Why Midlife Women Are Feeling Anxious.

Difficulty saying ‘no,’ fear of saying what you really feel, and denying your own needs — these are all signs of people-pleasing. And at midlife this response can lead to feeling lost and disconnected from yourself, and burnt out from tirelessly attending to the needs of others.

What is people-pleasing?

People-pleasing is a behaviour that develops in response to stress or trauma. It is also known as fawning. Most of us are familiar with the first three stress responses – Fight, Flight, Freeze- but less familiar with the fourth – Fawn. Fawning, also called the Please and Appease response, refers to consistently abandoning your own needs to serve others. We do this to avoid conflict, criticism, or disapproval. 

When we resort to fawning or people-pleasing we are using placation as a strategy to protect ourselves from threat. The mostly unconscious rationale behind this response is “If I can appease this person, I can be safe from conflict or pain”. Typically you are so accommodating of the needs of others that you ignore your own. 

How to recognise the Fawn Response 

Behaviours that are consistent with this trauma response include:

  • Over apologizing to others
  • Difficulty saying no
  • Excessively flattering others
  • Going out of your way to please others, even when you don’t want to
  • Neglecting your own needs
  • Pretending to agree with others
  • Being constantly concerned about what others think of you
  • Hesitating to share what you really feel
  • Avoiding disagreement and conflict
  • Being hyper-vigilant of other people
  • Not distancing yourself from people who feel unsafe to be around

How does people-pleasing develop?

At its core people-pleasing stems from our need to belong. Learning how to fit in with our family or community ensures we are protected and provided for. It is therefore essential to our survival, and a great strategy to adopt when we are young and highly dependant on the care of the adults in our world. However when children receive the message that their belonging is contingent on compliance and conformity, rather than being encouraged to develop as an independent individual, their sense of safety is threatened by having their own ideas, beliefs and values.

During your life you may have learned that having boundaries, asserting your needs, and showing your true nature would lead to judgment, blame, rejection, shame and/or separation. Over time, you may have become fearful of disagreement and discord, even when you did not agree with others. Pete Walker, who coined the term fawn response, describes this as “a disorder of assertiveness that causes the individual to attract and accept exploitation, abuse and/or neglect.”

 Whilst these behaviours developed to keep you safe and protected when you were young, they cause much disruption during adulthood, especially during midlife. 

Individuals who grew up in dysfunctional families may have had to be the caregiver to the parent or siblings, the confidante, the mediator or even a parental figure. They develop a habit of prioritising others’ needs over their own, learning that emotional safety is earned by becoming useful to your parent.

When we feel unseen and our own needs are not validated we receive the message that we are not loved and valued for who we are. People-pleasing behaviours stem from a deep belief that we are only worthy when we serve the needs of others. We find giving to others more comfortable than receiving.

The cost of people pleasing at midlife 

During midlife women who have had a long history of people-pleasing can feel exhausted, burnt out, resentful of external demands, and regretful about missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams.

When we reach this stage of life without having given much attention to our own dreams and desires we end up at a destination that was not guided by conscious choices. We may feel dissatisfied with where we currently are in our career, our relationships, our life, but feel stuck and unsure how to change the trajectory. 

After long periods (sometimes a whole lifetime) of prioritising others you may find yourself at a point of weariness and breakdown.  This is a pivotal point. It can be a hugely significant moment of reawakening – waking up to your self, your voice, your life. You recognise you are not content with things the way they are. You realise your dreams and desires have fallen by the wayside somewhere. It finally registers that YOU COUNT!

How to free yourself from people-pleasing

You may initially feel some resentment toward others for what you have missed out on receiving, and disappointment at yourself for sacrificing so much. This can bring with it a sense of grief or loss. And as a result you may want to retaliate and focus solely on yourself in an attempt to regain some lost ground.  But to truly free yourself from people pleasing you need to break the cycle of parenting or rescuing others. Rather than feeling it’s “me OR you”, healthy relationships recognise “me AND you”.

Change is possible, but it requires becoming aware of your blind spots, relearning how to recognise and honour your own needs and finding healthy, productive ways of having them met.

A counsellor can be a valuable travelling partner as you navigate the crossroad that we often face at midlife. Counselling support can also be an important resource in working to resolve a crisis at midlife.


About Michelle Seelig

Michelle Seelig is a Counsellor who specialises in working with women to help them get unstuck, rediscover the joy and meaning in their lives and ultimately grow into the person they were truly meant to become. If you would like some support on your midlife journey  book a Complimentary Discovery Call over here and together we can discuss your unique needs.

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