How Attachment Theory Can Explain People-Pleasing Behaviors

Author: Xintong Li
Mentor: Dr. Tara Well
Shawnigan Lake School


This paper contends that anxious attachment style is associated with frequent people-pleasing behaviors. Anxious attachment style is developed by John Bowlby, which describes the strong bond between people. Since anxiously attached individuals fear abandonment and rejection, they may employ people-pleasing through harmful self-sacrifice and risky conformity as a tool to maintain closeness. However, people-pleasing behaviors usually lead to an insecure relationship, low satisfaction, and even more anxiety. Instead of people-pleasing, anxiously attached people can practice detachment, take a new perspective and learn that it is acceptable to refuse other people’s requests to better maintain their relationships.

Keywords: Attachment theory, people-pleasing behaviors, close relationships

How Attachment Theory Can Explain People-Pleasing Behaviors

Have you ever felt like a “viscous glue” sticking on your friends consistently? Or have your friends ever clung to you? No matter how embarrassing you felt in either situation, your efforts to hamper yourself or your friends may be ineffective. It can be linked to attachment style, specifically anxious attachment style.

According to John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, attachment is a strong connectedness or desire to seek intimacy and contact with another individual, which is usually an enduring stable attribute with few gradual changes over a relatively long period (Bowlby, 1988). Attachment is regarded as part of human nature that is crucial for our survival (Bowlby, 1988). Bowlby’s work illustrates that infants start to seek proximity to their caregivers (their mothers in most cases), and they smile and vocalize more often in the presence of their mothers than that of other people (Bowlby, 1969, 2000). In about six to nine months, attachment behaviors are strengthened to help infants meet their basic needs since mothers, their attachment figures, respond to their needs (Bowlby, 1969, 2000) if they are fortunate enough. Generally, the intensity of joy comes with the presence of a responsive attachment figure, and the feeling of threat or anger comes with an unresponsive attachment figure (Bowlby, 1988).

Ainsworth, who facilitated the refinement of attachment theory, designed and conducted an experiment, called “the strange situation” that allowed researchers to study the interplay of “exploring behaviors, attachment, separation protest, and stranger anxiety” among infants (Rieser-Danner & Slaughter, 2021). Based on the observation, Ainsworth found that attachment can be classified into three styles: secure, insecure-avoidant, and insecure-anxious attachment styles (Rieser-Danner & Slaughter, 2021).

Ensuing research substantiated that attachment style once established and attained during infancy can have a profound effect on adulthood (Hong & Park, 2012). Normally, children with insecure attachment relate to a higher probability of developing deficient communication and interpersonal skills. They may frequently experience anxiety and are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorder in adolescence and adulthood (Hong & Park, 2012). However, childhood attachment styles are not the sole determinant of the quality of one’s future close relationships with other people. As researchers presented, insecure attachment styles can be remedied (Rieser-Danner & Slaughter, 2021). By acknowledging the fact that not everyone’s childhood is perfect and they all have gone through moments with a feeling of insecurity, individuals can start to change their behaviors. For instance, anxiously attached people may attempt to set healthy boundaries and understand that they are all independent individuals in the first place before entering any relationships. However, if individuals know that their attachment figures are responsive and available whenever they are needed from the beginning, they are likely to obtain a strong and stable sense of security, which encourages them to continuously and confidently maintain their intimacy and benefits their future relationships with other figures (Bowlby, 1988).

Generally, secure attachment in adults is usually manifested in the stability of personality. One longitudinal study highlights that individuals who were identified with secure attachment in the first 18 months of their infancy have a clear association with a more stable meta-trait in adulthood (Young et al., 2019). Adults with a secure attachment style are revealed to have lower anxiety over separation and higher comfort with closeness in relationships (Mayseless & Scharf, 2007). Research also indicates that people possessing secure attachments gain more feeling of accompaniment with best friends, fewer struggles (Saferstein et al., 2005), and more satisfaction as well as intimacy (Mayseless & Scharf, 2007). In addition, they usually have a better perception of their best friends who act as attachment figures (Miljkovitch et al., 2021).

