with their emotions. For people-pleasers, the experience of being continually shamed, punished, or dismissed because they expressed a feeling that differed from a parent's may have impaired their ability to trust what they feel. Second-guessing themselves and ranking other people’s feelings before their own is standard. A caregiver who was only able to consider how he or she felt in the attachment relationship may be the reason.

For example, a two-year-old is crying in the back seat of his mom’s car because a bee landed on his car seat. His mom is stuck in traffic and annoyed. Agitated, she assumes the child is being a brat to frustrate her, so she screams at the child for crying. The little boy now feels shame and fear. The bee buzzes by his head and he cries out again. Enraged, the mom screams, “I told you to stop! I do not want to hear another sound! You are going to cause us to get in an accident!” The little boy learns to stifle his feelings to avoid further trouble.

Alternatively, say the parent is empathic and asks the child, “What is wrong?” The two-year-old may or may not be able to articulate that he is scared of the bee, but the mom’s acknowledgment of the child’s distress, her expression of concern, and desire to help convey to the child that his feelings matter. The drastically different parental responses have an impact on the child and his or her decision to trust or distrust emotions.

A parent who is unable to deal with a child’s distress often blames the child. Instead of attempting to understand, he or she interprets the child’s feelings as “acting out.” The child is punished and shamed for having a feeling that a parent does not like. Eventually, the child refrains from expressing what he or she feels to avoid being punished or rejected. The child devalues his or her feelings and is forced to put his parent’s feelings first. By stuffing feelings down, he or she avoids punishment, shame, and rejection.

If this type of parental response is routine, the child may have internalized this pattern of relating and operate this way in all his relationships. Attachment experts often refer to this as an internal working model of attachment. The child grows into an adult who distrusts how he or she feels and believes other people’s feelings matter more. People-pleasing tendencies seem to emerge.

A second outcome is also possible. In worst-case scenarios, a parent’s extreme lack of empathy and tendency to systematically inflict shame and guilt may cause a child to unconsciously resurrect a massive defensive structure that protects his or her self-esteem. The system acts as a shield that deflects, projects, denies, and distorts anything that threatens the child’s fragile sense of self. Uncomfortable emotional capacities such as accountability, empathy, insight, and self-awareness are guarded against. The young person is most comfortable engaging in activities that fuel his ego and avoids endeavors that tax his sense of self. He or she begins to embody narcissistic tendencies.

If this robust defensive structure is continually fueled by the parent, it may become characterological. For example, the child may be punished for his feelings but rewarded and idealized for his achievements. He is excused and defended, even for bullying behaviors, if he is gratifying his parent’s desire for glory through his achievements. This type of parenting may solidify a narcissistic mentality in a young person.

A child’s experience of trauma may also incite an unconscious resurgence of staunch defense mechanisms. An overwhelming and overstimulating experience may induce a level of shame that is impossible for a child to survive without unconsciously enacting defense mechanisms. It is critical to get a traumatized child into therapy as soon as possible.

It is essential to note that a parent who honors feelings while upholding rules and expectations may raise a fairly secure child. For example, “Ben, you are angry. I get it, but you cannot throw your backpack. Please go pick it up.” Honoring a child’s feeling state but correcting behavior is critical. The child realizes his or her feelings are important, but his or her actions need improvement. The child is held accountable and encouraged to recognize and understand a feeling state in place of shutting it down. The child’s ability to recognize, identify, and verbalize feeling states leads to healthy emotional regulation, self-awareness, insight, and emotional intelligence.

If a person has people-pleasing tendencies, it may help to reflect on an attachment relationship with a caregiver. A caregiver may not have tolerated a person’s feelings if they differed. A childhood spent this way may explain why an adult second-guesses his or her own feelings and habitually surrenders to another’s. The conscious awareness of this process may be all that is required to inspire a person to trust how he or she feels and resurrect healthy boundaries.

A person with strong narcissistic tendencies, on the other hand, may have an uphill battle. Unable to tolerate uncomfortable emotional capacities like remorse, insight, and empathy, a narcissistic individual may not realize the extent of his or her narcissism. This may prevent him or her from accessing counseling.

Breaking the cycle of emotional abuse is essential. Parents may need to remind themselves to honor feelings but correct behaviors, listen to understand, possess empathy, validate the expression of emotion, and lovingly hold a child accountable.

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