HSP Living: Thoughts on being Highly Sensitive, a People Pleaser and a "Nice" Person
This article is part of an ongoing series about the ins, outs, joys and challenges of living as a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP. If you are not entirely sure whether you're highly sensitive-- or even what an HSP is-- I recommend reading "The Highly Sensitive Person: An Introduction," which offers a broad overview of the trait, as well as links to sensitivity self tests.
"Highly Sensitive People are Nice:" Fact... or Myth?
It is a fairly common belief within the global HSP community that if you're highly sensitive, you're automatically a "nice person." Part of the reasoning is that HSPs tend to be very empathic, and if you feel empathy for others, you'd wish them no harm. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that idea-- after all, it's probably a fairly universal desire to want to be considered nice by one's peers.
But what exactly is "nice?" And what does "being nice" mean... to you? And how does this "niceness" affect your life?
If you think about it, "nice" is a pretty nebulous and vague term, much like "fun."
Before digging deeper into this issue, I feel it's important to point out that HSPs-- just like any other group of people-- are unique and different individuals. That is, we're not "all the same." Being highly sensitive doesn't necessarily "make us" anything other than "highly sensitive"-- be that nice, funny, tall, charming, allergic, athletic, grumpy or blue-eyed.
And when it comes to "niceness," some HSPs will-- by nature-- have pleasant and agreeable personalities, while others may be somewhat abrasive or blunt or otherwise unpleasant in their manner.
About being a Highly Sensitive Person
People think of many things in response to the phrase "Highly Sensitive Person." In THIS article, the ideas presented center on Dr. Elaine Aron's landmark book from 1996. If you are reading these words and are NOT familiar with Dr. Aron's work, PLEASE consider getting this book! It changed my entire perspective on myself and my life, and I believe it has the capacity to change yours, as well!
But doesn't 'Being Sensitive' pretty much imply niceness?
"But doesn't 'being sensitive' pretty much imply niceness?" you might be thinking.
To a degree, that may be true. But let's take a moment to reflect on what the HSP trait really means: It means we get easily overstimulated; it means we may be very sensitive to sounds, bright light, smells, chemicals, the sun, caffeine, foods, pollen, pet dander. It typically also means we're deeply intuitive and tuned into other people's feelings and emotions-- and often we're very idealistic.
I will add here, that my definition of "Highly Sensitive" is derived from Dr. Elaine Aron's work on this topic-- there are many other "cultural definitions" of sensitivity, some of which differ considerably from hers.
The "niceness association" generally comes from the idea that because many HSPs are deeply empathic, they wouldn't wish suffering on others. That's certainly true. But it's a bit of an incomplete picture.
In essence-- nowhere does it directly say that "HSPs are nice." In fact, I have attended workshops by Dr. Elaine Aron where she-- herself-- stated that some HSPs can be truly "difficult people" to deal with. What is true, however, is that HSPs are very aware of others'-- and their own-- feelings and pain... and thus are loath to cause others pain or discomfort.
Idealism and Niceness: exactly WHY are you being so nice?
It may come as a surprise to some that not all niceness is rooted in altruism or kind thinking.
Sometimes we do things simply because they are a learned "survival skill." In essence, there is nothing wrong with that... until it becomes a pervasive pattern that causes ourselves pain, in service of not causing others pain. It might be time to pause and consider whether this survival tactic (from childhood?) is still relevant to our current situation.
Sometimes, our less-than-stellar behaviors also become an integrated part of a self-image-- for example, you have a strong attachment to the idea that you're a "nice person," and that the world "sees" you as such... even if you don't actually "feel like" being nice, at all. That can be a difficult thing to admit to... but if you recognize this type of feeling (even "secretly") it can be an invitation to take a moment to examine the nature of your niceness. The truth is, "being nice" isn't always a very nice thing.
When "Nice" isn't so Nice...
