Healing The People Pleasing Wound
Everything Was Just Fine.
I lived an extremely privileged life as a kid, with no “Big T” traumas to note. I’m very lucky to have a family who loved me, cared for my needs, and accepted me no matter what. But even the best, most well-intending parents cannot control how their children interpret information from a very young age. Because of the cognitive function at various ages, even the most innocuous events can be experienced as “traumatic” for a child. Every family and environment has its dynamics–even the most seemingly harmless ones.
I didn’t consciously understand why people always felt like they could trust me, but I didn’t really know who I was. It wasn’t until I did an inner-child regression with a therapist that I was able to access a pre-verbal memory of being a two-year-old baby in the crib with my twin sister, Lindsey.
We were both crying.
Our mom came in and picked me up first instead of Lindsey.
I looked over my shoulder only to see the person I shared a womb with still in pain,
without her needs met, while mine were getting met.
At that moment, I decided that not only was there only so much love for one of us,
but that if I get my needs met–
the person I love most in this world doesn’t.
My mere existence was harmful to the person I love the most.
For my entire life, that anchored memory turned into a program. Unconsciously, I began to dim my light, be less loud, less domineering, and take up less space so as to not hurt my sister. We were able to access a second memory from when I was 10 and I realized that even with my best efforts, my existence still impacted and affected my sister negatively. So, I closed myself off even more. I began mirroring the people around me and taking on their personalities instead. I became agreeable–not having my own opinions, not criticizing others, and being generally agreeable.
People liked that.
I was generally well-liked, and found myself particularly void of conflict–just like I observed in my upbringing and family life.
Things in my life were…fine.
As a teenager, I’d be attracted to extremely fun, spontaneous, and risk-taking friendships. I got to do the things a rebellious, fun, spontaneous person would do–without having to identify as that person myself. I’d historically say things like, “yeah, me and my friend X–my spontaneous fun friend–would always go out drinking, or sneak out, or do crazy things.” As if I wasn’t also spontaneous, fun, and rebellious. I outsourced my personality to others by dissociating from myself: a textbook fawn survival response. My psyche wouldn’t allow me to fully identify with those characteristics, as it would directly conflict with the structural identity built on having a non-personality.
My first adult romantic relationship was with another person with extremely similar traits to me. We’d joke about how we never fought or had a real argument–naively believing that was a sign you found “your person.”
Behind the scenes: that lack of polarity was safe and predictable, but created little to no mystery or uncertainty. Sex and relationship expert Esther Perel says that “desire needs mystery,” so our sex life was fairly non-existent.
I’d unconsciously created a life that was lived between a 4 and a 6. Very little 1, 2, or 3 extremely dark or negative experiences, while also having some 7’s with rarely any 8s, 9s, or 10s. That unconscious pattern created an external reality in which I didn’t have to be myself, confront myself, or have any kind of conflict. Peacefulness was my goal.
Which was fine…until it all very much so wasn’t.
And in May of 2018, I couldn’t NOT listen anymore.
My repressed emotions, self-expression, and true identity were banging at the door of my conscious mind more and more loudly. A thought about my relationship showed up in my mind and said, “this isn’t the guy for you.” I was horrified, and had to get the help of a therapist to support me in breaking up with him.
I avoided this for weeks, as we’d never truly discussed our feelings before–never mind feelings that may be hurtful to the other person. Within the same month, a team member of mine in my business was taking advantage of me, and my mentor had to support me in firing this person.
I felt sick. I ended up with a 102 fever. It felt like I was really seeing myself for the first time: observing the cascading unraveling of my people-pleasing wound as if it were an out-of-body experience. I could see the wound underneath the mask I’d been wearing my entire life.
This was the very beginning of the healing of the wound underneath my people-pleasing mask.
People-pleasing is an insidious behavioral pattern, because–to the outside world–your behavior comes across as moral, palatable, and societally acceptable. Just like any other behavioral pattern (perfectionism, avoidance, defensiveness) people-pleasing is a mask to cover up the wound. Beneath the surface, ignoring your own needs for the sake of others is like a dangerous ticking time bomb of repressed emotion that will eventually leak out in unconscious ways.
There is nothing scarier than a person who has disregarded their needs their entire life who has found access to little bit of their own power. The pendulum must swing as hard in the opposite direction as it did it’s counterpart; as it did in my experience. In this hard swing the other way, the people-pleaser will begin attempting to heal by heavily prioritizing themselves and their own needs, but have a very difficult time prioritizing the needs of other people. As they strive to advocate for themselves and make up for lost time, recovering people-pleasers may find themselves unconsciously engaging in behaviors that disproportionately prioritize their needs over others.
This could look like:
- Ghosting people for the sake of “setting a boundary”
- Expecting others to change their behavior to make them more comfortable
- Judging and criticizing others for not moderating themselves in their presence
- “Doing their own thing” even if it means not considering other people’s feelings or experiences.
