So this week a TikTok got posted in one of the groups I’m in on Facebook about the oddness of the term “people pleaser.” That TikTok (here it is if you want to see it!) called out how the term gets applied in often strange ways—pointing out that people pleasing implies that someone’s being pleased, for instance, which often isn’t the case. That led my brain down the rabbit hole of all the concepts I teach in my university classes that differentiate the things people often inaccurately connect together when they call someone who is uncomfortable standing up for themselves or others people pleasers, and especially, in a patriarchal society, when that term is applied to women.
The result is in this post. As you’ll see, I think the term people pleasers is too often used to victim blame women for communication patterns they are pushed into by abusers and societal mechanisms. Since this term and topic is really close to what I’m addressing in this Assertive Spirituality project—the question of what assertiveness is, and why we need to work to get better at it—I really enjoyed unpacking this a bit.
Thanks for coming along for the ride. If you do hang in there, I have some thoughts at the end about how we can assertively respond to this communicative mess.
How This Info Might Be Helpful
Whether you’re looking for this info to unpack how people’s labels affect you or others or both, or are thinking more broadly about how these things work in society and relationships, especially when religion complicates that, welcome. I hope it can help you, whether you’re dealing with unhealthy behavior and labels at a family gathering, looking to be assertive online against fascistic mandates that literally hurt women, or for any other (hopefully healthy) purpose.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a pastor’s kid in a right-leaning moderate white Evangelical church who went on to become a communication scholar.
Building on Some Previous Insights From Here
I’ve previously written (here) about how despite the supposedly moderate nature of my childhood denomination, I had internalized so many gaslighting messages about women’s experiences that the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale in my mid-twenties it didn’t seem realistic to me, despite it being based on actual things that had happened to women around the world.
I later wrote (here and here) about how I recognized my own internalization of white supremacist thinking when I realized, after listening to the often-banned 1619 Project book, that it wasn’t just about women around the world, but about enslaved individuals in my own country.
All of these thought processes are highly relevant to my responses to the why and how of calling people people pleasers as the TikTok my friend posted teased it out—at least in my interpretation.
Sooooo Much Conflation Going on Here!
See, what I realized when I was thinking about how often ALL BEHAVIOR related to people who don’t speak up for themselves and others is labeled as those people being people pleasers, there’s a huge amount of conflation going on here.
Are ” People Pleasers ” Who Accommodate to Others Selfish Rebels???? Wait, What???
See, at least as I’ve heard it used, the term people pleaser is often used to characterize anyone who enacts either a fawn stress response or the accommodation style of conflict management as someone who is selfish—only looking out for themselves by the characterized-as-irrational practice the book I teach out of for Interpersonal Communication calls the “fallacy of approval.”
“ People Pleasers ” as Seemingly G*dd*mned Goats?
As a pastor’s kid, I’ve actually heard people from my childhood actually spouting theology about this distinguishing between those who want to please people as the goats in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, whereas those who want to please only God are the ones who are the good sheep in this (in my mind) twisted view of the parable.
Interestingly, this unhealthy interpretation of the parable connected to the people in my upbringing entirely leaves out the part of the passage about how it’s the vulnerable ‘least of these” who need to be cared for, and seen as the image of Christ in human form to others—and therefore cared for.
Not That Way AT ALL When Looking at the Passage in Context
The goats in the actual text, of course, are the ones who aren’t “ people pleasers, ” looking to take care of themselves by looking good to others. On the contrary, in the real passage, they’re the ones who actively avoid including the excluded, vulnerable and marginalized.
In short, both this parable and this particular term imply that people who enact healthily inclusive behaviors, caring for others, are somehow only in it to look good to other humans. (Insert all the eyeroll emojis here). Basically, this view sees all people as unhealthily narcissistic, which simply isn’t true.
Even A Broken Clock and All That…
Now, I’m sure we’ve all known people who do want to do this kind of unhelpfully people pleasing behavior, and we can see how unhealthy performativity can be.
But to take the actual needs of the least of these being cared for out of the passage is frankly vile, not to put too fine a point on it.
Especially when you think about the other motives implied by the other terms I just mentioned for less than assertive behavior. So let me quickly define them, lest you have missed that or forgotten about it since the last time I mentioned them.
Defining and Unpacking the Fawn Stress Response
Let’s start with the first one—the fawn stress response. This stress response is the kind of response to felt threat when you literally befriend the threat.
Like most stress responses, this can be done either healthily or unhealthily. It can keep people safe in things like domestic violence situations or hostage negotiations. But when used long term, it can become literally unhealthy for those in things like domestic violence situations or other abusive situations (enslavement comes to mind) because to stay in these kinds of situations long term is obviously dangerous for people. And it’s not only dangerous because people in those situations are physically in danger–though that is true–but because other research shows us being forced to swallow down healthy anger long term can literally lead to disease. I’ll get to that–give me a minute.
Need More Examples? There Are Books for That!
