If you’re an adult survivor of Dysfunctional / Narcissistic Family Abuse, you may prefer to avoid conflict as much as possible in your daily interactions and will even deny your own “core truth” in an attempt to make others feel more comfortable. However, these conflict-avoiding tactics can eventually turn into a pattern of chronic people-pleasing, which serves no one in the end.
Conflict-Avoidant Behaviors and People-Pleasing
People-pleasers (also referred to at times as ‘codependents’) seek validation from others that they are acceptable and worthy of being liked or loved, and can be so ‘other’ focused and ‘enmeshed’ that they often have no idea what they really feel, think, want, or need.
People-pleasers are typically individuals who were raised in Dysfunctional / Narcissistic families and were ‘trained’ by their primary caregivers to repress and deny their innate truth and ‘lived experience’. This is how people-pleasers learn early on in life that their true self expressions and most basic fundamental needs are not acceptable, and that their self-worth must be extracted from those around them in a never-ending quest to feel okay, accepted, liked, and loved.
My research on what I now term ‘Family Scapegoat Abuse’ (FSA) suggests that a high percentage of adults who identify as being in the family scapegoat role struggle with people-pleasing behaviors. They report wanting to avoid conflict as much as possible in their interactions with others, and will deny their own truth in an attempt to make those they feel dependent upon and/or care about comfortable.
This is likely because having had their truth denied and being ‘shamed and blamed’ by their family-of-origin for much (even all) of their life, the scapegoated child will often do anything they can to ‘keep the peace’, even if that means repressing their own preferences, thoughts, and needs (which is essentially a form of self-abandonment). This in turn deprives them of the ability to communicate effectively when discussing important issues (whether personal or professional) later on as adults.
People-Pleasing as a Form of Self-Abandonment
If you are the family scapegoat – and especially if you are a Highly Sensitive Person or the family empath – you may be so focused on tending to the wants and needs of those around you that you have lost touch with who you really are at the most basic, fundamental level. This might leave you feeling depleted, angry, and exhausted much of the time without ever realizing it is because of your chronic people-pleasing ways.
In reality, subservient, ingratiating behavior that results in your feeling like a doormat isn’t really helpful to anyone. By surrendering control to others and abandoning yourself, you are allowing yourself to live a lie – And lies serve no one in the end. Abandoning your own truth will also make you highly vulnerable to attracting narcissistic, abusive people who will exploit your willingness to deny your most basic needs in deference to their own.
You might also benefit from asking yourself if you may be attempting to control others via your people-pleasing ways by making them dependent on you. A healthy adult relationship requires that the two people involved create a relational environment that is reciprocal, truthful, respectful, and interdependent. Hiding our true selves – our thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs – is ultimately dishonest and far more damaging to a relationship than voicing a truth that might result in a heated discussion or out-and-out conflict. If you are engaging with people who have no interest in who you are or who cannot tolerate the fact that you have your own wants and needs then you may need to carefully examine if these are people who should even be in your life – including and especially any family members that persist in scapegoating you.
Ten Steps to Help Family Abuse Survivors Handle Conflict
Although it takes courage to practice new behaviors, people who live in alignment with their own truth find that the freedom they experience in being themselves makes risking conflict worth it. Below are some tried and true methods to help you stop people-pleasing others so that you can live a happier, more emotionally honest and fulfilled life:
- Recognize adaptive survival responses and learned behaviors: If you grew up in a dysfunctional / abusive environment, you may have learned early on in life that your self-worth, safety, and sense of emotional security depended on what others think of you. Adults who were the family scapegoat are especially likely to believe this (read my article, Love at Any Price, to learn more about adaptive survival responses).
- Acknowledge that your self-worth does not belong in the hands of others: This includes your family-of-origin. Nobody should have power over what you think and how you feel about yourself. Even those who say they “know” you or “love” you the most.
- Decide that you will no longer play the ‘People-Pleasing game’: This is especially important when interacting with family members that scapegoat you. It will take time, dedication, and commitment to make being assertive and acting as your own self-advocate a habit, but it is indeed possible to change.
- Check in with yourself during interactions with others: This is especially important when communicating with those that you tend to people-please the most (for the scapegoat this will often be their parents). Focus on what feels true and right for you during these conversations, even if you are not yet ready to risk conflict by expressing a differing view, feeling, or need. Write your thoughts and feelings down in a journal after such difficult or uncomfortable interactions. Get to know yourself and be genuinely curious about what you really feel and think.