I know this very well, because it’s exactly what happened inside of my own relationship. Fast forward to August of 2018 (three months after my spiritual awakening) where I met my now fiancé John, with whom I fell deeply in love with. John has lived his life in the extremes: the 1-3s, and the 7-10s. He has been through deep trauma, experienced deep love, and is one of the most opinionated not agreeable people I’ve ever met. He’s not mean–he’s just clear on who he is. I remember during one of our first few dates, I shared with him that I was feeling very “dumb” being around him, and projected onto him that it was his fault. He quickly stopped me in by tracks by saying,
“People have been triggered by my intelligence my entire life, and I’ve worked incredibly hard to not dim my light just to make other people comfortable. I’m not making you feel dumb, you are probably experiencing insecurity and discomfort within yourself.”
Ouch. He wasn’t being mean, he was being honest. In fact, he did everything in his power to praise me, share how much he respected me, and express how smart he thought I was. He was right: this was entirely my perception. I knew–in that moment–that my soul was attracted to his because he would trigger me to experience my full self.
The thing about the “mask” (underlying pattern) that gets formed, is that many people wear it for so long, it becomes a part of our identity. It’s who we are. We form associations around how holding onto that identity helps us in the world, and the ego will do anything it can not to have to let it go.
This is why the therapeutic work we do to heal the wound and uncover the mask so heavily focuses on nervous system regulation and creating safety inside of our bodies to enact a different set of behaviors. In order to be a “new person” and let the old identity go, we have to re-discover how to feel safe in doing so.
Healing the people-pleasing wound is a process of healing not only your relationship with yourself, but your relationship with others. The relational body is the part of you that relates: to yourself, to others, and the world. A behavioral pattern like people-pleasing is a survival mechanism (the mask) formed to protect us from harm and keep us safe. The wound is the tender part underneath the surface–our inner child who maybe didn’t get the love they needed, felt it was safer to dim their light to protect others or themselves, or some other hurt that got left entirely unresolved.
That program anchors into our psyche and becomes our operating system fueling our relationship to ourselves, others, and the world.
You may notice that your people-pleasing tendencies show up in your romantic relationships, friendships, business, and other places in your life. People-pleasing looks like:
- saying YES when you mean NO (or maybe, or I don’t know) because it feels far more uncomfortable to take a stance one way or the other
- Consciously or (usually) unconsciously overriding your needs for the sake of others
- Modifying your behavior as an attempt to control the behavior or reactions of others (manipulation)
- Hiding your true feelings from others (and especially from yourself, sometimes to the point where you don’t even realize that you have a strong emotion or a boundary has been crossed)
- Repressed anger, rage, and resentment (check this article for understanding the “shadow”)
- Judging others harshly when it’s simply a projection of your own inability to speak your needs, boundaries, or desires
- Convincing yourself that the pain expressing of your true self (whether that’s how much time you have to get a task done or if you no longer want to be in a relationship) is worse than the pain of maintaining the status quo.
In fact: the inner people pleaser mechanism is so intelligent–that it will quite literally learn to dissociate (mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity) in order to avoid the potential pain of acknowledging the truth. The people-pleaser within has an inner drive to fawn, or mirroring everyone around them and essentially ridding themselves of any sign of a personality so as to hide any potential for conflict, losing their loved ones, or confronting their innermost fears. It’s an unconscious attempt to control the outcome so you don’t have to really feel, acknowledge, claim and speak your truest emotions, desires, needs, and boundaries.
People-pleasing says, “I don’t feel safe to be myself, nor do I have the tools to navigate conflict effectively–so I will remove that opportunity from others and tell them what they want to hear.”
Don’t get it twisted: this is a form of manipulation. It’s not typically malicious, and it is highly unconscious, but a form of manipulation.
Polyamory and BDSM were major tools for me to practice speaking my truth and finding my boundaries. The first time I FaceTimed with my now-finacé John, I was also speaking with his then girlfriend about what the relationship dynamic may look like with me in the picture. When John asked me to express my desires and what I wanted, I immediately said, “no, that’s okay.” He immediately responded with, “that’s actually not okay with me. In order to do this, I need to understand your desires and needs extremely clearly.” I’d denied my needs and desires for so long, I barely knew what they were. Polyamory and BDSM were like intensive masters programs in figuring that information out.
Denying what you feel leads to questioning yourself and how you feel, confusing your emotions with other people’s emotions, struggling to discern what’s yours and what’s not, lack of clarity about what you feel and the sensations in your body.
It’s a big, jumbled mess in there–making it difficult for you to connect to, never mind trust your intuition.
And when you don’t trust your intuition, your thoughts, or your feelings–it’s extremely challenging to feel safe to be yourself. There may be deeper traumas to unpack for you. There may be therapeutic support from a professional in creating safety within your nervous system to begin speaking that truth. In order to learn how to not abandon yourself, you must develop the skills necessary to trust yourself to take care of yourself. You’ll unpack your own self-betrayal, and realize how deeply rebuilding that trusting relationship with yourself is imperative for you to feel safe in relationships with other people.
My relationship activated me to really find those answers, accurately interpret the sensations in my body, and make understanding myself my core priority. I knew in order to be with a highly opinionated person who has is far more predisposed to escalating and living a more high-risk life, I needed to truly dig into myself and figure out what was true for me–not just for him. Not only that, but the people in my life deserved my truth. They deserved my raw, real experience. They deserved the opportunity to meet me, to see me, to show up for me, and to make their own decisions about their life based on that–rather than the lie.
