PEOPLE illo f99b9

How Menopause Helped This Life Long People-Pleaser Boss Up, And Stop Giving A D*mn

by Rythea Lee

 I’ll never forget the Christmas my father broke all my brother’s toys with a hammer. He did it because we were not acting grateful enough, but I could swear I had been doing everything just right. Clearly, one of us had gotten it wrong, and he exploded with rage in ways we were used to but still found terrifying. I remember my little brother at eight years old sobbing while my father broke his new Legos into tiny pieces. I waited until my Dad was worn out from yelling and hammering and then, as usual, I went and sat on his lap. I knew that would calm him down, and it almost always worked. 

Growing up, the looming threat of my father seemed to permeate everything. His rage controlled his six kids and my mother. I formed my little girl nervous system around his every feeling—appeasing him, sitting on his lap, holding his hand, talking to him, fetching him things he needed, dancing for him, singing for him, and telling him how much I loved him. I thanked him for things; made up stories about how well I had done in school so he would be proud of me; stayed quiet when needed but always paid attention; listened to him talk about his work, his achievements, and his views on life (he gave long talks about his views on life); smiled and nodded and praised him as often as possible. I did all I could to make him comfortable and at ease in the desperate hope that he wouldn’t hurt me or other members of my family. 

Despite my professional-level caretaking, I failed, as children do. There was really nothing I could do to keep my father from sexually abusing me. Absolutely nothing. His violations were unpredictable and hidden. He molested me regularly with no recourse and I battled his sickness alone. He brought me to his friends and they abused me as well. It was endless and horrifying and no one ever knew. No amount of people-pleasing could keep this from happening.

People-pleasing is an art. It requires the psychic ability to read other people’s needs from the smallest of clues: an eye shift, a hand gesture, a change in tone of voice, a withdrawal of attention, a needy or disgruntled expression, an exhale, an inhale, a glare, a deflation, a lost look, a blaming word, or a shame-filled story. It requires constant study, external observation, and the ability to fulfill the needs of others that are unspoken and, most often, unconscious. I knew that other people’s wellness would directly impact all aspects of my life, so I began a career of people-pleasing.

Children choose strategies to deal with situations that are out of their control, and mine was to play the “the good girl.” I formed a personality around the drive to be good in the hopes that it would propel me from the hands of my abusive parents. 

And I was far from alone. In fact, many people respond to childhood trauma in this way, and, in 2013, psychotherapist Pete Walker, M.A, MFT, created the term “fawning” to describe this fourth trauma response when flight, fight, or freeze are not effective. He defines fawning this way in relation to children who suffer certain kinds of abuse: “Servitude, ingratiation, and forfeiture of any needs that might inconvenience and ire the parent become the most important survival strategies available. Boundaries of every kind are surrendered to mollify the parent, as the parent repudiates the…duty of being of use to the child; the child is parentified and instead becomes as multidimensionally useful to the parent as she can: housekeeper, confidante, lover, sounding board, surrogate parent of other siblings, etc.”

There are no adequate words to describe the level of hypervigilance required to fulfill a people-pleasing addiction. The addictive high comes from feeling like you are a good person and you are making up for all that was wrong. If you can love and give enough, you are not like those lost people who hurt you, or the people destroying the planet without conscience, or the perpetrators who haunt you in the long line of your lineage. You work to be better and be good, and this can take up all your time. 

The worst aspect of this addiction is self-incrimination; the sense that I am responsible for people and the world’s pain, and thus the antidote as well. 

Em Rawls, MSW, who identifies as a Black, queer, social worker, says that over-functioning patterns like these often go undetected. “I have found in my work that folks whose trauma responses show up as people-pleasing can often seek out professions where this behavior can manifest harder and even become unhinged in the process,” says Rawls. “People can be labeled as hard workers, loyal, team players, always showing up big for others, and [taking] constructive feedback exceptionally well. While these qualities are true and sincere, I could give an example for each of these descriptions that would point towards a people-pleaser. People don’t question it because they don’t see the meltdowns, the resentments, or the frustrations that are happening.”

