People-pleasing is an art. It requires the psychic ability to read other people’s needs from the smallest of clues- an eye shift, a hand gesture, a change of tone of voice, a withdrawal of attention, a needy or disgruntled expression, an exhale, an inhale, a glare, a deflation, a lost look, a blaming word, or a shame-filled story. Children raised with punishment, abuse, neglect, or trauma often build their personalities around keeping people from hurting them. They literally form their nervous systems around caregivers’ patterns and moods, working 24/7 to secure security.
I know about these skills because I was a professional.
My Father was so violent, my Mother so absent, that I was born a workaholic. Watch, listen, and learn; that took every bit of my brain power. I did not let down. Did not rest. Did not “get to know myself.” I got to know them endlessly, and that was my very best strategy. It wasn’t just about observation; it was also about fixing the problem. I read their moods, eyes, hands, tone, and then, I responded with high forms of ingenuity under deep, deep duress. As mentioned, this took all my spoons. There was not much left over for school learning or the natural unfoldment of time, space, or emotion.
I was a caretaking genius. I learned to be preemptively helpful, kind, caring, compassionate, pro-active, performative, and most importantly, sweet. I was raised female by a misogynist pedophile, so maybe you can imagine the depths of my daily work.
Of course, I failed. I hope this is obvious. All my hard labor did not prevent my parents from abusing me, leaving me to the hands (and bodies) of other abusers, blaming me, and physically torturing me. All the people-pleasing in the world was never enough. Imagine that. I could not give enough, try enough, sacrifice enough, perform enough, to make it not happen. I was a constant failure.
Fast forward, I got out. Damn it to hell, I did just that. I miraculously propelled myself out of an impossible situation using every single resource I could find in my little kid life. I glommed onto my friends and their parents. I danced after school every day to keep my body from collapsing. I obsessively aimed to please at school, with peers, teachers, tutors, and other adults, becoming as likable as I possibly could. My strategy was to outsource my need for attachment onto people outside my family of origin. With this focused maneuver, I found the key to my escape.
My parents let me leave home to attend a performing arts high school in Philadelphia and then paid for my tuition to go New York University. My role as a dancer was pleasing to my Father and he invested in an outcome he believed would build his reputation. He was banking on my success as a performer and frankly, so was I.
Severe childhood trauma cannot be stuffed forever, can it? Not in my case. Once I left home, the agony began to show itself between the cracks of my fabricated persona. I began peeling away at the edges and could barely stay awake from the strain of my injuries. It’s a common story. I broke down.
My adult life became the mad explosion of memory and horror, cutting through the Herculean efforts of a groomed little girl. My niceness could not hold up against the pieces of flooding debris, the wreckage of my true childhood. The truth of who I was came to find me. It was a long crash and a brilliant rescue.
Now I’m 52. I haven’t seen those people in 30 years. I tell my daughter that they are not safe and we will never see them. I still cry in the middle of the night about it even though I’m used to it. Children never stop wishing their parents would love them and not hurt them. That precious girl inside me doesn’t give up.
Flashback: pleasing others saved my life.
Flashforward: it’s an addiction.
I’ve spent the past ten years particularly trying to get my eyes off of other people’s process, focus on my own damn needs, and make some life-giving boundaries. You know what’s amazing? You can people-please the whole world even if no one is around. You can unconsciously imagine that everything you do will save someone else and keep yourself very, very busy. It’s like a Jesus complex! Trying to help others at the expense of your own desperate knowing, it’s a bad scene.
Menopause can be a game-changer for people who fawn. Fawning is the coping mechanism of acting scary-nice to save one’s self, and menopause wants none of it. Menopause shifts the hormones just enough to make the pattern of self-sacrifice unbearable. It’s not sudden because I’ve been chipping away at my co-dependence for a long time, but it’s been the final straw.
Fawning makes me sick. I can’t stand to do it anymore.
I’m not saying it’s a clinical, scientific fact, but a large amount of my friends experiencing menopause have to concur; the approval is no longer worth it.
Giving up the addiction of people-pleasing creates a crisis. My entire sense of self is undergoing a massive renovation and the new look is ugly. Yep. I’m not as cute as I used to be by a long stretch. I don’t get the same hit off of making people feel better. What? Yes, I said it. It now dawns on me that it’s not my problem. Unless you’re my kid. Or my client during work hours and even then, I’m just here to love you, not get under the hood with my tools. I can hang with you but that’s as far as this is going.
I DON’T HAVE TO “LOVE” PEOPLE TO CONTROL THEM, do you get it???? I don’t have to keep people from killing me like I did with Mom and Dad, and I finally understand that I don’t have to work that hard now that I’m all grown up. In fact, I’m retiring that whole branch of the business.
Giving in order to be safe is not love. It’s something else. It’s terror. It’s survival. It’s a brilliant strategy and it works when you’re a child. It gives you the hope you need to carry on. It’s all I had, I did it, and I’m proud. And I’m done.
Even if you don’t go through menopause or don’t have a uterus, getting sober from people-pleasing is available to us all. It requires the willingness to inquire about the true intention behind how we give, if we are in fact giving, and if it is ultimately love.
Fawning and people-pleasing patterns are draining, stressful, harmful to our bodies, unsatisfying, anxiety-producing, numbing, and create toxic levels of resentment within us.
Loving from our fullness as a way to give freely, and saying no when it feels authentic to do so, is energizing, clarifying, expansive, creative, unifying, empowering, and brings great joy to our lives and relationships!
The gift of maturity is the chance to discern and discover the difference.
Rythea Lee is a dancer, writer, and performance artist giving voice to shared stories of healing. She created and stars in a 20-Episode YouTube advice show called “Advice from a Loving Bitch” that uses humor and emotional education to help people transform patterns of self-hatred. She has been a trauma counselor with a private practice fro 27 years. More about Rythea at Rythea.com