People-pleasers can be drawn to toxic relationships. It’s important to know why.

I’ve learned in life that when you observe a pattern about yourself, it might be worth examining (okay, this is an understatement — I can pretty much guarantee you that you’ll come out wiser).

One of my big “aha” moments this year was around a relationship pattern that I hadn’t noticed before. I realized that I’m a people-pleaser.

Being liked by others, especially in my personal life, came at the expense of voicing my true feelings and needs. It was more important to be liked than it was to have relationships that felt honest and nourishing.

And it’s a lonely place to be — it can feel like no one knows your true feelings or self, and that you are secondary in relationships that should feel equal. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to a hell of a lot of resentment.

And thus… a pattern emerged.

My favorite kind of person to love was someone I had to chase — the kind of emotional inaccessibility that, in my mind, was a love I had to “work for.”

I didn’t like love if it felt easy. I didn’t like love if it was readily given to me. The love and affection that I valued the most came from people who were withholding, because my self-worth was defined by “earning” love, rather than feeling inherently worthy of it from the start.

Is this sounding familiar?

The flipside of this, of course, is that I was quick to avoid people who immediately cared for me, and who offered their love freely and readily. I was more likely to run from someone genuinely caring than I was from someone who treated me poorly.

I avoided the people who gave me the kind of love I wanted, because it scared me, and I was sure that I would disappoint them with time. I thought they must be mistaken — I hadn’t yet done anything “worthwhile,” and so I was reluctant to believe them when they told me that they cared. It didn’t feel deserved.

So instead, I threw myself at the people who were inconsistent or withdrawn, because I found their distance to be safer, more believable, and in some ways, more fulfilling. Each time they finally reciprocated, it felt like a special kind of reward, reserved especially for me.

But that pursuit of approval meant a lot of the relationships I invested in were also toxic by my own design.

I was more concerned with approval than honesty. I was quick to “mirror” — saying what I believed I “should” say, deferring to someone else’s opinion even if I didn’t share it, and avoided being disliked at all costs, even if the end result was being disingenuous.

I would rearrange myself for a person if it meant these distant, withholding people might love me back. I’ve done this all of my life — and at times, it’s made me pretty miserable.

I became someone I disliked a lot of the time, but for a while, it was easy to overlook this as long as I had some special person’s approval or praise. My opinion of myself didn’t matter as much as the opinions of other people — and the more emotionally unavailable and authoritative I perceived them as being, the more their opinions seemed to matter.

For years, I didn’t even consciously realize that I was doing this.

The unnerving thing is that people-pleasers, because they so often defer and try to appease, can often attract very controlling people.

This actually makes sense if you think about it.

Someone who always wants to “win” will obviously enjoy (and even exploit) the company of someone who always lets them.

People-pleasers are more than eager to offer someone whatever it is they want — praise, attention, investment — to feel valued, while controlling folks thrive from the safety they feel from being able to offer or revoke their affection at any time.

That, in turn, creates a power dynamic. The people-pleaser is trying endlessly to earn “love” to sustain the feeling of worthiness, while the controlling person decides whether or not to offer that to them in return.

They can withdraw their approval at any time. This means they can choose when to be pursued to regain a sense of control, simply by giving or withholding love. This can be used in manipulative ways.

And often times, neither party involved actually realizes what’s happening. They’re both just pursuing what makes them feel safe. The people-pleaser is pursuing approval, and the controller is seeking, well, control.

As it turns out, this is a documented phenomenon — psychologist Shirley Vandersteen actually writes about the pleaser/controller relationship archetype at length. If you’re a people-pleaser like me, it might sound more than a little familiar.

Reading this, I was pretty convinced that Vandersteen must’ve met all of the ex-boyfriends I’ve had since age fifteen. Yikes.

The thing that’s important to remember, as Vandersteen explains, is that both people-pleasing and controlling can come from family of origin trauma.

I would take that a step further, too. I know many queer and trans people who were so fearful of rejection, they took up people-pleasing as a survival strategy, simply to cope with that fear. This is especially true of queer femmes, who are already conditioned to appease and offer emotional labor in this unreciprocal way.

If you internalized any kind of homophobic or transphobic self-concept, you might’ve found yourself overcompensating in other ways. If the world wasn’t going to accept your identity, you might’ve strived to be acceptable or even perfect in any other capacity that you could be. This offers an illusion of self-protection (the logic here being something like, “if I’m ‘good enough,’ maybe they’ll still accept me”).

The problem is, if this mentality goes unchecked, you’re likely to chase after a kind of love that just isn’t healthy or sustainable because it’s all you really know to do. You’ll be reenacting that trauma indefinitely until you learn to interrupt it.

At least, I was. The only kind of love I knew how to pursue or accept was one in which love and investment was currency — a kind of currency I had to work for, a reward for proper or desirable behavior. But this meant that I was rarely honest about my feelings, my needs, or my desires.

