I’ve noticed a pattern over the years in many of my clients with chronic illness, especially those with autoimmune diseases like MS, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and IBS. Most of these clients have strong “appease” or people pleasing nervous system responses in times of stress or conflict.
The appease response is about avoiding or defusing a potentially dangerous situation. When you grow up in a household with a lot of unpredictable anger, you develop the appease response as a way to avoid the anger (an attempt to keep the other person happy at all times) or defuse it (calm the person down before the anger reaches the lashing out stage).
When this becomes integrated into our nervous system, we become appeasers all the time, even when we’re no longer in the dangerous situation. In day-to-day life, this looks like making everyday decisions based on what will make others happy, choosing your words and actions to avoid making other people uncomfortable, or making sure everyone is happy and has what they need before you tend to yourself (if you ever even get to yourself!)
This is especially true for women, because a lot of the “appease” response looks a lot like what’s expected of us culturally: be a selfless mom, loving wife, supportive and agreeable employee. We get treated more favorably by society if we do these things and punished if we don’t. (See Kate Manne’s brilliant Down Girl if you want to know more about how this works.)
When the appease response becomes a constant way of being, we’re constantly focused on the needs of others and lose track of what we need, which creates “messy boundaries.” Boundaries are a form of self-care that helps to create clear guidelines, rules, or limits of how we’d like to be treated. But if you don’t ever focus on yourself, how do you even know how you want to be treated? How do you even know what’s truly important for you to be happy? To feel safe? Or fulfilled?
One thing I knew for sure after helping hundreds of clients is this: our physiology mimics our belief systems. If we have messy boundaries in our minds, then we have messy boundaries in our bodies, as well. When we’re in appease mode, we have a hard time knowing where our needs start and others’ needs end. We’ve convinced ourselves that making other people happy IS what we want, even when that leads to self-abandonment of our own needs in small ways, every day.
How does this relate to an autoimmune condition? Autoimmune conditions are where your body gets confused about what is “self” and “non-self” and your immune system starts attacking your own cells rather than invaders like viruses. It’s basically messy boundaries in our body’s physiology. We don’t know where we end and others start, and our immune system starts to develop self-abandonment on a cellular level, attacking ourselves out of confusion and messy boundaries. I see this time and time again in the clients that I treat – the folks that come in with chronic autoimmune issues are almost always the people pleasers. Once we work on releasing that trauma from their nervous system and releasing or replacing the appease-based belief systems, they are finally able to heal.
If you want to start healing this in your own life today, it’s important to start centering yourself and your own needs. This way you’ll start to learn what healthy boundaries look like for you, and your body will learn the same. Asking yourself, “Who am I and what do I want?” can be the most important question on your road to healing your illness.