It's one thing to simply have a kind heart and an idealistic spirit that inspires you to do good and take "right action" whenever you can. It becomes a very different matter when "being nice" is actually a "tool" you use to subtly manipulate others to "change their behaviors" to suit you, or as a result of fears that you "won't be liked" if you conduct yourself as "your authentic self" in the world.
Now, please don't misunderstand my intent here. There's nothing wrong with being a nice person-- the world would be a better place, if people were nicer to each other. "Nice" isn't something that needs "curing" or "fixing," unless.... it is a "fabricated behavior" used to gloss over deeper personal issues and dysfunctions.
Problems arise when people "lose themselves" in service of being nice-- in an attempt to get everyone to like them. A major issue becomes that it can quickly become emotionally crippling when we continually "stuff" our genuine feelings about work, people, ideas and things because we harbor underlying fears that it wouldn't be "nice" to speak the truth-- even if done with kindness and compassion. In addition, we may end up feeling frustrated and taken advantage up when the rest of the world perceives that we are "always going to be nice," no matter what.
If any of the preceding "rings true," take a moment to examine your deeper motivations for being "nice."
Life lesson: Not everyone is going to like you-- and attempting to get everyone to like you is an exercise in futility and frustration.
A brilliant work on Codependence... Also for HSPs
Although it was written over 25 years ago, this remains one of THE definitive works on codependency, and it is as relevant for HSPs as for anyone else. I have read this, and have also seen it recommended by MANY HSPs who have struggled with the difficult issue of codependency.
HSPs, Fears and Codependence
Many highly sensitive people grow up in unhealthy, dysfunctional and chaotic families, where their sensitive natures are either not recognized, or not supported. Because HSPs are typically soft-spoken and gentle souls, they can easily end up feeling "drowned" out by the louder voices and more forceful personalities of other non-HSP family members.
In addition, since arguments tend to evoke strong feelings and thus easily become overstimulating for HSPs, many of us tend to be conflict-avoidant.
To compensate, one (very valid, I might add!) "survival strategy"-- which I used, myself, as a child-- is to make yourself "easy to get along with," and "always available" to soothe ruffled feathers and deal with the issues and problems that made other people frustrated and angry. In a way, it allows us to feel more "connected," because we reason that even if we're not fully accepted, at least we're needed.
In childhood and youth, this is a perfectly valid survival strategy-- after all, we don't really have the option to "just up and leave" when we're kids. The problem is that we put ourselves into a position where our own needs are seldom met-- and that eventually leads to frustration, buried anger and even depression. In HS children, that may manifest as the "well-behaved and compliant child" who once in a great while suddenly explodes and "acts out" in ways-- and with a force-- that seems disproportionate to the triggering event.
This can become a more serious issue when we later find ourselves in adulthood-- now as fully autonomous human beings-- reliving the old patterns from childhood. Sadly, we often end up in situations where our old "niceness" strategy leave us trapped in relationships and friendships where we perpetually allow ourselves to be treated badly and disrespectfully.
Because we have grown up to become adults who are afraid that people will "not like us," or might "abandon us" if we are not "nice" all the time.
A HIGHLY recommended book for those HSPs who struggle with being "too nice."
A lot of people don't like this book. I didn't like this book... at first. The reason being that it can be difficult-- and even feel a little offensive-- to examine "people pleasing" in the context of being a serious psychological issue. The typical defense is "Seriously? I am just being NICE!" Maybe so... but at what "cost?" If-- in your quiet moments-- "nice" actually doesn't FEEL GOOD, then something IS wrong. This is a very powerful book... IF you're ready to do the work. Highly recommended for HSPs!
HSPs and "The Disease to Please"
The book "The Disease to Please" (inset at right) offered me many breakthrough moments in my own struggles with being "TOO nice." My personal healing journey involved breaking away from an unhealthy belief pattern that people would perceive me as "a nuisance" or "inconvenient" if I didn't agree with them all the time, and didn't do what they wanted all the time.
In my own mind, I labeled this codependent behavior as "just being nice."