People-pleasers wind up giving up their autonomy in the process, too.

The pursuit of being “good enough” means that the other person holds all the cards — making your self-worth, security, and support entirely reliant on how that person feels on any given day. It’s not reciprocal. And more than likely, it doesn’t feel so great, either.

Worse yet, it opens us up for a type of abuse that is very difficult to step away from. The second a carrot of affection is dangled in front of us, the approval can be alluring enough to get us back on the hamster wheel again, and again, and again, without recognizing the true toll that it takes.

Even if that means getting hurt or never receiving the kind of love we actually want in our lives, the chase sustains the illusion that we might someday have it if we just try hard enough. It’s a comforting thought, but this is rarely (if ever) the case, because the people we’re chasing after are often the least likely to give us the love we’re actually looking for.

Here’s my advice: If any of this rings true for you, it’s time to get honest about it.

At the beginning of this year, working with a trauma-informed therapist (who is just fabulous) meant that I took a long, hard look at the ways in which I approached love and intimacy. And if you couldn’t tell from what I’ve written here… I uncovered some shit. Some really alarming, scary shit.

There’s no magical step-by-step guide that will help every individual person with these tendencies (everyone’s journey is unique — especially when it comes to trauma).

But I can share from personal experience what’s helped me. I’ll even condense it into nice bullet points, just to get you started:

  • Seek out trauma-informed care. I’m a broken record here on this blog, but therapy can be, well, therapeutic. I’ve actually found online therapy to be incredible in this regard. I am less concerned about my therapist on the other end because of the distance between us — so I’m actually more honest. I wrote about my experiences with online therapy here, if you’re interested.
  • Read up about complex trauma, especially related to families of origin. Pete Walker has written at length on this subject. His book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving To Thriving is an incredible resource, and I consider it to be one of the most important books ever written on this subject. If you’re not sure if you are “traumatized enough,” I wrote about that in this advice column. Self-knowledge really is power.
  • Approach your relationships mindfully. Sometimes we become so concerned about how others feel, we lose all awareness around how a particular relationship makes us feel. If you suspect that you struggle with people-pleasing, pay particular attention to how you feel after your interactions with the people you’re close to. Spoiler alert: You shouldn’t feel worse.
  • Look for the signs. Red flags can include feeling like a relationship is one-sided, feeling powerless, or even controlled. You might feel lonely, as if you can never say “no” or voice how you truly feel. You may notice that you’re rarely the person making decisions, that you’re a doormat, or that you cave more easily than others. You might even feel resentful, as though you aren’t getting what you want but it’s too frightening to ask. Guilt and self-blame can be really common, too, because we often attribute a relationship’s failures to our own shortcomings.
  • Take it a day at a time. Practice saying “no.” Practice vocalizing what you want or need. Validate that it’s okay to say things like, “I disagree,” “I wish I could help, but I can’t,” and “this isn’t working for me.” Take note of those moments when you say something for someone else’s benefit or happiness rather than how you truly feel. And above all else, be compassionate with yourself.
  • Stop avoiding the people who are generous with their love — even when it’s scary and even if you feel you don’t deserve it. For me personally, the biggest change I had to make was investing more in the relationships with people who didn’t hesitate to offer love and encouragement to me. I stopped avoiding their texts. I took them up on their invitations. I kept reaching out, even when it scared me. My life continues to get better and better, simply by inviting these folks into my life.
  • Take accountability. Realize that your relationships can only grow if you choose to be authentic. Recognize the ways in which you might reinforce unhealthy dynamics when you aren’t honest about your feelings. Exempting abuse, we can rob a relationship of its full potential if we aren’t being accountable for how we show up.

People-pleasing is often a survival strategy, and an understandable one at that. Thankfully, it’s one we can learn to push back on.

I genuinely believe that just recognizing these patterns in our lives can help us break out of them. And while it can be a painful process, I can honestly say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

Each and every one of us deserves healthy, affirming, and reciprocal love. And if you haven’t heard this recently, I’d like to remind you that you’re already worthy, exactly as you are. Don’t let anyone — past or present — convince you otherwise.

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Photo by Perchek Industrie on Unsplash.

3 thoughts on “People-pleasers can be drawn to toxic relationships. It’s important to know why.

  1. bobcabkings says:

    That definitely is a pattern and you nail it precisely. It’s not my pattern for getting into toxic relationships, which is more wanting to be the one pursued and then accommodating and not doing the carrot and stick control thing, even to express my own needs. The result was still, not feeling known, actually, in a couple of cases not really being known, and the people pleaser being very confused because I wasn’t taking the expected role.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave Macdonald (@davemacdonald) says:

    I love this. I was surprised the word “codependence” didn’t make its way into this piece, but came to appreciate that it didn’t. People pleasing often goes hand in hand with codependence, as it does with me, so I’d never considered it a separate survival mechanism. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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