Three Ways To Think About People-Pleasing

Tune in to today's episode as Taylor dives into people-pleasing. You might just learn something new as Taylor talks about a lesser known stress and trauma response called fawning.

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Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Inner Warmup, where your inner work begins. I'm Taylor Elyse Morrison, creator and author of Inner Workout. And you, as always are our expert guest. Thanks for being here today. Before we get into today's topic, I've got to tell you about the companion resource that we made for this season, the Strong Friend's Inner Workbook. I am so so proud of this workbook, it expands on the three strong friend archetypes that we introduced in the first episode of this season. Side note, if you haven't listened to that episode, yet, go listen to it, it will make everything else that we do in this season makes so much more sense. But if you need a quick reminder of what those archetypes are, it's the picture perfect strong friend, the intellectual and the caregiver strong friend. And in that workbook, you've got over 40 reflection questions to help you look at your own strong friend tendencies, get more focused on your inner work, and identify the relationships that you can cultivate in order to support you in your journey. And you get all of that for just $4.99. So if that's interesting to you, you can find the link in the show notes or go to Bitly slash strong friends that is bi t dot L y slash strong friends plural. 

Okay, let's get started with today's episode. As a reminder of how we're structuring the season, we are exploring strong friend behaviors and skills that strong friends especially would benefit from developing. Today's episode is about the behavior of people pleasing, and people pleasing is one of those rare terms actually, in the personal development, in the self development space, that's actually pretty self explanatory. Like, I joke around that there's so many things in the work that I do and the work that we do at Inner Workout where it's like, what does inner work mean? What exactly does self care mean, but people pleasing, it's pretty clear. People pleasing is about making choices to please other people, often by putting that person or that group's needs and desires above our own needs and desires. Strong friends, especially, you're probably already making this connection in your brain. But strong friends, we can easily fall into people pleasing, because we don't want to ruin the facade that we've built. We've built this facade, this armor of projected strength, where it looks like we have it all together. We're like, we don't need help. We are the helper. We are the person that you're supposed to aspire to. And part of how we keep up that image is by people pleasing, by being what we think the other person wants and needs us to be. If you've resonated with this season thus far, my guess is that you have experience with people pleasing. Maybe you've become the go to person for last minute requests at work, because they know you won't say no. Perhaps your family always assumes that you're available to babysit, and you haven't corrected them. This isn't going to be an episode that explains the concept of people pleasing, because most of us listening are people pleasing connoisseurs. French is not the language I took in school, it's Spanish, so not 100% sure I pronounced that correctly. But we're people who know people pleasing. And my goal for this episode is to take this seemingly straightforward concept and to invite you to think about it from a new perspective. Actually three new perspectives to be exact: people pleasing as a stress response, people pleasing as societal conditioning, and people pleasing as an unconscious pattern. 

So let's start with people pleasing as a stress response. If you would have sat down with me last year and asked me to name the stress responses to you, I would have told you that those responses were fight flight and freeze. You've probably heard those too. Especially in my work around mindfulness, we talked about these three options. But actually, something I learned relatively recently is that therapist, Pete Walker, popularized a fourth response, which is fawn. And fawn is another way of saying people please and for some of us, we've learned to use not fighting flighting or freezing but fawning as a line of defense. Now, if you've existed in a place where there isn't psychological safety, and by psychological safety, I mean, in a space where you feel safe enough to speak up, without there being retaliation, either mentally, physically, emotionally. If you've existed in that space, whether in your work life or in your personal life, you may have learned to smile and nod and grit your teeth, grin and bear it. You might call that fawning, rather than sharing what you're really thinking. And I want to be clear here, something that I've noticed, as I've gotten to be in conversation with other people in developing this season, is that the behaviors and the skills that we're talking about, these are not necessarily bad things. I don't believe in a lot of binaries, a lot of either ors, life is so much more in between and in the gray. And so when we're talking about fawning, fawning isn't always a bad thing. I speak about this from my own personal experience as a person who holds multiple marginalized identities. I have definitely been in situations where I am doing the mental calculus. And I'm thinking, Okay, someone did that. What would I gain by speaking up? What would I lose by speaking up? And I'm running that conversation and that calculus in my mind to figure out what do I do? And if you've done similar calculus, if you've made similar calculations in your own life, here are two questions that I would invite you to like put in your back pocket for these moments, where you might notice the fawning response coming up as a stress response for you. Ask yourself, what is this response trying to protect me from? And then follow it up with, Okay, do I need to be protected from this? 

