The dark side of people pleasing – when being ‘nice’ is actually manipulation.
Updated: Sep 25
OK firstly, some people may not like this blog post! When we talk about manipulation in relationships, we usually think about more overt forms of coercive behaviour. What I want to talk about today is much more subtle and, not surprisingly... can be linked back to attachment styles.
Just a quick note on attachment:
In one of my last blogs, I describe Attachment styles and discuss the anxious – avoidant trap, and in case you haven’t read it (here), I’ll do a quick recap. However, because people pleasing is often found within insecure attachments, today I'll be focusing on the two main behaviours within insecure attachments - anxiety and avoidance.
Those with anxious attachment styles tend to seek closeness within relationships while those with avoidant attachment style tend to distance- both patterns are developed to allow the child to have their needs met by an inconsistent or unavailable parent. Just remember: Attachment styles are changeable and even those who are classed as 'secure' can have anxious and avoidant tendencies. The aim of this blog is not to demonise anyone, but merely to prompt introspection. Looking at ourselves and asking why is a good thing!
Creating an avoidant attachment-
Some parents may neglect their child’s emotional development through dominating/authoritarian parenting, punishing the child for showing their feelings using shame and guilt, such as by telling them to ‘toughen up’ or ‘stop crying’. These parents have unrealistic expectations of their children, encouraging independence from an early age, perhaps showing anger when the child is emotional and/or separating themselves until the child ‘behaves’. Therefore, the child learns early on that they should suppress any behaviours and emotions that are considered weak/unacceptable.
However, BOTH parents don’t have to be like this! The parents themselves could be in an anxious-avoidant trap too (which I’m coming to shortly)- so one parent could be cold and detached, while the other is anxious/emotional. Meaning, while navigating a scary parent, you have another that crosses emotional boundaries… and as the child becomes an adult, this may look like interfering, guilt tripping or excessive contact. Also, the child may feel responsible for the anxious parent’s happiness or wants to protect them from the authoritarian parent, deprioritising their own needs for safety and stability.
Kids just want love and approval and will do anything to get it which is what makes attachment theory so sad in points ☹.
So… in this example; independence begins early to avoid rejection, feelings must be supressed to avoid conflict AND there could be a fear of ‘enmeshment’ with an emotional parent. This results in the now adult-child being scared of intimacy, struggling to voice their own feelings/needs and being extremely vigilant for signs of losing their freedom.
OK, there’s a reason I am explaining all of this - keep with it! Moving on to the other side of the same coin…. It’s Anxiety babyyy…..
Creating an anxious attachment –
Some parents can’t give their full attention to their child for whatever reason – maybe they are avoidant and emotionally unavailable or anxious and distracted… or maybe there are other factors, e.g. addiction problems, death, mental health issues or being absent because they have to work. It’s important to acknowledge that there are MANY reasons that parents can be unavailable or inconsistent, sometimes it really is unintentional and simply a by-product of a situation.
Anyway, for simplicity, let’s take the same dynamic we just used. Because people have individual differences, two children in the same household with the same parents can actually develop different attachment styles. So... we’ve got one parent who is authoritarian and emotionally unavailable and we have another who is anxious and more emotionally charged. Perhaps sometimes the child receives love and care and perhaps sometimes they don’t. Attention becomes interpreted as love and the child needs to know how to keep the attention when they get it... because love feels good, right?
Anxiously attached kids tend to be clingy because they never know when the caregiver will be available again.... they hold on tight when they can, yet are still not comforted. The child doesn’t really understand why they are responded to lovingly sometimes and at other times they are rejected, and this means they cannot predict the parent’s response. This leads to poor emotional regulation and the child feels unsafe alone, yet constantly vigilant for signs of abandonment.
Additionally, attention seeking may become a thing... In order to keep being "loved", anxiously-attached children may display protest behaviours, like clinging, tantrums and acts of defiance etc. These behaviours remain into adulthood to KEEP A PARTNER'S ATTENTION. This might look like constant texting, silent treatment, showing jealousy and needing constant reassurance and validation.
Sounds exhausting right?! So, what does this have to do with people pleasing and toxic niceness? We’re nearly there, I promise…
Children with any of the insecure attachment styles learn from an early age how to read people and carefully navigate relationships to receive the love they want, often leading to them to prioritise other peoples needs, while still worrying that they could be abandoned/rejected at any moment. This creates mega self-esteem issues and that’s why we need to prioritise emotional CONSISTENCY AND AVAILABILITY as parents.
Heard of the anxious-avoidant trap?
Can you see how romantic relationships can mirror the parent-child relationship now? In the anxious-avoidant relationship, we have an emotional anxious attacher who is trying to get closer to their partner and fears abandonment.. and an avoidant attacher who can’t vocalise their own needs because they are avoiding rejection and dependency. Both partners mirror the beliefs the other holds about romantic partners, often creating a confirmation bias.
