Anxiety is a part of life. For everyone, everywhere. All humans, here in Toronto, and across the globe. If we didn't have any anxiety, we'd be dead! When not excessive or overwhelming, anxiety is a normal response to stress. In fact, it can be incredibly motivating, help us wake up, get started, and get going.
Anxiety that Gets in the Way of Living
Anxiety needs treatment when it is very overwhelming, when it takes over. When it becomes the loudest voice inside, and blocks our focus and presence. In our bodies, it can feel like a nearly constant clenching, a frequently pounding heart; shallow breathing or breath holding. High anxiety can also make us feel sweaty, nauseous, panicky. Racing thoughts spin in circles like a hamster wheel.
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood
Understanding Anxiety in People Pleasers
It can be helpful to gain a better understanding of the nature of your specific anxiety, how it differs from somebody else's. Greater insight and understanding can provide a sense of control and safety. It can also help us recognize the anxiety for what it is when it comes up, which can help take the edge off; i.e. "Oh - that's just my anxiety talking!" So: how does anxiety look specifically for folks with people pleasing patterns?
Common Anxieties/Fears of People Pleasers
Here is a non-exhaustive list of common fears and anxieties that people pleasers tend to have.
fear of rejection
fear of abandonment; of being left alone
fear of criticism
fear of conflict
fear of others' anger
fear of others' judgement; i.e.:
they won't like me
they'll think I'm difficult, annoying, needy
fear of feeling out of control
fear of uncertainty
fear of being or seeming less than perfect
fear of failure
fear of asking for help
fear of speaking up
fear of self-advocacy
fear of feeling unworthy
fear of being "found out" as inadequate, unlovable, or broken😔 .
Some Ideas for Understanding People Pleasing Anxiety
Anxiety can be thought of in the following two related but different ways.
A survival response to stress
Protection from feeling pain (particularly fears of abandonment)
I will explore these two themes below and illustrate what anxiety treatment for people pleasers can look like from each of these perspectives.
1. People Pleasing Anxiety as a Survival Response to Stress
People-pleasing can be thought of as a survival response to stress. To fear, particularly fear of abandonment, which is so key for people-pleasers.
Pete Walker, a California-based psychotherapist and writer, coined the extended version of the Fight/Flight/Freeze response. His version added in the word Fawn, which is very relavent to people pleasing as a stress response.
Fight/Flight/Freeze as a response to Anxiety
The original version of Fight/Flight/Freeze is about the nervous system's response to stress in general, and the limited options our nervous system has in times of stress or danger to respond. This is not a cognitive, thinking response, because in times of high stress our thinking brain gets turned off. We temporarily lose access to our cognitive flexibility, our creative problem solving. Instead, our bodies go into survival mode, and there are a limited number of "gears" we can go into.
When in "survival mode", we only have a limited number of response options: Attack the intruder (fight!), run away (flight), or play dead, hoping the threat will pass and we will go by unnoticed (freeze). When we feel threatened, we become governed by our limbic system, our more primitive brain, with these finite response options.
I have a bunny that likes to visit my Toronto backyard garden in the warmer seasons. When I go outside, and she senses my movement or presence, she freezes! Have you seen this? Once I back away a bit, she runs away (flight!). Fight/Flight/Freeze is not unique to humans; it is a primitive survival response, reserved for when we are feeling very scared, overwhelmed, unsafe.
Photo by Andrew Patrick; downloaded from Pexels
Fawn Response in People Pleasers
Enter Fawn. Fawn is a response that people pleasers tend to overly rely on when they feel threatened or unsafe. To fawn means to praise or flatter someone in order to win their approval.
Sometimes people fawn strategically, in 0rder to achieve gain; like flattering someone and then making a request. This is not a fawn response to stress because it is intentional and not fear-based. A fawn response is an automatic response in the presence of fear, high stress, and feeling like one's survival is at stake.
People pleasers might fawn at work, compliment their boss too much, and be overly accommodating, because of fear, particularly fear of rejection. They are afraid of getting fired, or being viewed as incompetent, or not belonging in some way.
They might fawn in relationships in moments or dynamics in which they don't feel safe. In which they doubt that the person really likes or loves them, is really there for them.
People pleasers can be in a fawn response a lot of the time, so that people pleasing can look more like a personality rather than the stress response that it is. From this perspective, "people pleasers" are just stressed out a lot of the time, anxious that they will be disliked, criticized, rejected, or abandoned.
