Why Highly Sensitive People Tend to Be People-Pleasers — and How to Stop

Portrait shot of a highly sensitive woman

For HSPs, receiving validation and acceptance feels incredible — until it lands you in the “People-Pleaser Trap.”

Let’s say you find yourself working late on a Friday night… again. Your boss would really like to review the report you’re working on over the weekend. You have dinner plans with friends — it’s the one night of the week you get to see them — but you cancel. Again. After all, your boss is so nice, you love your job, and promotions are coming up, so… what’s one more Friday night sacrificed?

But it’s not just one Friday night. Every time they ask you to stay late or do extra work, you happily agree. You’re feeling overwhelmed and burned out, but the thought of telling your boss feels out of the question. You may think, I don’t want them to think I can’t handle things or that they can’t count on me. In essence, you want to feel worthy and want approval, and don’t want your boss to feel disappointed in you. A part of you is looking for these things from your boss, this external validation, as you may not feel confident within yourself regarding the worth and value you bring to the table. So you continue to say “Yes” — to everything they ask — even though you’d like to have a better work-life balance.

But how can you still please your boss, and others, without being a “people-pleaser,” per se? How can you stop saying “Yes” all the time? Isn’t people-pleasing simply being kind and helpful, or is there more to it? How might you know if you are a people-pleaser? And why does this seem to be common among highly sensitive people (HSPs)? Let’s take a look at each of these things.

What Is People-Pleasing?

Before we get more into people-pleasing — and why HSPs tend to do it — let’s look at a dictionary definition of this term. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines people-pleasing as: “someone or something that pleases or wants to please people; a person who has an emotional need to please others often at the expense of his or her own needs or desires.” PsychCentral also notes that it’s more of a need to belong and deep-rooted in your DNA.

Hmmm, interesting! Well, as you can see, this may seem like someone just wants to be kind and helpful. They can always be counted on to say “Yes!” to requests and tasks, and are generally quite agreeable. You may notice this in work settings, relationships, families, and more.

To the people-pleaser themselves, this may be something that feels really good. It’s a nice feeling to know you are “wanted” and able to help someone — as though you’re helping to make their life a bit easier. Plus, you don’t want to disappoint them. However, if we dive a bit deeper here, there is also an emotional need that is playing a role. After all, the last part of the definition reads “often at the expense of his or her own needs and desires.” This is the critical part of what defines people-pleasing.

These emotional needs in the people-pleaser generally reside more so in the subconscious mind. This means that those additional motivators and experiences that occur as part of people-pleasing are beneath the surface and aren’t always apparent to others. And, oftentimes, they’re often not even apparent to the people-pleaser themselves. So what is the unconscious motivation for the people-pleaser? 

Here are some examples:

  • To feel liked
  • To feel appreciated
  • To feel loved and accepted
  • To feel wanted
  • To feel seen
  • To feel worthy
  • To feel safe in that others won’t leave them (fear of abandonment)
  • To receive validation or gain approval
  • To know others won’t be upset with them (i.e., fear of getting in trouble, being criticized, or disappointing others)
  • To be viewed as reliable and someone to be counted on

As a psychotherapist, people-pleasing is definitely a topic that has made its way into the therapy room. Sometimes it’s from the person who identifies as a people-pleaser. They feel awful even thinking about saying “no” or letting someone else down, and often the idea of this gives them anxiety. But, after a while, I’ve found it takes a toll on them. They are giving so much of themselves in this people-pleasing space that they have little time/energy/you-name-it left for themselves.

And, in another context which I feel is important to mention, I’ve also heard from people who experience some irritation toward people-pleasers in their life. In a similar way, at first, it may feel good that they may come across as so agreeable and eager-to-please — but this also leads to frustration. An example that I’ve heard is, “I just want Joe to say what he really thinks and not simply say and do what he thinks I want to hear.”

The Main Difference Between People-Pleasing and Being Kind

This is an important question and one the people-pleaser often asks themselves as they begin to reflect more on their patterns of behavior. Being kind and helping others is certainly an admirable trait. If you are helping others because it truly feels good, that is not a bad thing at all. 

It becomes detrimental, however, when you find yourself asking, “I don’t really want to do this, but what will happen if I say no?” You may answer with, “What if they’re mad at me?” “What if they don’t like me? “What if they no longer want to be friends with me?” “What if I get in trouble?” “What if they stop asking me for help?” And so on.

