Working with Boundaries and Managing the Pleasing Response

The difficulty with most trauma is that there are several layers of complexity to it.

The fawn or please response is an adaptation response for survival, as are the fight, flight, or freeze responses.

The please response most often sets in after you have exhausted a fight or flight response repeatedly, and you have experienced it as not being effective. This makes the pleasing response a more thoughtful and therefore more complex response to deal with in a continuously traumatic environment.

A pleasing response entails being tuned into the needs and wishes of somebody else and anticipating and adapting one’s actions accordingly. You can imagine how much energy investment this response takes.

I will lay out an example further along to clarify the complexity of the pleasing response.

The Anatomy of the Pleasing Response in Post-Traumatic Stress

A pleasing response isn’t just used to minimize or avoid further abuse. It is also a way of getting approval, feeling adequate and useful, being seen, and feeling loved and appreciated; so the pleasing response, through being directed continuously outward, serves as a dissociation. It serves as a dissociation for you, so you don’t feel constantly overwhelmed by the residual pain of neglect and experienced lack of love in your early formative years.

As with all emotions and feelings, there can be a healthy aspect to receiving appreciation and feeling good about yourself and your accomplishments, though when you are continuously looking outside of yourself for acknowledgment, and you have a lost a sense of containment, it becomes destructive. You are actively devaluing yourself by continually seeking validation from others, and this will make you emotionally unstable and dependent.

On top of that, it becomes harder and harder to interpret other people’s intentions and responses due to your lack of containment and self-reference; this, in turn, will create a lot of self-doubt and overthinking. Guilt and the fear of having done something wrong can easily take over.

The Layering of Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms in Complex Trauma, PTSD, and Childhood Trauma

Joy’s father left when Joy was only two years old. Her mother has always been needy and psychologically and verbally abusive when she doesn’t get the attention she craves. The more Joy resisted her or put up a fight with her mom; the more abusive her mom would get by playing the guilt card on her. Over time, Joy resorted to pleasing her mom as a default to avoid confrontation and to keep the peace as much as she could. As an adult, she is uncomfortable with men; overall, she suffers from severe anxiety and has been through several episodes of depression. Joy prefers to work on her own out of a need to maintain some sense of boundaries, and she minimizes her contact with others to help contain her anxiety.

In the above example, you see the mix-up and layering of emotions. There are the symptoms of depression and anxiety that flow out of a please response and suppressed anger. The pleasing response also acts as a safety mechanism which prevents Joy from being confronted with the pain of abandonment from her father, the lack of attuned attention from her mom and dealing with her abusive neediness.

How to Work Through PTSD and The Please Response

To work through these complex patterns, you cannot start with addressing the suppressed anger straight away, because the buried pain of abandonment and the need for wanting to be loved, seen, and accepted must be kept in mind.

If you address your suppressed anger too soon, you would destabilize because you need your pleasing response in place in order to survive emotionally. If you were to express your suppressed anger before the proper foundations have been laid, that expression of anger would cancel out your pleasing response with the result that you would feel inadequate, unheard and unseen, and which potentially would be retraumatizing.

Wanting to be loved, to feel adequate, to be seen and accepted always sits deeper than all the other hurts, no matter what has happened to you. You must first work to contain the anxiety and depression and give context to them; to create an understanding that they are symptoms of your Post-Traumatic Stress which result from your suppressed anger and pleasing others.

From there, you can start shifting your attention to a deeper level and start to address the relationship between suppressed anger, the need for the pleasing response as a survival response, and how they relate to the pain of abandonment and lack of love in the context of your personal story.

On that deeper level, trauma work would involve engaging with boundaries and vulnerability interchangeably. As you work with the suppressed anger, you will gradually be able to address and reestablish healthy boundaries, self-worth, and self-esteem.

Through allowing vulnerability, while holding enough containment for yourself, you may touch into the pain of abandonment and lack of love, which will allow you to hold more of your profound internal pain and start to integrate, release, or transform that part of you.

How do you relate to the pleasing response and suppressed anger? Leave your comments below.

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