Are you a people pleaser? Do you know anyone who spends their days making others happy? If so, the following can be a helpful when it comes to improving assertiveness and healthy boundaries in order to better mental and physical health and longevity of life.
People pleasers are created, not born. The act is an adaptive response to an environment where expressing anger is not safe. It is putting other people’s needs before your own and might also be called “conflict avoidant.”
At some point in time, this was an adaptive response. One example would be a young child who expresses frustration or anger over not being able to have a cookie before dinner (a normal emotional response), and the parent then yelling and raging at the child. After repeatedly experiencing this kind of reaction, the child learns that love is conditional, and he or she needs to suppress anger in order to be good and lovable. This child has now learned that anger creates a risk to personal survival and learns to stuff it. This in turn suppresses the child’s immune system, increases cortisol levels, impacts brain development, and makes the child 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 the parent for survival purposes, becomes maladaptive and problematic later in life.
Now, going back to our example, let me clarify that this does not mean you should give the child the cookie. As parents, we now know that we want to emotionally coach our children 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. It’s 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. Know that I love you, I get you, and once dinner is finished, we can have that cookie.” Then 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, and mentally. If this is learned as children, then as adults we are better able to have healthy relationships with healthy boundaries.
However, if we were taught to prioritize other people’s 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 lead 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 on the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Helath website at ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
It is important to differentiate between an angry feeling versus an angry reactive behavior, like aggression. Aggression is the flip side of people pleasing, or passivity. This is not the answer either. Aggression is prioritizing your own needs in a way that hurts others, a way that gains power and control. It is also a maladaptive response to living in an environment as a child where 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 people 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.