If you have need for examples of this, I send you to The Handmaid’s Tale or The 1619 Project for examples—or if you’re looking for more contemporary non-fiction examples of unhealthy rhetoric by abusers that takes advantage of this stress response to get women to stay in unhealthy domestic situations, the book Why Does He Do That? By Lundy Bancroft is a great resource.
So yeah, perhaps thinking about that definition might help you understand how characterizing any form of seeking another person’s approval, when situations requiring the fawn response are real and genuine, as “people pleasing” for reasons that are seen to be performative to get others’ approval is, well, vile.
In short, assuming that all people who fawn for good reasons are being people pleasers to only take care of themselves is an especially horrible kind of sin-leveling (I previously talked about this spiritual abuse technique here, among other places).
How the Layers of Spiritual Abuse Make This Garbage Particularly Horrible
And the fact that this is an abuse of a Bible passage that is talking about whether someone is allowed to get into heaven or not makes the characterization of anyone who seeks another person’s approval, when it includes people that genuinely need to fawn to keep themselves alive and safe, so incredibly evil. (I previously talked about how salvation is sometimes weaponized by people in my upbringing here.)
See, this theology from people I grew up with wouldn’t have made room for interpreting the actions of anyone as a fawn response. The one size fits all interpretation of ANY behavior that sought the behavior of humans was automatically because the people were seen as people pleasers.
Well (Claps Hands), Now that That’s Sorted…
So that unwrapped, let’s move on to the other term I mentioned above: the accommodation syle of conflict management. Interestingly, this concept from conflict studies is one of the key things that first started me thinking about founding this project, as I’ve previously discussed several times, including here.
Defining the Accommodation Style of Conflict Management
How to define accommodation from the perspective of conflict studies? Well, the accommodation style of conflict management is sort of what it sounds like—a matter of someone giving in to another person to deal with a conflict. Like its sister concept the fawn response—which is a visceral stress response that is sometimes at play, but not always, when we practice the accommodation conflict style—it can be used well or poorly.
Where Assertiveness Fits In
To complicate matters, it can also be used assertively or non-assertively. If you haven’t read the definitions of assertiveness from the first definitional post on this blog for awhile, assertiveness is conceptualized by scholars as a set of communication behaviors that are neither too passive or too aggressive. In short, it’s behavior that practices the standard best practices behavior of loving another as much as yourself.
So Yeah, There Can Absolutely Be Assertive Uses of Accommodation as a Conflict Style
So yeah, depending on the situation, you may choose to accommodate to another person for the purposes of reasonable short-term self-care and other-care, as in a situation of domestic violence when a women and her children are both at extreme risk if she tries to leave, and that can be a very assertive enactment of this conflict style.
You can also practice accommodation in really helpfully assertive ways if you’re in a place of privilege and need to back down to someone lower than you on the social ladder so you can appropriately hear their views. Or, you know, if you’ve hurt someone or made a real mistake and need to own up to that and change your ways. Or if someone else is right and you’re wrong in a given situation. There are SO MANY appropriate uses of this technique.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the best style. It’s only one style.
The Literally Unhealthy Long-Term Effects of Too Much Societally Required Fawning
See, fawning styles of accommodation, when demanded by abusers or those of societal privilege simply to maintain societal position, can become literally unhealthy for people. There’s an entire swath of stress and trauma research that proves this, including recent research cited by trauma scholar Gabor Mate in a video that’s been going around talking about how 80% of autoimmune diseases are experienced by women because of patriarchal expectations to overaccommodate and repress their anger responses (he talks about this kind of thing more in his book When the Body Says No).
There is all sorts of similar research highlighting the negative effects of long-term expected accommodation by people in groups further down the societal ladder by those who are in charge.
But yes, in light of this, some of the theology I grew up in is hella problematic. Especially since it often highlights the “humility” kind of accommodation as the highest form of conflict style one size fits all solution for all people who want to get to heaven, regardless of where they are on the societal ladder.
Defining Complementarian Theology
And then let’s add in that in complementarian theology, where it’s assumed that men are the natural leaders and women literally seen to be further down the theological ladder with the expectation to ultimately submit to men’s authority…
I might have grown up in a “soft complementarian” theological framework, but yeahhhh, surely you can see how that adds to the complexity here.
Especially when you think about how that implies that “submission to God” is the same thing for women as pleasing specifically male human beings. Who are somehow in charge because they were created with specific body parts?
Back to Those (Seemingly G*ddamned) Goats
So yeah, bringing this back around to the sheep and the goats interpretation I was unpacking above, this brings out an even more evil side of that theological abuse of the term people pleasers, in my view.
See, if you both insist that the goats are the ones who seek people’s approval and the sheep are those who seek God’s approval, and the same theology softly equates men as mouthpieces of God to be submitted to, and anyone “disobedient” as one who accommodates to humans (seemingly ones other than the most privileged men, presumably including those who would fit in the “least of these” categories), wellll……then that’s the exact opposite of what the original passage says.
Especially since the original passage suggests that those in the least privileged positions are to be treated and served AS THOUGH THEY WERE CHRIST, this view just, well… I don’t even have words about how awful this abusive hot take on this biblical passage is.