What tends to happen, once the chemical high of falling in love is over, is that:
-the anxious partner pushes for increasing intimacy
-the avoidant sees this as ‘weak’ and devalues them (why are they always like this? Why are they so needy? Puke)
-the avoidant begins to pull away, creating distance
-the anxious, who is vigilant for changes in behaviour, senses this and uses protest behaviours to try and keep their partner’s attention because to them attention = love
-the avoidant, who is also vigilant for changes in behaviour, senses their partner is trying to control them and their fears of enmeshment have been realised… they run (avoid!), perhaps fully disappearing and ghosting their partner to avoid conflict.
-the anxious has had their fears of abandonment realised and they begin to chase (think texting, calling, turning up unexpectedly). This only makes the avoidant run further. Eventually, the anxious partner gives up and accepts defeat.
-Post break up, the avoidant has had the space they need to regulate themselves and after the initial relief, they begin to miss their partner. They return.
-The love bubble hits again! Woo hoo! They’re back together! Massive hits of neurotransmitters..
-Wash, rinse, repeat. The turbulence in this relationship means the highs are high and the lows are low. It becomes addictive and will continue until one or both exhausts themselves and they break up for good….. or they work on their shit and learn about attachment styles. (Most people don’t want to do this lol).
So, who is the bad guy??
Well, the avoidant tends to get a bad reputation and if you read up on attachment then they are sometimes demonised. This is often because they seek short term casual relationships and use ghosting to escape, which isn’t pleasant to be on the receiving end of, of course. But… this does allow the anxiously attached to kind of push the blame doesn’t it? “They’ve ghosted me, they’ve avoided me, they’re a big massive douchebag”. There is little room for self-reflection and self-awareness here, it’s easier to put it all on to the avoidant being a bad guy.
Now we come to people pleasing and being a ‘nice’ person….. the nitty gritty of it.
We have the avoidant, the one who suppresses their true needs and feelings to keep others happy. And we have the anxious, the one who suppresses their true needs and feelings to keep others happy. That’s right, both anxiety and avoidance are two sides of the same coin – to avoid conflict and receive love. If this is you, then you have been taught you cannot be your authentic self because you are not good enough as you are! While the anxious attachers don’t believe in themselves and need others, avoidants need themselves and don’t believe in others. But we are talking about the exact same thing here aren’t we, two ends of the same spectrum.
The thing is, when we are so busy being vigilant for changes within a relationship and doing our best to avoid any conflict/rejection/abandonment…. Then we aren’t really being our genuine selves are we? We’ve been taught that we have to wear a mask. And, as it is natural to seek social connections (all humans need to be social, need love and need to be understood as much as needing sleep, food and the toilet), some people may resort to being nice to everyone they meet, offering help and generally trying to keep people sweet – in short, people pleasing. All of these behaviours are actually fine by the way, depending on the key factor: MOTIVE.
Ok, while we’re not talking murder and we’re not even talking extreme abuse or anything... Let’s take a moment to be detectives.
The thing is.... People pleasers are not being genuine. They may appear kind and nice (and they may actually be kind and nice) but there is always a motive isn’t there? (Not everyone is going to like this bit lol sorry). They might want to be liked, they might want to be needed, they might want attention, and they might want to be loved (and some might want to be owed a return - just saying). There is nothing wrong with wanting any of those things, the issue comes with how we get those things. When we people please, we are distorting our true selves into a version of us that we think people will like. Being nice to someone or doing favours for someone then comes with terms and conditions, doesn’t it. Would a people pleaser be pleasing people if they were getting nothing back?
Now, before you think "hang on a minute, I just like helping", there can be several motives for being a people pleaser and not all of them are truly manipulative. Some people base their self-worth on what they can do for others and trust me, I can see that entirely. So, just to cover all bases, lets look at some different motives for people pleasing:
feeling responsible for the happiness of others
basing your self worth on what you can do for others
wanting not to be truly 'seen' e.g. keeping quiet and in the background
wanting to be thought of as a 'good' person
hoping for some kind of reciprocation
looking for acceptance/ a place in someone's life
So, how do you know if you are being toxic or if someone you love is being toxic... how do you know if someone is emotionally manipulating you or manipulating the image of themselves for others?
Let me give you some examples, have you ever said to someone or has anyone ever said to you:
But I have done SO MUCH for you and this is how you treat me?
What about the time I did this for you and you can’t even do this for me?
You are so ungrateful for all the things I do; I love you so much and you don’t even care about me!
Eureka. Let me tell you what I think…. If someone does something nice for you and then says any of these things, I hate to break it to you, but they didn’t do that something for you. They did it for themselves. They did it because they thought it would generate a response, they thought that in a way, you would like them/love them/owe them.
If you do something nice for someone and you are expecting them to respond in a certain way, then you are being manipulative. It’s a bitter pill to swallow and I am not saying it’s always intentional and I’m not saying its always abusive. But, this is how we do the shadow work and this really does need addressing.
When you are in a relationship with someone, whatever type of relationship that is, really look at your actions. Why are you sending that text/giving a gift/doing a favour? Is it to demand a response? Is it to receive attention/love? Or is it because you genuinely want to let that person know you are there and you care? Or is it because you feel worthless/useless if you are not doing for others? It is really important to become aware of your own intentions. If offering help is going to leave you feeling resentful if/when it is not reciprocated/appreciated, then..... do not offer it because you are not being genuine!!