I practiced at every opportunity I had.
I’d practice by setting small boundaries. Now, I’m a boundary-setting queen!
I made business decisions that were fully for me–while learning how to hold space for anyone else who they affected.
I opened up to having more and more difficult conversations. I hid some of them, had that blow up in my face, and learned how to say the hard thing faster.
I allowed him to hold me when things were too overwhelming and I shut down.
I struggled for a very long time in feeling safe to express myself. Our open relationship has been a space to access deeper self-expression, while also engaging in emotionally risky behavior.
I’ve been privileged enough to receive an incredible amount of support from my somatic therapist, be enrolled in a Spiritual Psychology program for 1.5 years learning hundreds of tools, and have a loving partner who is devoted to creating emotional safety.
I began unpacking my demisexuality and bisexuality: both of which I felt deep shame around. I’ve been able to process that shame through having difficult conversations around it and trusting that my experience and needs are valid.
I even realized that a part of healing my people-pleasing wound was realizing that so much of my identity as an “introvert” was mostly a manifestation of unconsciously mirroring other people in social settings, repressing my own expression, and exhausting myself in the process. Now, I know how to be myself in any social situation, and don’t expend nearly as much–if any at all–adjusting my body language and behavior to mirror others. Hell, I can stay up until the wee hours of the morning now without a problem. That is WILD for the old me.
Overcoming people-pleasing for me meant facing my greatest fears: confronting the potential hurt for the people I love the most, and feeling the deep shame of believing my existence was inherently wrong.
The Authentic Self
In my Spiritual Psychology program, my professors Ron and Mary Hulnick said, “there comes a moment when you just decide to let it go.”
After three years of therapy, psychedelic journeys, having 3-5 hour long conversations with my partner, cracking my heart open, tending to my inner wound, finding community, and pulling off the mask…
I finally had that moment happen when I found a way to let the identity of being a “people pleaser” go for good.
If you’re not there in your own life yet–give yourself all of the grace, love, and acceptance possible. Everyone’s journey is different, and not everyone has the same access to support. My accessibility to various levels of therapeutic support (somatic therapy, energy healers, astrologists, psychics, bodyworkers, and an experiential therapeutic certification program) and reaccess safety in my nervous system are inherently privileged.
Your experience may look different than mine, or someone else’s. There are a lot of tools you can learn online (I recommend Internal Family Systems, breathwork, meditations, reading about the ego, books on trauma, somatic practices), but oftentimes, additional therapy or professional support is required.
The one tool I can provide you today that is completely free to practice is that change happens in the moment.
When you observe yourself enacting your protection pattern, try softening just a little bit and do something different instead.
In Mastin Kipp’s Trauma-Informed Coaching Certification I took, he shared that the goal of healing isn’t necessarily to stop getting triggered–but to decrease the frequency, intensity, and duration of those triggers.
- Are you shutting down, fawnin, mirroring, or avoiding less frequently? That’s progress.
- How about feeling less intensity and activation in your body when you need to have a hard conversation? Amazing.
- Are you able to shorten the duration between when you notice your pattern and when you change it to something different?
Then, you’re healing.
It’s within the micro-moments that you find the internal wherewithal to practice. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. And over time, that new behavior becomes your new normal.
Reclaiming Your Power
My story has a happy ending. Amongst the difficulty and pain I endured unpacking and healing this wound, I found something I didn’t expect to find…
The interesting part about people-pleasing is that your sense of identity is all wonky, and healing is actually learning who you truly are at your authentic-self core. The more I edged toward new boundaries, practiced speaking how I actually felt, met my deep anger, and determined was an ABSOLUTE FUCK NO for me?
I found the edges of myself. Where I end, and others begin. I integrated parts of me I believed were outside of myself, and become more whole within. I found the opinions, beliefs, stances, and positions I have my accessing my ability to express my emotions authentically.
I am proud to say that I’m confident in expressing, “This is EXACTLY what I feel, EXACTLY what I want and need, and EXACTLY what I will not tolerate.” I hope you left reading this article with the feeling that this is possible for you, too.
As you can see: success is an expansion of the nervous system and a representation of its ability to feel safe at new levels of growth.
- To make $10,000 more this month is to feel safe receiving the flow of that money.
- To add 20 more clients to your membership is to feel confident in your ability to serve that many people at once.
- To hire new team members is to feel prepared to take on the responsibility (and accountability) of paying someone who can’t do their job unless you do yours.
- To be followed by more people is to be more seen for who you are–right now, in all of your “I’m still growing and learning!” feelings.
- To create true financial freedom is to actually look at your bank account on a frequent basis, do the “boring” things in your business, and overcome your avoidance patterns.
A program I have called The Conscious Leadership Experience is designed for entrepreneurs and coaches to stretch and expand their nervous system and understand their psyche so they can allow for more growth, and receive more abundance.
Click the link to grab yours and begin today.