Why Highly Sensitive People Are Prone to Developing People-Pleasing Behaviors (And How to Break the Cycle)
Do you have a need to please?
People-pleasing is a common coping mechanism for highly sensitive people (HSPs).
Harriet B. Braiker, Ph.D. was a clinical psychologist and author of the best-selling book, The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome.
In her book, Braiker stresses the dangers of developing a people-pleasing mindset as a self-fulfilling prophecy and goes as far as to call this detrimental mindset a disease.
Though I don’t fully agree in calling people-pleasing a disease per se, it is a self-destructive behavior influenced by unhealthy beliefs and coping mechanisms built to protect ourselves from emotional harm.
Since several factors can influence the need to please, a people-pleasing mindset is easy to “misdiagnose” or left untreated.
In the short term, people-pleasing can protect you from uncomfortable feelings, confrontation, and uncomfortable experiences.
But in the long term, it holds you back from:
Developing a career and feeling fulfilled
Building a loving and trusting long-term relationship
Caring for others in a healthy manner
Ultimately, an untreated people-pleasing mindset can take a toll on your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
So what exactly causes the need to please? And when does it become detrimental on our overall well-being?
This essay breaks down how our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors make up the people-pleasing syndrome.
What drives the need to please?
On the surface, people-pleasers are considered flexible, agreeable, and of course — “nice.”
Initially, being a people-pleaser can seem harmless. You’re always willing to help out, make a situation easier for all parties involved, and pride yourself by being fully available for others.
But if you’re not careful about what’s driving your motivation to please, it can do more damage than good to your emotional, physical, and mental health.
Sacrificing your own needs for the needs of others can be viewed as a responsibility or a call to duty — and this belief can be driven by a multitude of factors: spirituality, religion, culture, family values, learned experiences, etc.
This is where it gets challenging.
Giving to others is a good thing. In fact, being a giver leads to greater success than being someone who only takes from others.
But being a giver isn’t the problem; the need to please is. Being a people-pleaser versus showing up for others is driven by two entirely different motives.
Are you a giver or a people-pleaser?
The answer lies in what’s driving the need to please.
People-pleasing is a coping mechanism against dealing with hard situations and feeling negative emotions intensely.
But over time, this coping mechanism doesn’t protect you but rather pushes you closer to what you feared the most.
The more you avoid hard feelings by hiding behind the need to please, the more you’ll end up feeling worse than imagined.
With a people-pleasing mindset, you will end up in emotional debt.
If negative, painful, and hard feelings are not given the space they need to be heard, they’ll soon speak louder.
Eventually, the emotional debt collectors will show up in your mind and body, which can cause anxiety, hormonal imbalance, and illness.
If you think you might be a people-pleaser, the first step in identifying what’s driving your need to please to building more self-awareness.
Let’s take a look at the three primary symptoms of the people-pleasing mindset.
The people-pleasing syndrome
There are three primary symptoms (or causes) of people-pleasing that operate together:
Depending on your past experiences, relationships personality, and other factors — one symptom might dominate over the other.
But in most cases, the people-pleasing cycle looks like this:
Thoughts trigger an emotion, which lead to a feeling. And our behaviors are influenced by how we feel.
But if you’re an HSP, you might find that your feelings that derive from thoughts are what causes you to please.
Whether it’s your thoughts, emotions, or behaviors that initiated the need to please, all three symptoms feed off each other.
Think of it as a traffic circle — no matter how you enter into this devastating mindset, overtime you’ll end up in vicious circle unless you exit!
Navigating an unhealthy belief system
Our thoughts are driven by our beliefs and personal values.
So it’s no wonder the common gateway towards developing a people-pleasing mindset is our thoughts.
Here are some examples of how people-pleasing might be showing up in your thoughts:
“It’s important for me to be liked.”
“My needs take a backseat to the people I care about, or else it would be considered selfish.”
“I do too much for other people to avoid being rejected.”
“If I make others need me, I won’t be left behind.”
“I need to give all my time to others to be worthy of love, or else I’m a bad person.
If your people-pleasing thoughts are driven by old beliefs and values that no longer serve you, you will need to evaluate what is causing you to have negative thoughts.
Again, it all starts with self-awareness.
Flipping the script
During coaching sessions, I use storytelling to help my clients build self-awareness.
Storytelling is a powerful strategy in building self-awareness because it helps you identify the motives, values, and beliefs of the main character (you!) and how it all influences the script (your life).
When writing your own story, you’re given ownership to play the role you desire in life by getting in touch with the values, motives, and beliefs that serve you well.
According to Carol S. Pearson, there are six archetypes we play throughout our lives that influence how we think, feel, and do:
One of the most common archetypes that my sensitive clients relate to when they first start working with me is the Altruists.
