Breaking Free From People-Pleasing As Portrayed in Persona 5 and My Hero Academia

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Stef Watson
| June 7, 2024
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Throughout my life, I’ve joked that I’m a chronic people-pleaser. However, it was only through recent self-reflection that I realized that it wasn’t a joke anymore. Prioritizing others’ needs and desires over my own has been deeply ingrained since childhood that my entire sense of self-worth is tied to whether I’m valuable to others. I’ll save the complex details for a therapist, but suffice to say that decisions I’ve made in my career, relationships, and even my finances can all be traced back to this one hang-up. 

When I see this same people-pleasing tendency in fictional characters, I can empathize with what’s going on in their brain. That’s especially true in characters from Japanese manga, anime, and video games. Perhaps that’s because of a parallel between Japan and small-town America (where I grew up) when it comes to conforming to the expectations of society. Both cultures place a high value on prioritizing family, revering elders, and preserving community. In service to that, both cultures pressure people to please others by conforming to norms. For a great explanation about the origin and rationale for this in Japan, check out this video on why you must never stand out in Japan:

Pleasing others to the point of denying oneself, though, takes a heavy mental and emotional toll over time. I’ve experienced this in waves throughout my life, even after moving away from the small town. At some point, what I’m actually doing is so different from my personal values or desires that I burn out trying to make others happy. In that state of burnout, a significant enough catalyst unleashes the “me” I’ve kept caged up inside, and I go through what I call a “people-pleaser rebellion.”

These rebellions can be profound for both the rebels and the people around them. They are messy at first, but they have the potential for a beautiful outcome. Given that, it’s no surprise that there are so many fictional stories about people going through. The 1984 film Footloose is the most iconic small-town America example from my youth. Today, in Japan, the theme of rebelling against norms is common across manga and anime. For this article, I want to share how I can relate to two specific characters from Japan who experienced very different people-pleaser rebellions that are similar to experiences I’ve had.

Note: To explain this, I have to spoil details about the Persona 5 and My Hero Academia franchises, so keep that in mind as you read forward.

Makoto: The Perfect Student Finds Her Own Path

Makoto Niijima in her phantom thief form, Queen, riding Johanna, the motorcycle form that her persona takes in Persona 5. (CloverWorks/Atlus/Crunchyroll)

Persona 5 character Makoto Niijima is the perfect high school senior: honor student, student council president, and focused on going to a good college and having a successful career. All the teachers love her, and she’s the principal’s favorite. Like Makoto, I was one of the top academic performers in middle grades and high school, and the teachers liked me because I was helpful and followed the rules. 

Makoto associates her self-worth and value with meeting adults’ expectations: her sister, teachers, the principal, and a society in which women have to fight significantly harder than men for success. She bears the continued sting of how her peers perceive her in hopes that she’ll be rewarded by the people whose approval matters most.

However, when Makoto’s sense of justice conflicts with the actions of those of the people she’s trying to please, her world gets flipped on its head. She questions the adults and starts to resist what they ask of her. That, in turn, leads to a series of encounters where these respected adults tell her that she is useless. She crumbles with a feeling of worthlessness, and that emotional state becomes her catalyst for rebellion.

“I am done playing nice!”

Makoto Niijima

After Makoto embraces her spirit of rebellion and breaks out of her shell of pleasing the adults, she gains friends among her peers and a new path forward that’s truly her own. While I can’t relate to magical personas and fighting crime bosses like Makoto, I can relate to how life changed during my teenage years when I rebelled against many expectations of my parents and teachers. My rebellion was in finding and using my agency: expressing what it was I wanted to do and making my own choices. It was in those years that I was finally able to connect to more of my peers and made friends that I still treasure today.

Dabi: When Rebellion Becomes Revenge

Still desperate for his father’s acknowledgement, a teary-eyed Toya Todoroki feels betrayed and abandoned. (Bones/Crunchyroll/Horikoshi)

My Hero Academia character Dabi reveals himself to be Toya Todoroki, the eldest son of Japan’s top hero, Endeavor (Enji Todoroki). While stuck in the #2 spot behind All Might, Endeavor raised Toya with the goal and drive to surpass All Might and become #1. Toya showed promise, having an even stronger flame Quirk than his father, and Endeavor pushed the boy hard and showered him with praise and promises. However, when Toya’s body was not able to withstand the damage of those flames, Endeavor immediately withdrew that praise and, instead, urged Toya not to keep training. In the meantime, the youngest Todoroki, Shoto, was born, and Endeavor transferred all his praise and hopes to Shoto instead.

As an older sibling, I can relate to seeing praise and attention showered onto my younger brother while any achievements I made were considered merely on par with expectations. Granted, that may have been just my perception at the time, and I’ve spoken to many older or oldest siblings who have experienced similar situations. Fortunately, the differences in how my brother and I were treated were not nearly as extreme as Toya and Shoto.

Toya had a two-stage rebellion. In the first, he trained in secret in spite of his father’s wishes, desperate to show he still had the potential to be a hero and make his father proud. In doing so, he endured Endeavor’s scolding, but he also discovered a new power that he was somewhat able to handle. However, when Endeavor neglects to meet the adolescent Toya on the mountainside one night so that the boy can show him that power, Toya has an emotional breakdown, and his Quirk flares out of control, burning himself and everything on the hillside.

The second rebellion followed that incident. While the boy was thought to be dead, his villainous rescuers put him back together and stoked Toya’s feeling of betrayal by his father. As a result, Toya accepted the identity of Dabi, and his second rebellion commenced: as a villain seeking revenge on Enji Todoroki.

“What did you expect, old man? All you ever taught me was how to burn everything.”

Dabi

Like Makoto, Dabi’s rebellion released the pressure of pleasing someone else and, consequently, opened the door for making new friends and allies. Unlike Makoto, though, Dabi harbors hatred for the person he’d been trying to please and seeks vengeance. I have, at times, felt a sense of betrayal from those I was once striving so hard to please when they redirect their praise and recognition to someone else. It’s easy to equate that shift to their not appreciating the effort I’ve put forth to please them. That said, in most situations, it’s all stories I’ve made up in my head, and I have to reprogram my brain to recognize that my vengeful thoughts are grossly misplaced.

On the other side of the people-pleaser rebellion is the possibility that the rebel seeks a return to stability in the form of a new person on which to anchor their expectations. It’s a cyclical behavior that can damage us emotionally, financially, and even physically. That’s been my own cycle, and it’s one I’m now working on breaking out of permanently. Can you relate? Join our conversation on Circle to discuss, and check out this TED Talk by Salma Hindy with a profound story of why people pleasing can hurt us:

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