The People Pleaser's Pain of Having Goals

Lisa Martens

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There's a reason that I am confident when I am alone, but melt down in the presence of others. I feel immediately on-edge if someone else is in the household.

I am a people pleasure. I am traumatized—I learned fawn as a survival tactic. When I was young, an abusive caretaker would make me tell jokes to her friends. When one came over, she always told me to think of a joke.

This person abused drugs, hit me for speaking Spanish, and engaged in emotionally abusive behavior. As a small child, I learned fast—The way to prevent pain, at least until this person was asleep, was to be good. Be quiet. Tell jokes.

This feeling carried over into new households. I felt relief when my caregivers were asleep, and immediate anxiety when they woke up. It didn't matter that they were not abusive. It didn't matter that I felt they loved me.

It has taken years to recognize that the way I put my needs on the back burner whenever someone else is around is a survival mechanism. I don't do it because I care of that person likes me, no. In a strange way, I am very secure, even though in these situations, it might not seem like it.

I do it because I'm afraid.

As a people pleaser, I am also afraid of making the wrong decisions. The wrong choices. Taking a stance means someone may not like what I do or say. Committing to big changes may displease other people, like family or friends. If I decide to be sober, for example, I will have to deal with repurcussions. The same goes for a career path, marriage, or family. I also would have to find someone who understands my trauma instead of triggering it in order to get me to do things for them (as a people pleaser, sometimes I feel I attract dysfunction by my very nature).

So it's hard to have goals. In fact, it's painful. It goes against everything I have learned to survive—to be adaptable, to read people and go with what they want, to hide.

It's hard for the people pleaser to have their own clear goals. Here are some reasons why I find it difficult:

I might make a mistake.

The people pleaser fears doing something that could be perceived as a mistake. In a people pleasers mind, mistakes are moral failures. People will see they've made a mistake, and deem them a bad person. It's extremely difficult for a people pleaser to separate the two. There's an inherent fear, sometimes a real mortal fear, of doing something wrong. And so it's a lot easier if it's really clear what someone else wants me to do. I won't make them mad, and I won't make a mistake.

People will comment.

People pleasers want people to like them, and so that includes an irrational fear of being spoken about behind one's back. I have come to accept that this will happen no matter what I do, and that I have to do with is right for me regardless. If people have a problem with me but they refuse to discuss it with me, it's not my responsibility.

This was a revolutionary idea for me. I was always trying to anticipate what people might think and what they might disapprove of. I read too much into tones and silence. I assumed the worst at all times. And I assumed everything was about me in some fashion...not in a positive way, like everyone thought I was great, but in a negative way, as though everyone was thinking negatively of me at all times.

But this was a completely irrational fear, one based on the idea that if people did not like me, I was in physical danger. I was not motivated out of an idea of being popular or of doing good. I was avoiding punishment. It was not an empowering response, but a fear-motivated one.

I fear too much attention.

This is super hard to reconcile because I believe if it weren't for the trauma, I would love attention. I like to perform. I like to dance. Of course, I'm a writer. However, when a story of mine gets too much attention, my trauma is triggered.

What do I think will happen? I'm not sure. But part of my people pleasing involves being...unseen. I enjoy exposure, but the more of it I receive, the more I feel unsafe.

I have to stand up for myself, and this could alienate others.

Setting boundaries is difficult for the people pleaser, because they may have been punished for attempting to set boundaries in the past. This was definitely the case for me. I was afraid of setting boundaries because this could mean being yelled at, neglected, or hit. I was not allowed to say no or have my own preferences.

This is obviously not a great belief to carry into adulthood. It makes relationships impossible, because I constantly adapt myself to whoever I'm around. People who are emotionally healthy find it strange, and people who are abusive will take advantage. If I do not learn to stand up for myself and set boundaries, then healthy relationships of all types are literally impossible.

Right now, I'm working on having boundaries with people who do not live with me. Eventually, I have to try to see if I can maintain boundaries with a person I live with, which, for me, is the most difficult. It's so extreme that I feel guilty for just relaxing on the couch, like I should be doing something more productive. I feel this way even when I'm not around people who are judging me.

In Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker explores this very concept:

“Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.” –Pete Walker

This is exactly how I feel the moment I begin to live with someone.

I have to be honest with myself.

The first step just might be the hardest—I have to be honest with myself about what I want. This means deciding what I want without the input of others. What kind of life do I want? How do I go about it? What don't I want?

As a people pleaser, this means removing the opinions of others. I can't think about what other people want...I can ask for advice, but I cannot just go with the flow and let other people decide for me. What's more—This doesn't even lower my anxiety, because I'm still worried about doing the wrong thing.

So if I'm going to be stressed and worried anyway, shouldn't it be for something I actually want?

As a child, we may learn survival mechanisms that do not help us as adults. Ideally, we would all grow up in households where we are encouraged to set boundaries and express our personal desires. For many people, that simply is not true, and setting goals might be a new concept for someone who never considered their life as their own.

For people pleasers, setting goals and boundaries can hurt...but it's an essential step toward healing.

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