Altruists are known to commit to something greater than themselves. They are driven by the greater good and believe that to make progressive change in the world, you must show up for others and make sacrifices along the way.
The most common example of an empowered Altruist is a parent who makes sacrifices for the sake of their child.
They also understand that in order to show up fully for their child, they must rest and take care of their own needs, so they have the energy to be fully present.
And anyone who has been in a serious romantic relationship knows that you have to make sacrifices and compromises to make the relationship work long term.
But people-pleasing can be a pseudo-altruist act if you give only to expect something in return.
When a people-pleaser is part of a relationship, there’s an unwritten contract.
As the people-pleaser in the relationship, you’ll make sure not to disappoint the other person and you expect them to never disappoint you (also known as codependency).
What’s really happening is the people-pleaser is asking the other person to spare them conflict or confrontation by giving everything they have to the other person.
It’s an unhealthy tradeoff and at the end, no one gains.
The expectation of receiving nothing but positive feedback from others is what creates a dangerous downward spiral for people-pleasers.
When this is the case, your need to please becomes a self-destructive act rather than an unselfish act.
People-pleasers therefore end up in the wrong plot playing the Orphan role (i.e., a martyr) rather than the empowered Altruist.
“While the Orphan seeks rescue from suffering and loss, the Altruist accepts them as potentially transformational.”
– Carol S. Pearson, author of The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By
If you’re a recovering people-pleaser, there is absolutely no shame.
It’s okay if your fear of conflict, disappointment, or trusting someone else fully pushed you in the wrong direction — which influenced your belief system.
The act of putting your needs before others might seem taboo and even uncomfortable. Why? Because you consider it a selfish act (which it certainly isn’t).
If you’re a woman and/or a person of color, it’s not uncommon to have learned this belief for survival.
Fortunately, things are changing for the better and putting out needs first is now considered an empowering habit that benefits us and others.
People-pleasing as an act of fear
Emotion-driven people-pleasing is caused by a fear of feeling a negative emotion intensely or taking ownership of another person’s bad feelings (due to our empathetic nature).
If you’re someone you feels deeply and has an empathetic nature, you might have learned to suppress hard emotions and make everyone else happy to protect yourself.
Unfortunately, using people-pleasing as a coping mechanism against feeling hards things can be detrimental to your health.
“People-pleasing habits actually intensify your fears, cripple your communication, impair your ‘people skills,’ and limit your range of emotional intelligence and know-how.”
Here are some truths of an emotion-driven people pleaser:
“I believe nothing good comes from conflict.”
“It’s easier to acknowledge negative feelings about myself than to express negative feelings toward others.”
“I almost never stand up to others because I don’t want to upset or make someone angry.”
“I feel anxious when I think about confronting someone.”
“I don’t like providing constructive criticism in case the other person gets angry or defensive about it.”
Though thoughts are what trigger an emotion, if you’re an HSP, you might find that the primary cause of your people-pleasing behavior is rooted in a fear of feeling a negative emotion, which then influences your thoughts long term.
In other words, it becomes a coping mechanism; a way to avoid feeling hard things.
Pleasing to avoid hard feelings and conflict
Sometimes, people-pleasing shows up in different parts of our lives.
For example, you might lack a sense of psychological safety at work, so you say “yes” to projects when you want to say no or you hold back from speaking up in meetings.
To make up for your need to please at work, you might show more assertiveness at home where you’re comfortable in expressing your emotions.
Whatever role triggers you to feel the need to please, it is often rooted in not only your belief system but past experiences that triggered a memorable, negative emotion.
Though it’s okay to feel hard things, if you felt as if you couldn’t express your emotions fully in a certain situation, it can lead to conflict or confrontation avoidance in similar situations in the future.
No hard feelings
If you grew up being told your emotions are too big or you’re too sensitive, people-pleasing others by withholding how you really feel is tied to your self-worth.
If you had parents who simply didn’t understand your sensitive trait (or worse — grew up in a household with a narcissist) you most likely experienced chronic invalidation — when a person finds that all their thoughts and feelings are judged or considered unworthy to express.
The people-pleasing HSP who has dealt with chronic invalidation oftentimes falls into the trap of people-pleasing due to a fear of:
A) Feeling negative emotions intensely
B) Feeling an intense emotion and believing you have no outlet for it
And if you’re an empathetic HSP, you do everything you can to ensure everyone else around you feels happy in fear that their negative emotions will impact you.
A common coping mechanism for avoiding unpleasant feelings is by keeping everyone around you happy, which makes you feel as if you’re in control.
Perhaps you are a child of divorce and you took on the role as the peacemaker.