Breaking Down the Double Binds This Creates Specifically
To further illustrate how awful this is, just think about the double bind this kind of theology would create for the mother and wife in an abusive situation in a Christian home based on all of the above.
What this means is that an abusive husband could be raised up as exemplary as a “natural Christian leader” by this theology while the wife is told that she in trying to submit is both doing the right thing, because in submitting to him she is ostensibly submitting to God (all the eyeroll emojis, once again) AND also being a disobedient sheep if this “mouthpiece of God” decides she’s just trying to please him rather than God.
And then just imagine how it would be taken if nothing she does seems to please him, which is often the way with abusers.
Circling ALL the Way Back to that TikTok
Well, to circle back ALL THE way to the TikTok my friend posted this week, well, too often this kind of abusive man may take the idea of women and other “submissive” people as ONLY people pleasers—which let’s be clear, is where this whole patriarchal idea came from, rather than from the Bible, if viewed objectively in context—to layer on the spiritual abuse dynamics in the situation, creating a whole bunch of double binds for the abused woman.
See, not only in this instance is the woman expected to submit to him as though she were submitting to God, but since the man is ALSO expected to “humbly” see himself as “only a man and not God” her behavior is ALSO seen to be goat-like “people-pleasing” behavior AT THE SAME TIME.
I could unpack even more layers of this monstrous theology, but that’s enough for tonight.
So Wait, Let’s Be Clear: People Pleasing Isn’t a Term from Biblical Times or Cultures
Let’s just be clear that this idea of women as “ people pleasers ” in a negative sense—and the conflation between reasonable fawn responses and accommodation and “people pleasing” in no way actually came from the Bible.
I know this because people pleasers is, well, a term in English. And while the first usage of it, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, goes back to the year 1550, this idea is, well, incredibly Western and individualist in origin.
As opposed, you know, to the Bible, which was written mostly into a Middle Eastern collectivist cultural context.
Soooo Yeah, Let’s Not Impose Western Individualist Culture on a Book Spoken Into a Collectivist One….
Let’s say that again—if you grew up in a culture that is collectivist, like those in biblical times and places, things that are derogatorily referred to in Western individualist cultures as “people pleasing” are seen much more positively. And, well, just very differently. Because views of conflict styles vary a lot across cultures.
While I don’t have time to go far down that pathway, I thought it was really important to mention that. Let me say it again: the Bible in its text is complex and problematic in an awful lot of aspects for us to think through from any perspective, sure—but importantly, imposing Western individualist ideas on it is not going to get us far at all.
Summing it Up a Bit For You
At any rate, I’m pretty much out of steam for today, so I’ll leave it there for now.
I hope I’ve made clear at least some of the complexly problematic things that happen especially when women get called people pleasers without any regard to other views of accommodative or reasonably fawning behavior.
And how especially in complementarian religious contexts, even in “soft complementarianism,” views like those I’ve described above can create a seven-layer-dip-like pile of layers of various angles of emotional and spiritual abuse onto women trapped in domestically violent households.
Looking for Context? Here Are Some Places to Find It!
If you need more details of how this works in the white Evangelical church, specifically, I refer you to the book Jesus and John Wayne for the broader rhetorical context or the documentary Shiny Happy People on Amazon Prime for how this kind of toxic theology is applied in even more fundamentalist denominations than I grew up in.
The Crux of the Matter, as I See It
What I know is this—“people pleasing” is a rather victim-blaming term in a lot of situations in the English-speaking Western world.
I think we should use it sparingly, if at all, for either ourselves and others.
Can We Please Avoid Shaming Ourselves and Others for This Stuff???
I also think we should not shame ourselves and others, especially those in vulnerable populations, when they are trapped in situations where accommodation and/or fawning is societally mandated for them.
It’s important to note here something I tell the students in my classes all the time—which is that when our neurobiology deploys a stress response, it’s doing it to try to keep us safe.
Sometimes it does it in counterproductive ways, mind you. The many many double-binds fo the mother in a domestic abuse situation is a great illustration of that. Stress responses that keep us safe in the moment may expose us to more harm and danger down the road.
Let’s Think About the WWII Resistance Example, Shall We?
But fawning itself can be helpful or unhelpful depending on the situation. If the domestic violence example doesn’t help you out, think of how Resistance operatives in totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany often needed to at least pretend to comply in order to keep themselves and others safe.
When looking at these kinds of actions in retrospect, the people I grew up with lauded them. And yet, there was simultaneously also these complex views of “people pleasing” I just described.
In retrospect, I can see how Christian views of non-violent resistance were also coopted in similar ways—but should I have the energy for it a different day, that is an entirely different post.
Can We Please Stand Up Against Unhealthy Abuses of the Term People Pleaser Where We’re Able, Please?
I hope at least we can fight unhealthy uses of the phrase people pleaser after this discussion, whether we see them applied unhealthily to others or to ourselves. Especially when religious concepts are invoked, but also in secular ones.
I really will leave you there for now.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! May we all continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to stand up assertively against the toxic crap, wherever it makes good sense, toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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