I find myself, today, struggling to clear an emotional event from my mind. Writing helps. Always helps me to sort fact from fiction, emotion from reality. So I start, actually started two days ago, to write in my journal detailing the entire event. Still, at this moment, I have yet to clear it.
In A State Of Learning
My times of struggle are my greatest learning moments. When I am happy, my mind rests. It’s when I struggle with something that I go in search of answers or, better yet, I am more open to hearing new information that may have always been right in front of me. And so it is with this.
It came across as a random Facebook article. Most times, I mindlessly scroll right on by these but for some reason on this day, this one caught my eye: “People-pleasing can be a result of trauma. It’s called “fawning” – here’s how to recognize it.”
I saw the term and it’s definition and immediately recognized it. THAT’S ME!
This term has been added to the familiar “Fight, Flight, Freeze” responses that we’ve heard about as our brain’s reaction to signals of danger. I’d never seen the addition of the term “Fawning” – a behavior that prompts a person to be a “people-pleaser”.
“People pleasers are often really warm, encouraging and generous people. They tend to overextend themselves saying “yes” to everything and everyone, eager to make those they care about happy and comfortable.”
The author continued by explaining that this tendency usually comes from a childhood that was heavily controlling and the child internalized the idea that if you were perfectly good or well-behaved it would minimize conflict and secure love.
Just this past week, I was walking in a woods, a place I dearly love because of its serenity. As I’m walking the trail, I come upon a family (mom, dad, little girl in a stroller). The mom was lighting a cigarette. The little girl was crying. My first thought was that I felt bad that this little girl, secured in the stroller, was going to catch all the smoke right in her face. But it’s what the dad said that sent my thoughts tumbling back to my childhood. He was agitated and said “Stop whining!” to the little girl. But instead of immediately stopping, the little girl cried harder. Then the man yelled, “STOP CRYING! WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO WRECK EVERYTHING?”
And as I quietly passed them, my mind was pleading with God. “Please help this little girl stop crying because if she doesn’t something bad will happen to her.
And with that, my meditative walk in the woods was over. I had returned to thoughts of my childhood. Over the years, I have worked hard to release the emotions that are attached to those years. I write and write and write. I’ve come to place of understanding and forgiveness but still I can’t let go of the fear; that feeling of needing to please because if I don’t I will be hurt.
People Pleaser – The Upside
This habit of mine can be traced back through my career as a teacher, principal, and director of instruction. Yes, I had a very successful career. It worked to my benefit to be this people pleasing person. What few ever knew was the gut wrenching fear that filled me when I would have to deal with a conflict. More than anything, I wanted people to get along. I worked nonstop to build a culture of teamwork and collaboration. Most of the staff thrived in this environment. Still there were some who seemed more inclined to want to battle. Those people did not see me as a strong leader. They often took me down emotional paths that had me battling with myself because I simply could not please everyone. It was through these experiences that I found strength inside me to dig through to my values and use those to guide me.
Still, I never worked harder in my life. So many people clambering for my support. I worked nonstop, day and night to keep the boat sailing smoothly through so many storms. In the end, I think I kept the boat upright. I was proud of myself and my career.
People Pleaser – The Downside
Then there is the other side that happens to a people pleaser. I’ve been married twice. Both ended because I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d try to use my people pleaser skills and found myself being used over and over again. In a close relationship, like a marriage, that feeling of being used builds and builds. So I may have been drawn to relationships that were controlling and I may have been easily “gaslit” wanting to believe their versions of values and beliefs over my own. In both cases, though, it all became too overwhelming and I felt emotionally abused and needed to free myself.
While it’s enormous to end a marriage, I think back on my life and I can remember this happening with people I called friends and with family members as well. While the relationship was fantastic as long as I was following their lead, supporting their lives, it dissolved the minute I tried to turn some attention to me. They’d disappear or worse, become angry because I wasn’t doing enough for them.
And this is where the drama erupted recently.
I come from a family of six children. I am smack-dab in the middle, #4. I was told my whole life that I was a difficult baby and that my mother treated me “poorly” because of this behavior. That’s the trauma I carry from my past. But because both our parents died relatively early in our lives, we have been forced to navigate a brother/sister relationship as adults without a cord tying us together. Traditional holiday get togethers were the first thing to disappear. Our lives became separate journeys for the most part. We are now forced to interact when one of us is sick or dying. My people pleaser instincts have put me in the middle now twice. While I want to avoid any type of conflict, I find my willingness to speak the wishes of one sibling to put me in the direct line of fire. With this last event, I was the one accused of being “controlling”. I was the one told to “STOP IT”.
And so, while my instincts are to be helpful to avoid conflict and negative emotions, I am over and over again re-traumatized.
And So, I Will Always Choose To Go Last
I had a dream last night that after working hard to get everything ready for someone’s party, I realized that I had not thought ahead to choose what I was going to wear. While I’m finally able to get myself ready, guests start arriving. I scramble to piece together something old. All the while I’m interrupted by people entering my space. I couldn’t take care of me because of all of them and I missed the party.
This type of thing has happened to me often. One memory is the day one of my daughters got married. There ended up being no time for me to have my hair or make-up done in the salon but I was quick to reassure my daughter “No problem. Don’t worry.”
But that’s always the way it is.
I wait until last. I make limited plans of my own and willingly break them or reschedule if I’m asked to do something else. And I wait for others to choose vacation plans, destinations, restaurants, movies… I go along to get along.
So you can understand my surprise when I am called “controlling!”
What? How can that be? How can a person who has spent her life wanting to make others happy is all of sudden accused of wanting everything to go my way? My first husband said that I always wanted to be the queen! Some teachers thought I manipulated everything, and now my own sister thinks I am purposefully keeping her from having a relationship with our brother.
Well, it happens like this.
Sometimes I get backed into a corner where I willingly carry out the wishes of one and then take responsibility to convey those wishes to the other. The other disagrees. I try to defend the wishes of the one and in so doing it’s me who is seen as controlling.
But then there’s this – In order to maintain peace among people, a people pleaser has to control the circumstances. So maybe I am controlling…Hmmm.
The Power of Our Memories To Make Or Break Us
From a person who has spent her life trying to please others, the biggest battle I ever fight is the one going on in my own head. To please one person means to disappoint, even anger, another. When that angry person attacks, I spend days in my head trying to battle back disappointment in myself. I know I can’t please everyone so what I think is “I should have stayed quiet.” I stepped forward too far. I’m that little girl in the woods. I’m being yelled at to “STOP IT. WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO RUIN EVERYTHING?”
While trying to make one person happy, I have taken on too much responsibility and then I’m shot down by someone else saying “Who do you think you are?” And I collapse into that frighted little girl over and over again.
To rise up and try again, I write and I walk in the woods. I smell beautiful flowers. I surround myself wit sunshine; positive people, happy thoughts. I bombard my brain with these things and push back people who seek to bring me down. As a child, I had no control. As an adult, I do control…my choices. So I embrace the “people pleaser” positive attributes of “fawning” and I work hard everyday to avoid people or circumstances that tear me down.
I accept being a people pleaser. I will always place myself last… as long as I am loved by those in front of me.