It’s painful when you find yourself in a relationship continually giving more than you receive. And yet at the same time, it’s hard to stop being a people pleaser. In fact, it’s a role that you’ve become all too used to.
And really, why would you want to do that, even to the point of being unhappy, stressed, resentful, and physically and emotionally ill?
Because you learnt too.
Freud refers to ‘repetition compulsion’, and the founder of attachment theory John Bowlby reflects on the ‘self-perpetuating quality of our internal world.’
In a nutshell, what they’re both talking about is that fact that in life and our relationships, we literally repeat what we know. You follow the rules you have learnt to live by whether you get them or not.
Early Childhood Lessons
I can’t recommend enough Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2004 novel Purple Hibiscus. It’s the beautiful and harrowing story of fifteen-year-old Kamili growing up in post-colonial Nigeria.
Kamili is raised in a household headed by her brutal narcissistically wounded father. He subjects Kamili, her brother Jaja and their mother Beatrice to horrific emotional and physical abuse. Characteristic of narcissistic behaviour there were different sides of her father’s personality, and to the outside world, he was a charming, generous, caring, intelligent and religious man.
This sets the scene for not only a traumatic childhood but a confusing, anxious one as well. Kamili is taught by her experience, her parents and the Church to be attuned to and navigate her father’s moods to please and not upset him.
At times she ‘fails’. And that failure could be eating when she is hungry or not coming top of her class. Then she is punished but learns to suppress and deny the full extent of her pain. This way she can keep hold of the illusion of the caring, generous man, of which she is proud, to ensure his continuing care and love.
This story is a complicated mix of politics, gender roles, religion, intergenerational trauma, emotional neglect and abuse all forming Kamili’s experience of what relationships are about.
Like you, and every child, Kamili has an unconscious story of what is a ‘normal’ relationship.
She is learning what she needs to do to be loved and for someone to stick around. She’s learning what adult relationships look like, how in patriarchal societies men may treat women and what is tolerated for the sake of the relationship.
She has learnt that drama, compliance, repressed anger (feminine), rage (masculine), pain and denial have a place in relationships.
And as a child who needs her parents, she is also learning to unconsciously sacrifice herself to ease her mother’s pain and her father’s shame.
When children feel prized, looked after, safe and significant not for who they are, but for what they do for others they grow up starved of love and affection.
And as a result, when this happens, love and self-esteem get mixed up with constant pleasing.
Love is not unconditional; you earn it by pleasing.
When you carry all of this experience into a romantic relationship, there’s a lot more to the fairy tale than meets the eye.
Repeating The Familiar
Your childhood might not have been traumatic or chaotic, but parents and significant caregivers are our ‘first loves’. And people who love us let us down sometimes.
We are raised by humans with human flaws.
Sometimes it’s not the things that your caregivers did; it’s the things that they did not do. Perhaps they were unable to respond to your emotional needs.
When you were sad they problem solved or sent you to your room. What they didn’t do was to show empathy with your pain.
Maybe you felt they didn’t bother to get to know you and only valued you for your school grades and achievements. This feeling may have made you try even harder to get better grades in order to receive their attention.
Perhaps, because one parent found it hard stop being a people pleaser, and put the other parent’s needs before yours, you felt ignored and invisible.
These early attachment relationships are what your adult relationships will, to some extent, mimic. As an adult, your relationships will reflect these earlier dynamics and any wounding experiences.
Your desire to please or put others first is deep-rooted.
What Did You Learn
So, underneath the putting others first is the part of you that fears not being loved.
- Put other peoples needs ahead of your own compromising your wellbeing
- Be fiercely independent and reluctant to ask for or accept help when you need it
- Have difficulty recognising or trusting your own emotions and feelings
- Find it’s challenging to hold healthy emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual boundaries
- Feel as if you are not good enough
- Find it difficult to say no
- Say sorry…. a lot
- Have difficulty accepting or receiving gifts, praise or compliments
- Feel responsible for other peoples behaviours or actions, e.g. thinking, ‘If I was a better partner, maybe my husband would spend more time with me’.
Prioritising others kept you safe and loved. Now you’ve spent such a long time focusing on other peoples needs that it’s become hard to recognise your own.
Let Go And Stop Being A People Pleaser
It’s tempting to want to leave the past in the past. However, you never truly separate from it. The past lives in the present in the obstacles and challenges that you face every day.
When you avoid dealing with the pain of the impact of your early and foundational relationships, you miss an essential opportunity to discover your authentic Self, live that truth and enjoy your current day relationships.
Letting go of your sense of value from pleasing others will be uncomfortable.
That’s because pleasing others feels so familiar; it’s part of who you are. This part of you, or sub-personality, developed so that as a child you felt safe. But as an adult, perhaps there are different qualities to this sub-personality which for now lay hidden, but would better serve you.
And as you heal and let go the people around you will be uncomfortable too. The likelihood is they don’t want you to stop being a people pleaser. That’s not just because of the things you do, but it’s also because they are used to you being the buffer between them and their wounding. They will be forced to be in contact with their pain and take responsibility for what they do.
It takes courage to endure the discomfort and possibly guilt of this change, but it’s critical.
Your pain won’t last forever.
In time you can learn to loosen the grip of the people pleaser, experience a new sense who you really are and connect with your soul.
Over To You
Do you find it hard to stop being a people pleaser? If you want to stop being a people pleaser and reconnect with your soul get in touch and book your first counselling appointment.
Or call me today on 07535 864836.
Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.
P.S. PASS IT ON
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© Sandra Harewood
Soul Centred couples counsellor Sandra Harewood specialises in working with couples and single women with childhood wounding that impacts their adult relationships. Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore and discover creative solutions to their difficulties and create great relationships.