You wanted to take away your parent’s pain, so you did everything you could to make them happy, such as excelling at school, making them laugh, going to bed on time, etc.
To make matters worse, maybe one or both of your parents took advantage of this and became co-dependent, toggling back and forth each other’s pain like a game of hot potato.
Like mentioned earlier, the need to please often comes from a good place.
But what happens when, over time, the expectation to make everyone around you happy starts to chip away at your needs and moves you further away from what you truly desire?
People-pleasing is an unhealthy habit
“We’ve become conditioned to compromise and shrink ourselves in order to be liked. The problem is, when you work so hard to get everyone to like you, you very often end up not liking yourself so much.”
― Reshma Saujani, author of Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder
Lastly, our thoughts and emotions can drive our behaviors.
Remember, thoughts create an emotion. Once we experience an emotion, our feelings then impact how we respond.
If you find yourself always seeking validation from outside yourself, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with feeling validated. If there was, I wouldn’t have a podcast called Valid Feelings!
But rather than showing up for others because you want to, you show up for others because you’re seeking validation.
There is a tremendous difference between being a giver versus giving primarily for your own self-interest.
One of the most common examples of behavior-driven people-pleasing is an inability to delegate.
Failing to delegate work and responsibility to others, at home and at the workplace, is actually a disservice to the people around you.
In most cases, if you’re surrounded by helpful, supportive people (a motivated team or a loving family) they most likely have a desire to take the lead on something — whether it’s your partner wanting to help out with dinner or a co-worker who would love to collaborate with you on a project.
But if you find yourself hoarding all the responsibilities, you might come off as someone who doesn’t trust anyone else but yourself.
Therefore you take on all the work only to feel resentment at the end.
It’s a lose-lose situation.
If you have ever heard yourself saying, “I do everything for this [company or person], and I never get anything in return!” Then it’s time to make a major shift in our thoughts and emotions to change our behaviors.
When you develop a need to be liked, rather than a desire to be liked, then you’ll continue to put your needs aside to make sure you’re perceived as needed.
After a while, this need to please through unhealthy behaviors becomes an addictive habit.
You will constantly give more and more in hopes you’ll get approval or praise. But soon enough, you’ll experience burnout and it will be a long road to recovery.
How to break the people-pleasing cycle
People-pleasing is an exhausting mindset.
It holds you back from feeling fulfilled at work and in your personal life, and in building stronger bonds with others.
Ultimately, it stunts personal and emotional growth.
So how do we break the cycle?
The first step is to recognize how it shows up for you — in your thoughts, in your emotions, and in your behaviors.
For an HSP, it’s often caused by believing that feeling a negative emotion is a bad thing, therefore we take on the role of being the “nice” person as a way to avoid negative feelings at all costs.
After all, nice people are accepted, loved, cared for, and feel happy all the time. Right?
Nice people are often taken advantage of and lose respect from others due to their people-pleasing behaviors. Though others might not consciously pick up on it, people-pleasing behavior is self-serving.
The world needs more kindness, but kindness is different than being nice.
Kindness is when we show up with a desire to serve others.
And we show up as our best selves because we believe that in order to give fully, we must take care of ourselves first so we have the energy to be present and giving.
“Nice” is driven by an emotional fear of:
Conflict or confrontation
When you’re nice, you’re not being true to yourself. You’re not showing up authentically, which is what the people who love you the most need from you — your fully present, authentic self.
Living unauthentically leads to low self-esteem, shame, and resentment.
But showing up as yourself, giving to others fully, and allowing your emotions to be expressed fully leads to greater self-esteem, confidence, and fulfillment.
If you consider yourself a people-pleaser, you’re not alone
So many of us have built this inauthentic version of ourselves as a coping mechanism for dealing with intense, negative emotions.
Believe me — I’m a recovering people-pleaser, but I’ve made the commitment to join PPA. That’s “people-pleaser anonymous” and yes, I just made that up.
Over the years, learning about my sensitive trait and practicing emotional regulation has helped me build healthier habits.
People-pleasing thoughts, emotions and behaviors still show up for me from time to time and it’s usually when I’m tired and feeling vulnerable.
It’s not about overcoming people-pleasing behavior cold turkey. If you’re a caregiving, thoughtful, and sensitive person — people pleasing can creep in when you’re the most vulnerable.
But if your people-pleasing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are disrupting your life and holding you back, rest assured there are tools, resources, and techniques you can use to break the cycle.
You don’t have to live with people-pleasing as your sole identity.
At Tonia Moon Coaching, I work with individuals to help them overcome common challenges HSPs in survival mode face:
If you’re struggling with a people-pleasing mindset and you’re ready to make some major shifts in how you show up for yourself and others, let’s chat!