People-Pleasing Starts as Parent-Pleasing

people-pleasing starts as parent-pleasing

Do you often figure out what others want and provide that?

Do you feel bad about yourself for engaging in this behavior?

Do you cringe when you hear the term ‘People-Pleaser’?

The label ‘people pleaser’ is misleading because the person doing this does not get to be pleased. It supposes that some people prefer to please others instead of themselves. There is also a negative bias to the term. As if the people-pleasing person does not possess the strength of character to say No to others if it means displeasing them.

None of us are born seeing others as more deserving. A child can only come to this conclusion when it is absolutely necessary. One way this happens is when a narcissistic parent sees their needs as more important than the child’s. Now the child must please the parent to be who the parent expects them to be. Failure to do this results in rejection and indignant attack from the narcissistic parent. The child is left feeling emotionally disowned and deeply wounded. Children must avoid such trauma as much as possible for the child of a narcissistic parent.

Today’s blog post is about how people pleasing starts as parent pleasing. First I discuss why a child must please the narcissistic parent ‘or else’. Next, I show how the child develops beliefs that persist this survival strategy into adulthood. Third, I examine some of the impacts of the term ‘people pleaser’ on survivors of narcissistic abuse. And watch until the end because I explain how survivors do not have to think of themselves as ‘people-pleasers’. Instead they can honor and respect the ways they survived such an unfair situation. 

Please the Narcissistic Parent or Else!

A child with a narcissistic parent is not seen for who they are. They do not get to know that their own mind is a great place to be and that someone else is very much interested in them. They do not get to explore friendships, relationships, and the world knowing they always have a ‘home base’ to come back to. 

The child of a narcissistic parent is deprived of this essential psychological nourishment. They are implicitly abandoned by the parent. Then the child has to create a rickety way of existing that denies the parent’s abandonment. Doing so, lets the child believe they have an adult who is willing to care for them. It also grants the child a sense of existential footing. They find a way to be who their narcissistic parent is able to recognize. 

It is essential for a child to be and feel recognized by their parent. Psychologically, a child’s self comes into existence by finding themselves in someone else’s mind. Consider a parent who knows their child well enough to discern the child’s cries to mean hunger versus a dirty diaper. The child gets to know that their inner experience can be recognized, understood, and responded to. This lets the child know that what happens inside of them is real and important to someone else. When the parent cannot do this, the child can feel like what happens inside of them is not real nor important to anyone else. That is how the child of a narcissistic parent is abandoned.

When the child is deprived of the parental responsiveness needed to know their inner world matters they have to turn to that rickety way of feeling real. That is all that is available to the child of a narcissistic parent. Now the child recognizes as real what the parent recognizes – the parent’s inflated importance. All that is supposed to matter are the parent’s feelings, sense of control and entitlement. This gives the child some relief from the terror of knowing how unrecognized they truly are. They have a way to respond to the parent that seems appreciated. It is a one-way arrangement that the child can do nothing about at the time. 

The child’s – unconscious – logic goes something like this:

“I don’t feel like I exist to anyone. Mom/Dad do not see or care about me.”

“When I make Mom/Dad happy I feel like I exist for a moment. I also feel like I know what’s going on.”

“If I care more about how Mom/Dad feel than how I feel then I get to exist and things will make sense to me.”

This conclusion is that rickety way of feeling real. The child substitutes the narcissistic parent’s inner world for the their own. Now they have a way to feel recognized by that parent – at times. So long as the child is in the act of addressing the parent’s needs they feel less alone. However, the child feels alone and disoriented when they are not actively tending to the parent’s needs. To stave off this terrible sense of being alone and disorganized the child may seek more chances to meet the parent’s needs. 

Let’s look at another anonymized case example:

Lawrence was fourteen years old when he started working at a car wash after school and on the weekends. He made a lot of money for a kid his age in cash tips. His parents were divorced and he lived with his mother. She seemed to find fault with him on a daily basis and would explode into screaming tirades at him. He had no one to tell nor did he think she was doing anything wrong. He just assumed she was pointing out how bad he was so he could have a hope of correcting himself.

One day his mother took him shopping for clothes at a local department store. She called him over to one of the racks and said, “Oh, Lawrence, look at this!”. She had slung over her shoulder a leather briefcase that she found appealing. “It’s so nice. What do you think?”. 

“Yeah, it’s nice I guess,” he said. He was somewhat relieved that she was at least not yelling at him in that moment.

“Well, anyway, it’s too expensive. But it’s just so nice!”, she exclaimed.

Later that night as Lawrence got ready for bed he saw the shoebox that he kept all of his earnings from the car wash. He thought, “I guess I could get her that briefcase.” What he did not say to himself but felt was that he hoped this might make his mother love him instead of hate him so much. 

A couple days later after his shift at the car wash he went to the store to buy the briefcase. He presented it to his mother and she seemed thrilled by his gift. She told him how she showed it to her coworkers and told them how proud she was of her son. Lawrence felt good inside and a little uneasy. “This is great but can it last?” he wondered.

About three nights later his mother came home from work and saw his tennis shoes on the porch. “Lawrence!” she screeched, “what are these doing here? I told you to put them in your room and you never listen to me!”. And so began the return to normal of being attacked by his narcissistic mother. 

Was Lawrence’s act of generosity an exercise in people-pleasing or an attempt to spare himself from his mother’s steady diet of hostility? He had no protection from another adult. He also knew there was nothing he could say to his mother to get her to treat him kindly. She did not care if his feelings were often hurt by her. But he did know that she was happy when she got what she wanted. And when she was happy she rarely attacked him. Buying the briefcase was a rather ingenious attempt to spare himself the danger she posed him.

