When we are born, we depend entirely on our parents to provide shelter, food, safety and nurturing. Understandably, this attachment is powerful in our early years.
As we enter adolescence and adulthood, our instincts drive us to seek more independence and discover who we are, separating from our primary caregivers.
Creating an independent sense of self becomes difficult when our parents don’t understand or respect the boundaries we put in place. Setting boundaries is challenging even with acquaintances and colleagues. With the people who raised us, a confusing mixture of guilt and love can make it feel near impossible.
Kerry Athanasiadis, psychologist and practice director at Be You Psychology & Counselling, said that guilt and shame often play a role in keeping us trapped in unhealthy or unhelpful dynamics with parents or caregivers.
“Guilt can be a normal emotional response if it fits the facts of the situation,” she said, referring to instances where we hurt someone else.
“In this case, it makes sense to respond to the emotion of guilt by apologising or making efforts to repair the situation.
“However, often people experience guilt that does not fit the facts. [This] is often more related to feelings of shame, which is usually a learned response. Guilt essentially says to us, ‘I have done something bad’. Shame, on the other hand, says ‘I am bad’.”
The inner critic and ‘fawn’ response: why saying no to parents feels scary
Athanasiadis said that intrusive, unfounded feelings of guilt are often a result of a strong, guilt-inducing inner critic. It is often developed early as a way of coping with our social environment.
“This inner critic is essentially telling you that you are guilty of not fulfilling the expectations of your parents,” said Athanasiadis.
“It is usually related to core beliefs around self-sacrifice.”
If you have a strong inner critic, you may often feel that you are responsible for other people’s happiness, or that you have to please and cater to everyone except yourself.
When, inevitably, you can’t live up to these unrealistic expectations, you then feel guilty or that you have failed. This reinforces the people-pleasing response and perpetuates the unhelpful cycle.
We internalise strong guilt responses due to a range of factors, such as the different parenting styles experienced as children.
Perhaps your parents themselves modelled people-pleasing behaviours to you or encouraged you to put others’ needs first. It can also be a result of hypercritical parents, whose external judgements become internalised as a cruel and punitive inner critic.
“In some unfortunate situations, it can also stem from childhood emotional abuse or neglect,” said Athanasiadis.
“When parents or primary caregivers are not able to meet the emotional needs of the child and are focused instead on their own needs, children learn to please their parents as a way of gaining their approval and validation. In psychology, this is sometimes referred to as the ‘fawn response’.
“When you’re a child, you need your parents for your very basic survival needs, so it becomes essential to compromise on your own needs in order to survive. The fawn response is a behaviour that aims to please, appease, and pacify a perceived threat in an effort to keep yourself safe from further harm.”
Athanasiadis explained that unless this cycle is broken through unlearning unhelpful coping mechanisms, it can continue repeatedly into your adult relationships.