How Introverts and Sensitive People Can Finally Stop People Pleasing

A happy highly sensitive introvert who has learned to stop people pleasing

Think of your people-pleasing tendency as a bully — an insecure part of yourself that needs your help.

It’s challenging enough being a highly sensitive introvert.

We don’t need to add anything else to it.

But for many of us, we don’t have a choice. Because like it or not, we’re people pleasers, too.

Talk about a trifecta of torture.

I learned about being an introvert in my twenties, then realized I was highly sensitive in my 30s. It was around that same time that I read about “people pleasing” too, and what an eye-opener that term was.

To this day, I sometimes get caught up in my people-pleasing tendencies without realizing it, while my highly sensitive introverted nature bombards me with signals about what other people are feeling — and how I’m failing because I’m not magically “fixing” all those feelings.

Soon I’m feeling anxious and worried and want to crawl into a hole and escape from the world. But that’s not usually an option.

So I’ve found seven steps that help remind me that when it comes to dealing with people pleasing, we highly sensitive introverts have to be brave.

What Does It Mean to Be a People Pleaser?

Though most people like to make others happy, people pleasers take it to the extreme. We put our own needs behind everyone else’s, to the point that we end up feeling exhausted, irritated, and sometimes, depressed.

We don’t give ourselves permission to close the door on pleasing others and retreat for a while to take care of ourselves when we need to.

People pleasers, according to James Madison University, “are typically some of the nicest and most helpful people. They never say no. You can always count on them for a favor…. However, there is never an end point where they can relax because there is always something else they could be doing for others.”

If you’re not sure whether you may be a people pleaser, here are some other common traits:

·      You always try to keep everyone around you happy and content.

·      You try to anticipate others’ needs while remaining numb to your own.

·      You’re always available to help others even if it means sacrificing yourself.

·      You hate to burden others with your problems and feel if you do, they will think less of you.

·      You are often overworked and stressed because you’re overcommitted.

·      You hate to tell people no for fear they will be disappointed.

·      If you can’t help someone or do what they want you to do, you feel guilty.

·      In fact, guilt is your near-constant companion.

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People Pleasing Is Not an Inherent Trait

The people-pleasing trait is different from the highly sensitive and introverted traits in one very important way: You’re not born with it. The tendency to be a people pleaser is something you usually learn early in life.

According to Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych., people pleasers were “influenced by very demanding parental expectations and/or criticism.”

She goes on to write that people pleasers are often (though not always) from “unhappy homes with high conflict or emotionally distant parents… Pleasers develop the behavior pattern of constantly trying to please others in order to avoid the displeasure of others and to get the important people in their lives to love them.”

At their core, people pleasers believe they have to “earn their worth and so they try hard to please others.”

Therapist Jay Reid (LPCC) adds that people pleasers often had self-absorbed parents who failed to see them as separate individuals and instead saw them as extensions of themselves. These children were often punished for asserting themselves and learned that they must be aware of others’ feelings at all times and act to protect them, thus squashing their own feelings and needs.

The Problem of Adding People Pleasing to the Mix

So here’s where it gets really difficult: When you’re a highly sensitive introvert who learned the people-pleasing trait in childhood, you’re going to tax yourself more than a highly sensitive introvert who’s not a people pleaser.

And that’s going to make life really tough.

Those of us who are highly sensitive introverts know that when we start to feel overwhelmed or exhausted, we need time alone to refuel. We understand that we need to schedule our work and activities in such a way as to avoid being overstimulated. When we do that, we increase our odds of enjoying happy, successful lives.

But throw people pleasing into the mix and it’s like tossing a wrecking ball into that quiet meditative sanctuary on the hill — it destroys everything.

That’s because people pleasing reigns supreme. Let’s say, as a highly sensitive introvert, you know you need some quiet time this weekend. But when your friend asks you to come to her loud, raucous party, your people-pleasing self agrees because you worry if you don’t go, you’ll disappoint her. You end up overstimulated and exhausted because of it.

Or, let’s say you’ve been working a lot of overtime and you can feel fatigue in your bones. You plan to go home early on Friday when your boss asks you to stay late…and come in on Saturday. Your people-pleasing self agrees to make your boss happy, yet you end up coming down with a cold on Sunday because you overtaxed yourself.

You may be well aware of what your highly sensitive introverted self needs at these times, but it won’t matter because the people-pleasing part of you rules. It’s like the biggest bully on campus, and no matter what, you feel you have to do what it says…or else.

How Highly Sensitive Introverts Can Tame the People-Pleasing Bully

Consider this: While your highly sensitive and introverted traits have clear benefits and gifts to give you, people pleasing doesn’t. 

You can learn to love and accept this part of yourself, but realize that when it shows up, it’s not for your benefit. Instead, it usually appears because you’re afraid of losing someone’s approval, and it’s likely to leave you feeling tired, wrung-out, overstimulated, and unworthy.

