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Is It People Pleasing Or Is It Survival Mode? Here's Why They're Related, From A Therapist

Cheryl Groskopf, LMFT, LPCC
September 17, 2023
Cheryl Groskopf, LMFT, LPCC
By Cheryl Groskopf, LMFT, LPCC
mbg Contributor
Cheryl Groskopf is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Professional Clinical Counselor, and has obtained Master’s Degrees in both Psychology and Counseling.
Image by Lucas Ottone / Stocksy
September 17, 2023

Difficulty saying “no” to others, not wanting to disappoint, seeking external validation, fear of rejection—these are all common traits of “people pleasing” behaviors. But have you ever stopped to think about the reasons why you people please? Or why you people please when there’s no reason to (like being in a safe environment with friends)?

In simple terms, people pleasing can be defined as prioritizing the needs, wants, and desires of others over your own. Although it is completely healthy and appropriate to consider the needs of others, people pleasing can go beyond that. It often comes at the expense of an individual's well-being as a way to gain approval, acceptance, or validation. But what if it goes even beyond that

The fawn response

The fawn response is a survival mechanism and trauma response to potential danger. While our fight or flight responses are associated with active measures to get you to safety, fawning is more passive and submissive. 

When facing a threat, individuals may “fawn” as a way of appeasing the potential threat. Fawning includes compliance, being overly accommodating, and doing whatever it takes to avoid confrontation or “rocking the boat.” Fawning involves keeping the peace. 

As adults, we engage in people pleasing behaviors to help us feel more safe. But is it really people pleasing, or is it fawning? If you find yourself bending over backwards for others, being overly attentive to your partner’s needs, or feel guilty for having your own needs, chances are, it’s fawning. But why do we fawn if there’s no danger or perceived threat? 

4 reasons you may have “fawned” in childhood: 


Avoiding conflict kept you safe

The primary purpose of a trauma response is to keep you safe. To keep you alive. To keep you away from threats of danger.  

As a child, a common example of avoiding conflict is not acting out. If a child acts out, this may result in getting punished or disciplined. Getting put into timeout as a child or having your phone temporarily taken away as a teen are normal forms of punishment. 

However, if a child has an age-appropriate temper tantrum, and it is reciprocated with being hit, yelled at, or neglected/ignored, it could cause serious emotional harm to that child. And feeling emotionally insecure does not feel safe for a child—a child cannot survive on its own. If the child learns that “being the good child” or “the one who is always okay” results in less conflict, it may carry with them into adulthood.  

What would this look like as an adult? Walking on eggshells all the time in certain situations where it’s not necessary. Not speaking up about your feelings out of fear of not being invited to an event or being left out. And remember, if an infant is “left out” or not seen, heard, or acknowledged by their parent, they wouldn’t survive. 


You needed to meet the needs of your parents growing up (instead of the other way around)

Every child needs to meet the needs of their parents in some way. For example, a parent or caregiver would need to know if their baby is sick, hungry, injured, etc to keep them safe. But how would they know the baby’s needs if the baby cannot communicate?  

In order to get their needs met, the baby would need to figure out what works best for the parent to get their attention. If the baby has a broken joint (which is not visible to the eye for the parent), the baby may try crying—but the parent just sees this as them being hungry. But if the baby cried and grunted every time they rolled on their injured side, that would get the attention of the parent that something may be wrong. In short, the baby had to adjust their behaviors to have their needs met.

If you had a parent who punished you if you didn’t do things the way they wanted, it would affect your well-being. For example, if you had a mother who would “ice you out” if you didn’t constantly validate or comfort them, that would impact your needs. If you didn’t act like your mother’s best friend, it may have resulted in you not getting lunch that day. You feel ignored, dismissed, and not seen.  

And feeling dismissed is one of the most insidious forms of childhood trauma


Being the “mediator” or “people pleaser” kept the environment more predictable

The brain loves predictability. And the biggest enemy to the brain (and anxiety) is the unknown, when things are unpredictable. 

When things are lighthearted and easy going, it’s easier to relax. But if there is the potential for conflict, it could activate the nervous system to be ready for an uncomfortable moment to strike at any time. 

Being the mediator to keep fights between family members and friends to a minimum results in a calmer environment. An environment that doesn’t require that “walking on eggshells” feeling. This can look like so many things growing up, such as being the class clown or the butt of the joke, in order to take the focus off the “dangerous” or uncomfortable topic, and bring the room back to safety.  

As an adult, it could look like taking the fall for something just to keep the peace. Or saying “I’m sorry” over and over when you didn’t do anything wrong. It could be censoring yourself and not speaking up about your wants or needs to “keep things chill."


