I know, I know, you may be tired of the term trauma and you may be thinking “it can’t ALL be about trauma” or “well I don’t have trauma, so this is not relevant”. But folks, now that I am learning about trauma, what it really is, and how (sorry, not sorry) we all have it, I notice it EVERYWHERE and in EVERYONE. And it has become abundantly clear to me that we all have some level of trauma and that, unfortunately, it is often what unconsciously rules our lives; rules our thoughts, our behaviors, our words, our relationships.
I originally intended to write a whole piece about trauma, and I still plan to do so, but I honesty feel like I am just beginning to dip my toes into this field and so I don’t quite feel ready yet to write about it here. But I will offer you a brief summary of what I have come to understand about trauma so far.
Most of us think (and are taught) that trauma defines major life events that alter the course of someone’s life and that are inherently “traumatic”. I think we picture the men and women who go to war, survivors of physical and sexual assaults or survivors of devastating natural disasters. Of course, we can all agree on that. However, these scenarios only depict one extreme of the spectrum that is trauma.
Further to that, trauma, as I have come to understand it, is not actually about the *event*, but rather about what happens to us as a result of the event. Defining trauma in such a way is crucial because it opens up the possibility that seemingly benign events may have been traumatic for some. Another important point to make is that trauma happens not only because of things that did happen to us, but often also as a result of things that we needed, but that did not happen to us. The easiest example is to think of a child who was repeatedly deprived of validation from a parent figure when they experienced a difficult emotion.
My above understanding of trauma is very much grounded in the work of Dr. Gabor Maté. If you are curious about his work, specifically around trauma, there was a documentary released June 8th entitled The Wisdom of Trauma, which is centered around his work regarding trauma. I highly recommend it to all, because I believe that a trauma informed society is our only way back to a humane society, our only way to collectively heal. Fair warning, though, learning these things will be extremely unsettling and destabilizing for most. In the best kind of ways.
Now, let’s get back to the topic of people-pleasing as this is what this article is really about.
When I go back and re-read my 3 pieces on being a people-pleaser, I actually still stand by everything I wrote. I continue to recognize how people pleasing made me an asshole, I understand the need to put myself first and I also continue to see how I struggle to let myself feel loved. However, now that I am starting to learn more about trauma, and how this has shaped who I am, I have a much deeper and much more compassionate view of my tendencies to people please.
You see, as Dr. Gabor Maté puts it (yes, I will continue to repeat this); trauma is, at its core, a disconnection from our true self. But what does that even mean? Well, it means that, for reasons of survival, and purely instinctively and unconsciously, we will deny our basic human needs (especially emotional ones) and repress parts of ourselves in order to maintain attachment and connection to others, especially our parent figures.
I wrote about this in a previous blog – how I hold a deeply rooted belief that I am not worthy of love unless I am perfect. Now, I understand this so much better. I see that it’s a deeply rooted belief because it’s the only narrative that made sense to me at some point in my life. And it’s not so much about perfectionism as it is about experiences of rejection/disconnection when I did show emotions or imperfections. I suppose, it would help to provide you all with an example.
I am extremely fortunate to be able to go on this journey with my mother, who is herself starting to look at trauma and how it has shaped who she is and her life. After watching The Wisdom of Trauma, she and I had a chat and she shared how profound this perspective was for her, and she shared some of her reflections. She shared with me that she remembers moments when either myself or my brother would cry as young children, and she would tell us to “stop it”. It’s not that she said it in a rude or condescending way, but the message was still there: stop crying, crying is bad, and you must stop in order to receive my love and approval.
There is no blame, shame or resentment in all of this. Because when we look at it from a trauma perspective, as my mom shared, it becomes obvious that it’s transgenerational and that that’s the way she was also raised by her parents. And frankly, it’s the way our society tells us to parent our children. Gabor talks a lot about “sleep training” babies and how this practice of letting babies cry themselves to sleep is actually inherently traumatic because it teaches those tiny humans that when they cry, they are not loved. Human babies and their nervous systems are shaped by regulating with the nervous systems of their parent figures. So when a baby or young child is deprived of that proximity and connection, the development of their nervous system is stunted. Enter an epidemic of “mental health” conditions labeled as anxiety, depression, OCD, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, etc.; when in reality, most of us are just walking around with dysregulated nervous systems, unable to soothe ourselves as adults because our nervous system development was stunted in infancy.
