“We need to acknowledge where things like shorthand and ‘clickbait’ are working against people’s healing.”
In March of 2019, I logged onto the social media platform formerly known as Twitter (RIP) to share something I had recently learned that shifted everything for me: The existence of a lesser-known trauma response known as “fawning.”
A close look at the time stamps on those tweets will tell you, I was writing these thoughts in real time. It wasn’t planned in advance, with the aim of generating engagement or accelerating some kind of discourse. I had no idea that the phrase “fawning,” originally coined by therapist and survivor Pete Walker years prior, was going to continue to blow up online in the months and years that followed.
Instead, I was actively processing this information alongside my followers, many of whom were, like me, survivors of complex trauma.
I found so much validation and clarity when I was able to contextualize my people-pleasing as a trauma response, and — having seen the waves it created on Twitter — I went on to write several articles about the fawn response, eager to extend that kind of support and insight to others who might be empowered by this language, too.
“Everyone deserves to show up as their authentic selves, and to be met with love, honor, and protection,” I explained. “And the incredible thing about healing from trauma is that this is a gift we can learn to give ourselves, little by little, a day at a time.”
Like Pete Walker’s work had done for me (and so many others), I wanted to plant a seed of hope for survivors.
So how, exactly, did the discourse go from “this is a trauma response and you deserve to heal” to these punchy, weirdly aggressive 60-second TikToks telling people-pleasers that what they actually need is “tough love,” and that they are, in fact, selfish, manipulative liars?
It’s been disorienting to witness what could have been an empowering conversation for survivors pivot so sharply into something else entirely.
It’s 2023 now, and while I don’t know how Pete Walker feels about all this (hopefully he’s fully logged off at this point), I can confidently say this: Some of y’all have lost the plot.
For starters: Are we all talking about the same thing?
When I first started to unravel this conversation, I began by picturing a word cloud. It included all the clinical-sounding terms that, while they weren’t clearly defined, kept appearing in this content, along with the assumption that everyone more or less understood what they meant.
And it became obvious that, while it appears we’re all having the same conversation, we actually aren’t. Even creators who shared the same thesis had wildly different ideas of what things like “manipulation,” “people-pleasing,” “trauma response,” and “abuse” even mean.
It would be much easier to just pick my personal definitions and construct an argument that way, but that’s actually part of the problem: So many content creators are using “therapy speak” without acknowledging that there are disagreements in how these terms are defined, and without examining how their personal definitions are rooted in their own assumptions, rather than an objective reality that everyone shares.
While I would love to skip right to the fun part, where I swiftly deconstruct these arguments — trust me, I know that a lot of people reading came here for exactly that reason and that reason alone — I think we need to slow down and get a shared understanding of what these words mean.
Because without that shared understanding, we’re not even having the same conversation.
Manipulation: I don’t think that means what you think it means…
Nothing demonstrates this tension better than the fast and loose usage of the word “manipulation.”
When I started my research for this article, I found myself reviewing dozens of sources, trying to pin down what the word “manipulation” really means.
For many of the content creators who have decided that people-pleasing is manipulation, their definitions are vaguely similar: It’s when someone is influencing another person in a negative way, and gains an advantage from doing so.
That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But as you can probably guess, it’s not actually that simple.
Vague definitions like these leave me with a lot of questions, like:
- Who determines what an “advantage” is, especially in a relational context?
- What does an “advantage” look like (and how achievable is it) where power imbalances exist?
- What does it mean to “influence” someone, and when does it become harmful?
- If we are all technically influencing one another to some extent, have most of us (if not all of us) engaged in manipulation?
- And can manipulation be unintentional, or does it always involve conscious intent?
We’ll dive into all of those questions, but I want to start with the last one, about conscious intent, because it comes up a lot in this particular conversation.
Take the American Psychological Association’s definition of manipulation, for example. This was the first source I went to, because, seeing as this is a conversation about mental health (and some of the creators making this content are clinicians themselves), it felt like a logical starting point.
The APA writes that manipulation is “behavior designed to exploit, control, or otherwise influence others to one’s advantage.”
I want to zoom in on the part where manipulation is described as being “designed.” This feels important to acknowledge, because “designed” assigns a kind of intent: Namely, that manipulation, on some level, is strategic and on purpose.
I think this is where some of the disconnect stems from when we talk about people-pleasing and manipulation.
In much of the content that I saw, there was this (often unspoken) assumption that manipulation can actually be unintentional or accidental. But who decided that?
Even in the fields of psychology and moral philosophy, there is still major disagreement about what actually constitutes manipulative behavior, and no unified agreement about whether or not manipulation requires conscious effort.
In fact, as early as 1992, researchers have openly been calling for clarification around whether or not manipulation actually can be accidental, and have questioned the overall usefulness of this idea of “unconscious manipulation.”
And it makes sense to question the utility of that, doesn’t it? Why would we conflate accidentally harming someone with deliberately exploiting someone? Why are we using the same exact word to describe two very different dynamics?
I’m left wondering: What is the function of using a catch-all word like “manipulation,” especially in a quick TikTok or Instagram graphic, where nuance is so easily lost?