Ideologically, my intentions were good-- I believe in compassion and kindness. Many do. However, I had a subconscious "...at ANY cost" motivation attached to my niceness and kindness, a reflection of underlying fears and a complete lack of healthy personal boundaries.
You might still be wondering if that's "all bad," and why someone would view being nice in anything but a positive light. After all, we encounter "users" everywhere in life... right?
My "dirty little secret" (which is certainly not unique to me!) was that I was not an "innocent bystander" in the process-- in fact, my niceness was a carefully crafted manipulation, rooted in childhood abandonment fears. On a subconscious level, my behavior was actually engineered to make me "indispensable" in other people's lives... in such a way that they would find it very difficult to cut ties with me-- a prime example of how "nice" isn't always very nice. My inner reasoning was that if I was "indispensable," I wouldn't be abandoned.
In many ways, I definitely succeeded at "not being abandoned," but I failed miserably at liking myself and my life.
We all have our own "stories," and yours is probably different from mine-- the above is merely an example. And I'll reiterate that authentic niceness isn't something that needs to be "fixed;" we're only talking about unhealthy and "compulsive niceness" here.
Life lesson: Learn to recognize that being a people-pleaser and being "authentically nice" isn't always the same thing... especially when people pleasing becomes a manipulative tool or makes us feel bad.
A Tough HSP Issue: Healthy Boundaries
I am generally a fan of Anne Katherine's work, and this is a good introductory book on the topic of boundaries. One of the better books about boundaries out there, and well worth a read. My only "issue" with it is the author's somewhat "gender centric" perceptions about "good" (aka female) and "bad" (male) people. Some more "advanced" students on the path to self-discovery may find it a little too "basic."
HSPs, Niceness and Blame
So far, we've briefly examined some possible relationships we have with the concept of "being nice." It's an incredibly complex issue, and definitely not something that can be covered comprehensively in a relatively short article such as this.
Before moving on, let's touch on a related issue, namely placing blame on others we perceive as not nice.
It is perhaps part of human nature-- not specific to HSPs-- that we have an impulse to vilify those who say and do things we don't like, and/or who challenge our established sense of reality, perception or self-image. One way we "deal with" such challenges to our ideas is by (often unjustly) labeling such a person as "not nice."
In fact, there are probably some who are reading this article and drawing the conclusion that I am "not nice" or "not really an HSP" because I am "daring" to challenge their established status quo, when it comes to the perceptions of niceness.
When we feel "the urge to blame," it is important to distinguish between others' actual abusive behavior (which is never OK!) and the urge to lash out and label someone "not nice" simply because one of our closely held beliefs or perceptions has been challenged-- whether justly or unjustly. Fact is, sometimes we cling to beliefs that are simply not true-- but they are familiar, so we'll get angry with someone who (even gently) suggests that things are perhaps not as we believe, or want them to be.
It's sometimes a difficult lesson to learn, but it does NOT make another person "not nice," simply because their opinions or words force us outside our "comfort zones."
Mindful thinking and communication not only takes practice, it can be quite challenging. I have found it helpful to remember one of the fundamental tenets of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) which states: "One cannot force others to feel, think or act the way one wishes."
Life lesson: Another person isn't necessarily "bad" or "not nice" just because they don't agree with our perceptions... and their disagreement doesn't necessarily "make them abusive."
Communicating without Reacting
Although HSPs generally have excellent communication skills, one of the great challenges we face-- due to our "deep processing"-- is a tendency to "get hurt" and then "react" to our feelings, rather than "respond" to dialogue. As part of my own journey to be at peace as a Highly Sensitive Person, I have learned many of the basic tenets of Non-Violent Communication... and always recommend this book to HSPs, as part of their personal growth process.
HSPs, Strong Feelings, Reacting and Communication
Many HSPs struggle with the idea that a person can be "nice" and "sensitive," even if they are also "assertive" and have "strong boundaries."