We can learn to co-regulate and self-regulate as adults, but its damn hard work. It’s also, unfortunately, not the approach that most mainstream therapists utilize, instead the focus is on cognition, behavior and psychoanalysis. You can talk about your thoughts and feelings as much as you want, but until you learn to physically regulate and process your emotions, cognitive therapy will only ever scratch the surface. And won’t lead to true healing and recovery.
Because of early childhood experiences that led to a disconnection to my Self and an inability to regulate my nervous system and my emotions, I learned to live my life by pleasing everyone around me. I learned that in order to receive love, I had to soothe those around me. I never learned to tolerate disappointment or disagreements, because what I learned was that those things were destroyers of love and connection. So I subconsciously ignored and repressed my needs, my emotions, my thoughts, my true Self in order to maintain connection to those around me, in order to maintain the relationships in my life including with family, friends and romantic partners.
Sadly, relationships built on pleasing others are not healthy, sturdy ones. Nor are they particularly fulfilling. I suspect a lot of us actually live our lives in relationships that are rather superficial and grounded in avoidance, ruled by trauma. My hope is that we can all listen to that part of us that whispers in our ears “this doesn’t feel right”.
That’s what happened to me in 2019. That little voice stopped whispering and it started screaming at me. I could not ignore my gut feelings, my intuition anymore. Because I was deeply unhappy, I was deeply lonely, I longed for true joy and connection. What I had did not feel that way. Even though, by society’s standards, I had it all. I was “successful”. Yet I did not feel good.
Untangling myself from society’s capitalist and consunerist messaging about what a joyful life looks like has been (and continues to be) the biggest battle of my life. It’s honestly a lonely one at times, because most of us are just so enmeshed in this perspective that we don’t even realize it. So as I start to make changes in how I live my life, as I start to speak and behave authentically by not engaging in certain common behaviors, I am constantly confronted by an opposing perspective, an opposing force. It’s exhausting.
Yet I carry on. Because I have honestly been fighting an uphill battle most of my life trying to be happy within our society’s standards and, well, it has damn near killed me. I have been medicated for depression and anxiety. I have tried to take my own life. I have experience numerous ailments and undergone testing and even surgery for what I now see as signs that I was torturing my body by trying to “keep up with the Joneses”. This has taken an immense amount of strength. I have persevered, and climbed the ladder that society told me to, only to find myself sicker and sicker, burnout after burnout, failed relationship after another.
I am not lacking in perseverance and strength, I see that in myself now. I am just choosing a different path. One that I actually believe will lead me to true joy, connection and health.
So yes, I have been an asshole and have been resentful, but I no longer feel that way now. I can drop the negative narratives about those around me because I (most of the time) no longer live in fear of how others will perceive me. Because how others perceive me no longer feels like the only way to feel validated and worthy. Because I am starting to believe that I am a good person. Because I am starting to have tolerance for disagreements. I can withstand another’s anger or disappointment without it threatening my identity and my worth.
I continue to put myself first in deeper and more profound ways. As my awareness grows, I notice how I show up in conversations and in relation to others. I notice when I say things just to soothe others or to maintain connection to others. Slowly I am learning to replace this with authentic presence, with witnessing discomfort in others, with speaking from my heart, even when it feels terrifying. I am learning that my worth is not tied to my productivity nor my popularity. I am more and more okay with living a slower pace of life, which feels better for me, but the FOMO still pops up from time to time.
And finally, I am profoundly excited and hopeful at the prospect of letting love in. I am not quite there yet, because showing up in relationships with all of my trauma and reactivity feels impossible. In the recent months, because of a new loving and unconditional friendship, I am learning how to actually be myself in a relationship. I am learning that fucking up is not a death sentence. I am learning that I can voice my honest opinions, even if it hurts others. I am learning that it is not my role to remove the pain of others, but rather to witness it and hold it, tolerate it. I am learning, painfully slowly, what real connection feels like. And that, I believe, is what real love feels like.
There is one thing I no longer stand by, though, that I wrote in my previous blog posts. I no longer believe that we have to love ourselves first before we can love others. Rather, Dr. Nicole LePera’s interpretation feels better:
One can only be as connected to others as they are to themselves.From How to do the Work
Folks, I am officially done with my identity as a people pleaser. Because what I want now is deep connection, love and joy. But damn am I ever thankful to the part of me that survived all this time in the only way it knew how; to be a people pleaser.