Is it harm — and could it even be abuse?
The one thing we all seem to agree on, as far as I can tell, is this: Manipulation is a charged word.
Whether you believe manipulation involves conscious intent or not, there is some agreement that you can glean from virtually every source: Manipulation is harmful, and seems to involve some element of overpowering and/or exerting control.
Merriam-Webster, for example, uses words like “control,” “unfair,” and “insidious” to describe what manipulation (in the context of human relationships) is. Cambridge Dictionary characterizes manipulation much the same way, noting that it is “control” achieved through “dishonesty” and “unfairness.”
It’s also worth noting that quite a few of the dictionaries I looked at referenced powerful, ominous forces like “the media” and tyrannical governments as their examples, and some even alluded to crimes like fraud, to better contextualize what manipulation looks like in practice.
To be clear, I’m less interested in dictionaries as some ultimate source of truth, but I think what they can offer is a general impression of how most people understand this word. It tells us a lot about what people might feel when they hear the word.
And clearly, manipulation is not a morally neutral thing for most people. It’s consistently framed as being wrong, unethical, and even criminal.
When we’re talking about the field of psychology specifically — which is the implied framing for this type of content — the terms “psychological manipulation” and “emotional manipulation” go further than vague ideas of dishonesty and control. They are most often defined with some element of conscious intent, and are understood to be abusive.
Experts seem to agree that when emotional or psychological manipulation becomes a pattern of behavior in a relationship, it enters the realm of emotional abuse, meaning it is a tactic strategically employed to maintain control and power in a relationship.
And this is where things really start to go off the rails.
If patterned manipulation is emotional abuse, and creators are arguing that people-pleasing is manipulation, it’s not a stretch to guess that — even if a creator never directly calls people-pleasing “abusive” — their audience may absorb that as a takeaway, especially in the absence of clarity.
I’ve also seen content that suggests that people-pleasing is a form of abuse or, at minimum, an aspect of narcissistic personality disorder. New language has been coined to that end, using phrases like “strategic people-pleasing,” “narcissistic people-pleasing,” and “pathological charmers” to further muddy the waters. I've also seen it repeatedly mixed up with tactics like love bombing.
I believe this is why this discourse has become so inflammatory.
The vague use of the word “manipulation” in this context, where abuse survivors are seemingly being implicated as both victims and perpetrators, has devolved because of the over-reliance on shorthand — which sometimes feels provocative by design.
If this ambiguity seems dicey to you, too, you’d be right. I think it’s gone from being a "spicy but misguided hot take" to, in some cases, being actively harmful (but more on that later).
So what is the ‘correct’ definition of manipulation?
That header is a trick question. Sorry! I don’t think it’s my role to choose the definition I personally think is best.
We don’t need to all agree on the definition of manipulation, at least for the purposes of this conversation. I leave that debate to the philosophers, psychologists, and other brainiacs who enjoy getting into the weeds of this.
But this lack of agreement, and the failure to acknowledge it, betrays the fact that many of us are approaching this conversation from different starting points and with some very big, unspoken assumptions.
There’s the camp of “people-pleasing involves accidental harm,” another of “people-pleasing is intentional deceit,” and a whole spectrum of opinions that invoke the language of abuse and “toxicity” in some attempt to hold people-pleasers “accountable.”
(If many of these words are starting to feel more like flimsy psychobabble, I'm glad for that — I think we should be interrogating how these words are being used.)
Differing opinions or definitions here aren’t inherently problematic, but it is murky when folks are trying to capture very different ideas by using identical shorthand: People-pleasing is manipulation.
This means that audiences, too, are walking away with vastly different understandings of what’s really being said. And they’re left to fill in the blanks with their own assumptions, without being invited to examine those assumptions, too.
Creators can’t be responsible, of course, for every single projection and interpretation that stems from their content. But I think it’s fair to ask: What were you actually hoping to achieve here?
I worry that the only thing people seem to collectively grasp after engaging with this content is that people-pleasing — whatever that even means, in whatever context it’s happening within — is always bad and wrong. Which makes me question how helpful the conversation is to begin with.
I know that a debate about semantics is not going to fit nicely into an Instagram caption or quick video. And I wouldn’t expect a content creator to give me the history of the word “manipulation” and all the ethical quandaries that I’ve outlined here.
But I’d argue that this points to a larger problem with mental health content, especially on social media: We’re all using shorthand, often without even acknowledging that it’s shorthand.
And alarmingly, the shorthand we’re using starts to sound authoritative and persuasive because it’s often clinical language.
In that way, someone’s vague opinion is now being framed as an indisputable fact, masquerading as being based in psychology. This becomes even more problematic when you consider that some of these content creators are, themselves, mental health or adjacent professionals.
Of course, there are plenty of valid cases where shorthand can make complex topics more accessible. You’ll see plenty of it in my own content. But I’d argue that in this case? All this shorthand really does is oversimplify a deeply complex (and emotionally charged) conversation.
And I think it might be time to take a peek under the bus, just to see who we threw underneath it while we were busy formulating our hot takes.
