I want to share what has been, in the last year or so, one of the most important things I've realized about my own trauma history — something that has been massively important for my own healing.
Let's talk about the link between people-pleasers and emotional abuse. 🧵
Confession: I am a people-pleaser.
It took me a long time to realize this, though. Because I'm opinionated! And I speak my mind! I'm an "open book" about a lot of what I've been through. Clearly I don't care what people think... right?
But people-pleasing is a lot more complex than that. It's actually part of a trauma response. Most people know about fight, flight, and freeze — but another response, "fawn," is at the core of what people-pleasing is actually about.
To avoid conflict, negative emotions, and retraumatization, people who "fawn" when triggered will go out of their way to mirror someone's opinions and appease them in order to deescalate situations (or potential issues).
For me, this meant that the more invested I was in an emotional connection, the less likely I was to criticize that person, vocalize when my boundaries were crossed, express unhappiness with their behavior, or share anything that I felt might damage that relationship.
This could come across as being excessively nice and complimentary, overly-concerned with another person's happiness, and waiting for cues in conversation to determine if something was "safe" to share or disclose. People-pleasers are often considered "emotional chameleons."
People-pleasers are often really warm, encouraging, and generous people. They tend to overextend themselves and say "yes" to everything and everyone, eager to make those they care about happy and comfortable.
They often grow up in very controlling and chaotic environments, and internalized the idea that if they were perfectly good or well-behaved, they could minimize conflict and secure love and attachment.
When you have this tendency to defer, make yourself subordinate, try to become smaller, ignore your boundaries and intuition, and minimize your own needs... you are profoundly vulnerable to emotional abuse.
When you are excessively concerned with pleasing others, you learn that in order to be effective at this, you have to shut down your gut instincts, your values, your emotions — bc being an individual, rather than a mirror, doesn't serve you in securing the love that you want.
People-pleasers can become drawn to abusive relationships, and repelled from relationships that are abundantly loving — because love has to feel "earned" in order to feel secure. In other words? If love is given too freely or easily, it doesn't feel safe.
This means people-pleasers can be drawn to relationships that are controlling (they feel safest when they defer to others), emotionally-withholding (they are driven by the need to "secure" affection/elated when they do), and even abusive (their lack of boundaries is exploited).
Another part of being vulnerable to abuse is that people-pleasers are so easily gaslit, because when they are inclined to suppress their own instincts, values, and beliefs, they're infinitely more likely to defer to an abuser's version of events or narrative.
This also means that "fawn" types often go through cycles of restricting emotionally (I can't be "too much" for others) & then purging emotionally ("unloading" onto a trusted person bc the expectation to be perfect gets to be too much).
(I think this is why so many of us have eating disorders — just an anecdotal observation, but I digress...)
People-pleasers (the "fawn" trauma response) isn't intended to manipulate others and it's not meant to be dishonest. Every single person presents a version of themselves to others. This merely describes how trauma informs that presentation on an often unconscious level.
The "fawn" response is driven by fear, not a hidden agenda. The "fawn" type is less about manipulation, because it's not being used to *overpower* someone. Instead, it's an excessive *relinquishing* of personal power, driven by fear and a desire for validation.
For example, someone who runs personal errands for their boss — despite it not being part of their job description — is not manipulating their boss into liking them. (It won't work anyway.) Their boss, testing those thin boundaries, is exploiting their need for approval.
In more intimate relationships, this can show up as "fawn" types gravitating towards hot/cold dynamics, where affection and love are offered unpredictably.
This is where the emotional abuse piece comes into play. You have someone who is controlling, who feels safest in relationships where they call the shots, and most loved when someone is actively seeking out their approval.
Enter: The "fawn" type.
An abuser will offer validation only to keep the fawn type tethered. But they'll withdraw that it before things feel secure, to ensure that the pleaser will continue going out of their way to "fawn" — continually giving over their power and autonomy so the abuse can continue.
I'm sharing this because, holy shit, my friends, the number of traumatic relationships I've thrown myself into — professionally, personally, romantically — to get stuck in this cycle, with my self-esteem pulverized, has made my heart so heavy.
