The effects of childhood trauma can stay with a person for a long time, even up to their golden years. Trauma affects a person’s psyche and makes them see everything from a different perspective. It makes a person doubt the genuine kindness and goodwill of others, the authenticity of kind words, and even the purest gestures from people may seem phony to them. These effects can be much worse when a person who experienced any form of trauma hasn’t been receiving counseling or therapy. They don’t have a reflective outlet for their emotions and thoughts, and they are usually forced to believe very deeply in their convictions about life and people.

Children usually go through two kinds of trauma: interpersonal trauma and traumatic events [1]. The former categorizes physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, domestic violence, neglect, bullying, deprivation, and maltreatment. Traumatic events include the loss of a loved one, life-threatening accidents, serious medical illnesses and the pain of recovery, natural disasters, wars, bombings, shootings, and generally any event that shakes a child up deeply.

Trauma affects the developmental processes of a child, which will, in turn, affect them in adulthood. Studies have shown that the volume of white matter in the brain progressively reduces following an experience of trauma as a child [2]. The volume of white matter in the brain is correlated with a child’s ability to learn and develop cognitive skills. A reduction in this volume has been suggested to impair a child’s learning and developmental abilities. Adults who experience trauma as a child usually have a heightened stress response and a tendency to be socially withdrawn and chronically tense [3].

How does trauma relate to people-pleasing?

People-pleasers are usually incredibly sweet, calm, and excessively agreeable, never disputing a fact, never arguing a point even when it’s obviously wrong [4]. They detest animosity and controversy, always striving to line up with other people’s opinions. People-pleasing usually stems from a deep-rooted craving for approval and accommodation. They are usually very deferring and subordinating, submitting to the decisions of others for emotional security.

What most people don’t know is that people-pleasers are usually very smart, but they choose not to make this information open to everyone else. They have their own opinions on everything but they choose to go along with yours. They may not really like you as a person, but they choose to be nice and sweet to you.

This personality trait also arises from a need for total acceptance and “safe love”. People-pleasers make it a priority to always appear non-threatening and amiable. They strive to please people for acceptance and love. They want people to think about them with genuine smiles. They want to be seen as perfect and loveable. They tend to mirror the thoughts and opinions of people who exude social authority and protection to get on top of their good books.

Fawning: Intensified people-pleasing

Fawning doesn’t merely mean a romantic deep crushing on another person. It could also mean going out of your way and out of the ordinary to avoid any of conflicts, arguments, and negative vibes, accommodating the most uncomfortable of situations without dropping an audible complaint or showing any signs of exasperation. Fawners are usually very sweet, making the most over-the-top compliments and saying exactly what people want to hear.

Sam Dylan Finch, a writer on Let’s Queer Things Up, recently went viral on Twitter for a deeply expository thread he wrote on people-pleasing [5]. Sam is an LGBTQ advocate who grew up in a chaotic and harsh environment which left him traumatized as a child. He learned to find solace and acceptance through fawning, going out of his way to be the nicest guy to everyone.

Even when these people he fawned over were not in his presence, he’d become hardwired to defer to them. Fawners don’t believe that people can be nice to them for free or love them with no strings attached, so they try to give something greater in return.

In his follow-up blog post, he wrote [6]: “This could come across as being excessively nice and complimentary, overly-concerned with another person’s happiness, and waiting for cues in conversation to determine if something was “safe” to share or disclose. You could say that people-pleasers are sort of ’emotional chameleons,’ trying to blend in order to feel safe. We try to embody whatever articulation of ourselves feels the least threatening to the person that we’re trying to be close to.”

From parent-pleasing, many kids and teens graduate to people-pleasing. Growing up in a chaotic home where parents were always arguing and in permanent bad moods, children would usually try to play things safe, aiming to be perfect and flawless at everything they do or say. A great deal of aggression is transferred to them and they are forced to protect their emotions by trying to impress every adult in their lives, not merely their parents.

As adults, they don’t always get over this tendency easily. They’ve been hardwired as kids to believe that love is much safer when everyone around them is happy and undisputed. They don’t like to take chances with acceptance. They need the warmth they exude to be reciprocated.

Sam shared more details about how fawning deeply affected his life.

“I know this dynamic better than anyone, really, because it’s come up in my life repeatedly. I’m sharing this because, holy shit, my friends, the number of traumatic relationships I’ve thrown myself into — professionally, personally, romantically — to get stuck in this cycle, with my self-esteem pulverized, has made my heart so heavy. It took stepping away from a friendship that had so thoroughly gaslit and demolished me — while plummeting into the deep depths of anorexia — before I realized that chasing controlling, emotionally unavailable, even abusive people was crushing my spirit.”

A way out?
Sam explains that the most efficient solution to getting over this problem was opening up to the people he’d been trying so desperately hard to please, coming clean and letting them know the truth about his personality.

I was completely honest about my process with those folks, too. I said, “Listen, I get really scared when people are nice to me. You’ve always been SO nice to me, and I get afraid of disappointing you. But I want to change that, because I just enjoy your company so very much,” he wrote.

Sam explains that he stood up for his emotions and his dignity, allowing a need for self-enrichment to take over him, and today, he’s much happier, lighter, and better. He battled with eating disorders and addiction for a while, but those people he used to fawn over dramatically became the best support system he could ever ask for.

“And my strawberry people (who are now all in a group text together!) have been there every step of my recovery. I reached a year in my sobriety this last month. And I’m finally medically stable after being severely malnourished from anorexia nervosa. Choosing love — unconditional love of self, and being loved unconditionally by others — literally saved my life. IT ALL BEGAN JUST BY AFFIRMING, ‘I AM ENOUGH, HERE AND NOW, AND I DESERVE LOVE THAT DOESN’T HURT,’” he wrote.

It’s important to say “no” sometimes. It’s not going to happen in one second. You’ll be terrified at times, averse to the reality of losing acceptance and approval, but you don’t need those things when they are not authentic. Say “no” when you don’t agree. They’ll be shocked, but if they are truly YOURS, they’ll be happy too. Fawning can actually be really annoying sometimes.

Speak to yourself. Educate and encourage yourself. Validate the person you are internally. Give yourself time to learn how to be bold and self-assured. If you’ve been hanging around toxic people, run. There’s no getting around those ones.

Speak to someone. Counseling and therapy are invaluable for getting over these issues. Talking to a person who understands your plight will help you to set your thoughts out in clear perspective, and you’ll slowly begin to undo your misguided convictions about a lot of things.

Finally, be honest with the people around you. Say your mind with pride. It’ll take time to get used to, but hey, participate actively in the conversation. They’ll actually love you more for your authenticity.

References:

  1. What is childhood trauma?”, Blue Knot.
  2. How childhood trauma affects the brain“, Medical News Today. September, 2017.
  3. 6 Ways That a Rough Childhood Can Affect Adult Relationships“, Psychology Today. July 2017.
  4. Are you a People Pleaser?”, Psychology Today. October, 2012.
  5. Sam Dylan Finch. Twitter.
  6. People-pleasing can be a result of trauma. it’s called ‘fawning’ — here’s how to recognize it“, Let’s Queer Things Up. June, 2019.
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