What The Discourse™ (still) gets wrong about people-pleasing
As I dove deeper into this conversation, I found it interesting how there was this consistent, unacknowledged shadow in the background. This idea of a “manipulator” — the stand-in “Bad Guy” — who just became an empty placeholder at best and a villain at worst.
For years now, commenters have gone back and forth about whether or not “manipulation” can ever be a neutral term. But the very fact that we’re still arguing about this tells you there’s something to the idea that many, many people do not view it as being neutral at all, which calls into question its overall usefulness as a term.
And most, if not all of the creators putting this content out into the world are aware of this tension. In fact, some are counting on it to drive engagement.
“Manipulation” can start to feel like this hollow, scarecrow-like character, propped up as the example of who you don’t want to be. At times, it felt like some of these creators were trying to terrify or shame people into unlearning a very legitimate trauma response, which is truly ironic, because trauma responses themselves are based in fear.
Having spent countless hours sifting through the comments on several platforms, it started to feel like folks were really asking each other, “How ashamed should someone be of this behavior?”
I’m not going to define manipulation in this article — at least, not in the “one true definition” sense. I’m more interested in the ways it’s been kept deliberately vague by some creators, and why.
More often than not, I’ve seen it being used as a device in this discourse, intended to provoke an emotional response, without much consideration around the impact of doing so.
That impact is what I want to zoom in on next. I want to unpack some of the assumptions being made about people-pleasing, especially as it relates to trauma. And in doing so, I hope it becomes a little clearer why this conversation needs a more thoughtful approach.
First thing’s first: What is a ‘trauma response’?
I fried my brain recently writing another article about what a trauma response is, how the concept continues to evolve, and highlighted that — despite the phrase becoming more popularized — there is even less agreement on what actually qualifies as a “trauma response.”
And like many of the other buzzwords floating around in this conversation, it is (once again) unclear if we’re all using this phrase the same way.
For the purposes of this article, though, I do want to offer a working definition. We’re going to define a “trauma response” as a reflexive coping mechanism which emerges in response to a (perceived or “real”) lack of safety.
And, more specifically, the recurring and persistent lack of safety that is triggered by situations that are reminiscent of past traumas.
Trauma responses seem to have a few key things in common:
- They stem from unconscious conditioning (rather than being chosen)
- They are fear-based
- They emerge in triggering situations (meaning, they are in response to trauma or something reminiscent of past trauma), and…
- They are driven by a need for safety and survival
The most well-known trauma responses are fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (sometimes called appease). But as I outlined in this piece, there are (potentially) limitless others.
So what is ‘fawning’ and is that a trauma response, too?
In very simple terms, fawning is a trauma response in which the individual is driven to appease others when they are triggered.
But it helps to go a little deeper, because fawning isn’t just doing something to get someone to like you or get them off your back — it involves a very specific state of body and mind.
Pete Walker, in his work The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex Trauma, wrote that “Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.”
The forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. Put that in your pocket. We’ll be coming back to that.
As I wrote in my previous piece, I would also add, “[Fawning is] better understood as self-abandonment, in which the person who is triggered becomes singularly focused on meeting the needs and expectations of others in order to diffuse the threat and reestablish the illusion of safety, often to their own detriment.”
This idea of “self-abandonment” will become especially important later on, too, so set that one aside as well.
Are 'people-pleasing,' 'appeasement,' and ‘fawning’ all the same thing?
If you’re as deep into this discourse as I am, you’ve probably noticed already that these terms have been used interchangeably by some, and treated as separate concepts by others.
And honestly? There isn’t necessarily a “right” or unified answer — it really depends on who you ask. Again, that’s why this conversation has become so complex.
Many of the creators who are fueling this discourse haven’t made their own position on this very clear. The ambiguity around this often means that, in many cases, we don’t really know if these creators are considering trauma survivors in these conversations, or if they mean something more general, like “people who are conflict avoidant” or “people who do nice things and expect nice things in return.”
While it’s debatable that not everyone who engages in people-pleasing is doing so from a place of trauma, it is about an unmet need (usually for relational safety), and it’s impossible to talk about people-pleasing without acknowledging just how prolific it is amongst trauma survivors in particular.
Some argue that people-pleasing and fawning are synonymous; others argue that fawning refers to people-pleasing that happens to a more extreme and “clinically significant” degree, and involves the total loss of “self.”
Some people are adamant that while not all people-pleasing is fawning, all fawning is people-pleasing; others do not consider them to be distinct from each other at all.
As if that weren't complicated enough, it's important to note, too, that others have reintroduced the concept of "appeasement" to this conversation, in an effort to more accurately describe the distinctly submissive behaviors that show up in the context of trauma, arguing that fawning may refer to more codependent behaviors.
While I don't use the word "appeasement" this way in the article, it's largely because my first introduction to this conversation came directly from Pete Walker's book, which is the foundation I'm building on as a writer and survivor.
That said, I am totally supportive of folks who find the appeasement versus fawning distinction to be helpful. You may also find that appeasement is a more appropriate word for what I go on to describe in this article.
I also highly recommend Rae Johnson and Nkem Ndefo's work in this space, as it helps lift this conversation out of the context of childhood abuse (which fawning is often situated in) and highlights the systemic nature of trauma, particularly for oppressed groups (which resonates for me as well, particularly as a survivor who is neurodivergent and transgender).