So here's an example. In a situation where I'm at work, I'm navigating a power dynamic. I don't have organizational support, I don't have like an employee resource group, or a mentor that I can turn into and get some insight, I might need the fawn response, I might need to just say like, yes, smile, whatever you want to protect me and my well being until I can either gather the support that I need, or get out of there, get out of dodge, get onto a new team, start working with a new manager, working with a new organization, fawning might just be the safest way for me to get through it. And that's okay. But if I go back to those two questions in another instance, and for example, I asked myself, What is this response trying to protect me from? And I say, you know, what, it's trying to protect me from asking a question that would reveal I'm not an expert on this topic. And so someone asked me like, Well, do you like this concept? Do you agree with the application of this concept? Don't you think that these people over here did such a horrible job? And I don't know what the concept is. So I just want to be like, yeah, I totally agree with exactly what you're saying. And just kind of people please and fawn. I don't really need to be protected from not being the expert on the topic. In the long term, it's not all that useful for me, I don't need to be protected from that. I would benefit so much more from saying, You know what, I'm not familiar with that concept. You know, what, I don't know enough about that person's approach to say whether or not I like it. I would get a lot more from that than doing the smile, the nod the whatever you say, yes, let's agree. So depending on the situation, how many people are involved, you might not be able to ask these two questions in real time, it might start as more of a reflective process where you go back and you're like, I noticed I was a little bit fawning there. I actually disagreed with the statements that my family was making about religion over the dinner table. And I didn't feel like speaking up. I didn't feel equipped to speak up. So I just kind of acted like I agreed, even though I strongly strongly disagree. Let's go back to see okay, what was it trying to protect me from sounds like it was trying to protect me from conflict with my family. Do I need to be protected from that? I can't answer that question for you. It might be that in many cases, you probably don't need to but you know, your family. If there's like a history of abuse or other things that are going on, maybe you do need to be protected by that. Again, I'm not trying to be prescriptive here, I'm just trying to let you know this is a response that we can fall into. And sometimes we need that protection, it's good and it's healthy and sometimes we don't need that protection. So to be able to, even if it's after the fact, look back, review the situation. And then what you might find is that the fawning response, you can be stressed, and it just feels easier to say yes, and to agree, or to indicate with your body language that you agree, because you don't have information, or you don't have the language yet to say, You know what, I feel differently. And so by going through those questions after the fact, you can say, Okay, I would have felt better equipped if I had this statistic to share, or I would have felt better equipped if I have this phrase that I could say. Use these two questions expand on them. And I'm curious to see what they unlock for you as you're navigating potential fawning responses in work and in life. 

The next way I want to think about people pleasing is as societal conditioning. So for those of us who grew up, in the West, we spend at minimum 13 years of our life, that's assuming that you start kindergarten when you're five, or six and graduate high school when you're 18, that's not even considering the amount of time you might do in higher education. But we spend at minimum, we'll say 13 ish years of our lives in school. And Western school systems are directly tied to industrialization. If we think back to when we learned about the industrial revolution in school, it was a difference between people primarily like working on farms, working in agriculture with the land, to more and more of the workforce starting to work in factories. And what factory owners saw is that the future workforce, so not just the people working in factories now, but if we're going to keep having factories, we need to teach these kids to be conditioned to work in factories. And so what they started were factory schools. And there's a scholar Joel Moker, and he wrote this about factory schools in Prussia. So that's where this factory school concept started, and then kind of spread throughout the West. So I'm reading what he said. "Much of this education (he's talking about the education of factory schools), however, was not technical in nature. But social and moral. Workers who had always spent their working days in a domestic setting had to be taught to follow orders. So these are the things they needed them to learn. They had to be taught to follow orders. To respect the space and property rights of others be punctual, docile and sober. The early industrial capitalists spent a great deal of effort and time in the social conditioning of their labor force, especially in Sunday schools, which were designed to inculcate middle class values and attitudes, so as to make the workers more susceptible to the incentives that the factory needed." I'll link to an article by Alison Schrager in the show notes that includes this quote from the scholar Joel Moker, if you want to read more about this, but the short story is you can draw a straight line from these factory schools in Prussia, to the factory schools that spread out in the US and the UK, all the way to the way that we approach education today. 

Why am I bringing this up in an episode about people pleasing, and different ways to look at people pleasing? I say this to encourage you to give yourself a little bit of grace. We went through a system that was originally designed again, going back to this quote, to teach us to follow orders, to respect space and property rights, to be punctual, docile and sober. We spend this time learning how to fit into structures that society creates for us. We go to school, we get good grades, some of us go to college, or you go to trade school, or you start a trade. And we've got like a path that you can follow for a certain amount of our life. And I think that's why so many people go through some version of a quarter life crisis, because we have this conditioning, two checkboxes that are presented to us: do this and it is pleasing to me, the teacher, the school, society at large or if you don't do this, you're not going to be pleasing to me. 

