It starts invisibly: At a party organised by a friend. You are actually tired, the week has been very exhausting for you and you have a pounding headache. But you don’t want to disappoint your friend, so you go along. At the party, you laugh at jokes you don’t find funny just to fit in with the group. You say yes when it comes to cleaning up after the party, even though your alarm clock will ring very early.

You want to please everyone. You don’t want anyone to think anything bad about you. That’s why you take on all the overtime – without pay, of course. This is classic people pleasing behavior.

But why are you doing it?

Even though it’s not good for you… You have a pounding headache the next day because you haven’t given yourself any rest. Besides, you hardly slept because the tidying up went on until 3am. And the overtime – you don’t get paid for that either.

No problem. Right?

The roots of people pleasing behavior

A subtle, powerful pattern has crept into your life: You are always there for others, putting their needs before your own, catering to their wishes, even if it is at the expense of your own health and well-being.

The causes of people pleasing behavior are varied and deeply rooted. Usually starting in childhood. Perhaps you were praised for always being nice and helpful. Maybe you learnt that you would only be loved if you conformed and didn’t cause any problems. Or maybe you grew up in an environment where conflict and disagreements were avoided and you learnt to always maintain harmony.

I call this “anticipatory obedience”. So because you have learnt to react so sensitively to your environment, you know all the possible situations that could theoretically occur if xyz happens – and you act before one of these situations could occur. To avoid being “at fault”.

An example: Your boss urgently needs to give you documents for a project, but – according to his own statements – doesn’t have the time right now. Normally, you would now wait for the documents. Or your boss would give this task – according to him, the project is very urgent – to the assistant, for example. But he doesn’t do that.

And you? You now try – proactively as you are – to get the documents yourself somehow. Because: maybe this is your boss’s “secret agenda” and he wants to test whether you can work independently? Or is he testing whether you can work against the odds? Or or or or… And if you could get the documents and work on the project without his involvement, then that will exceed his expectations.

Can you recognise the pattern?

What exactly your boss thinks or doesn’t think, whether he has a “secret agenda” or not: it doesn’t matter. If he doesn’t communicate this specifically, it’s his issue – not yours! But you make it YOUR TOPIC! You try to look into HIS HEAD and guess what he might have meant or would want.

Fawn Response or People Pleasing behavior as a trauma reaction

Anticipatory obedience or: Fawn

Or also: “grovelling”, submissiveness. That’s what you do with a people pleasing behavior – even though you don’t have to.

You can extend these examples as much as you like – to all kinds of situations and people. Relationships are also a general “playing field” for these types of behaviour – and usually you don’t even notice it yourself. What these situations always have in common is that you put yourself – also energetically – in a submissive, lower position. All by yourself. For no reason.

This people pleasing behavior is also called “fawn” – or more precisely, fawn response. Translated also as “submissiveness” or simply as “flattering”. The fawn response is one of the less well-known trauma reactions to an expected “danger”, alongside fight, flight or freeze – also known as fight, flight and freeze.

Fawn – also known colloquially as the “Bambi reaction”, people behave in such a way that “you can’t be angry with them” – they do everything they can to be liked and not excluded from the group. This is the reaction as a baby or toddler when fight or flight is not possible, otherwise they would starve to death. So they freeze and “be nice”. Always the friendly, sweet child who never causes problems – and always smiles.

For example, I have accompanied clients who have always apologised for everything, even if there was no reason for it.

This submission and adaptation to adverse circumstances was ultimately a survival mechanism – which still accompanies us in adulthood – until we become aware of it.

And this does something. Both with yourself and with your counterpart (unconsciously).

Because your energy doesn’t lie

From the inner drive and pressure of the people pleasing behavior urge – to always please, to always perform, from the fear of rejection or conflict, you have at some point forgotten or never learnt how to say NO without feeling guilty or selfish. Your counterpart naturally perceives your energy – and where there might previously have been eye-to-eye equality, the system slowly tilts into “above” and “below”, so that the pattern between you – and with you in general – becomes even stronger over time.

You are then always the one who pleases everyone. And it doesn’t make you happy. At some point it makes you angry. And in the long run, it exhausts you. Your energy, which you need for yourself, is used up. For “the others”. And they – don’t even thank you for it. You live “for the family”, “for the company”, “for your job”.

And never for yourself.

Next Station: Burnout

And that puts you on the best possible path to burnout:

  • You are living the life of others
  • You are only there for others (but not for yourself)
  • You ignore your own needs: You are so busy fulfilling the needs of others that you forget to take care of yourself. Your health, well-being and personal goals take a back seat.
  • You put yourself under constant pressure: You constantly feel obliged to do more, be better and meet higher expectations. This constant pressure leads to stress and exhaustion.
  • You have no time to relax: As you are always there for others, there is hardly any time for rest and relaxation.
  • You constantly feel guilty: If you ever say “no” or take care of your own needs, you are plagued by a guilty conscience. This constant inner conflict can lead to emotional exhaustion.
  • You lose contact with yourself: By constantly trying to please others, you gradually lose touch with your own desires, needs and feelings.

Have you ever heard the flight attendant’s announcement before take-off?

Ladies and gentlemen, we would now like to familiarise you with the safety precautions on board.
If the pressure in the cabin drops, oxygen masks will automatically fall from the cabin ceiling. In this case, pull one of the masks all the way towards you and press the opening firmly over your mouth and nose. Then please help any children travelling with you.

Excerpt from the Lufthansa cabin crew announcement
People Pleasing behavior

AFTERWARDS is the magic word.

Afterwards. After you have taken care of yourself. After you have taken care of your needs. After you have done what you wanted to do (or not do). After you have rested. After you have allowed yourself to rest. Then. If you really want to (and not because you have a guilty conscience), then you can be a support to someone else.

What is important for you now:

  1. Learn to set boundaries: It’s okay and important to say “no” when you feel overwhelmed or when something goes against your personal values or needs. Setting boundaries is an essential step in overcoming your need to please everyone all the time.
  2. Get to know your values and practise self-care: What is important to you? What is not possible? Take time for yourself regularly and do things that bring you joy and help you to relax and feel yourself. This could be sport, meditation, painting, dancing or simply a quiet evening at home. Self-care helps you to stay in touch with your own needs and desires.
  3. Seek professional help: Sometimes it can be helpful to seek professional support to break the pattern of people pleasing. A therapist or coach can help you to identify the causes of your people pleasing behavior and develop strategies to deal with it. They can also help you to strengthen your self-esteem and maintain healthier relationships.

Breaking this – very deep – pattern of people pleasing behavior is not so easy because it emerged very early on. And at the same time, it is essential for you. Self-determined living is the much-vaunted form of self-love. Self-determined living – and therefore living authentically, as you are and according to what is good for you at the moment – IS self-love. Genuine authentic self-love.

Getting out of the cycle also means leaving people behind. Those for whom it was convenient that you were “at their service”. Who don’t want you as an authentic and true person because it no longer serves their issues.

This will happen, and not too little. Why? Because you have been bending yourself all your life. But this had nothing to do with your true being, with standing up for yourself and your needs.

Don’t be fooled or unsettled when people turn away from you. They no longer fit in with who you really are. And even if it hurts and may disappoint you, be glad that the deception has ended.

I would be delighted to accompany you on your path to finding yourself. Arrange a personal pre-consultation or come straight to my intensive 3-hour coaching session, in which we will dive deep into this pattern of people pleasing behavior.

I’m looking forward to it. Do you know why? Because that is my greatest wish: to see people shine again because they have finally found themselves.

All the best, Christine