So if these questions pop up in your mind and you feel like you “need” to say yes in order to “avoid a bad feeling or circumstance,” this is when it becomes a concern. And it’s a concern because when you say yes from a space of fear vs. really wanting to say yes, you will eventually become resentful. This means you are giving from a space at the expense of your own needs and desires. Which takes us to our next point…

Why Is People-Pleasing Unhealthy?

Let’s look at the emotional cost of people-pleasing tendencies. A challenging part of it is that the people-pleaser might not have a full awareness of this cost until it’s too late. The people-pleaser is often saying yes initially because they want to. But, in diving deeper again, there is a part of them that’s trying to protect them from something. So engaging in people-pleasing behaviors serves a deeper need.

Let’s look at an example. Timothy grew up in a household where the only way he could receive his mother’s approval was by saying yes to each of her requests — which, essentially, pleased her. When she was upset with him, he could feel it so deeply due to his HSP nature, so he continued to do all he could to avoid disappointing her. So now, in his adult relationships, this same unhealthy pattern continues to show up for him. Timothy did not realize this connection until he started going to therapy, which helped him better understand this pattern. He now has a conscious awareness of it and is able to make changes and recognize when he’s people-pleasing.

Essentially, people-pleasing feels good… until it doesn’t. If you think about it, it’s really just a temporary feeling, as how you feel tends to be tied into the other person’s response. There’s also a shift that tends to happen for the people-pleaser: they start to feel resentful, especially if, after a while, they aren’t receiving appreciation or validation from their actions. Have you noticed that for yourself? It then turns into a feeling of being unappreciated and taken advantage of rather than continuing to want to please. For example, Jerry may say to his wife, “I go out of my way to help you. It would be nice to get a ‘thank-you’ every once in a while.”

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Why HSPs Are Often People-Pleasers

Many highly sensitive people have spent a majority of their lives feeling different or as though something is “wrong” with them for being so deeply sensitive. So, receiving validation, acceptance, or feeling needed by someone feels incredibly good. In knowing this, it makes sense why HSPs would gravitate toward people-pleasing or overextending themselves to help others. 

Here are some signs you might be a people-pleaser:

  • You want (and need) to be liked
  • You find yourself seeking out external validation
  • You feel guilty about saying no
  • You worry about what people think of you (or will think of you)
  • You over-apologize
  • You’re afraid of being criticized or doing the wrong thing
  • You tend to avoid conflict 
  • You find yourself saying yes to things, even if you don’t really want to, deep down

If you recognize that you’re doing some of these things, the good news is, you can work on changing them — either on your own, with a therapist, or both.

How to Change People-Pleasing Behavior 

Initially, it may not be easy to change your people-pleasing ways since they’re so ingrained in your being. But, like with anything, it just takes practice. And then more practice. Here are six things to keep in mind.

  • Become aware of your people-pleasing tendencies. If it tends to happen frequently, then it’s safe to say it may be a pattern for you. It’s okay to acknowledge this, as it’s a pattern that you learned over time that’s helped you in some way. 
  • Ask yourself, “What will they think if I say no?” Whether you think of one thing they may think, or many, really think this through.
  • Ask yourself, “What does this say about me if I say no?” This is a crucial question to mull over. Write down everything that comes to mind.
  • Ask yourself if your belief from the above is truly accurate. You may think they’ll get mad at you or be disappointed in you, but this is probably not the case at all. (It’s likely more about you than them. You don’t want to disappoint them if you say no to working late on a Friday night, but if you say you have dinner plans, you’re exercising your boundaries and they’ll probably respect you more for this, if that makes sense.)
  • Start practicing some soft “no”s. For example, say, “I can’t do this now, but maybe later I can help.” This helps you test out how it feels, as you’re preparing to make changes. And the more you practice these soft “no”s, the easier it will be to practice — and then put into practice — the harder “no”s.
  • Work with a therapist on self-love, self-esteem, and truly believing that your needs are valid. This is a belief that needs to come from within you. This will help you feel more comfortable in setting boundaries and staying true to you and your values (like time with friends on Friday nights — or even time to just do “nothing” and have some you-time). When you live in integrity with yourself, this is what’s sustainable vs. the temporary relief from pleasing others (i.e., finishing that report on a Friday night).

Remember, it’s important to know that it’s safe — and healthy — to put your needs first. Those who care about you will respect this choice (and your boundaries) and encourage you to continue doing so. And who knows? They may even be inspired to do the same.

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