All that said, there seems to be a general agreement that people-pleasing and fawning exists on a shared spectrum, or at least under a similar umbrella.
This suggests to me that the differences between them — if there are any — are more about the degree, frequency, and “severity” of these behaviors, rather than differing in more substantive things like motivation, intent, and self-concept.
I’ll be using them somewhat interchangeably in this article, which I recognize is imperfect, but I don’t think it meaningfully impacts the overall message here.
Know that, when I say “people-pleasing,” I’m referring to the spectrum of behaviors that fall under the umbrella of self-abandonment, motivated by a relational need for safety.
What feels most important to grasp about all this — at least, in the context of this conversation — is that no matter how you choose to define it, you can’t really talk about people-pleasing without implicating trauma survivors when you do.
And I’ll be upfront: If you don’t agree with that premise, the rest of this read might frustrate you. Just being honest!
Because, to me, where I think this discourse of “people-pleasing is manipulation” fails the most is that it often isn’t trauma-informed.
Is people-pleasing actually a choice?
What we know about trauma responses is that they are not conscious or chosen — at least, not at first. They are a part of the unconscious conditioning that emerges from traumatic experiences. Nothing about trauma responses are “on purpose” or “designed.”
Some of the creators (very important note: not all) who are framing people-pleasing as manipulation repeatedly suggest that those who are engaging in it are trying very deliberately to achieve some kind of influence over the other person — mostly to impact how we are perceived, for our own “benefit.”
But I don’t think it’s that simple or that calculated. That would require a level of conscious effort that the person who is triggered likely doesn’t have access to, especially if they haven’t received any kind of support that would help them become more aware of their trauma responses.
In fact, I can think of many instances in which people-pleasing behavior isn't "rational" or beneficial at all. A basic example from my own life that comes to mind is the first time I got my hair professionally bleached and dyed.
Despite the fact that the bleach being used was far too strong for my scalp, I was so shocked by the pain and consumed by the fear of inconveniencing my stylist that I didn’t speak up.
I experienced a pretty serious chemical burn, and I almost passed out before my stylist finally noticed that the bleach needed to be washed out.
For weeks after, I was pulling scabs from my hair, completely confused as to why I had let myself endure so much pain rather than simply ask if we could wash it out and try an alternative.
This drive to be smaller and unobtrusive, sometimes to a seemingly irrational and even self-destructive extent, is a key feature of fawning.
It’s important to remember that for many trauma survivors, our bodies aren’t always able to distinguish between harm caused by a safe person and harm caused by an unsafe person. All our bodies know is that we must be in danger, and they react accordingly.
To this day, I still have to coach myself to speak up in situations where I am being harmed, even when I am technically “safe” to do so. Unlearning this kind of conditioned response is a process, and it isn’t a quick one, despite what self-help gurus on TikTok may lead you to believe.
Examples like this are what makes the “people-pleasing is manipulation” discourse so confusing to me: Can we really look at situations like this one and conclude that I was being manipulative, by any definition? Can we really say that I was being “selfish”? Where is the “advantage” that I gained? And why would I willingly and consciously choose to endure this kind of unnecessary pain?
It did not benefit me, at all, to endure a chemical burn. I certainly didn’t kick back in my chair and think, “I bet I’ll get a discount on this haircut if I let him burn me.”
It took him twenty minutes before he finally looked more closely at my head and exclaimed, in a total panic, “I think you’re bleeding!” He felt terrible when he finally realized what had happened, and was baffled that I either didn’t notice the pain or didn’t speak up about it.
Neither of us walked away from that encounter feeling good. No one “won” here, and if I had any real agency in that situation, I never would’ve chosen to go along with it.
But as it was happening, all I knew was that I was too overwhelmed to get the words out.
That’s one of the most disorienting parts of engaging in fawning or people-pleasing: We are often so fixated on the other person involved, we can’t locate our authentic selves.
So many of us who fawn have spent many years looking back and asking ourselves: Why didn’t I say something? Why did I do that?
I have connected with thousands of people who identify as having a fawn (or appease) response in the years since I wrote that original Twitter thread. And repeatedly, I’ve seen fawning described as being automatic, unthinking, confusing, and above all else, painful.
I’ve heard survivors say that it feels as if they “blacked out,” or that it sometimes resembles an out-of-body experience, where they watched themselves say “yes” without any kind of awareness that what they really wanted to say was “no.” (I have experienced this, too, most memorably in the context of a sexual assault — and for years, I blamed myself for what happened.)
For people who fawn as a trauma response, there is such a deep enmeshment with others that we simply can’t access our own sense of self, especially in contexts that feel unsafe or dangerous.
This is part of what makes this “people-pleasing is manipulation” discourse so harmful. It flattens the experience of the person who is people-pleasing, discarding any and all meaningful context, and ignores what we know about how trauma responses work.
A lot of folks still struggle to understand that many of us who are people-pleasing aren’t deliberately choosing this. Like any other trauma response, the individual is unlikely to have a high level of awareness — or, in some cases, any awareness at all — that they are engaging in this response.
