Why Am I a People-Pleaser?

drawing of a brain and a person looking at each other. The brain is asking if the person is their mommy as a representation of attachment theoryThere is a deep-down knowing place that I was not in a good space mentally and emotionally. Knowing that I was not in a good place did not help as much as I would have thought. I need to know the ‘why’ behind things. What I was aware of were what I think of as the surface reasons. I am a people-pleaser, and I had overextended myself (true statement), and in doing so, I was running myself ragged and not taking care of myself.

But the overextending wasn’t the cause of what was going on with me. Those things were the result of something else,  something on a deeper level. To figure out what that deeper, real cause was, I had to begin to look back on my life.

Our lives and the things that we experience in our lives bring us to where we are today. We don’t wake up one day feeling that we are in a downward spiral and are in the darkness that we can’t escape from. Sure, I can trace the cause of who I am today back to an abusive childhood. But even that doesn’t really explain, at least not to me, what is happening.

The question I have is, what about my childhood laid the groundwork for a lifelong of unhealthy people-pleasing?

Attachment to Caregiver

To answer that question, I sought answers via Google as none of these areas are my area of expertise. What I found is that there are theories from different areas of the sciences. The first theory I came across is attachment and the theory around it. Attachment is defined as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.”1 Attachment theory is the emotional bond that forms between infant and caregiver and is how an infant gets primary needs met.2 Okay, great, but how does that happen? 

To answer how attachment to a caregiver occurs, we have to go to the discipline of neuroscience. Neuroscientists discovered that our brains are hardwired to attach to the caregiver from birth. They also believe that there is are specific networks of neurons dedicated to ensuring attachment to a caregiver. These early experiences of the infant stimulate brain growth and will have lifelong effects. (1) All of that predisposed brain wiring is purely for survival, so that it would seem. A human infant is helpless when born, and that infant has to attach to someone to take care of them. 

The programming for a child to attach to a caregiver sounds like a great idea from an evolutionary standpoint, and it is. The dark side with attachment is an infant will attach to their caregiver no matter the quality of care.

If the infant is lucky enough to have a caregiver that provides for their basic needs, attachment occurs. If the infant has a caregiver who does not care for their basic needs, or worse, abuses the infant, attachment still occurs.

Our Brains Are Wired for Attachment

For personal reasons, I was fascinated by the fact that an infant will attach to a caregiver no matter the level of care. What goes on that the infant does not turn away from the abusive caregiver? The need to attach to a caregiver is for survival. So, an abusive caregiver should be identified as dangerous by the infant’s brain. Abuse, to me, is very anti-survival. I would think that the infant’s brain would recognize that and turn away from the caregiver.  But it doesn’t work that way.

Drawing of a brain with pigtails pointing to a blackboard the reads 'A Moment in Science'Our brains hold the key to why an infant still attaches to the abusive or neglectful caregiver. Within our brains, it is the amygdala that has the answer. Yes, that almond-shaped structure in our brain, our most basic fight or flight response center, is one of the structures that keep infants attaching to abusive caregivers.

If the amygdala’s job is to protect us, what happens in infancy when a caregiver is abusive? The signal strength decreases as the sensory neurons carry the messages to the amygdala. Researchers believe that the decreasing of the signals is due to the increased stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol can affect the development of neurons (the primary messaging relay centers in the brain). Therefore, the amygdala receives a muted message that doesn’t trigger the amygdala’s response process.3

Abuse-Related Attachment

The attachment to an abusive caregiver that starts as an infant continues through a child’s young life. At least that was my experience.  I remember having a strong need to maintain and protect the relationship I had with my caregiver, even though that relationship was abusive.  I wonder if that has something to do with the amygdala not getting the full signal, and therefore did not react. It turns out there may be something to that thought.   

Our brains are continually learning about the world around us. For our brains to learn, specific parts of our brain, like the amygdala, need to receive information.  In the case of abuse-related attachment, the amygdala does not receive a strong enough signal to react. Therefore, our brain does not learn. Even though there is some level of stress and anxiety because the stress hormone cortisol is why the amygdala does not receive a strong enough signal to learn

The effects of the inability of the brain to learn are lifelong. I have written about how stress and anxiety change the way brains develop. Abuse-related attachment is no different, and it occurs during one of the most formative times for our brains. It is more detrimental because, during infanthood, the brain is continuously seeking new information. The brain is building neural networks to process and store that information for later use.

Lifelong Effects on Abuse-Related Attachment

There are two lifelong effects that I am thinking about for me in regards to abuse-related attachment. One is hypervigilance. I “learned” that the world is a dangerous place. I wonder if, in part because I never felt safe? I don’t know. I wish I could access my infant memories and know for sure how the relationship with my caregiver was.

I know that I felt worthless and not good enough my whole life. Those feelings don’t come from thin air. They come from learned experience or something that wasn’t learned correctly, like abusive-attachment. When the person who is supposed to protect you and make you feel safe doesn’t do that, the world does turn into a very bleak and dangerous place. Children at very young ages can contemplate and act on suicidal thoughts. There is a reason for that.

The relationship that I had with my caregiver was the beginning of my brain being more susceptible to PTSD, depression, anxiety, and probably other things that I haven’t discovered yet. I did spend most of my life self-medicating and self-numbing with alcohol.

Many of these discoveries are ones that I have made recently. It isn’t easy to turn inward and look at myself or look at my life to find what patterns are there. Those patterns will lead me to answers that will help me to make myself whole for the first time in my life.

Sources Cited

 

  1. Kendra Cherry. (July 17, 2019). What is Attachment Theory?com. Retrieved December 7, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attachment-theory-2795337
  2. Attachment. Psychologytoday.com. Retrieved December 5, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/attachment
  3. Regina M. Sullivan. (August, 2012). The Neurobiology of Attachment to Nurturing and Abusive Caregivers. The Hastings law journal 63,6 (2012): 1553-1570. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3774302/
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