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Attachment Styles, People-Pleasing and Perfectionism, OH MY!

Written By Ashley Gray, LCSW, MFTC

It's overwhelming to bare the weight of everyone's expectations. To feel like you have to get things exactly right or you'll be a failure. To perform and please in such a specific way or you feel like you will not be worthy of love. And then even when you get it right, you feel like a fraud, like you could lose it all as soon as you make your next mistake. It's nerve-wracking at best. At worst, it robs you of your own personality. You live for everyone else instead of living the life you are meant for.

What Are We Working With?

The weight of these expectations can be better understood through perfectionism, attachment styles and people-pleasing. Perfectionism is prioritizing ideals (mortality, body image, efficiency, etc) over reality and thereby denying the reality of who you are. Attachment styles are how you give and receive love based on how you have experienced it in the past. Anxious attachment is fearing that you will lose the connections in your life through abandonment, so you continually reach for the other person. You may try to ensure that the other person will stay around by denying your own needs and people-pleasing instead. Sometimes your attempts at making the other person stay are actually critical, overwhelming and controlling. Avoidant attachment includes fearing that you will lose yourself in a relationship, so you minimize the relationship and the more emotionally deep parts of the relationship and instead focus on people-pleasing in moments to avoid the greater emotional depths of the relationship. People-pleasing is prioritizing other people's needs, thoughts, values and wishes above your own. These can all intersect in the most tangled of ways.

I believe that perfectionism, insecure attachment styles and people-pleasing all come together in the most inconvenient of Venn diagrams to create these scenarios. But how do you start to untangle it? By identifying your driving forces (your attachment needs) and the messages or core beliefs (perfectionism) that keep you engaging in behavioral patterns (people pleasing) that are depleting you rather than serving you. Let's break this down a little bit more.

Attachment Needs: Your Driving Force

Attachment needs are the things that make you feel safe and secure in life and in relationships. Some examples of attachment needs are safety, consistency, communication, validation, clarity, physical touch, autonomy, space, identity, etc. You are at your best when these needs can be met. Sometimes you can meet these needs yourself and sometimes you need others to help you meet these needs. This does not mean that others OWE you these things, but when you are in a relationship you do your best to meet these needs for others as well as yourself.

When these needs aren't met you will likely start to get creative in how you attempt to get these needs met. This is where attachment patterns come into play. Often times when people think of people-pleasing and attachment styles, they think of an anxious attachment style first. This is because those with an anxious attachment style fear abandonment and prioritize connection (this is their main attachment need) to the point of being willing to do whatever it takes to keep the person around, which can lead to people-pleasing. However, those who are experiencing the avoidant part of their attachment might also people-please. People often don't consider this at first glance because they know those at with an avoidant attachment tend to prioritize autonomy (their main attachment need) over connection. This doesn't mean that those with a more avoidant attachment don't value their relationship or connection. Those with a more avoidant attachment style may people-please due to wanting to make the discomfort of a disagreement go away and wanting to feel like they can fix the problem in the situation. They tend to feel comforted by seeing their partner happy and feel more competent when they can fix a problem. With both attachment styles the people-pleasing is preventing vulnerability in the relationship by focusing on what they think the other person wants rather than actually communicating with their partner about the deeper emotions and needs in the relationship. Those with a disorganized attachment can rapidly, go back and forth between behaviors that appear more anxious and more avoidant. Those with a secure attachment are less likely to people-please, but it can happen. To learn more about attachment styles check out this blog post.

The more you can figure out how to meet your own attachment needs (if you lean more anxious) and/or let others show up for your attachment needs (if you learn more avoidant) the more you can heal your attachment styles and your people-pleasing. I created these free self-regulation and co-regulation guides to help you with that process. The self-regulation guide helps if you're struggling with the more anxious parts of your attachment. The co-regulation guide helps with the more avoidant parts of your attachment.

Part of how you change your attachment patterns, especially those rooted in people-pleasing, is to start to examine the core beliefs that keep these patterns in motion.

Perfectionism As A Core Belief

Core beliefs are deeply held beliefs about who we are, who others are and/or how the world works. There are positive core beliefs like, "I believe that most people are doing the best they possibly can." And there are negative core beliefs such as, "I'm not worthy of love unless I'm sacrificing my comfort for others." Positive core beliefs have a sense of optimism about them. Negative core beliefs tend to view the world or yourself as a negative, cold and unloving place. I will mainly be focusing on negative core beliefs in this post.

When you have perfectionism as core belief, it tends to be a negative core belief. It often sounds something like, "If I don't perform perfectly, bad things will happen." Or, "I can't experience success unless I give my all." Or, "I'm weak if I make a mistake." Or "I'll inconvenience others if I feel my feelings." These are just a few examples. The main point of perfectionism as a core belief is that it demands an absolute of you. This expectation creates much inner turmoil as it requires you to ignore your needs in an attempt to meet an impossible standard that is presented as a necessity.

