People-Pleasing as a Defense Mechanism

I’m someone that identifies strongly as having a “go with the flow” personality. Which can be great. I acknowledge that it is good to be a compromising person that gets along well with most people. I don’t think it’s a problem to not have strong opinions often, and to generally like others to take charge of situations. Sometimes when one person has a bigger personality, it is complimentary to have another more subdued in opinion. But when relational flexibility tips into the realm of people-pleasing, as it often does, that’s where I see the benefits dissolve.

People-pleasing for me is having the inability to express my authentic self at the risk of upsetting others. It comes across when I care about something that’s important to me, but stay silent. It comes across when I’m having a bad day, but when someone asks me how I’m doing, I automatically reply “good”. It comes across as bending over backwards to make sure I am able to fulfill my duties to others, but never asking for help or admitting that I’m struggling. It is the inability to self-advocate. It is changing or hiding who I am, what I think, or how I feel in order to ensure another person’s comfort or happiness. It is dishonesty in the name of self preservation. And while it may be a helpful technique to ensure social acceptance, it comes at a cost. How can someone connect with you, the REAL you, if your true self is covered up by who you think you’re supposed to be? I recognize that although I may speak in agreement with others, my tone or body language can tell a different story. People are able to see past your words and recognize you’re avoiding the whole truth. I’ve been called “fake” many times and I can understand this is why.

I’ve recognized this tendency about myself for a long time, and how it compliments my complete avoidance of confrontation and fear of authority. Nothing unsettles me more than thinking someone might be mad at me. I openly acknowledge that I will typically do anything to avoid a fight, even if it means compromising my values. I’ve accepted this as part of my personality for a long time, but now I’m starting to see how it may really be a defense mechanism in response to prolonged relational abuse. Here’s why:

When undergoing years of verbal and emotional abuse, I learned that my opinions and thoughts were nearly always “wrong”. How can something subjective like an opinion be considered wrong? Well, if time and time again, everything you say is ridiculed or used as evidence to accuse you of something, it becomes dangerous to express yourself. Quickly I learned to just be quiet, agree, and submit. When this person told me my opinions were stupid, and wouldn’t back down or concede, ever, I learned that it was less painful to keep pushing my point, and much safer to just give up. My hobbies were boring, stupid, pretentious, and “hoity toity”? I tried to hold on, but after relentless ridicule and condemnation, I just quit. One by one the things I loved, the things that made me ME, were given up in an attempt to be treated well. In abusive relationships, you don’t see that it isn’t YOU causing the abuse to happen, it’s THEM. You believe you deserve what is happening to you, and if you could just be better, it would stop. A common survival strategy in prolonged abusive relationships, it turns out, is attempting to eliminate everything about yourself that would be possible to trigger more abuse. Of course, this doesn’t work, because the abuser’s brain will always find something more to invent. But the whole thing goes on for months. I think something people misunderstand about abusive relationships is the time scale. It’s not in one night that the abuser tells the victim to quit all their hobbies, reject all their interests, and lose all their friends. It takes place over the course of weeks, months, and years, so subtly and artfully manipulated that the victim thinks they are making a good decision of their own authority. They believe life will get better if they just drop this one more thing. If they just erase one more part of themselves, they can make the abuse stop. It’s f*cking insidious.

So over time, as you’re desperately trying to morph yourself into someone perfect that won’t illicit the mistreatment (which is impossible), you’re effectively teaching your brain that it’s unsafe to express your own opinions. Survivors are incredibly adept at the  skill of interpersonal flexibility, and it’s not inherently a bad thing. It can be helpful in workplace and personal relationships, making it easier to understand multiple takes on a situation and help reach a compromise. But shutting down your own desire to make your ideas known does not create a harmonious experience. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, and I believe that what we do not say will inevitably be expressed in some way or another, and the longer it takes the more destructive it becomes. When I hold back my truth, especially regarding my feelings, it will leak out in other areas of my life, making me feel confused and blindsided by my responses and reactions. If you aren’t able to express your reality, it can drown you. If suppressing your truth fuels the fire of shame, honoring and expressing it must be the antidote.

Which brings us to shame, which is always weaving its way into trauma’s binds. When your primary objective in interactions is other people’s comfort, it points to a deep held belief that you don’t deserve feel what you feel. It reinforces the belief that you won’t be accepted if you’re anything less than perfect. It keeps you in the cycle of shame. This is why speaking your truth is radical. It is owning that your experience is valid and deserves a place in the conversation, just like everyone else’s. Shame says, “you will only be loved if you are perfectly agreeable. Be quiet and small so people can digest you. Only then will you be loved.” Shame is the reverberation of abuse, whose voice had the same message.

Self love, agency, and connection with others all walk hand in hand. When we voice our truth, we convey to others and ourselves that we have our own story, one that deserves to be told. We open the door to disagreement, sure, but also discussion, connection, and momentum: things that blindly agreeing rarely incite. And from this place of authenticity, we tell ourselves a deeper message, that the way we feel is valid and the way we think is acceptable. Not that we are always right, not that we are always palatable, but that we are safe to be who we are. From this place of safety and agency, self love can root and real growth can blossom.

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