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  • Writer's pictureFaye Packer

How childhood trauma creates people-pleasers

Meet Betty. She’s a 36 year old mum of two who enjoys pyjama days with her children, experimenting in the kitchen and upcycling old furniture. When she’s not at home, she’s busy working for an unpredictably fast-paced technology company. Her life is a kaleidoscope of chaos and jampacked with activities. Between working full-time, school runs and hobbies, Betty cannot possibly take on any more commitments….

…until her aunt phones late one Friday night

and sweetly asks if Betty wouldn’t mind helping her move house at the weekend. Betty desperately wants to say ‘no’. She knows that she doesn’t have the time or energy to help her aunt. She doesn’t even LIKE her aunt that much. Betty takes a deep breath and says…

“Yes, of course I can help. I don’t mind!”

This is only a fictional vignette but I imagine that Betty’s conundrum resonates for a LOT of people-pleasers. You agree to anything and everything. You agree to things that you secretly hate. You claim that you ‘don’t mind’ when actually yes, you DO mind a hell of a lot. But it’s like you can’t help yourself when faced with a request – you feel a compulsion to say ‘yes’ when you want to say ‘no’.

How does childhood trauma and dysfunction relate to people-pleasing? Here are some possible interpretations for you to think about:


Some people-pleasers are acting from a fawn trauma response. Fawn types learn from an early age that being compliant and ‘good’ helps them feel safe around unpredictable people. If you grew up with a parent who was prone to rage, this would have been your way of pacifying them. It’s hard to be angry at a child who is perfectly behaved and only does what they are told.


You may struggle with guilty feelings when you assert yourself or say no. This is often an indicator that you are not putting your needs first, or that other peoples’ needs always outweigh your own. When you grow up in dysfunction or trauma, you learn to switch off your needs, wants and desires because there is often the caregiver is not capable of meeting them. You may feel an inner emptiness – and you may compensate by unconsciously living through other people. You start to become very influenced by other peoples’ moods and will go to great lengths to keep people happy to avoid feeling bad.


People-pleasing may come from a place of low self-worth. If you don’t feel good about yourself, other peoples’ opinions become VERY important and you start to base our entire self-worth on how friends, family and random strangers view you. People with low self-worth find it especially difficult to hear criticism because it can feel like you are being kicked when you are already down. You avoid any criticism by complying with any requests and never making a fuss.


If you grew up with a domineering caregiver, people-pleasing may be your default position. People-pleasing can be interpreted as an act of submission – you are empowering someone else at the expense of meeting your own needs. When you give away your power too easily or too quickly, you are also giving away your freedom to independent choice. You start to become reactive and submissive instead, and are stuck going along with other peoples’ wants and desires.


There are a couple of things you can do to start moving away from compulsive people-pleasing:

* Practice saying NO. This may feel impossible at first. If you cannot bring yourself to say NO, try saying “Can I have some time to think about it?”. When you give yourself some time and space to think, you will often give the answer that feels truest to you.

* Write a list of your positive traits. What do you do well? What is uniquely positive about your character. This will get you thinking about yourself as an individual and is a particularly good exercise if you frequently find yourself overpowered by other people. What do YOU stand for?

* Invest time in yourself. When you start to enjoy your own company and learn about your own strengths, the opinions of other people will matter far less. What do you enjoy doing? What kind of new skills can you learn? What do YOU want to experience?

Thank you for being here today.

Faye x

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