Of course, that doesn't dismiss any harm to others that may result from engaging in that response. But it feels important to make the distinction, because while impact matters, intention can also help inform us about whether or not repair is truly possible in that relationship.
Even if you believe that people-pleasing is sometimes chosen or intentional, that’s fine! But there is no denying that there are plenty of contexts in which it isn’t.
Which makes this discourse far too reductionist to be accurate or even appropriate for every context it's attempting to speak to, and from what I've seen, can feel very dismissive to trauma survivors in particular.
Fawning can be harmful, but is it abusive?
What you won’t hear me argue with is whether or not fawning (or people-pleasing) can be harmful to others.
It can be incredibly hurtful when a friend keeps saying “yes” when they really mean “no.” It can be hurtful when we discover that our partner made a promise to us only because they felt pressured to. And it can hurt — really, really hurt — when we realize that someone was being nice to us in part because they were afraid of what would happen if they weren’t.
And for some individuals who people-please (but it’s important to note, not all), they may later direct some resentment or anger toward the person they were trying to appease. With the right support, that anger and resentment can lead to a breakthrough! So I'm by no means saying that this emotion should be shamed away or suppressed.
But being the recipient of that resentment and anger can be incredibly damaging, and can greatly impact that person’s ability to trust someone’s “yes” (or trust someone at all).
In that sense, by no means is people-pleasing always harmless. In my experience, trauma responses rarely are.
I also agree that it’s important for people who engage in some form of people-pleasing to examine the impact of those behaviors on others when it is safe for them to do that work. Not from a place of shame, but rather, a place of curiosity, honesty, open-heartedness, and a desire to grow.
(Guiding people who fawn back to their own values is a powerful part of healing — but that work should be approached with compassion and intention, in supportive and safe relationships.)
While we can and should acknowledge that people-pleasing can harm other people, I would still urge us not to conflate people-pleasing with emotional abuse.
If we remove all context, fawning could be seen as influencing someone to gain an advantage, even if that advantage is as well-intentioned as personal safety. However, when we’re talking about any kind of emotional abuse, we need to acknowledge the underlying motivations, which can be hard to identify without some context: power and control.
Does someone who’s fawning gain power and control in the process of doing so? I’m not so sure.
Fawning is less about purposefully exerting control or overpowering another person, and more about relinquishing your own control and agency, by unconsciously adopting someone else’s narrative or complying with someone else’s (stated or assumed) desires.
At the risk of oversimplifying, I’ve heard it described this way: Abuse is understood to be a form of dominance, while fawning can be seen as a form of submission.
In this sense, fawning can be distinctly disempowering, and people who fawn are often more vulnerable to being overpowered and controlled precisely because they have, in a sense, relinquished their own agency and suppressed their own desires.
Fawning can unintentionally harm others in some situations, but it’s also important to understand that it can be experienced as a form of self-harm, too, because it involves divorcing oneself from all desire and autonomy, usually to a highly distressing extent. Both can be true.
While it’s outside of the scope of this particular article, there are also arguments to be made for how reflexive behaviors like masking in neurodivergent people and code-switching in people of color can be viewed through the lens of fawning (or appeasement) and trauma, making context all the more important here.
But by adopting the “people-pleasing is manipulation” narrative, we might be erasing these complexities, and along with it, the harm, disempowerment, and even outright abuse that survivors themselves may be experiencing when they engage in this trauma response.
Who really holds the power and control?
Abuse is ultimately about exerting one’s influence, power, and control, but fawning is not as straightforward: we may be influencing the other person through our behaviors, but in the process, it’s difficult to say that we’re ever fully in control or empowered.
Remember those ideas I told you to keep in your pocket? Let’s pull them out: As Pete Walker said before, fawning is forfeiture. And as I mentioned, fawning is self-abandonment.
To me, forfeiture does not sound like power. And to me, self-abandonment does not sound like control. That may just be my opinion, but it’s one I feel quite strongly about.
With fawning, we are motivated by a need to make ourselves smaller and non-threatening, and in that sense, we are actually in a state of surrender and total compliance. As I mentioned before, this requires that we sever any connection to our own self, autonomy, or desire.
Dominance and compliance are two completely different power dynamics — most would call them opposites. One is exploiting someone else’s vulnerabilities, while the other is making that person more vulnerable.
Whether or not someone chooses to exploit the vulnerability that comes with people-pleasing does not change the fact that someone engaging in people-pleasing is often incredibly disarmed.
That severing of connection to self does not offer the same “advantage” (especially in the context of power and control) that something like emotional abuse does. In fact, fawning is, in some ways, a massive risk.
This is also why trauma survivors who have experienced extreme forms of control and emotional abuse are so often people-pleasers: They have confused self-abandonment with safety, and obedience with protection.
Put another way, I don't think we can have a responsible conversation about manipulation and people-pleasing without putting it in the context of power dynamics.
An example of this that I think most folks are familiar with is a student who is diligently following the classroom rules, to the point of great distress and anxiety.
Would we say that, by following those rules, the student is “manipulating” their teacher into liking or praising them? Or even to try and secure a better grade?