You need the validation of others to confirm your reality

Have you ever been mad or hurt by someone, and when you bring it up, they blame it entirely on you? Or they saw the situation in a completely different light? It’s confusing, right!? 

Now imagine how confusing that is for a child. When we bring childhood development into the equation, having their “reality” invalidated can feel really overwhelming and scary. Here’s what I mean: 

Let’s say a 5-year old has a tantrum because they lost their favorite stuffed animal. Although it may not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things, it certainly is a big deal for the child crying bloody murder because their favorite object has suddenly disappeared from existence.  

If the caregiver’s response is nurturing and understanding, and validates to the child that their emotions are appropriate, it makes the child feel safer because their emotions are accepted. That their emotions match reality and the situation.  

If the caregiver’s response is, “OMG, it’s not a big deal, it was just a dumb toy,” or “Stop crying! You’re being way too sensitive,” it can be really overwhelming. This makes the child think their reality and their emotions do not meet the reality and emotions of the world around them. The ultimate takeaway is the child thinking that their emotions are “wrong.” 

As an adult, you may not feel safe or secure when you’re being invalidated. And your “fawn” response may be activated out of fear of someone’s reaction. It could look like second guessing yourself, and going over scenarios over and over in your head to try to justify your emotions—or to justify the other person’s emotions. 

Fawning can make you feel guilty if you second guess someone else’s opinions, emotions, or behaviors. For example, feeling guilty that you spoke up to your boss about a project and then taking 45 minutes to send an apology email with way too many smiley faces. 

How to reduce the masked fawning behaviors 

Recognizing when a trauma response is activated can be really difficult. I often hear clients ask “Why am I like this?” or “What is wrong with me?” In reality there is nothing “wrong” with them. 

In fact, they have proof that their body and nervous system really wants to keep them feeling safe. It’s just that their trauma responses are a little too sensitive. Luckily, there are ways to reduce these masked trauma responses. 


Acknowledge it

The first (and probably most difficult and frustrating) step to reducing the people pleasing fawn response is to acknowledge and be aware when you’re doing it. You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s there.  

When I feel myself being activated when there’s no danger, I will talk to my nervous system. Literally. I say something like, “Hey nervous system, I see you, I feel you. And I appreciate you trying to keep me safe, but I don’t need you right now. I’ll call upon you when I do.” 

I also encourage this with my clients because it “externalizes” the nervous system, making the nervous system and the trigger response feel less scary and mysterious. 


Have self-compassion 

When you pay attention and observe your own behaviors that you don’t like, it doesn’t really feel good. This can spark your inner critic that engages in unhelpful negative self-talk.

Remember, your body is always trying to protect you. And you have years and years of being in survival mode, and only a small amount of time knowing its existence. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your body. If you don’t have self-compassion, it can be really de-motivating and feel nearly impossible to make the small but subtle changes you need in your life. 


Work with a therapist 

Saying “no” and learning how to set boundaries can be difficult. Having a therapist that you have a good relationship with, that you feel comfortable with and can trust, sets a good foundation for practicing these strategies.

I often encourage clients to set boundaries in session. For example, if they need to end a session 10 minutes early, or not wanting to talk about something heavy or traumatic because they have a fun dinner right after session. I find it a marker of strength and tremendous personal growth when my clients speak up for what they need. 

In addition, spending years in survival mode can also have an impact on so many other things. It can impact your well-being, physical and emotional health, the ability to be present, and even memories. This can result in you finding it hard to access your true self—and what your wants and needs really are. 

It may feel at times that you don’t really know who you are or experience a loss of self, and that’s okay. Working with a therapist can help you gain access to your authentic self, help you see your strengths and resilience, and help you nurture your inner child and learn new ways to reparent yourself.

The takeaway

Working through the trauma can be the biggest gift you can give yourself. It’s not fair that your needs were not met as a child, and it certainly wasn’t your job as a child to fix it. However, as an adult, you now have the power and ability to work through the trauma. You don’t have to do it alone—and your fawn response will thank you. 

Cheryl Groskopf, LMFT, LPCC author page.
Cheryl Groskopf, LMFT, LPCC

Cheryl Groskopf is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Professional Clinical Counselor, and has obtained Master’s Degrees in both Psychology and Counseling from California State University, Los Angeles.

Her private practice, Evolution to Healing Psychotherapy, has locations in both West Los Angeles and Pasadena. As a holistic therapist, Cheryl specializes in the treatment of anxiety, trauma (including intergenerational trauma), and healing adults with insecure attachment. For more information on her holistic therapy practices, you can check out Cheryl’s website and blog,