I have previously written about HSPs and ways to manage our strong feelings: How do we "respond," rather than "react" in challenging situations? The article takes on that topic in some detail-- so I won't go into great detail-- but a few points bear mentioning here:
I'll leave you with a couple of thoughts:
Many of us operate under the mistaken notion that "assertiveness" means being pushy, loud and "in someone's face." Maybe we had some so-called "assertive" people in our lives, and they rubbed us the wrong way, with the way they always seemed to "force" their ways on others.
That's not really what assertiveness IS-- that's actually "bullying," to some degree.
We do not have to become bullies, or be "loud," in order to be assertive. Non-Violent Communication (or NVC for short) is popular with many HSPs (myself included) because it is excellent as a problem solving tool in difficult situations, yet it remains non-forceful and non-judgmental which appeals to the nature of most HSPs.
Although HSPs typically are good communicators, we are often easily triggered into "fight or flight" mode... which makes us more "reactive" than "responsive."
NVC doesn't ask us to "not feel out feelings," it simply offers some good tools to work with our feelings which in a debate/conflict, rather than become overwhelmed by them. Like all "tools" in our personal toolbox, study and practice is important... but very much worth it!
The reason I bring up NVC in the context of this article, is that it offers a "gentle" way assert ourselves and maintain healthy boundaries.
Gentle Wisdom for HSPs
The reason I am a big fan of Don Migues Ruiz, "The Four Agreements" and his other books is that these are short and very "kind" books, highly appropriate for HSPs. The simple teachings help us be more mindful in our interactions with others. As HSPs, we often "react" rather than "respond," and we "overcomplexify" the simplest of situations. This is a beautiful little book... and yes, sometimes it just IS "That Simple."
Being TRULY Nice... ultimately means Being YOURSELF
If you take a moment to think about the nicest people you know-- and have known-- odds are they are the people who are deeply and genuinely true to themselves. Their "nicety" arises not from trying to impress or please other people, but because they are comfortable with themselves as people, and simply feel compelled to "do right" in the world.
They also tend to maintain really healthy personal boundaries-- a major part of which involves not giving others "permission" to treat them badly. At the same time, they tend to be open-minded, and always ready to consider that challenges to their perceptions and beliefs may have validity, and-- at the very least-- could teach them something new.
There are no easy answers for HSPs, when it comes to being nice people and setting healthy personal boundaries. Sometimes we genuinely are "innocent" bystanders... at other times what we're really "victims" of is our own idealistic natures-- a constant belief in the general goodness of all people. Which is simply not true
If a healing journey is needed, it usually must begin with simple awareness of what exactly motivates us. If our niceness feels like a burden, we must ask the difficult questions that go with ascertaining why we feel that way, That can be challenging to look at, because we may not like the truth we find, when we look within-- sometimes that truth can clash with our established sense of self or self-image. However, pretty much all people have both "light" and "dark" within them... simply pretending that the dark corners "don't exist" does not make them disappear.
Just remember this: We all deserve to feel good about ourselves and our lives. And a large part of that comes from having a healthy relationship with our idealistic, often kind-hearted and "nice" natures!
I've added links to a few books throughout this article. They are not there as a "sales pitch," but because they all have been important parts of my own journey to self-understanding... a journey which continues, even 18 years after learning I was a Highly Sensitive Person.
A footnote that probably won't apply to you...
Thank you for reading!
If this article annoyed you, or even angered you... and you're seriously considering sending me a nasty email or leaving an angry comment... I invite you to pause for a moment to reflect before clicking that "send" button.
Rather that "react" to your feelings, in this moment, please consider that this article isn't a blanket statement about "all HSPs," only about those who may have an unhealthy relationship with possible attachments to being "nice people."
Also, if you are "all fired up," I invite you to pause and ask yourself "WHY?" What points raised made you feel angry, and what does that anger suggest about your own relationship with niceness? And if-- as may be the case-- they are NOT true of you, what bothers you about the words being here for those of whom they are true, and who may really need to read them?
Thank you for your consideration!
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© 2012 Peter Messerschmidt