Always look at your true intentions! Make sure that your behaviours have no strings attached, otherwise, you’re not doing it because you love and care for someone, you’re doing it because you want someone to love and care for you. There is nothing wrong with wanting that by the way, but you are choosing to self-abandon and people are subconsciously aware of that. People can sense if you are being genuine generally speaking. When you truly love someone, you have to give them the freedom of choice, even if they choose not to reciprocate. If they don't reciprocate and this leaves you feeling angry, upset or used then we have an issue, don't we? And self-analysis is needed!
And, on this note, this super applies to feeling ‘used’ by someone. Have you ever felt used? Again, I hate to break it to you… if you’ve ever said to someone they have ‘used’ you or you’ve felt used… it’s because you’ve let yourself be used by them. You’ve offered them something (a favour, sex, whatever) and they’ve taken you up on that offer…. But then they didn’t meet the uncommunicated expectations, terms and conditions, of your offer afterwards. What did you hope letting someone 'use' you would bring? If you consented at the time then did they ‘use’ you? Not really! If you want to do something for someone/with someone, then own it! People can only use you if you let yourself be used. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it! If you do want to do it then do it without expectation! Own your shit.
Side note: If someone has promised you the world and coerced you into doing something for them and then disappeared/ghosted without any explanation, then this is using someone. This manipulation is abusive and we call it 'future faking' to allow someone to get what they want. I'm not talking about that though, I'm talking about when you offer something and no terms and conditions are discussed at the time of the offer.
Personally, while it sounds like such a cliché, I have done a whole load of the ‘inner work’ crap (if you want to call it that, although I always think it makes it sound a bit airy fairy)....and I’ll be honest, the inner work sucks LOL. Really analysing yourself and illuminating your flaws can be difficult to do.....we all have darkness inside – some more than others sure, but we ALL have darkness, trust me.
I used to be a bit of a people pleaser myself, there were severe mental health issues in my house growing up and I often felt it was my responsibility to do things around the house so everyone would be happy and probably to elicit love/care etc. I felt responsible for the feelings of others. This translated into helping others, often at the detriment of myself. See, it's not always intentional and if this blog post resonates with you, I’m not saying you’re a terrible person for people pleasing ok! But this does need working on!
So, how can we find the balance!?
Well…. It’s pretty simple really! We heal our attachment wounds and we analyse our behaviours. I LOVE helping people, I LOVE making other people feel loved/cared for, I LOVE giving gifts! And that is all good, you know why?!
I give/help/love because I WANT TO. I like making other people feel good about themselves because this makes me feel good. (True altruism really doesn't exist!)
I NEVER expect a return! I don’t need reciprocation. I already have what I need and that was generated in number one!
I will never hold a grudge or throw something back in someone’s face. Again, do it because you want to do it.
Now, it’s totally different if you have got someone who keeps asking you for favours. Eventually, even with those we love, we might get sick of it. So, if this happens, be honest! Say, I don’t mind doing all this stuff for you but if you keep asking then I will feel you are taking advantage! Don’t avoid conflict, they may not be aware.
If you have really looked at your intentions and you really don't feel you are trying to manipulate anyone, then that is ok! This will not apply to every helpful person in the world you know. IF helping others makes you feel wanted/needed then maybe the issue is to do with how you think about your self. Feel free to give love, help, affection and care to others when you want to but don't let that dictate how you feel about yourself. Your worth is not defined by what you can do for others!
The most important things in our social connections are communication and repair. Communicate your needs, be honest with people, and if you have to stand up for yourself then do so by being genuine and talking things out. Stop pushing expectations onto others and you will be a much happier person, I promise! Be authentic is the main take away from today, stop wearing your mask because you don't want to upset anyone. If people don't want you in their life then you can't force them and you can't make them indebted to you to keep them, it doesn't work like that. Love unconditionally and accept the response unconditionally.
Don’t be nice to people because you want them to like/love you. Be nice to them because you like/love yourself and you want to spread that love and inner happiness all over the place. Be authentic. Know your worth.
Oh, and also, if you are made to feel guilt or shame in a relationship (this goes for your parents too) then take a step back and evaluate the situation. If you feel you are being emotionally manipulated then let go of these negative feelings - guilt and shame do us no favours-.... see the bigger picture, build your self-esteem and show yourself some damn self-compassion. You don't owe anyone anything and you are not responsible for how others feel (unless you did something hurtful intentionally lol). Most people have/had issues in their childhood/family, so if you feel someone close to you is manipulating you, then vocalise your feelings - they might have only ever been taught transactional love.
You can always say: If I'd have known your help/love was going to come with strings attached then I wouldn't have let you do it. I am sorry you feel I am not meeting your expectations but can you be clearer on what those are before I accept anything else from you in future.
You can do this! You can do anything! But start off by being your true self. If people don't like that version of you then that's on them, they're not your people. You don't owe them anything but you do owe yourself.
OK, I'm done!
See ya later alligators,