How This Coping Strategy Continues Into Adulthood

The child’s belief that they only deserve to exist if they are making someone else happy spared them a graver danger earlier in life. That danger was being nobody to no one. This is the state the child is threatened with when they cannot share in their parent’s reality.

The danger of no attachment is traumatic. Trauma simply refers to situational demands that outstrip someone’s resources at the time. Human beings process information in ways that detect and prevent dangers to themselves. The child of a narcissistic parent is in an ongoing traumatically dangerous situation. They must develop plans for how to avoid the threat of losing the parent’s attachment to them.

These plans become beliefs that help them reliably avoid this danger. Two complementary beliefs may be adopted by children in this position. First is, “If I make someone else happy then I deserve to exist.” This belief incentivizes the child to please others ahead of themselves. Second is, “I am responsible for others’ happiness and it’s my fault when they are unhappy.” This belief prods the child to keep pleasing the parent or experience self-blame, shame and/or guilt when the parent is not pleased.

These beliefs help the child and later the adult know what is safe and what is dangerous in their lives. New relationships will likely feel similar to those with the narcissistic parent. The survivor has learned it is too dangerous to put their needs first and expect to stay in relationship to someone important. The inner warnings of abandonment and being nobody to no one will initially go off if the survivor does this. If we layer on the scenario where the survivor is in relationship to people who are also narcissistic then these beliefs get reinforced all the more. The survivor can be left to conclude that living for the sake of others is just how the world is.

Are the Child’s Efforts To Survive Emotional Abandonment Best Described as ‘People Pleasing’?

I argue No. The real culprit in this arrangement is the narcissistic parent’s psychopathology. It is they who rigidly deny their own feelings of worthlessness and insist on the opposite. They who feel entitled for others to comply with their inflated self-worth. They who must devalue and domineer others to keep themselves intact. And they who lack the empathy needed to see or care about the needs and feelings of others. 

The child is in the vulnerable position of needing the parent more than the parent needs the child. That vulnerability becomes a liability for the child with this type of parent. The child receives little to no recognition, appreciation, nor encouragement for who they are. To survive they must substitute the narcissistic parent’s happiness for their own. 

The child’s way of surviving is not easy nor would it ever be freely chosen. They had to endure a state of ongoing deprivation and do or be what was necessary to go on. Going on in the face of such abandonment is incredibly difficult and not guaranteed. To call this ‘people-pleasing’ is to ignore the unjust conditions they were tasked with surviving. 

Finding Compassion and Understanding for Yourself

The term ‘people pleasing’ holds the survivor responsible for what they endured. In the course of recovery the survivor gains clarity on how they never signed up to be devalued, deprived and trapped by their narcissistic parent. As a survivor makes sense of what happened they get to notice and respect how they survived such an unfair arrangement.

This process is helped by telling one’s story of survival to a safe other person. As that person reacts with compassion, validation and respect the survivor may feel safer to see themselves the same way. Over time the judgementalness that goes into a term like ‘people pleasing’ can seem uninformed to the survivor. Terms like this fail to consider why and how such a coping style developed. This understanding is one more way of dismantling the shame felt by the survivor of narcissistic abuse. 

Lawrence got into therapy in his late twenties. He expressed a lot of anger towards himself for not ‘speaking up more’ in his life.

He explained, “I feel like I have to do whatever other people expect from me when I’m talking to them. Like it all becomes about what they need and I don’t have any way of knowing what I want or don’t want.”

I responded, “Sounds like it feels extremely dangerous to think about your needs when you’re close to someone else.”

“Yeah, definitely! But why? What’s wrong with me? I feel like I don’t have the backbone to stand up for myself. In fact, my friends often say I’m a people pleaser and I hate that term. But what I hate even more is that I worry it’s true. I don’t feel that way on the inside but in interactions I definitely act that way.”

“I wonder what may have led you to see others needs as more important than your own. You don’t strike me as someone who is weak-willed. I bet there were some pretty terrible consequences to putting yourself first at one point or another in your life.”

“Well, I always always getting yelled at for putting myself first by my mother. She said I was selfish and inconsiderate. It felt pretty horrible. I didn’t want to be selfish and it was hard to take her rage towards me in these moments.”

“I’m guessing that if you disagreed with her assessments of your character, that would not have done much good?”

“Uh, no. Definitely not.”

“So what choice did you have?”

“No good ones. I would apologize and then go out of my way not to infuriate her by failing to think about what she expected from me.”

“That sounds like a brutal arrangement to live under. And so opposite to what most parents would want for their children. Your mother’s goal seems to have been for you to care more about her than yourself. Most parents want their children to care about themselves as much as they care about others. But if you did that you got attacked by her.”

“If you didn’t feel frustration towards yourself for being more worried about others than yourself, what else might you feel?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I wonder if you see any reason for respect or even admiration for how you survived such a narcissistically abusive parent?”

“What good is it to be a people pleaser?”

“Well, I don’t think that’s who you actually are. I think you were put in the unnatural position of having to be a parent pleaser at a very young age – or else. If you didn’t find a way to make that endurable then I don’t know if you would have made it. What do you think?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure her wrath would have skyrocketed if I did that.”


Lawrence’s blame towards himself was not resolved in a single session. However these types of exchanges helped him gain more compassion for doing what he had to do to survive his childhood. By the end of treatment he came to appreciate how psychologically flexible he was as a person. Now in his life he could leverage that flexibility in ways he chose rather than to survive.

Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.

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