Highly sensitive people and the problem of people-pleasing

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People pleasers want everyone around them to be happy, so they’ll do whatever anyone asks of them.

“They put everyone else before themselves,” says Susan Newman, Ph.D, a social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It — And Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. Some people pleasers say yes to others out of habit, while for others, “it’s almost an addiction that makes them feel like they need to be needed.” Being a people pleaser makes them feel important and useful, like they’re “contributing to someone else’s life.” (Source: PyschCentral)

Being a highly sensitive person (HSP) adds extra complication. According to HSP Health Blog, relationships can be difficult for us HSPs, because our values are so different from those of the people around us. We may even feel at a disadvantage in relationships, because our noncompetitive natures seek mutuality, not one-upmanship. We may fail to get the respect we want and deserve, because other people don’t value our empathy or kindness.

People-pleasing also comes from our need to create an interpersonal bridge to others. The interpersonal bridge is the connection we make to others through shared experiences or other types of bonds. Typically, people create this bridge through family relationships, being neighbors, attending school, having shared interests, work, community activities, shared values, or shared life experiences.

We highly sensitive people feel so different from others, and indeed, we do experience the world in a very different way, so we may fail to develop the interpersonal bridge. This leads to feelings of loneliness, and we may even become loners — but not by choice.

So, we turn to people-pleasing as a way to get the social acceptance we crave.

According to HSP Health Blog:

The need to please will surface when we are trying to fit in with a group that is different from us, where we would like to have some social standing. It could be a work environment or family group. Whatever the situation, pleasing comes from thinking that the burden of the interpersonal bridge is primarily ours, and that unless we make a special effort, there may not be a relationship, and we may be harmed in some way.

Our people-pleasing may also stem from our dislike of conflict. We worry that if we say no to someone, or speak what’s really on our mind, we’ll cause the other person to feel hurt or disappointed. Before we even open our mouths, our mind may run away with us, imagining all the uncomfortable or awkward scenarios that could occur. We tend to read other people well, so we easily pick up on another person’s anger or displeasure (or perhaps we imagine that the other person is upset). This leads us to feel guilty or ashamed.

If we’re feeling the need to please, we’re doing more than our necessary part in a relationship. People-pleasing puts us in the position of being inferior to the other person in some way. It may be how we try to survive in a social structure in which we feel at a disadvantage. It may be how we hide our “different-ness” so we can acquire needed physical, emotional, or social resources.

Accepting that you’re different

Knowing that we have a hard time creating the interpersonal bridge is something we live with every day. This weakness may make us feel vulnerable, and it adds to our feeling of different-ness. We become very aware of how we don’t fit in.

Yet to move past these feelings of alienation and vulnerability, we need to realize that different is not the same as unwelcome:

Being different does not necessarily mean that we are unwelcome. Humans are notorious for comparing themselves to each other, so we may remind others of undeveloped aspects of themselves and in that way, create feelings of discomfort. That is not our fault.  HSP Health Blog

Along with that, we have to accept that some people will never share our values or “get” us. But that’s OK, because becoming closely involved with someone who doesn’t get us may invite hurt into our lives. We can usually find social acceptance in a small circle of friends or a partner. If we don’t chase those people who aren’t right for us, it frees up more of our time and energy to invest in the people who do understand, accept, and appreciate us.

What can you do?

Examine your relationships and the reasons you feel compelled to please. Ask yourself these questions and see if you can make changes that will provide you with more social safety:

  • In which relationships do I feel a need to please?
  • In what way am I dependent on others for resources (of any kind) that causes me to be in relationships where I need to please?
  • What changes can I make to reduce my needs so that I have fewer relationships that require unnatural pleasing?
  • If I cannot reduce my needs, can I find alternatives that are more supportive of my self-respect?
  • Can I create what I need?
  • Can I ask for more of what I need from relationships that are one-sided to make them feel more mutual? (HSP Health Blog)

Image Credit: Deviant Art


2 Comments

  • Estel says:

    Ugh, this is so true. I often struggle to draw a line between what I consider my natural kindness and actual people-pleasing, where I (mostly unconsciously) use my kindness to make people like me/need me. It gets really bad especially with budding friendships, because if I consider a person my friend, I’m naturally inclined to be a good friend a be there for them/help them out in whatever way I can, but if this friendship is new and I admire the person/don’t feel on equal ground with them I’ll start doing more to please them so that they keep being friends with me. And if it turns out that they didn’t value our friendship as much as I did, I end up getting really hurt.
    Even if I have become more aware of my tendency to people-please, I still struggle with it because of my constant desire to be liked, which of course stems from other insecurities about myself. I know the answer lies in learning to truly love myself and not caring about what people think of me, but it’s still hard to get there.
    However, I do genuinely like being kind to people, but it’s a pity that kindness is so little valued most of the time.

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