De-stressing as Anxiety Treatment for People Pleasers
The hopeful part, from this perspective, is that one key to healing from people pleasing is to soothe stress, to set ourselves up to relax. People don't need stress responses when they feel safe. So, the key to healing is to consider ways to help yourself feel safe, throughout the day, on a moment to moment level. To take good care of yourself and your body so that you are less vulnerable, so that you feel safer. Start small! (For some ideas about how to indulge in simple pleasures and self care for people pleasers, see my blogpost).
photo by Pixabay
Relaxing, de-stressing, can be easier said then done. But know this: just as our bodies have an automatic stress response, they also have an automatic relaxation response that we can tap into. In addition to practicing simple pleasures, we can set our bodies up for relaxation via managing our time intentionally and with good boundaries, eating and sleeping enough, and taking regular breaks. We can directly tap into the relaxation response via things like spending time in nature, yoga, mindfulness practices, and breathwork such as belly breathing. The internet and social media world is a wealth of resources on practices for feeling safer, more relaxed in our bodies. Consider doing some research for yourself, playing around and finding some practices that work for you in unlocking what's called the "Rest and Digest" mode of your nervous system.
2. People Pleasing Anxiety as Protection from the Pain of Abandonment
Anxiety in people pleasing can also be thought of as a more specific protective response to threats of abandonment. In this line of thinking, (drawn from Emotion Focused Therapy), our "Scaring Critic" voices emerge when we are in situations that remind us of past experiences of abandonment and fear. Situations that evoke memories of disapproval or criticism from important others, or when we were left alone, disconnected and detached.
So it's not just any kind of stress that brings on our people pleasing anxiety, it's specific triggers. Maybe we're on a first date, feeling the pressure to win approval. This may bring up past experiences of being hurt or rejected by important others.
Enter People Pleasing Anxiety. This part, this voice, aims to protect us from ever feeling hurt and left ever again. It may say things like:
Monitor yourself! Be cool! Don't act needy or difficult, because that's why you were hurt in the past.
Be interesting! Agree with everything they are saying! Show that you are interested!
If you don't talk more (or less!), they're not going to like you!
Did that come off as mean? They're gonna think I'm mean. BE NICER!
Do they like us? Do they seem interested? AHHHHHHH they don't!
Say the thing they want to hear! Be the person they want you to be. They won't like you for YOU. Change yourself! Quickly!!!!
DON'T SAY THE WRONG THING!!!!!!
(These voices may sound a lot like social anxiety; in fact, there seems to be a lot of overlap between people pleasing and social anxiety: The self-monitoring, the self-silencing, the attempts to protect against feeling abandoned and ashamed.)
To review: People Pleasing Anxiety Parts get triggered when something reminds us of past hurts. This Anxiety is an (unconscious) attempt to protect oneself from ever again experiencing fear, shame, and abandonment. It tries to scare people into being likeable, being charming, being entertaining, being fun, being nice, being good, being competent so that they won't be criticized, rejected, or left by people ever again.
Identifying this Scaring Voice as the first step in Anxiety Treatment
Most often, when we have a scaring voice inside of our heads, and high anxiety in our bodies, we have no clue that this comes from just a part of us. The experience of anxiety can feel like our only reality; the things we tell ourselves seem 100% true. In Internal Family Systems language, we become blended with our People Pleasing Anxiety Critic part. We lose access to the rest of us, our Stronger & Wiser Selves, the parts of us that do feel safe showing up as ourselves in relationships.
While working with this kind of anxiety can benefit from deep work in therapy, the first step is something you can do right now. It is simply identifying what that voice inside of your head is saying.
To use myself as an example: as I write this, I am hearing some anxious voices in my head: What if I write this and no one likes it? What if it's not helpful, unclear, too much, no good?! Too jargony, too deep, not comprehensive enough. And I'm spending too much precious time on this! What if it's all a waste?!
Even writing this out allows me a sigh of relief. A "working distance" from the part of me that is scaring me about possible criticisms. Writing can be a great tool for "externalizing" our critical voices, for seeing them as outside of ourselves, so that we can remember that there is more inside of us than just anxiety. Like for me, in this moment, I can reconnect with the parts of me that genuinely enjoy writing, that yearn to clarify my therapy practice and communicate it so that folks can get a better sense of what therapy with me might be like. I can reconnect with my bravery and my desire to put myself out there in this way, and trust myself enough to withstand any criticism (even from myself!)