In contrast, people with insecure attachment are more likely to report lower levels of security and companionship with their friends as well as higher possibilities for conflicts (Saferstein et al., 2005); compared with their counterparts who have a more secure attachment style, they sense less care from their attachment figures in close relationships (Sheinbaum et al., 2015). Regarding abandonment and dependency, the avoidant attachment style is associated with a tendency for self-reliance or excessive independence and discomfort with proximity within close relationships (Sheinbaum et al., 2015). Either measuring self-reliance or proximity in relationships, adults with an avoidant attachment demonstrate low anxiety and low comfort. (Mayseless & Scharf, 2007).

Of particular interest in this paper, anxious attachment, also known as preoccupied attachment, is what will be predominantly focusing on. Anxious attachment style can also reflect the desire for intimacy and apprehension of refusal by significant figures (Brennan et al., 1998). People with this attachment style normally experience a persistent predisposition to experience frequent negative emotions, stress, and social rejection in close relationships (Sheinbaum et al., 2015).

Anxiously attached people worry about the loss of close relationships, so they may engage in certain behaviors that are motivated by feelings of insecurity. People-pleasing behavior is one example, but what is the relationship between attachment styles and people-pleasing behaviors? There is only limited research developing the concept of people-pleasing directly, but in general, pleasing people is defined as prioritizing other peoples’ needs to gain approval or maintain intimate relationships with them. The most proximate concepts explored by researchers are social approval tendencies and self-sacrifice (Satow, 1975). Unlike ingratiating behaviors, people-pleasers are less utilitarian – they do not want material returns from others. Instead, they value approval and the relationship. Several examples of people-pleasing behaviors are as follows:

– People-pleasers accept invitations from close friends to initiate risky behaviors that may be detrimental to your health and violate your willingness.

–  They find it difficult to advocate for their rights even if they experience humiliation from their close friends.

–  They think that other people would only like you if you continue to meet their needs or be helpful without any boundaries.

–  They hardly express any criticism (even if conducive) or disagree with others because you do not want to make others feel angry or embarrassed.

–  They always apologize to other people even if it is not always your fault.

Outwardly, such people are perceived as helpful, kind, and amiable, so it is much easier for them to make friends or get involved in a close relationship, and they usually are good at maintaining it by responding to others’ needs in a short term. However, people-pleasing behaviors do have certain drawbacks. Specifically, since they may inhibit, conceal, or fail to advocate for their own needs, it is highly possible for them to feel depressed. As they place more weight on their attachment figures (e.g. friends), they believe that they should be treated well and have their needs met. Thus, if they ever sense even a slight rejection within the relationship, they may feel anxious. It is also difficult for them to set healthy boundaries so that they may easily get injured in a relationship. To maintain a good relationship, there should be a mutual give-and-take, but people-pleasers sometimes forget to take so others can take advantage of people-pleasers’ good nature, which in turn makes the relationship unbalanced and fragile.

People-pleasing behaviors should have a positive association with anxious attachment style, and people-pleasers may receive low satisfaction in their friendships. People with an anxious attachment style usually crave intimacy in close relationships and they cling to their partners (or friends) to seek emotional support. Rejection or absence of their attachment figures is likely to trigger their anxiety. People-pleasing can be a seemingly useful tool to maintain close relationships so that such individuals worry less about separating from others. However, if the hypothesis is supported, it is important for those who have anxious attachment styles and people-pleasing behaviors to adjust their strategies for maintaining their friendships. Being aware that attachment styles are changeable and that people-pleasing is not a desirable tool to cultivate a healthy relationship allows individuals to take action to re-examine their various relationships and to change their way of presenting themselves in front of others. If such people can put less weight on their attachment figures and care more about themselves in relationships, they may be able to establish boundaries and obtain more satisfying relationships.

