Narcissists can target anyone, but a lot of survivors categorize themselves as People Pleasers. So this article is for anyone who resonates with that description.
So first, let’s look at qualities of People Pleasers:
- Focused on the needs of others: People Pleasers tend to have a heightened awareness of emotions of others. I don’t mean “empath” or anything like that. They’re just always aware of the moods and feelings around them.
- Conflict avoidant: They notice potential conflicts and douse the flames before things get a chance to blow up. They recognize when others are getting upset, and do everything they can to prevent that from happening. They rehearse conversations in their mind, and learn how to phrase things to elicit the most peaceful reaction.
- Guilt: They tend to feel guilty about way too much, even things that don’t warrant guilt. They feel especially guilty when standing up for their own needs. They are quick to apologize and take the blame, even when they aren’t at fault.
- Self-doubt: They often doubt their own feelings and intuition, especially if those things are “negative”. For example, if someone else harms them and they try to set a boundary, they will spend days or weeks wondering if they were too harsh or secretly at fault.
- Perfectionistic: They tend to feel like they need to do everything “perfectly”. If they make one mistake, they worry they’ve “ruined everything”.
- Low self-worth: Rely heavily upon external validation and approval in order to feel “good enough”. Can be immensely happy when everyone approves of them, but also immensely unhappy when others are upset with them.
Where do People Pleasing habits come from?
I’m not a therapist, and you’re better off talking about this with a professional. But People Pleasers often come from high-conflict households. It doesn’t have to be abusive or Cluster-B by any means, just someone whose needs consistently over-shadowed your own. Some examples:
- A parent who always had to argue and be right, so the People Pleaser learns to sacrifice their own opinions in order to keep the peace
- A parent with anger issues, so the People Pleaser learns to anticipate bad moods and calm them before it escalates to rage
- A parent with addiction / alcoholism issues, so the People Pleaser learns to manage another person’s illness.
- A parent with Borderline Personality, so the People Pleaser learns to soothe and comfort inappropriate dramatic crises and pity stories
- A parent with control-freak issues and rigid rules, so the People Pleaser learns to just do what they want to avoid unpleasant reactions
- A parent with depression / anxiety, so the People Pleaser feels sorry for them, and responsible for always being happy / cheering them up
- Parents who fight all the time, so the People Pleaser learns to detect an argument brewing and rushes to quell things before a fight ensues
The underlying theme is this: People Pleasers feel personally responsible for the mental and emotional well-being of others. They may readily identify with examples in the above list and then feel deeply guilty for thinking that. This is because the above dynamics formed an unhealthy / anxious self-relationship, with inner conversations that go in circles forever:
- “What if it’s my fault? What if I haven’t done enough? What if I’m being unfair and not seeing things from the other perspective? Can I really trust my judgment?”
Whereas healthy parental dynamics instill a much calmer and quieter inner conversation:
- “My choices and feelings are okay. I am loved even if I make a mistake. I am fine the way I am.”
Shifting the conversation is doable. Believing it is the hard part. People Pleasers are often very resistant to the idea of being unconditionally loved as they are (without having to do anything). Mindfulness can help explore these resistances and where they live in the body, so they can be released.
How does this play into Narcissistic relationships?
The combination actually makes a lot of sense. On one hand, you have a person who is completely focused on their own needs (Cluster-B disorders). On the other, you have a person who is completely focused on the needs of others(People Pleasers). If you imagine human beings as magnets, you can see why these two types would pull together.
During the honeymoon phase, it’s a match made in heaven. The Narcissist gets their needs met, receiving constant adoration and praise. The People Pleaser feels fulfilled, finally appreciated and valued for their care-taking efforts. Narcissists essentially quell the anxious inner voice of the People Pleaser by constantly offering approval and validation.
Of course this inevitably goes sour, when the Narcissist becomes increasingly selfish, insensitive, and hostile. The People Pleaser implodes, blaming themselves and trying even harder, despite their partner doing the opposite.
So The Narcissist can say something as simple as “it’s all about you” or “you’re so selfish”, and the People Pleaser will immediately add this to their growing list of self-doubts, instead of recognizing the blatant projection going on.
The People Pleaser’s boundaries are shaky at best, afraid that standing up for themselves could end the entire relationship. They also worry about hurting their partner’s feelings, despite mounting evidence that this is not a mutual concern.
So how can People Pleasers protect themselves?
All this focus on others causes a much more significant issue: no focus on the self.
This issue extends far beyond toxic relationships, and into toxic relationship recovery too. I spent so long focused on the red flags and warning signs, obsessing and ruminating about the misbehavior of others, I didn’t even notice I was still completely distracted from my own issues.
As we turn our attention inward, we’re likely to find a lot of stuff that needs our attention. Low self-worth, fears, anxieties, feelings of rejection or inadequacy. By staying with these uncomfortable sensations, we learn how to build healthy relationships with ourselves, which naturally reflects in our relationships with others.
Red flags are important, but if we don’t work on ourselves, we’ll just continue doubting and guilting ourselves when we encounter red flags, which means we’re not protected at all.
People Pleasers often have no idea what they want, what their needs are, and what their boundaries look like. Everything is just about making sure others are happy. They can view any issue from another person’s perspective, making excuses for others while offering themselves none of the same flexibility.
Cluster-B relationships are the ultimate wake-up call that this does not work, making your inner world so uncomfortable and painful that you are finally forced to pay attention to it.
Despite what you may have learned, it’s not your job to manage the emotions of others. It’s an exhausting role that may offer temporary bursts of self-worth, but ultimately will drain the life out of you. As we learn that we’re responsible for our own emotions, we become more comfortable with the idea that others are responsible for their own emotions too.
With this mentality, we can finally relax.
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