The next time you feel your People Pleasing Anxiety get stirred up, I invite you to try this. Simply put into words what you are saying to yourself. Extra points if you can do this with a curious and nonjudgemental attitude toward yourself. You may find that this exercise alone takes the edge off of the anxiety and provides some clarity, a tad of ease.
Soothing the People Pleasing Anxiety Voice
The ultimate way of quieting a Scaring Voice, that creates so much anxiety inside, is to soothe the part of us that does the scaring. The interesting thing is that the part of us that does the scaring is also often the part of us that is genuinely terrified. The part of us that generates extreme anxious thoughts is most often a child part that holds memories of past hurts. It tries so hard to protect us, but, being a child, it doesn't know how to do so effectively. So it freaks out!
So many people pleasers have histories of being "parentified" as children, needing to be the emotional or practical support for emotionally immature parents in ways that were inappropriate for a child; beyond a child's skill set.
So too, our anxious parts are like internal parentified children, trying desperately to protect us, but not being very good at it.
Soothing our anxiety is about remembering the "real" parent part of ourselves; the parts of us that are wise and strong, that have grown, that may no longer be as stuck in harmful relationships or be as alone or as helpless as we once were.
It's about "reparenting" ourselves. Good parents can offer kind limits and emotional support. Like, when a kid is tantruming for chocolate before dinner, a good parent can say, "Yes, you really want chocolate! I believe you. It's so hard to not get what you want. And, there's no chocolate before dinner!" The good parent can then provide emotional support to the child when the inevitable tantrum ensues.
Our scaring critic parts need much of the same. First, they need kind and firm limits. This can sound like: "I get it. You are terrified. Of course you are! We really did get rejected, hurt, abandoned, in the past. And, what you're doing isn't helping, it's hurting me. It's making things worse. Please stop!"
Offering emotional support to our Anxious Parts can sound like this: "I'm so sorry you get so scared like this. I'm so sorry for all that you've been through. And, you are safe now! You have better people in your life now! And, I am here for you; I can help hold you until you feel safe again."
Most of the time, our anxious, child parts need a hug. They need self-compassion, for us to feel their pain and know that we are with them. They need reassurance that everything is going to be ok. That they are safe and lovable just as they are.
Self Parent hugs her scared, sad inner child until she smiles; Image by MJ Jin from Pixabay
Relatedly, anxious parts need to know that we are strong, that they don't have to be the self-parent, that there is a strong Self that is an adult, that knows how to protect the self in a less extreme and more adult way. For instance, saying to a Scaring Part, "I am strong enough to show my true self here, and live through the consequences. I don't need you to work so hard anymore. If I take this risk and I get criticized, I'll know how to take care of us"
Obviously, this is a challenging practice to cultivate alone. If this seems hard, remember: it is hard, especially to do it alone. It is meant to be done with another person, at least to start, which is where therapy comes in. Because, from an attachment and developmental perspective, we learn to self-soothe by being soothed by another person.
It is also worth mentioning that anxiety can be quite tricky to work through; it really likes to stick around. Aiming to completely eliminate our people pleasing anxiety can set us up for unrealistic expectations. When working with anxiety, the goal is to reduce the anxiety. To cultivate a practice of setting internal limits and soothing our anxious parts when they come up. Not so that they completely disappear, but so that they are not in the driver's seat. Maybe we relegate them to the car seat in the back, where they belong. Because, again, our anxious parts are actually young children, who believe they have important jobs to do, who want to "drive" our internal worlds, but are just not old enough to drive!
The Fear character in Disney Pixar's Inside Out Movie. He is driving Riley's system but can't handle the job by himself! He needs help from the rest of Riley's parts, the other characters that live inside of her. GIF from Disney Pixar
Like "real" children, these anxious inner child parts inside need healthy limits and support. They need to hear - "Stop scaring us right now. This isn't helpful. Please get out of the driver's seat. You're not in charge, I am." And, they also need us to sit with their pain, their fear, their shame, and to give them what they actually need; i.e. compassion, soothing, reassurance. I.e., "I know it's hard for you right now. And, it's gonna be ok. I've got this. I want to show my true self, and I am strong enough to face the consequences."
If this sounds like the kind of therapeutic work you want and need, schedule a no-cost video consultation.