Why do individuals engage in people-pleasing behaviors in the first place? Studies indicate that the perceptions of risky factors, threats, and insecurities instigate distress to certain extents contingent on individuals’ personalities or current emotional status. Such signals may trigger certain behaviors to restore emotional regulations and deal with problems (Silva et al., 2012). People with different attachment styles react differently to serve their needs and make them feel more comfortable. Specifically, those who have an anxious attachment style are prone to struggle with insecure emotional cues, and they react with hyperactivating strategies, including exaggeration of emotional distance, over-dependence on the attachment figures, and oversensitivity to cues of abandonment (Pascuzzo et al., 2015), which then reinforce anxious feelings of lacking intimacy. Another crucial trigger is the susceptibility to rejection. Anxiously attached people are more inclined to have higher rejection susceptibility because they are sensitive to any trivial signs of rejection, reflecting their internal insecurity about departing from their significant figures (Set, 2019).

When rejection occurs, it is obvious that people may not attain a stable attachment, and anxiously attached individuals show amplified activities in related brain regions. Research demonstrates that the left amygdala, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), and anterior insula are especially activated facing rejection among participants with an anxious attachment style (DeWall et al., 2011).

To maintain the relationship and prevent insecure situations, people-pleasing behaviors are activated in an attempt to avoid abandonment. Given that there are probably countless behaviors falling under the category of “people pleasing behaviors”, the paper focuses mainly on harmful self-sacrifice and risky conformity as instruments to maintain friendships. Self-sacrifice can be described as a predisposition to forsake immediate self-interests for the welfare of a partner or a relationship, according to Van Lange et al. (1997). As mentioned before, anxiously attached individuals fear the loss of their relationships, so they may adopt self-sacrifice as an attempt to maintain proximity. However, the consequences can be the opposite — partners or friends may regard anxiously attached individuals’ consistent self-sacrificing as excessive, fatiguing, and exhausting, so they may choose to end the relationship (Vangelisti et al., 2002), which is usually devastating to anxiously attached individuals. Since people who have an anxious attachment style and self-sacrificing behaviors usually encounter negative results concerning their relationships, they experience low satisfaction in relationships (Wagoner, 2014).

Despite that people desire to keep their relationships stable and preclude rejection and that they sacrifice themselves voluntarily, they receive relatively lower satisfaction than they expect, and the security of their relationships is insufficient to prove that their efforts are worthwhile (Wagoner, 2014). Using self-sacrifice to prohibit the loss of a relationship leads to a lower sense of satisfaction. Self-sacrifice out of love and respect, in contrast, could enhance intimacy. (Wagoner, 2014).

In addition to excessive and harmful self-sacrifice, anxiously attached individuals are more likely to engage in risky conformity, such as risk-taking behaviors. Compared with securely attached people, anxiously attached individuals exhibit higher risky behaviors because they usually hold a negative attitude toward themselves but a positive one toward others, which contributes to their dependence, lack of self-confidence, and over obedience (conform to others’ willingness) (Morsünbül, 2009). The fear of loss of friendships promotes individuals to change their behaviors to meet their peers’ needs or expectations, regardless of whether such changes may lead to harmful effects (Lebedina-Manzoni & Ricijaš, 2013). Therefore, when their peers initiate risky behaviors, such as alcohol consumption or substance use, and upon their invitation, anxiously attached individuals usually choose to conform (Morsünbül, 2009).

People with an anxious attachment style may have long believed that acting in behaviors mentioned previously allow them to maintain intimacy with their friends, but being aware that this could also be a vicious cycle, in which several factors provoke their anxious attachment mechanism that causes people-pleasing behaviors that then intensify the feeling of anxiety. These people not only end up with fragile relationships and low satisfaction but also experience low self-esteem and frequent feelings of regret. Anxiously attached individuals usually have a poor self-concept so they need constant reassurance from their attachment figures. However, instead of managing to decrease the negative sense of self or consolidate their relationships, such individuals may aggravate their vulnerability or fear abandonment/rejection (Goodall, 2015). Each time when people try to ask for a favor from other people but care less about themselves, they continue to perceive negative views of themselves (Lee & Hankin, 2009). What’s more, each time, they become more sensitive to their important figures’ reactions, words, and behaviors, misinterpreting them as repulsion or aversion. Subsequently, anxiously attached individuals feel more stress about their intimate relationships. Such accumulation of insecurity, low sense of self, and low satisfaction in relationships in turn add to individuals’ anxiety, forming a detrimental cycle that does nothing but continuously harms the relationship and those involved.

