There is a correlation between severe trauma and people-pleasing, it’s called “Fawning”. It's a response triggered by the Parasympathetic Nervous system (PNS) - “Freeze or Fawn" response, unlike the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) "Fight or Flight" response.
It is a mechanism used to “diffuse or avoid conflict, feel more secure in relationships, and earn the approval of others” (Finch, 2019). Behaviorally it is a lack of personal boundaries, poor communication, and an inability to assert or advocate for one’s own needs due to fears of abandonment leading to a loss of one’s sense of self.
Fawning can develop for a few reasons but it is commonly a result of abuse or neglect. The abused child may fawn as a way to avoid abuse and gain acceptance from the abuser.
The neglected child fawns when they seek acknowledgment from a parent who cannot provide or withholds affection or validation.
The Fawner is often obsessed or overly concerned with the needs of others. They have a hard time recognizing the behavior and typically wonder why their efforts are not reciprocated in the same way by other people. This may lead them to feel they are disliked, unloved, and unwanted; the same feelings that led them to start fawning in the first place. They often feel that no one respects them or they are unseen and misunderstood. Ultimately, they feel alone.
When people fawn and still don’t get the recognition and validation they want, they often become resentful and start to set “boundaries” that are extreme, further pushing people away.
It becomes a vicious cycle when they start to look for acceptance, and to achieve this they resort to the same behaviors.
The issue isn’t that the Fawner can’t have supportive and healthy relationships, it is they don’t know how to prioritize themselves or balance their needs and their desire to support other people. They often have a difficult time communicating and find it hard to ask for what they want due to the fear that people will abandon them.
People who fawn often find themselves in relationships that are manipulative and exploitive, and those that find healthy relationships have partners or friends who become frustrated with their lack of boundaries and inability to say no.
The urge to fawn can be described as a feeling of “obligation”, and in extreme cases the idea of saying no or setting boundaries can be very distressing and uncomfortable, triggering high levels of anxiety. Fawning causes people to feel pressured to always be there for other people even if it means compromising their needs or inconveniencing themselves. In complex trauma, it’s a habit that stems from childhood and it is attached to the belief that they are valued in this way.
Resolving the issue starts with awareness and being able to able to identify when and why it started. For those who feel a lot of distress when it comes to setting boundaries, exposure techniques can help such as saying no to small things with people they trust. Learning to sit with feelings of guilt while realizing it is an irrational response when setting a boundary or prioritizing a need.