To get back to honoring yourself and what you need, the best approach is to learn how to:

a)     recognize the people-pleasing bully when it comes into the room, and

b)    promptly show it to the door.

Here are seven steps to help you do that.

1. Accept the bully.

First, realize that it’s not your fault you ended up a people pleaser. Something happened in your life to cause you to develop this coping technique. It was something you needed at the time, but now you can let it go.

Think of this bully like any other — an insecure part of yourself that needs your help. Rather than feel bad about it, try to appreciate how it helped you as a child. Then gently ask it to step aside.

2. Tune into your fearful feelings.

Watch your interactions carefully. When you feel anxious or fearful, that’s usually a sign that your people-pleasing bully is around.

Let’s say someone asks you to do something. You immediately feel anxious because you don’t want to do it, but you’re afraid of disappointing the person. You may have shortness of breath, feel butterflies in your tummy, or find the hairs standing up on the back of your neck.

When you sense these feelings, imagine a big yellow caution sign appears. You must be careful! Stop before you do or say anything and go on to the next step.

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3. Assure the bully that it’s not alone.

Next, acknowledge that the people-pleasing bully has shown up because it is afraid and believes you are in a risky situation. It’s trying to direct you to behave in such a way as to keep you safe.

It may be afraid of rejection, disapproval, isolation, humiliation, or any other potential negative outcome when interacting with others.

Your job at that point is to reassure this part of yourself that you will be okay no matter what. You are no longer a child. You can handle this situation now and keep yourself safe. You don’t need the people-pleasing bully’s help.

4. Say, “Let me check my schedule.”

One of the most effective ways I’ve found to counteract my people-pleasing tendencies is to say these words: “Let me check my schedule.” I also use, “I’ll get back to you” a lot.

That’s because these words give you one thing you need: time.

Time gives you a chance to calm your fear and think through the situation. You can tune into your own feelings and find out if this is something you want to do or not. Set the people-pleasing bully aside and ask yourself how you feel about this.

People pleasers need time to figure out their own feelings. We’re used to thinking about others’ feelings — particularly when we’re also highly sensitive — but it can be harder to figure out how we feel about something.

Give yourself the time you need, then give your answer. Another nice thing about this approach is that it allows you to give your answer via email or text so you don’t have to face a potential confrontation.

5. Become more aware of how you respond.

We often think that when we squash our own needs to do what others want us to do, they remain unaware of it. But that’s not usually the case.

That’s because we usually show our displeasure in some way. You may be frustrated at having to stay late when you need the rest or irritated that you’re once again going to a friend’s party that you don’t want to go to. You may become silently resentful of others, particularly if you feel taken advantage of.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., writes in Greater Good Magazine that when we people please, we’re not fooling anyone:

“We humans aren’t actually very good at hiding how we are feeling. We exhibit micro-expressions that the people we are with might not know they are registering but that trigger mirror neurons — so a little part of their brain thinks that they are feeling our negative feelings. So trying to suppress negative emotions when we are talking with someone…actually increases stress levels of both people…”

Spend the next few weeks tuning in to the messages you may be sending when you do things solely to please others. The goal is to realize over time that this isn’t helping you or them.

6. Set your priorities and stick to them.

What are your priorities in life?

If it’s been a while since you’ve thought about them, take some time to write them down. Choose 5-10 priorities — those things that are most important in your life.

Then the next time someone asks you to do something, you can use your “I’ll get back to you” phrase and then check in with your priorities. Ask yourself if you can fit this in while still honoring those activities that are critical to your happiness and wellbeing.

Sometimes remembering what matters in your life is just what you need to face any fear you may have about disappointing others.

7. Be willing to be brave.

If you’re a highly sensitive introvert, you’re already brave. You’ve learned how to stay true to yourself in a busy, noisy, largely extroverted world.

Now you need to use your courage to face the people-pleasing bully. It wants you to believe that if you don’t do as it says — i.e., consistently ignore your own needs to serve the needs of others — you will turn others away from you and end up isolated and unsafe.

This is the fear that comes up in every situation where you feel you have to please others no matter what, and it’s a serious fear. No one wants to be alone. But it helps if you realize that your people-pleasing bully is always exaggerating this fear, as it’s coming from your inner child’s point of view. You’re an adult now, and you know that one interaction is not going to destroy your life.

At first, you’ll have to brave this fear. You may worry that saying no will destroy the relationship, how others see you, or your standing at your job. But this is rarely the case.

Most of the time, you’re more worried about your actions than what the other person or party will do. Be willing to try standing up for yourself and honoring your needs and see what happens. It may seem scary at first, but every time you do it, you’ll grow stronger and more confident.

And who knows? Before long, you may find that you’ve defeated the people-pleasing bully…for good.

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