- Identify your values, priorities, and beliefs: This is an effective way to build a strong foundation from which to speak your truth when communicating with others. Take time to be with yourself and even write down your priorities in life and what is most important to you. This will help you to develop your ability to agree or disagree and say “no” or “yes” (and mean it), no matter what the situation is (saying “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you” is perfectly acceptable as well).
- Learn to say “My decision is final”: Once you determine your values and better understand what is best and most right for you, plan on saying “My decision is final” if you anticipate that rejecting or denying a request will not be well received. Feel free to soften it up if that is more comfortable for you, e.g., “I realize you might feel disappointed that I can’t accommodate you, however, my decision is final.” Role-play with your significant other, trusted friend, or therapist / life coach, if needed, so you can get used to saying this one simple phrase. These four words will go a long way to ensure that any doors that might allow you to be manipulated by others, especially people who were able to take advantage of you in the past, are firmly closed and will save you much grief down the road.
- Use empathic reflection when asserting yourself with others, including recognized ‘authority figures’ (parents, employers, etc): Here’s an example from my own life: I recently saw a doctor for a minor physical complaint. His recommended intervention was unacceptable to me for various reasons. My response was to say, “I understand why you might be recommending that, and if I were in your shoes I imagine I would too. But that route is not one I wish to go down. My decision is final.” After saying this and dialoguing a bit more, we went on to find a remedy that we both felt comfortable with, and the treatment was ultimately successful.
- Choose your battles wisely: If you sense or suspect that your honest expressions are going to result in a conflict that you just don’t feel ready or equipped to deal with, it’s okay to acknowledge the truth to yourself and choose not to express it. Some things matter more than others. Talk to a trusted friend, journal your thoughts and feelings, or consider seeing a licensed Psychotherapist, Counselor, or Life Coach to help you sort out what really matters most to you and what doesn’t. Remember, some people will not be able to hear or compassionately receive, much less respect, your truth if they find it personally or professionally inconvenient or threatening. Not everyone is looking for honest, reciprocal relationships or interactions; such people may even attempt to judge, shame, or blame (scapegoat) you for speaking your truth – Or even try to convince you (and others) that your truth is a lie. Seek support as needed if you find that you are being attacked or threatened for expressing your truth.
- Don’t explain yourself in an attempt to justify your position: This is a real trap that people-pleasing types fall into repeatedly. You’re entitled to have your own thoughts, feelings, experiences, needs, and preferences, just like everybody else. The fact that some people in your life don’t agree with you or respect your truth doesn’t make them right. Trust yourself and your perceptions. Sometimes our “gut feelings’ can tell us far more about a person or a situation than anything that is being overtly presented to us.
- Remember the power of choice: Adults who learned to people-please in childhood are often genuinely unaware that they have the ability to choose how they will conduct themselves in a relationship. If you are tired of feeling like a doormat, then maybe it’s time to get up off of the floor.
Learning to Address Conflict Effectively Takes Time and Practice
Living in a truthful, emotionally honest manner requires courage, patience, practice, and commitment. There are many books written on people-pleasing and codependency designed to help break the people-pleasing habit: Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More: How To Stop Controlling Others And Start Caring For Yourself is the one I most often recommend to clients, along with. Susan Newman’s The Book of No: 250 Ways To Say It – And Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.
Working with a therapist or life coach who understands child psycho-emotional abuse and family scapegoating specifically, as well as codependency, and/or attending a free support group such as Al Anon that focuses on developing healthy relationships and communication can be very helpful as well.
Once you feel ready to begin risking conflict in your personal and/or professional interactions, consider choosing one person in your life that you can practice being completely honest with; ideally, someone you trust and feel safe with but are not always completely authentic with. Then say exactly what’s on your mind and see what happens.
Think of your values, take deep breaths, and stand your ground. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that any fear encountered in being truthful and honest in your relationships is temporary, and that the rewards of living in an emotionally honest, integral, and values-based manner make it more than worth any temporary discomfort experienced.
A word of caution: If you believe that you are genuinely not safe in a relationship and that speaking your truth could put your personal safety at risk, I urge you to contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline in the United States (International Domestic Violence Resource List here) to receive support, information, and guidance.
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To learn more about Family Scapegoat Abuse (FSA), it’s signs and symptoms, and recovering from this most damaging form of systemic familial abuse, read my eBook The Invisible Wounds of the Family Scapegoat (available via my secure website; see my profile, below).