What can anxiously attached people do instead of people-pleasing to feel more secure in their relationships? Here are some improvements and suggestions that anxiously attached individuals can start to employ as a replacement for people-pleasing behaviors in their close relationships.

First, these people could learn and practice detachment. Although it may sound counterintuitive, it would be conducive for them to practice staying alone and learn to be detached from their attached figures for an appropriate amount of time. If they gradually find that they can live a healthy life without the presence of their important figures, they may reconsider what a desirable and long-lasting relationship looks like. In addition, it would be helpful if they know that they are capable of leaving those who make them feel uncomfortable rather than consistently clinging to them, they may feel more satisfied with themselves and the others. A steady and placid internal support system is more powerful than anything else, but it needs practice and the courage to step out of the comfort zones. One of the studies focusing on how anxiously attached people overcome the longing for an ex-partner may have broader implications (Spielmann et al., 2009). The study indicates that if anxiously attached individuals know that they will find a new partner, they are likely to be detached from their previous relationship (Spielmann et al., 2009). Thus, if these people understand that they should not be overly attached to one particular person, they can learn how to comfortably detach themselves from them.

Furthermore, to reduce the frequency of being triggered by threatening clues, those who conduct people-pleasing behaviors may attempt to view their partners or friends from a different perspective so that they are less sensitive to their behaviors or words. This shift would decrease the frequencies one’s attachment system gets triggered. In other words, if the threatening clues are no longer perceived as threats, the triggers do not exist in the first place, which is beneficial for them to stop people-pleasing behaviors. What’s more, they can also practice conducive emotional regulation, which means not amplifying or exaggerating emotional clues or reactions from friends (Shaver & Mikulincer, 2012). After all, any relationship is built upon trust and communication, so anxious attached people should consider talking to their partners or friends about their needs openly. More open communication may correct misunderstandings and strengthen relationships. A study implies that anxiously attached individuals may choose to conceal partially the truth when communicating displeasing truth with friends because they are concerned about others’ feelings and also fear infuriating them or being abandoned (Sessa et al., 2020). However, messages could not be accurately or efficiently passed on to each other unless such barriers are overcome.

Lastly, learning to refuse is an important lesson for people-pleasers. It would be constructive for them to distinguish between being kind and pleasing people, and they should learn to say no to other people, respectfully but decisively, if they feel uncomfortable about the requests. Polite rejection can be regarded as a tool for self-assertiveness, which may also serve as a signal to others that everyone deserves boundaries. In this way, anxiously attached people can start to prioritize their needs or at least notice their interests before responding to others’ requests. It can be difficult to change the mindset, but they need to place more weight on themselves. If they practice refusal, they may eventually be strong enough internally to cope with the potential challenges in relationships in a different way other than pleasing people.

It seems to be true that anxiously-attached individuals are more prone to initiate people-pleasing behaviors. Previous research indicates that people are fearful of abandonment, so they may employ people-pleasing to maintain their friendships. However, being informed that such behaviors are detrimental and counterproductive to preserve close relationships, they should instead practice detachment, take another perspective, and learn to refuse other people as alternatives. Future research into attachment styles and people-pleasing behaviors could empirically test the association between anxious attachment styles and such behaviors and consider various factors, such as culture or gender to provide more holistic views on this matter. It has been a long struggle for most people to maintain their friendships, and adopting the most effective means could be challenging but crucial.


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About the author

Xintong Li

Xintong (Sissi) is currently a grade 12 student at the Shawnigan Lake in School, BC, Canada. From an early age, she has been exploring her interests in psychology, as she has always been intrigued by the complexities of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. In her spare time, she loves playing the piano, watching movies, and hanging out with her friends.