People Pleaser Personality Traits and the Call of the Self
People pleaser personality traits are pretty common in our world. Many of us strive to meet the needs of others at all costs, even when we hurt ourselves.
What exactly do we mean when we refer to a “people pleaser personality”? Well, we’re referring to people who keep the peace and avoid conflict at all costs—even when it really hurts them. People pleasers are usually people who have a fair bit of capacity for feeling and for empathy. Because of that, they often give other people’s needs a higher priority than their own. They are often people who really want to be accepted and approved of, and these characteristics can make them very vulnerable.
Now, the capacity to accommodate the needs of others is a very important part of human life. As a social species, this ability to recognize the needs of others, and to create some room for them, is essential for our survival. But when we let it get out of hand, it can become problematic and self-destructive. At its extreme, it can prevent us from really developing as our unique selves (the process Jung refers to as individuation).
Many of us have aspects of the people pleaser personality. Some of us have so much of it, that it becomes a defining factor for much of our lives.
“I can’t help it. I want everybody to love me and it hurts so when anybody doesn’t.”
Lucy Maude Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea
What Do People Pleasers Do?
The simple answer is that people pleasers put aside their own desires and often their own needs, in order to win the approval of other people, and/or to avoid conflict. However, this can occur in a wide variety of ways. Consider, for instance, the marriage partner who for years and years continually acquiesces to their partner and continually puts aside their own needs and wishes. Or, similarly, imagine a sibling, who, even as an adult, continually puts aside their own priorities to suit the desires of brothers or sisters. Or there is the family member who continually chases the ever-elusive approval of a family member. And it’s common enough in the work place to find the employee who feels that he or she must avoid conflict with co-workers or management at all costs.
We can probably all recognize the dynamics of people-pleasing as showing up somewhere in our lives. Yet there’s a significant number of people for who these traits are spread broadly enough throughout their lives that it is appropriate to refer to a people pleasing personality. Often individuals recognize that they have these tendencies, but they find themselves unable to change or stop. These tendencies can be associated with a great deal of anxiety or depression.
Rooted in the Unconscious
People pleaser personality traits are deeply rooted in the individual’s unconscious mind, and, very often, are powerfully founded in the individual’s earliest and most important connections to primary family members. We call these connections attachment bonds. Because they are so fundamental, these attachment bonds often have a strong unconscious component, and that can make them very difficult to change.
If a child is confronted with a parent who is very focused on their own emotional needs, who doesn’t adequately take into account the emotional needs of the the child, one of two things often happen when the child expresses a different feeling than the parent’s. The parent may simply dismiss or ignore the child’s feelings, or the parent may punish and/or shame the child for having different feelings. Alternately a parent may take a victim stance, and blame and guilt the child for inflicting pain on the parent by having feelings that are different from the parent’s. Yet another possibility is that the parent places impossible, superhuman expectations on the child, while making the child feel completely inadequate if the expectations aren’t met.
Let’s say that we imagine any or all of the above scenarios as a pattern that prevails throughout childhood. The net effect can easily be that the child ends up feeling that he or she has to take care of the parents’ feelings. The child can feel responsible for keeping the parent in a good mood—and feel a crushing burden of shame and failure if they don’t.
In later life this can translate into an overpowering sense that the individual is responsible for other peoples’ feelings. He or she can be weighted under the burden of needing to taking care of, and be responsible for, other peoples’ feelings.
When the Spirits Come Back
There can come a point in the life journey where something irrevocably changes for the individual with people pleaser personality traits. Sometimes in conjunction with a major life transition or a midlife transition the individual may find that there is some part in her- or himself that simply will not longer acquiesce to denying itself and pleasing others. The individual who has been the completely compliant employee may find him or herself consumed with fantasies of going out to get lunch—and just never coming back. The spouse who has been their partners complete emotional caretaker or compliant servant may find that they simple can’t do it anymore—and something has to change.
Some part of the people pleaser’s personality that has been buried in what Jung calls the shadow suddenly emerges into consciousness, and insists on being recognized. The authentic person, with his or her needs and aspirations, and his or her sense of what is of value and what really matters in life emerges. And this person will not take no for an answer.
The People Pleaser Personality and the Self
It may be a moment of something like crisis for the people pleaser personality when the long-submerged personality, with all its hopes, dreams and yearnings emerges into consciousness. It may be a moment of intense confusion and disorientation, even though something of tremendous importance is happening to the individual. As the individual begins to uncover this part of the long-lost or undiscovered self, this may well be a time when he or she needs the right kind of ally or psychic support. Jungian can be of tremendous benefit in finding orientation and validation in this new landscape.
Wishing you every good thing on your personal journey,
© 2022 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario