Ask anyone about trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and you’ll get some standard replies. Flashbacks and nightmares are commonly known. The same goes for social withdrawal. But how far down the list would you go before mentioning people-pleasing? Trauma survivors frequently seek to please others as a way of preventing them from becoming a danger.

Put simply, when you’ve endured a traumatic event, your brain will go to extremes to help you feel safe again. This results in hyper-vigilance in which everyone is viewed as a potential threat. To preempt that risk, people-pleasing appears to be a logical approach. Let’s explore what it looks like in action.

What Are Some Common Traits of People-Pleasing?

  • Difficulty Saying No: Within your social circle, you’re the one everyone can rely on. Even when it’s unhealthy to do so, you say yes whenever asked for help or support.
  • Insecurity About Your Status: For example, if someone you know appears to be angry, you assume it’s something you did. You set about to “fix” the situation by bending over backward to please them
  • Over-Apologizing: A people-pleaser apologizes — a lot. It matters not if you did anything worthy of remorse; you still say you’re sorry. When someone points this out, you promptly apologize for apologizing too often.
  • False Agreement: Rather than risk a disagreement, you keep your true opinions to yourself. Such a tendency can progress into behaving like others in an unconscious attempt to keep them happy.

What Does Trauma-Related People-Pleasing Look Like?

The above traits will likely be present after trauma but it goes further. As you know, in times of danger, our stress response guides us into a state of fight, flight, or freeze. Well, the fourth option is called fawning. Whether they are aware of it or not, the trauma survivor bargains with anyone who could be a (real or imagined) threat. They assume that the abuse or danger will dissipate if the abuser or predator is appeased.

Fawning and Boundaries

In some cases, the trauma survivor may not even be aware of their own needs. This, of course, makes it impossible to set and enforce boundaries. The idea of setting your own boundaries may feel dangerous. You feel as if you are being confrontational by letting others know what you need and deserve.

photo of a woman standing outside looking out at something in the distanceWhen someone in your life sets healthy boundaries, they feel dangerous to you. Surely, you assume, you did something to annoy them and now they’re limiting access to them.

Fawning and Emotions

The more you de-emphasize your identity, opinion, and needs, the more confusing it becomes. As a result, people-pleasing as a trauma response produces plenty of guilt and anger. You want to express yourself and live with less fear, but unresolved trauma makes that seem impossible. A frequent response to this situation is to further suppress your emotions and slide into detachment and dissociation. As an unhealthy coping mechanism, you decide it’s better to do nothing than feel pain.

Can People-Pleasing as a Trauma Response Be Addressed?

Absolutely. In terms of self-help steps, you may lean on tactics like:

  • Acknowledge the patterns you’ve adopted without judgment
  • Identify and validate your needs
  • Create and enforce boundaries
  • Practice daily self-care

Ideally, you will be working with a trauma-informed therapist who can guide you through this process. Your weekly sessions are where you can begin feeling safe being yourself. In the course of treating trauma and/or PTSD, your therapist will collaborate with you to help you cultivate healthy habits when it comes to your autonomy and sense of self.

You can thrive again and that process begins with you reaching out to learn more about trauma therapy.