In the examples of negative core beliefs that I listed in this paragraph, the perceived necessities are: preventing bad things, success, avoiding weakness and refraining from inconveniencing others. These are fine things to strive for, at times, but to expect that you should never make a mistake in your pursuit of these things is where things get unfair for you. When the expectation is to never make a mistake you beat up on yourself if you make a mistake. You start to expect that you won't be able to handle things if your fears are realized, which thwarts your resiliency. This is the part where I say what I often say: What will benefit you the most is to start to lean into your fears. Learn to tolerate, maybe even embrace imperfection. What can help you begin to approach this are positive affirmations. When you practice thinking good things about yourself and your abilities you begin to gain confidence about approaching hard things. My free self-regulation and co-regulation guides have affirmations that can also be helpful with this. Click the link to check them out!

People Pleasing: The Solution And The Problem

People pleasing is how you have learned to survive the tricky situations that you have encountered in life. You found that if you were marginally inconvenienced by making people happy then you could avoid consequences that felt even scarier for you. I have so much compassion for that younger version of you that was scared and trying to figure it out on their own. Desperately trying to stay safe, connected and get their needs met. You were doing the best you could at that time. People pleasing was the solution at that time, whether you decided on it yourself or someone handed you that answer, it served a purpose. Maybe you have realized that it doesn't work so well now, at least, not for you.

You have likely found that people pleasing often leaves you wanting. Often wishing that others would reciprocate the kindness that you show them. The best way to allow that to happen is to advocate for your needs. I know that can be really scary as this might be where you start to fear the other person's reaction or wonder if you're being rude. Now before you start thinking that I'm going to ask you to start being selfish, I want you to know that there are indeed ways to meet others needs without depleting yourself. There are also ways to say no that are honoring both you and the other person. We'll get to that in a bit.

I'm a strong supporter of asserting yourself. I do believe that you can be assertive and still be respectful to the other person. Some people believe you can't do this without being rude or unkind. I disagree and I would counter that it isn't very kind to people please so heavily that you're not yourself and therefore you are not being honest. You also end up depriving the other person of the opportunity to show up for you. That's right, some people want to show up for you. If you don't show up honestly and express your needs, they will never know how. If you spend all your time managing it all, always being positive, so that you're never too much, always being agreeable and solving every problem, you will create the illusion that you don't need anyone or anything. You will build a wall constructed of favors for others, over achieving, rarely making mistakes and never truly being vulnerable. No one will be able to truly connect with you because true vulnerability shows your imperfections. Share your needs, be honest about your mistakes. Let your people know that you need from them. Those that deserve to stick around will be happy to have the opportunity to show up for you. Below are some examples of how to set boundaries and assert your needs while still being kind to others.

  • "I understand your need and I want to meet you there, I unfortunately have to decline because I simply don't have the energy. Can we discuss finding another time for this when I have more energy?"

  • "With this stressful work week coming up, I would really love it if we could be intentional about having fun together at the end of the work day. What are your thoughts on this?"

  • "I'm glad that you trust me enough to ask for help with this, I just need 24 hours to think this over and see if it would fit into my schedule."

  • "It seems like you might be really comfortable having me support you with ______ as often as I do, but I'm finding that it doesn't work for me anymore. We can talk about this some more if you would like, but I need you to understand that I am not changing my boundary around this."

  • "I love that we can have so much fun together and I really need some clarity about how you think about our relationship. Things are feeling a bit confusing for me."

When constructing your own wording to set boundaries and advocate for what you you need, remember the "I feel statements" formula: "I feel ____ about ______ and I need ______." Bonus points for adding a part that encourages collaboration like, "What do you think?" Being honest and kind helps the process go more smoothly as well.

This post is meant to help you untangle the complexities of perfectionism, people-pleasing and attachment. If it feels overwhelming, I want you to know that that is normal. It is okay to break it down into smaller pieces and to go slow with the work. If you would like to have me as your therapist as you work on this journey, you can use the contact buttons at the top of the page to reach out to me.

I'm wishing you the best on your healing journey! :)

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This post is written by individual and couples therapist, Ashley Gray of Arvada, Colorado. Ashley works with her clients using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EMDR Trauma Therapy, Prepare and Enrich, attachment focused therapy and techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy and EMDR and Couples Intensives. As a therapist, she is passionate about helping people build healthy relationships and supporting people with the resources they need. In her free time, Ashley hikes, paddle boards, reads, spends time with her husband and her cuddly dog. For more information about Ashley and her practice, click here.


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