Empaths, HSP, and People Pleasing in Relationships
As someone who is highly sensitive and/or an empath, you are empathic, intuitive, creative, and highly attuned to others. However, these natural gifts mean that you may also be susceptible to people pleasing!
People pleasing is a pattern of feelings, communication, and behavior that caters towards appeasing another person. This pattern shows up across many relationships. When you people please, you abandon your own needs, feelings, and boundaries in favor of another’s. This can look like agreeing to do something when you know you do not have the capacity right now. Or it can look like feeling responsibility to care for other’s difficult emotions, regardless of if you have the emotional space to do so. It can also look like relying on your skills as an HSP and empath to intuit what the other person needs or wants from you.
Signs of people pleasing include:
- Difficulty saying no
- Feeling disconnected from your own feelings, needs, and boundaries
- Over-responsibility for other’s feelings and needs
- Intense fear of being disliked
- Conflict avoidance
- Rumination over conversations and interactions to determine “what you did wrong”
- Putting other’s feelings, needs, and boundaries above your own
- Feelings of self worth tied up in other’s happiness
Why Do We People Please?
People pleasing can develop for many different reasons. For HSPs and empaths, people pleasing tends to develop as a coping pattern for their neurodivergent traits. Yet in some cultural contexts, people pleasing is considered the norm and an expected way of being. This is more common within community centered rather than individualistic societies. In this context, people pleasing is more about honoring the societal values and the common good. Additionally, it may or may not be experienced as a problem depending on the person’s experience and circumstances.
In contrast, in individualistic societies, people pleasing is often both a gendered, racial, and class based experience. It can be expected and seen as the norm for marginalized communities. Additionally, it can be a way of staying safe in imbalanced, harmful, or oppressive situations and relationships. In this context, people pleasing is actually a survival skill, used by many identities and communities to survive. Additionally, for folks have who have experienced abuse, people pleasing also tends to show up as a survival skill. These are some key differences to be aware of when looking at why and how people pleasing shows up in you.
People Pleasing as a Coping Pattern
For HSP and empaths, people pleasing is often connected to the emotional overwhelm of experiencing other’s emotions as your own. Because HSP and empaths are less able to filter out the emotional and energetic state of other people, they are more likely to experience emotional flooding, dysregulation, and sensory overwhelm. Additionally, HSP and empaths experience emotions more deeply. Therefore the discomfort that can come from saying no or setting a boundary can feel intolerable. Lastly, HSP and empaths are likely to feel deeper distress at any sign of a problem within relationships. This leads them to avoid their feelings and needs.
This predisposes HSP and empaths to becoming people pleasers, as a way of trying to navigate their world using the skills that come naturally to them. In this context, people pleasing is a way of taking care of other people in order for you to feel regulated and comfortable.
People Pleasing as a Survival Skill
However, for folks who have experienced oppression and abuse within relationships, people pleasing becomes a form of survival. This survival skill often goes along with hypervigilance in relationships. Hypervigilance can look like being unconsciously alert for changes in tone, energy, and emotion in the other person. Further, it reminds you of all the times in the past where this has been a sign of something wrong or dangerous about to happen. People pleasing makes you try to take care of this person. The unconscious intention is to prevent something bad from happening.
For example, let’s say you notice your friend seems a bit off while you are together. You start to feel unconsciously threatened, like something bad is about to happen. Memories of similar situations pop up in your unconscious mind. It becomes difficult to differentiate between the situation in front of you and the past. Lastly, your body takes over and scans for a survival skill it decides is appropriate to this situation. This all happens without you knowing. Finally, you find yourself making assumptions about what is happening and what your friend needs. You start trying to provide for those needs, without ever addressing the situation with your friend. This all happens in seconds, and you may not even be aware of it till it’s done.
Why is People Pleasing Harmful?
When you people please you abandon your own boundaries, needs, limits, and wants in favor of taking care of others. This pattern prevents you from discovering and knowing who you truly are and what you need in relationships. Similarly, it prevents you from recognizing your boundaries and addressing them with others. Not having a clear sense of self, needs, and boundaries contributes to chronic anxiety, resentment, depletion and overwhlem.
Additionally, people pleasing negatively affects your capacity to form authentic, regulated, intimate relationships. If your sense of self worth is tied to pleasing those around you, it becomes almost impossible to feel emotionally safe and secure. Becuase your sense of safety is tied to other’s happiness, you can become anxious, resentful, and dismissive of your own needs.
Healing from People Pleasing
If this post resonates with you and you think you may be a people pleaser, you aren’t alone. This pattern of relating to others is quite common among HSP, empaths, LGBTQA folx, and other marginalized communities. It’s important to differentiate between community focused belief systems that can seem like people pleasing but may not be a problem for you, from people pleasing that is a problem. Often times people pleasing becomes a problem when it is based on your own experiences of being an HSP or empath. Additionally, in situations of oppression and abuse, people pleasing can be a survival skill. These types of people pleasing can be healed and unlearned in order to help you create more equally nourishing and balanced relationships.
Look for more posts in the relationship series for tips on unlearning patterns that do not nourish you, and cultivating your own secure and embodied relational style. Additionally, look for posts in the HSP and Empath series for further support tips on healing from anxiety, hypervigilance, and overwhelm.
As always, if you would like support on exploring how to thrive as an empath, intuitive, or highly sensitive person, I am here for you. Please feel welcomed to reach out. As a queer, enby, empath, and highly sensitive therapist, I deeply understand the challenges of this journey. I would be honored to support you.