Or would we say that it’s a little more complicated?
I think most of us would look at the power dynamic between them (does the student really have the ability to consent to those rules, for example, or consent to a system in which grades have tangible consequences for their future?) and that student’s emotional context (are they driven by fear of consequences, or an authentic desire — and what is “authenticity” in this context?), and would reframe those behaviors as being more like compliance or obedience.
In that sense, context does matter when it comes to people-pleasing. Having an “influence” on someone else does not inherently mean that you hold power or control over them.
Consider, too, that this example is actually not unlike the dynamic that trauma survivors are locked into and unconsciously repeating.
They are trying to comply with what they assume are still “the rules” — rules that were written a long time ago, in deeply traumatic situations and systems that they did not consent to.
For many, they haven’t had the opportunity to learn and integrate another way of relating. Some have not had access to safe relationships, and some are still trying to get their bodies and brains to align, so that safety isn't just known but, instead, viscerally felt.
And many folks who experience oppression may, realistically, not have access to consistent safety at all. In that sense, those who are most likely to engage in things like appeasement are people who are being systematically harmed.
This isn't an "excuse," of course, in situations where interpersonal harm may have occurred — this is an explanation, and it's one that I think meaningfully impacts how much empathy we are willing to extend to one another.
Fawning is a profound vulnerability — and even a danger.
When most people hear “people-pleasing,” they don’t associate it with danger. But when you place fawning back in its original context of abuse, it becomes easier to see how vulnerable survivors really are.
We might think about a scenario in which someone is gaslighting a survivor, and trying to convince them that the abuse taking place is actually their fault, or even that the abuse is imagined and not actually taking place at all.
When being gaslit, someone who is fawning may immediately “accept” and internalize an abusive person’s narrative, even when it is easily contradicted by other evidence, and even if that narrative places the blame or responsibility solely on the person being abused.
No matter how harmful that version of events may be, someone who is fawning may accept it as truth without questioning, and even without conscious awareness. But by unconsciously deferring to their abuser’s version of events in order to “please” or validate them, the survivor, however unintentionally, relinquishes some of their power and agency.
Deferring to and internalizing someone else’s narrative is a common form of fawning, and it can further exaggerate power imbalances, as it can result in an abusive person strategically rewriting their victim’s narrative to further disempower or exploit them. (Now that sounds a bit like manipulation, doesn’t it?)
To be clear, this is never the fault of the survivor, but rather, the person who exploits this dynamic and uses it to further disempower them.
People-pleasing may be inappropriate, unnecessary, and even harmful in a relationship where the survivor is actually safe. But being driven to unconsciously surrender your own power can so easily be weaponized against you, and for people who fawn, it likely already has been before.
If we’re going to construct a blanket narrative about people-pleasing, but not acknowledge that its impact is ultimately very context-dependent, we run the risk of including individuals who are still very vulnerable, and may still be in abusive situations themselves.
In fact — while I won’t link it here for privacy — I was horrified to see a TikTok while doing research for this article, where a survivor was laying in bed, with text overlaying their face that said (paraphrased): “People-pleasing is manipulation? But I’m still in an abusive household.”
And I think that’s part of the problem: We can’t assume that every survivor who is still engaging in people-pleasing is actually in a safe and resourced enough place to address it.
We have to acknowledge that, for some of the people who come across this content, the message may not be appropriate given their circumstances.
Content creators can't be expected to address every single "what about-ism" that their audience may present. But when we're speaking about a trauma response, I don't think it's unfair to ask that creators consider folks who are still in actively traumatizing situations.
A number of the TikToks I saw said instructive, weirdly accusatory things like "just stop it," "be accountable," "take responsibility," and "clean this up."
But what about the folks who truly can't? What are their next steps, other than internalizing a narrative that now suggests that the thing that may be keeping them safe is inherently selfish, wrong, or even cruel?
Telling someone who's drowning that they should learn how to swim doesn't feel empowering to me.
Which begs the question…
Who does this narrative actually serve?
At the end of the day, I really wish the content creators who pushed this narrative had asked themselves — even once — is this helpful?
Is it truly helpful to tell people who are struggling with such intense self-abandonment to even further decenter themselves? Particularly when fawning is characterized by a total loss of connection to self, desire, and agency?
I have to admit: It’s weird to me that people-pleasing is being described as “selfish” so consistently now when, for so long, I didn’t even know how to consider or care about myself. In many ways, I didn’t feel like a person at all, but instead, an extension of the people around me.
In my experience, fawning isn’t a struggle to see the full humanity of the person in front of you; it’s the struggle to tap into and affirm your own.
Fawning, especially earlier on in my life, showed up as a way of protecting my abusers and shielding them from consequences, because I myself was manipulated into thinking that any harm that came to them also meant harm to me.
Like so many survivors who engage in people-pleasing, I was trapped in a very vicious cycle: To have needs and wants of my own would be to take up space, and taking up space felt profoundly unsafe.
So yes, of course it would feel safer to “mirror” someone else, especially for survivors who were conditioned to believe that it was their own actions that caused the abuse. Of course obedience would feel like protection, because at one point, it was! Even if it is actually a profound vulnerability in the end — it kept us alive once, and that matters.
