Are you a people pleaser? Do you know someone who is a people pleaser? If so, this can be a helpful blog post to help improve assertiveness and healthy boundaries in order to improve mental and physical health and longevity of life.
People pleasers are created, not born. People pleasing is an adaptive response to an environment where expressing anger is not safe. People pleasing is putting other peoples needs before your own and might also be called “conflict avoidant”. At some point this was an adaptive response. An example would be the young child who expresses frustration or anger over not being able to have their cookie before dinner (a normal emotional response), and their parent then yelling and raging at them. After repeatedly experiencing this kind of reaction, they learn that love is conditional and they need to suppress their anger in order to be good and lovable. This child has now learned that anger creates a risk to their survival and learns to stuff it. This in turn suppresses their immune system, increases cortisol levels, impacts the development of their brain, and makes them more vulnerable to being a victim of domestic abuse later in life. So what was once adaptive in order to be accepted, loved and cared for by their parent for survival purposes, becomes maladaptive and problematic later in life.
Now, going back to example, let me clear that this does not mean you should give the child the cookie. As a parent, we now know that we want to emotionally coach our child through their emotional world by helping them name and validate their emotional experience while holding boundaries. This might sound like “I know, it’s so frustrating to not be able to eat the cookie right now. I know, I get it, its sad and frustrating. I feel the same sometimes when I don’t get what I want right away. And, I’m your mom/dad so my job is to keep you healthy and safe and make sure you get all your vitamins you need to grow healthy and strong. And know that I love you, I get you, and once dinner is finished we can have that cookie.” And follow up with soothing with physical touch such as a hug as needed.
Teaching children that anger is healthy, and how to express it in a healthy way (with our words not punching), and allowing them the safe place to talk about their feelings, helps children increase their emotional and social intelligence. Research shows that social and emotional intelligence is the number one predictor of childhood success later in life (academically, financially, occupationally, relationally, emotionally, mentally). If this is taught as a child, then as an adult we are better able to have healthy relationships with healthy boundaries.
However, if we were taught to prioritize other peoples needs (which happens often when there is an alcoholic parent, aggressive parent, or sick primary family member), then we learn to be passive and that our needs aren’t as important. As we grow into adults, passive behaviors over time leads to resentment, low self-esteem, and mental and physical illness.
People pleasing is at its core the act of suppressing healthy anger. When our personal boundaries are violated, when we are hurt by others, we have a healthy anger response. When we suppress our healthy anger we are suppressing our immune system. The connection between the immune system and emotions can be read more about here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4212945/
It is important to differentiate between an angry feeling vs an angry reactive behavior, aka aggression. The flip side of people pleasing, or passivity, is aggression. This is not the answer either. Aggression is prioritizing your own needs in a way that hurts others. In a way that gains power and control. Aggression is also a maladaptive response to living in an environment as a child where your needs are not being met. Aggression is a defense mechanism that uses fear to get what you want quickly, while at the same time keeps others at a distance which protects you against vulnerability. This also prevents you from having close, healthy relationships which research has shown is directly related to life longevity, physical and mental health.
Both people pleasing and aggression lead to a life of more stress. Stress releases hormones that cause inflammation and immune suppression. This results in more physical and mental illness and less time on this planet. The alternative is learning how to think and behave assertively in order to create healthy boundaries in life. A skilled therapist can help you start on this journey.
See Lindsay’s original article in the highly esteem Moonshine Ink, North Lake Tahoe/Truckee’s independent newspaper here:
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