How we’re raised as people pleasers

I’ve written before that I’m a fan of Gretchen Rubin and her podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. You might know her from her book The Happiness Project, which is one of those classics that I revisit periodically.

Several years ago, Gretchen wrote another book, The Four Tendencies, that examines what motivates people. She outlines four personality types – Upholder, Questioner, Obliger and Rebel – based on how different people respond to expectations, both external expectations from others as well as internal expectations from ourselves. It’s such a fascinating framework, particularly as you set New Year’s resolutions, raise kids, navigate politics at work and pretty much any other aspect of life that requires interpersonal skills. If you’re curious, you can take the quiz to determine your type here.

Gretchen states that:

  • Upholders want to know what should be done.
  • Questioners want justifications.
  • Obligers need accountability.
  • Rebels want freedom to do something their own way.

As I was taking the quiz, I remember feeling a familiar conflict welling up inside: how we respond to expectations from others, from a sense of duty, from the pressure to put others first. I was a people pleaser for most of my life, but that wasn’t my true nature. I felt trapped, unfulfilled and impotent. If I felt pressured into doing something I didn’t want to or if I worked long hours for a boss I didn’t respect, I lived for mini rebellions like showing up late, missing deadlines or doing something entirely for myself instead. I felt caught yo-yoing between feeling helpless and feeling selfish; during several particularly repressed times in my life, I let the people pleasing go so far that I had to take drastic action to recover (like calling off a wedding, moving to a foreign country, going to a large out-of-state college where I could feel anonymous).

It’s been years since I felt that way, but taking the Four Tendencies quiz took me back to those moments. I felt some unseen pressure to respond the way I was “supposed to” rather than how I actually felt. Because of the work I’ve done to get to know myself over recent years, I know those obligatory “supposed to” answers are not me; they’re a product of my upbringing.

I grew up in a very small, conservative, religious community. I was under constant surveillance and unforgiving scrutiny by adults in the community, and I felt enormous pressure to fit in and not step out of line. The people pleasing started there. The fear of standing out started there. And after almost 20 years of not living in that environment, I still feel its tug. Those are the lingering effects of childhood trauma.

Not surprisingly, the Four Tendencies quiz told me I’m a Rebel. I act from a sense of choice, authenticity and freedom. I don’t rely on others for guidance or power; I get them from within. And my heart breaks for that little girl, that powerful little girl, who was robbed from knowing her own strength for so long.

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