Again, most of the people who are listening, have some relationship to people pleasing. And part of that is not just like when we look at nature and nurture, part of that is nurture, we were raised up in a system that was teaching us how to be pleasing to society, especially a society that originally had a lot of factory workers. So when we spent so long checking those boxes that are presented to us, when we get to the point where there aren't these hand delivered boxes to check, where it's like, this is exactly how you people please me as again, the teacher of the system society, we don't know exactly what to do when we're supposed to start creating our own checkboxes. And it can be disorienting to shift our focus from the external focus, again, that we are raised in, that we are conditioned in into an internal focus, where we're asking what is pleasing to me. And so for many folks, what we do, is we just say, You know what, I don't feel like doing all of that digging. So I'm going to keep that external focus. And I'm going to keep up with the Joneses, or I'm going to go back to school, which is not a bad thing. Or I'm going to look for this new hoop to jump through, because it's easier for me to look for more external ways to please than to find out what's pleasing to me. 

Which leads me to the last frame through which we can look at people pleasing: people pleasing as an unconscious pattern. This is a hunch that I have, let me share it with you. I have a hunch that plenty of folks people please, because they just haven't considered any other ways of being. In the same way that we talk about conscious and unconscious bias, bias that we're aware of, that we can speak to versus the unconscious bias, both of them still impact our behaviors. But when we can say this is what's happening, this is why I have this preference and the other is just kind of a program running beneath the surface. I think there's also kind of unconscious and conscious people pleasing. And if you're like, I don't know if I'm following you, Taylor, let me try and ground it in an example. So here we go. I haven't had alcohol for over six months. This time around, it's for health reasons. I've had to make a lot of changes to what I eat and drink. But the first time I did this was pre pandemic, I was sober curious, just because I started asking myself questions about alcohol. Like, why is it so normal for us to center our social interactions around alcohol? And what would it look like to opt out of that? And let me tell you, once you see that and start asking those questions, it's kind of hard to unsee it. Like going to a conference. I was recently at a conference in April. And like the events, we had wine with dinner, sure, whatever. But there was like a welcome reception. All of it was just like, open bar with champagne. And then our closing reception, again, really centered around alcohol, I can't remember what non alcoholic options they have. But I think maybe I had like a club soda, a sparkling water like nothing too exciting. You also see it in like the ways certain friend groups hang out where it's like, let's come over to my place and more like have wine and pizza and a movie, or we'll go out for cocktails or we'll go out and like go to a club and drink there. Even networking events, they might use alcohol as the selling point. A lot of times networking events might even get like an alcohol sponsor if they can swing it. Or in the workplace. There are teams who bond by going out for drinks. I've heard that from some of the organizations that I've worked with where it's like, yeah, the expectation is like, when we go to this big team retreat, everyone's going to drink a lot. Or when it's Thursday night, after a long week, we go across the street to this bar, and like everyone gets beer, and it's really intertwined not only to bonding, but like, if the higher up people are there, then of course I want to be drinking or I should be drinking or I should be showing up there. Because if this higher up knows my name that might put me in a better place for a promotion. And so for me for a long time, I'd operated under the belief that drinking was something you did as an adult, unless you experienced addiction, or were pregnant, or it went against your religious beliefs. And it makes me giggle a little bit as I was like preparing for this episode because I was thinking back to how many of us when we first had alcohol didn't even like the taste of it. But we felt like it was part of how we showed we were adults. So we learn to like it. That's almost a conscious people pleasing, like we learn to like it because everyone else seems to like it or tolerate it. And then it shifts into this unconscious people pleasing, where we're like, Well, this is table stakes. So this is just what I have to do without considering whether or not we wanted our version of adulthood to center alcohol. So this is just an example about alcohol. And I want to be really clear, like, I have plenty of friends who drink, I have plenty of family members who drink, I'm not sitting in judgment of anyone for it. I just think that's an example where for me personally, I realized I hadn't even asked to the question like, Could I be a professional who goes to networking events and not drink? Could I go to social events and not drink? I hadn't considered it. I was just unconsciously having this pattern of people pleasing by drinking. And I want to be clear that I just share this example because as I've watched other people navigate being sober curious, they've had similar things pop up. And I think that it's an example that many of us can relate to whether or not we've done a dry January, or we've had other people in our lives unwind from alcohol. And the goal is not to be like stop drinking. I think that that's a really personal choice. And I don't judge anyone who does drink. So many of my friends and families still continue to drink. I bring this up because for the longest time, I didn't even think to ask the question. Is this something I want? So maybe the example of drinking resonates with you. But there might be another example where you are unconsciously people pleasing. And here's what you might do to help surface some of that stuff that's happening unconsciously. Consider, what are the things that I'm doing that I've never asked why? Or what if this could look differently? Or even do I actually like this? And as you answer those questions you can follow it up with Could I unconsciously be people pleasing? 

So I hope that these three perspectives on people pleasing: people pleasing as a stress response, people pleasing as societal conditioning, and people pleasing as an unconscious pattern, have given you some food for thought about your own relationship to people pleasing. If you want to get more reflection, and more out of this podcast season, get The Strong Friend's Inner Workbook. I'll link it again in the show notes. And if you loved this episode, please tell someone. Podcasts grow through word of mouth. And if you haven't done so already, please take a moment to review and rate the podcast on Apple Podcasts. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you as always for your expertise and take care.