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People-Pleasing and the Anxious Attachment Style

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

Understanding Your People-Pleasing Patterns.

A brief explainer:

It's known that the anxious attachment style begins in early childhood, stemming from inconsistent attunement from the parent. Healthy attunement basically means the parent's demeanor toward the child is: curious about who the child is, mirrors back to the infant what the infant is feeling, and does their best to understand the kid and make sure he/she consistently feels accepted.

In the 'Strange Situation' (a study done to assess attachment styles), when Mom left the anxious child with a stranger (a safe therapist), the child protested vigorously while Mom was leaving, was unable to be comforted by the (safe) stranger during Mom's absence, and when Mom returned, the child was still agitated and clingy, never finding that soothed, settled state. This is fascinating stuff, and this anxiously attached child's reactions differ greatly from securely attached (and avoidantly attached) children.

Because of a lack of attunement (there's lots of room to do a deeper dive into what that actually looked, sounded, and felt like growing up), the child had to adapt to Mom's/Dad's needs, as a matter of survival, as opposed to feeling free to express the entire spectrum his/her authenticity, as well as the entire spectrum of feelings. If your parents couldn't tolerate and accept your whole range of feeling and authenticty, you probably had to swallow these parts of yourself, or certain feelings, in order to get approval and feel safe. This is how people-pleasing begins.

A reminder:

As adults and especially as children, we have core needs.These needs are basically:

1) The need to feel emotionally safe (reliable and consistent attunement from the parent).

2) The need to feel seen (the felt experience of being understood by parents, including the child's full range of authenticity and feelings being tolerated and accepted).

3) The need to feel soothed (a gentle touch by the parent when the child is upset, settling the kid's nervous system).

4) the need to feel appreciated (the parents celebrate in the child's small wins and are there in an understanding way when it wasn't a win).

A little boy or girl (you, if you're anxiously attached), never felt safe to disagree with others, because your entire authentic being wasn't consistently accepted. So your natural adaptation was to please others. The message you internalized as a result is basically you're not entitled to have your own point of view.

Because of your parent's own trauma, or stress, they often misinterpreted or invalidated your feelings or needs. If this happened consistently enough, the message you internalized is that your feelings and needs don't matter. Peeling away the onion layer even further, a child may develop a core sense of shame or unworthiness. With good reason, their little brains conclude, because why else wouldn't my parents be there for me in this way that makes me feel safe? There must be something wrong with ME!

Because your parents were emotionally unavailable, and because a child longs for connection, the absence of that connection can be traumatic. The child learns to dismiss their own feelings and needs (& even disconnect from them), in order to accommodate the parent and whatever the parent is needing. Of course this adaptation is a survival response! It makes complete sense! The child only has one set of parents, so it's basically interpreted as a life or death situation. The child must learn to do whatever it takes to earn the parent's love, approval, and attention.

If you're anxiously attached, you learned that being nice, dismissing your own feelings, and putting others first, is the way to be worthy of love. This is what finally felt self in childhood, and this belief has now carried over into adulthood, and into your adult relationships. This can lead to resentment and feeling anxious and just shitty, because basically it's living inauthentically, and who feels good when doing that? People-pleasing is essentially trying to control how someone sees you.

An important reminder: IT MAKES SENSE. This is the a big first step toward healing: validating that inner child (that part of you now) who has learned to survive in this way.

People-pleasing looks like:

1). Often over-explaining or apologizing.

2). Saying Yes (out of fear) when you want to say No.

3). Over-booking yourself (at work, socially, etc.), even if you feel burned out.

4). A deep fear of conflict. An inability to express healthy anger.

5). Inability or difficulty having someone be disappointed or upset with you.

6). Not stating your own opinions (not trusting yourself).

7). Defaulting to someone else's opinion.

8). Passive aggressive behavior (not directly stating what you need).

Not knowing how to say No.

More Reminders:

1). You are not responsible for other people's happiness.

2). Your worth doesn't come from the approval of others.

3). All healthy relationships have boundaries & limits.

4). Other people don't need to agree with (or like) your boundaries & limits.

5). Upsetting or disappointing others doesn't mean you're bad or wrong.

How to heal:

1). Be aware of this felt experience/thought: If I can placate the people around me, I will feel safe. Placating others is a safety behavior, to avoid conflict or minimize the risk of being hurt.

2). Learn to say 'let me get back to you on that.'

3). Practice awareness of the pattern. People-pleasing was an adaptive coping skill to stay safe. Be kind to yourself when you notice this behavior.

4). Practice meeting your needs. You've probably learned to abandon your needs to control how others see you. Practice meeting your needs by small acts of self-care each day.

5). Practice placing boundaries. This will initially feel uncomfortable, and even cause guilt or fear. That's ok, it will get easier.

6). Practice emotional regulation. When that fear and discomfort arises, practice noticing and sitting with it. The root of people-pleasing is an inability to sit with discomfort. Learning to sit with these difficult emotions is healing.

I hope this was helpful!

I'm a licensed psychotherapist (similar to a psychologist) in California and Vietnam. If you need further help, you can contact me for a therapy session, online or in-person.

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