Consider that so many survivors were taught that the more they exercised their own autonomy, the larger the target on their backs. The more they resisted what their abuser wanted and demanded from them, the more severe the consequences.
It seems to me that self-erasure is the real end goal of fawning — not gaining an “advantage,” some kind of influence, or even control — because if you do not possess your own unique wants, needs, or sense of self, there is no one left to harm.
And the saddest part is that this kind of erasure, while it may have protected us before, ends up keeping us disconnected from both ourselves and the people we love, even when we manage to escape the abuse.
If that’s not painful enough, now we have to contend with some influencers loudly declaring that this is a pain that we bring onto ourselves and others, which makes us unfit for relationships or human connection until we "fix" ourselves.
And I've heard this "fix yourself" narrative the most by far from self-identified “recovered people-pleasers,” who claim they bootstrapped their way into a full transformation, and you should, too (and if not, there’s a coaching package or a workshop or a book — link in bio!).
This, from the people who should know what it’s like, and have apparently all but forgotten.
So here’s a reminder: It takes time to decondition ourselves, even for those of us who have been doing the work and have abundant resources to continue doing so. More so for those of us who do not have access to care and community.
I don’t think asking for grace while unlearning a trauma response is inherently at odds with taking personal accountability for harm, either — though as this discourse has raged on, I’ve become deeply curious about what “accountability” even means in this context, especially when you’re weaponizing shame and fear as you demand it.
I think we can — and absolutely should — do better.
I know how annoying (and even condescending) it can be to hear “do better,” but in this case... I don't know, I think it’s warranted.
When a content creator makes the conscious decision to enter a conversation about mental health, I believe there is an obligation to do so responsibly, knowing that the people who may interact with our content are incredibly vulnerable.
While I did see a few creators who attempted to approach this conversation with care (I see you and I respect it!), far too many did not. And they were applauded by delighted commenters for their “brutal honesty,” while being rewarded by algorithms that ensured this content would appear on the feeds of those most likely to be hurt by it.
And while I don’t believe content creators need to keep us comfortable — sometimes the most insightful and crucial conversations about mental health are actually very uncomfortable to have — I think there’s a line here that was crossed.
In this case, we need to acknowledge where things like shorthand and “clickbait” are working against people’s healing.
We won’t always get it right. I know I don’t. But we owe it to each other to try.
“Trauma” and “fawning” may both feel like another buzzword these days, but some of us are still living in it — whether that’s because we’re still in actively unsafe situations, or because we’re doing this slow and arduous work of healing — and the stakes still remain high for us.
I’m not convinced that this narrative of “people pleasing is manipulation” actually helps us to address the root causes of this pattern of behavior. And it certainly doesn’t foster a deeper, more empathetic and accurate understanding of how to support those who engage in it.
It starts to feel like the word “manipulation” is being used here to be provocative, and not actually because it empowers survivors to reclaim their agency and heal.
So when these content creators are using "tough love" to address people-pleasers, I have to wonder what they hoped to accomplish.
I really struggle to believe that something so steeped in shame would be an effective motivator in changing someone’s behavior. While some people may feel that a “tough love” approach is inspiring — or consider it a form of “accountability” — I still wonder what we’re internalizing about ourselves in the process.
At worst, I fear that it encourages survivors who fawn to view their behavior — past and present — through the lens of offender, even in contexts where they are the one being harmed or exploited.
Because without an acknowledgment of power dynamics and imbalances, we erase the many ways in which these survivors were and continue to be wounded.
Your Instagram post about people-pleasing may not have been made with someone currently in an abusive or unsafe situation in mind, but I have to wonder how they would feel to be on the receiving end of this discourse.
Because, in reality, not everyone who is engaging in this trauma response is currently safe and resourced enough to unlearn it. But by casting a broad net, you may have gotten them tangled in it, too.
"Just stop doing it" isn't good enough.
While much of the viral content making these claims suggest that people who fawn need to set aside their own self-interest (their so-called “desire to be liked”) and focus on how their behavior impacts others, this really illustrates how deeply misunderstood fawning is.
At its core, fawning was never actually about selfish desire or influence. It has always been about safety, and whether or not someone feels safe enough to inhabit their whole selves and their desires.
One agreement that I think most creators on either side of this discourse do seem to hold is that the antidote to people-pleasing is authenticity. But the roadmap to getting there still seems muddled.
Distinguishing the self from other is often a core part of healing for anyone who engages in people-pleasing. Unsurprisingly, people who engage in fawning often are in some stage of enmeshment with others. And in order to heal, taking small steps to untangle that is where we begin.
Part of healing is reconnecting with and reclaiming desire, too. People who fawn need to know that (and be supported in relationships where) it is safe to need and want, even if those needs and wants aren’t shared by others.
Survivors who fawn need the repeated reminder that difference is not danger, and that it should never be used as justification for abuse or mistreatment. Having a difference in wants, needs, opinions, or even emotions needs to feel safe enough to embody.
And I’ll continue to emphasize this: It takes a lot of time to get there, and it's not something someone can heal from while unsupported and alone.
