You probably already know that people pleasing has a downside: it builds deep resentment, creates a murky sense of self, and leads to low self-esteem, exhaustion, and the absence of true intimacy in relationships. These are just a few of the problems that result from people pleasing.
Nevertheless, millions of people struggle with people pleasing, because as humans, we’re extremely driven to stay in others’ good graces. If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), your people pleasing impulse might be even stronger. And, unfortunately, there’s an added cost—extreme social discomfort and awkwardness.
Here’s why highly sensitive people-pleasers (referred to as HSPPs in this article) have a unique burden. But there is hope—you can break free from people pleasing and actually use your impulse to please to your advantage.
Why People Pleasing is So Dangerous for HSPs
People pleasing is fascinating because it often has the opposite effect than what is intended. In other words, well-meaning people-pleasers may strive to get positive reactions out of others, but what actually ends up happening is they make people feel subtly uneasy.
Why is being self-sacrificing and super-duper attentive often met with avoidance and awkwardness? Why does this result in the other person feeling uneasy instead of grateful? Well, because it activates a little “spider sense” within most people. The recipients of people pleasing subconsciously ask themselves, “Who is this person who is so concerned with how I feel and so eager to please me? What are they hiding?”
A person with no visible wants and needs just doesn’t seem right. And in fact, it is impossible not to have any wants and needs. So we have to admit that it does make sense that when we go into people pleasing mode—our invisibility mode, essentially, where we fearfully hide our true selves—other people are going to feel wary around us. Often they themselves don’t really understand why.
The result is a subtle withdrawal and rejection that can be really painful—especially for an HSPP, who is deeply perceptive of it.
Unfortunately, the way most HSPPs respond to social awkwardness and rejection is to try to people please even harder. This is why being an HSPP is excruciating. Your life can become a vicious cycle of people pleasing followed by defeat, exhaustion, and intense feelings of rejection. This becomes utterly overwhelming.
Use Your Sensitivity to Make People Pleasing Mutually Rewarding
But if HSPPs are so in tune with how other people feel, why do they keep accidentally alienating others? The answer is that picking up on feelings and understanding their origins are not the same thing. In other words, HSPPs may sense discomfort in their conversation partner, but they may not understand that the discomfort is due to the people pleasing itself! Fortunately, understanding the why of feelings is something we can master, even if it’s not always automatic—even for ultra-aware HSPs.
The good news is that you have a unique advantage as an HSPP. Compared to non-sensitive people-pleasers, you will always be able to tell early on when you are making someone uncomfortable. The key is to recognize that this discomfort is due to people pleasing, and not despite of it. When you realize this, you can turn things around!
Instead of making others feel uneasy, learn to “show up” in your interactions. Start being more explicit about your own desires and needs. Do so in “little” ways—like voicing your opinion about which restaurant you’d prefer to go to, even if you think your friend will want to go to a different one.
For HSPPs, simply learning not to care what other people think—the typical people pleasing prescription—will never, ever work. Instead, you can leverage your profound intuition and empathy to empower yourself to put the kibosh on trying too hard to please, recognizing that it actually makes other people feel bad, not good.
Your Biggest Obstacle to Irradiating the Negative Side of People Pleasing
Recognizing that your intuitive gifts can help free you from people pleasing can be extremely empowering. However, there is still one more obstacle you’ll have to contend with: the inability to decipher the exact source of feelings present in an interaction.
In other words, HSPs in general struggle with knowing whether or not a certain feeling came from them or whether they picked it up from someone in their environment. This can lead HSPPs to over-attend to the people around them regarding feelings they don’t even have, but that instead belong to the HSP themselves!
And that can make it feel almost impossible to make your own wants and needs clear to others.
At best, this can lead to awkwardness, but at worst, it can lead to being exploited. So, learn to recognize if a feeling is coming from within you or if you’ve picked it up from someone else. This is a vital skill that you’ll benefit from honing.
Many HSPPs find solitude a great way to get in touch with their own feelings. Another useful strategy is to get into the habit of asking other people simple questions. For example, “When ___ happened, did it make you feel ___?” Most people respond well to gentle questioning, because it makes them feel seen and acknowledged—so this is a practice you’ll probably enjoy implementing.
Make Your Incredible Gifts Work for You
You probably take pride in your strong intuition and inherent kindness—and you should! As an HSP, you have incredible gifts to offer the world. Just be careful that these tendencies don’t lead to exhausting and painful people pleasing patterns.
Fortunately, as you become more skilled in understanding why certain feelings exist, as well as who the feelings belong to in the first place, you can more expertly utilize your intuition and empathy—and live a more rewarding life.
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