It took stepping away from a friendship that had so thoroughly gaslit and demolished me — while plummeting into the deep depths of anorexia — before I realized that chasing controlling, emotionally unavailable, even abusive people was crushing my spirit.
I'm not going to leave you hanging, though. If you're reading this and say, "Holy shit... it me. Oh god. What do I do?" I'm here. I've got some advice, some books, some resources. Hang tight.
For starters, I'm going to ask you something: Which of your friends do you cancel on?
Personal experience: I had this tendency to bail on friends, partners, acquaintances, whoever, that were the most generous, warm, and emotionally-available. I avoided those relationships where love was free and easy. Because it didn't feel "earned," so I didn't feel "worthy."
Which isn't to say that everyone with this trauma response does this, BUT, we seek out the familiar. Which means many of us tend to avoid what feels unsafe. For people-pleasers, we're so used to working endlessly hard in relationships — it's disorienting when we aren't asked to.
I made a google doc (no, I seriously did) where I listed out people who were "way too nice to me." And then I asked myself, do I like this person? Do I enjoy their company? If I did, I sent them a text message and told them I wanted to commit to spending more time with them.
I was completely honest about my process with those folks, too. I said, "Listen, I get really scared when people are nice to me. You've always been SO nice to me, and I get afraid of disappointing you. But I want to change that, because I just enjoy your company so very much."
In my phone contacts, I put emojis by their names. I put strawberries next to people who were super loving. I put seedling emojis by folks who taught me things that made me think/grow. So when I saw a text from them, it reminded me that I should prioritize that message. 🌱🍓
My life completely changed... in every imaginable way.
My "strawberry emoji people" went from being acquaintances/friendly to becoming chosen family that I literally could not imagine my life without.
With the help of some amazing therapy, I grew to love myself so much — because that love was being modeled for me in a healthy way.
I'm going into a partial hospitalization program for my anorexia in the next couple weeks (because I've taken it out on my body as much as I have my mind), and my strawberry people (who are now all in a group text together) have been there every step of the way. 😭❤️🍓
I genuinely believe that every single person should be reading Pete Walker's book about complex trauma. "Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma."
It's really damn good. It talks about fawn types in more detail!
I also wrote a blog entry last year about the pleaser/controller relationship type, if that sounds a little too relatable:
I chat a lot more about recovery from trauma/eating disorder stuff on my instagram as well. (I should probably be plugging it more regularly but I forget, sigh. Same handle as here!)
So if this type of content speaks to you, I write about this on a weekly basis over there. 🌱
Most of all though, I just want to validate the hell out of you. ❤️ I understand the very hellish cycle that we find ourselves in when we're consumed by this idea that we need to be "exactly enough," and that, if we measure it out correctly, we'll never hurt or be hurt again.
But relationships involve putting ourselves in harm's way sometimes. What they shouldn't involve, though, is self-harm — and ultimately, that's what "fawning" does. We're harming ourselves. We're making ourselves smaller, we're self-silencing, and we're punishing ourselves.
You are allowed to have ALL the feelings. You are allowed to take up ALL the space. You're allowed to be everything that you are & then some. The right people — your people — will love you even more when they see how expansive your life becomes when you give yourself that space.
It doesn't happen overnight. It's a process! But I want you to know that it's a process you can begin at any time. It's never too late to give yourself permission to be, to show up more authentically, and to find those who will celebrate you for it. I promise you that. ❤️✨
PHEW that was a really long thread but... if even one of you is like "wait fuck this I'm gonna let myself be loved" then it was 100% worth the followers I lost in the process. 😂
(To them, I am sorry for flooding your Twitter feed, but I did it out of LOVE.)
Okay ily byeeee 👋🏻
Adding to this thread, since so many of us are in our feels right now: I’m listening to the song “Sum Of Our Parts” by @marylambertsing and FEELING IT.
“Which part of you clipped your own wings?”
Hugs to every single one of you. ♥️♥️♥️
I added a strawberry next to my name. Each time you see it, please know it’s me, right by your side, cheering you on in this messy and beautiful and weird journey we’re all on. ♥️🍓
May you find your “strawberry people” and grow beyond what you ever thought possible! 🌱🌿🌷
You can follow @samdylanfinch.