In my adult life, my people-pleasing addiction plays out like this: I monitor my partner’s emotional landscape constantly in order to make sure he is at ease, and try to fix it if he isn’t. I worry about my daughter’s well-being to the point of madness. I tune in to friends who need input, attendance, and care before tuning in to my own needs. I over-do, over-think, and over-give. I take responsibility for things that have nothing to do with me, like people’s anger or judgment. I play the mediator to anyone in conflict. I work too much with a mindset of “helping people.” I track literally everyone at group gatherings to make sure no one is upset or needing attention. I step into stressful situations to be of service even when I’m overloaded, burnt out, and have no resources. I am constantly cleaning, cooking, organizing, and tracking details. I am not able to go inward and rest. I keep my focus outward in the name of keeping myself safe. 

People-pleasing gives the illusion of safety because as long as we are attending to others externally, we feel like we are protecting ourselves. This is a child’s attempt to create a sense of safety that eventually becomes the adult’s unconscious compulsion. Safety that exhausts the body. Safety that requires constant action. Safety that is no longer needed because, in most cases, the danger has been long gone.

Trauma therapist, social worker, and survivor, Jackie Humphreys, LICSW, has worked with clients for decades on what she calls “inter-related survival behaviors.” She says, “We pay all of this intricate attention to our environments so we can read when something is dangerous and prepare for it. It doesn’t matter if we are an adult with a full life and not a child being abused anymore, because it is a core part of our survival that we still carry with us. We carry it into the work that we choose, into the intimacy we develop. It impacts our attachment style and how we go into any and all relationships.”

But trauma can’t be stuffed forever, can it? Not in my case. Eventually the agony of the past began to show itself between the cracks of my fabricated persona. I began peeling away at the edges and could barely stay awake from the strain of my injuries. It’s a common story. I broke down and began to remember. My adult life became a mad explosion of memory and horror, cutting through the Herculean efforts of a groomed little girl. My niceness could not hold up against the wreckage of my childhood. The truth of who I was came to find me. It was a long crash and a brilliant rescue. 

I’m 52 years old now. I haven’t seen or spoken to my family of origin in 30 years. Thirty years of intense therapy. Thirty years of recovering brutal memories of incest. Thirty years of finding an unbroken soul beneath the nightmares. Thirty years of building (despite everything) a career, a family, a creative voice, a healed body. Thirty years of training my brain to believe it is safe. Thirty years of dismantling the insidious and gripping need to take care of others at the expense of myself. 

My brain and nervous system have finally come to understand that giving to get is actually not love, it’s control. People-pleasers are not offering love, they are trying to keep you from hurting them. It may look so kind, so sweet, so caring, so generous, but the intention of the giving comes from terror, and that’s no fun for anyone. Of course, there are people who will welcome your caretaking, require your caretaking, and demand to be catered to, but that’s their control pattern. That’s their terror in action.

But you know what’s been my most powerful weapon in this war on people-pleasing? Menopause. Believe it or not, menopause came into my life to burn down the whole damn landscape. She came with a big FUCK YOU. The layers of pretty, pleasing, and popular began cracking off and falling away like hard rock that has finally turned to dust. Was it the hormonal shifts? A release from the male gaze due to the invisibility of aging? Had my brain’s conditioned pathology lost its ability to pretend? Is there some kind of veil that gets lifted when maturity sets into the body? Whatever the reason, I was down for it. I was ready for this graduation.

With menopause, my pattern of self-sacrifice became unbearable. It wasn’t sudden, because I’d been chipping away at my caretaking for a long time, but it created the path to the blessed unraveling. As a result, my entire sense of self has undergone a massive renovation, and the new look is “not my problem,” “not my fault,” and “not my job.” Yep. I’m not as socially acceptable as I used to be by a long shot. I don’t get the same high from making other people feel better. It has finally dawned on me that most problems are not about me. Unless you’re my kid. Or one of my therapy clients during work hours—and even then, I’m just here to love you, not get under the hood with my tools. I can hang with you, but that’s as far I’m willing to go.

I think of this time as the dawning of my true self. Underneath all my impressive and beautiful attempts at feeling powerful is a wise and eager soul, ready to be utilized by the forces of my joyful purpose. Today it is my job to make boundaries, say yes, say no, see clearly, be brave, speak the truth, and let real love have its way with me. 

Giving to get is actually not love, it’s control. People-pleasers are not offering love, they are trying to keep you from hurting them.

Illustration by Yadi Liu

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today! 

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.