Updated: Apr 25, 2021
People pleasing is a strategy for coping with a lack of security in a relationship. While seeking a connection in a relationship is a good thing, people pleasing behavior - otherwise known as anxious attachment/ co-dependency is seeking in overdrive.
Co-dependency develops as a way to maintain a connection with care-givers who are inconsistently available to their children. Often, parents of people-pleasers are too preoccupied by their own issues to tune in to what their children are feeling and thinking. This lack of parental attunement is the underlying cause of people -pleasing behavior.
Parents of children who grow up to have co-dependency issues are often in a state of emotional overwhelm due to difficult relationship dynamics, economic hardships, the impact of their own up-bringing, mental health or just bad circumstances. It's important to mention that they are not "bad parents". They are just parents in difficult circumstances. Ultimately, these bad circumstances mean that the parent is pre-occupied and struggles to be emotionally connected and available to their child in a consistent way. The child picks up on this and moves to protect their parent and their feelings so that they (the child) can remain connected.
Sometimes these people-pleaser children act more like the adult in the relationship, and take on a caregiving role towards their own parents. This is what is commonly known as parentification.
Because of their preoccupation, the parent's affection and attention blows hot and cold. So, one moment they might be distant or worried and the next attentive and loving. This confuses the child. Even in adulthood, they struggle to reconcile how their relationships with their warm and loving parent could be what causes their anxious attachment.
Parents of people-pleasers are often caught up in memories of their past or with worry about the future. This model of relating to themselves and the world then gets internalized by their children, who become worried and preoccupied too.
The child may become very good at propping up their parent's moods, frequently tracking and checking in, striving to make their parents happy and proud. In the process, they become insensitive to their own needs in an effort to be "a good daughter" or "a good son" and not cause any trouble. Inevitably the pressure to maintain this perfect track-record becomes too much and these usually "good" children may act out in ways that surprise and shock those around them. This outburst leads to a deep sense of shame that forces them back into trying to be good, and the cycle repeats.
Because the parents unhappiness/ overwhelm usually has less to do with the child and more to do with what is going on in the parent's life, the child really has little control over the situation. Still, they are compelled to find the cause of the parent's unhappiness in themselves and to strive to ease it. They will carry this set of standards into adult relationships, seeking to please others so that they can be happy too.
Unless an awareness of the pattern becomes apparent, these children grow up to be high achieving, perfectionistic and less interested in exploring who they are and more interested in learning about what others want them to be.
But once this awareness has been awakened, the adult has the opportunity and the ability to reconcile their un-met childhood needs and reconnect with their true self. Part of my mission at Prometheus Kenya, is to facilitate this process.