The Childhood Roots of the Need To Please

By Laura K. Connell.

If you struggle with codependency, you feel the need to please others at the expense of yourself. In fact, you may only experience yourself in the context of how others see you: who are you if you’re not serving them or trying to win their love?

Giving up this need to please can feel impossible on a cellular level. It may seem as though everything will fall apart or someone will die if you don’t overgive this way.

As a child growing up in a dysfunctional home you would have developed an external focus. Instead of tuning into yourself and your own needs, you were trained to focus on the needs and wants of others.

This conditioning was often covert rather than spoken. You received the message that your value lay in what you did for others.

You were never allowed to be yourself which would include asking for what you need and expressing your emotions. You learned the opposite: to suppress your desires and deal with your problems yourself.

As a result of these unmet needs, you likely developed a weak sense of self. That means you don’t really know who you are outside of how others perceive you.

How family dysfunction causes the need to please:

In a healthy childhood, parents help the child develop its sense of self through their attention and guidance. When these are missing, the child feels as though it is only worthwhile when helping others. 

These children grow into adult caretakers who feel resentful of overgiving but never set boundaries to stop. They deplete themselves by serving everyone except themselves but have no idea how to curb the habit.

Setting boundaries feels impossible when you have been raised to believe you will lose love if you do. But why do you as an adult fear this loss of love as much as you fear death?

It’s because, as a child, losing your parents’ love would have felt life-threatening. You were dependent on these people for your survival, so keeping them happy would have been of paramount importance.

Your own self-actualization pales in comparison when you feel as though your life is at stake. For a child, the threat of rejection by a parent leads to fears of abandonment which set off the fight or flight response.

This is the feeling in your body that gets activated when your life is in danger. As a child, that made sense but as an adult it’s maladaptive. 

You no longer need to fear abandonment because you’re an adult now. You can be left or rejected, yes, but abandonment refers to someone who has no way to fend for themselves, like a baby left on a doorstep.

As an adult with access to resources, income potential, and other ways to care for yourself, abandonment is a misnomer. Yet you still experience fear of rejection or loss of love as life-threatening in your body. 

Mind is no match for the body:

That’s why the need to please can feel so hard to conquer. When your body believes it keeps you alive by enabling and having poor boundaries, the logical mind has no hope of convincing it otherwise.

You may have noticed that you can’t talk yourself out of how you feel. Your body’s need to please others to avoid what it perceives as your imminent demise trumps the mind every time.

So, what can you do to overcome the need to please and begin setting boundaries around your time, energy, and money? You can begin tuning into your body and what it needs instead of detaching from yourself to serve others.

You can start with simple things like taking a deep breath, putting a hand on your stomach, and reassuring yourself that there are good reasons to feel the way you do. Can you intentionally serve your own needs by taking a rest or making yourself a warm drink?

The need to please won’t be cured overnight. However, when you pay attention to your own needs and begin to fulfill them, it sends a message that you are worth the effort. You have value outside of what you do for others and your needs matter most.

Laura K. Connell is a trauma-informed author & coach who helps her clients recover from the devastating impact of dysfunctional family trauma. Take the Dysfunctional Family Roles quiz here: https://www.laurakconnell.com/dysfunctional-family-roles-quiz

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