This transformation can’t come from fear, or the pressure not to harm others, either.
For me personally, internalizing the idea that I am a liability to those around me if I'm not fully healed has done nothing to empower me or improve my relationships.
That’s what makes this discourse, in my eyes, very ineffective messaging. It continues to evoke the fear and insecurity many people-pleasers already experience, in that it intentionally plays on their intense regard for and fear of hurting others.
Much of the content I saw framed this discourse as being a “tough pill to swallow,” with warnings like “you probably won’t want to hear this” and “this one is going to hurt.”
If creators were aware of this, why did they still opt for this approach? The underlying message in this “tough love” approach is that it almost seems to suggest that people-pleasers need to be shaken awake or even punished, and that they deserve to feel bad.
I don’t believe that people-pleasers need this kind of “reckoning,” though. In fact, I think for many of us, this fear can stall our healing.
If someone who is a people-pleaser tries to stop because they don’t want to hurt other people, but they are still decentering themselves, they could still be moving from that place of self-abandonment, which is aligned with the mind and body state of fawning.
When we are secure enough to reconnect with our unique self, experiences, needs, and desires, we can then step into what makes us an individual, rather than functioning as an extension of everyone around us.
And again, this takes a lot of time, emotional resources, and safety — things we just can’t assume that everyone has.
Whether or not people-pleasing and manipulation are synonymous, I still think both are deserving of empathy and understanding. But the actual path forward, at least in my mind, involves completely opposite orientations to self and other.
If people who fawned were selfish, they would need to stop centering themselves.
But people-pleasers are unconsciously conditioned to choose others. So what they actually need to practice — in supportive, safe relationships — is the very courageous and vulnerable work of actively centering and choosing themselves.
Shame does not belong here.
I recognize that, no matter how much I unpack this discourse, there will be people who still dismiss me, and decide that I’m coming from a place of defensiveness, or that I took this narrative too literally and too personally.
And it’s true, to an extent. This does feel personal. But I keep coming back to how I felt when I first learned about people-pleasing as a trauma response — and how much I wanted to give others that same kind of recognition and validation.
I worry that this discourse has completely eclipsed that conversation in favor of something reductionist, inflammatory, and even harmful.
“Choosing love — unconditional love of self, and being loved unconditionally by others — literally saved my life,” I wrote. “It all began just by affirming, ‘I am enough, here and now, and I deserve love that doesn’t hurt.’”
This was how I wanted survivors to feel when they started to unravel their people-pleasing.
And by no means was I alone in this effort — I’m not the first person to talk about people-pleasing and its connection to trauma. So many other advocates, clinicians, and creators also showed up to this conversation with so much care, and so much thoughtfulness.
For a moment, it seemed like we were collectively onto something. It felt like we were moving in the right direction. But somewhere along the way, the plot was totally lost.
It’s hard to think that there are survivors who, like me, have internalized this narrative of fawning as manipulation and selfishness. It’s hard to reconcile that, for some, this will perpetuate the “toxic shame” and self-blame that so often wears us down.
But this is also a stark reminder of why it’s so important that content creators examine the ways in which shame may be showing up in their work.
Shame — especially when it is leveraged to change or influence someone else’s behavior — does not belong in the field of mental health, or any adjacent space that is intended to help others heal.
I don’t want this to be an “us versus them” story, though.
That said, I think the most important question — at least for me — isn’t really about whether or not fawning is manipulation. And it’s not about pitting “manipulators” and “people-pleasers” against each other, either.
In the battle of the “hot takes,” I’m not necessarily here to take sides, so much as I want to add more layers. Personally, I don't think people-pleasing is manipulation, but if you couldn’t tell already, I also don’t think manipulation is a helpful or specific enough word.
So many times while doing research for this article, I looked up from my screens and thought, “Why are we doing this?”
Because, like my coach Alexis Rockley pointed out to me recently (and I’m paraphrasing, of course), when the story devolves like this, it can start to feel like a competition to see whose pain is worth validating.
Whether the harm you experienced came from engaging in people-pleasing yourself, or from someone people-pleasing in a relationship with you, that pain matters. It's clear to me that, for many of the people wrapped up in this discourse, there's something personal at stake.
More than anything, I want to gently suggest that this discourse might be a dead-end. I don't think it's taking us somewhere we'd actually like to go.
So I want to ask you this instead: How can we ensure that survivors of all kinds have access to what they need to finally feel safe — and what role will you play in that?
That’s a long-term project, I know. But I think it needs to be our compass in this and other conversations about trauma moving forward.
And to build on that: How can we co-create a world where survival strategies like fawning (and yes, even manipulation) aren’t as needed? And when they are, what support can we offer so that they can finally be released — with self-compassion, awareness, and gentleness — when they no longer serve their purpose?
That’s my hope for all of us, no matter where you fall in this discourse: Self-compassion, awareness, and gentleness.
But before you rush to create another viral TikTok about people-pleasing, I’d challenge you to consider whether or not you are playing a part in creating that world.
Because what you think is holding others “accountable” for their behavior may actually be the very thing that’s keeping them trapped.