Peter has written extensively about high sensitivity since 1997, when he first learned he was an HSP.
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
Are you an HSP who sees themself as a "nice person?" Have you ever felt that "being nice" gets in your way? Leave a comment!
John Lunde on June 30, 2015:
I can only start by saying wow, what an article ! Extremely well written almost soothing to read. I am a HSP and your thoughts on being nice really connected with me. My challenge is to start drawing up my boundaries, which I have never had and than being able to protect them in a good way. The question is how do I define my boundaries when I have no experience with them even though I am 55 ?
Martin on June 09, 2015:
Really great article about very important fundamental matters explained in a very effective way. Funny everything in the aricles applies to myself 100%. The sad thing is so many HSP:s waste their quality of life for bad relationsships and a lifestyle that doesn't suit them att all. They could have a really wonderful life if they just took the time to find out what really matters to them and what's`s really making them happy. A lot of what`s supposed happiness in society is really just uninteresting stuff that doesn`t stimulate either the brain or the emotions of a HSP person. Personally at he age of 50 i just hate to participate in what other peoples activities because the are soo boooring!!!. It doesn't interest me and they don`t interest me. I am 100% totally fed up with all the unimportant things people are filling their empty lifes with. I just can`t stand it anymore. It`s tabo to say this but i don`t give a sh...
McKenna Meyers on May 06, 2015:
I hate conflict and have avoided it my entire life. However, that can only take you so far in work and relationships. I thought conflict avoidance was a sign of my "niceness" and I saw assertive, confrontational, strong types as "not nice." I was really being weak. Others saw that and took advantage of me.
Miriam Gordon on December 17, 2014:
Dear Peter, thank you for this very courageous and insightful article. The points you discuss above have been a major issue throughout my life, with the pattern of subverting my own person to take care of whoever was important to me was established in me when I was a baby, with my mother. At this point in my life I'm not at all bitter about it (because I spent many years in therapy working through this). It did make my life very difficult and continues to pose a serious challenge to me, but I'm dealing with it and learning to begin building healthy boundaries with the insight I now have. This pattern of completely subverting my own person and needs immediately to accommodate whoever is in my face has, I learned, created a lot of issues in my marriage, and now that I'm starting to deal with them, things are much better between myself and my husband.
Keep up the good work, and thanks again for this post.
Sublime24 on August 07, 2013:
Thank you for your knowledge...this is me....too nice, warn out, drained by the toll of it all.....my adrenals are shot as a result....too sensitive to put one foot in front of the other this year...will focus on self and health after I learn to set boundaries ...because if I don't I will not make it another year....can't wait to read more of your suggestions , been life changing to learn I've always been HSP and INFJ to boot....now a blessing to the curse.....thankful....so thankful
jmiller23 on November 20, 2012:
I find that I give 110% of myself in all relationships whether they be close relationships or those I meet here and there. I am fully tuned into their concerns, needs and thoughts. I find that I am a better listener than a talker, most people I meet rarely get to know me but instead they find comfort in telling my their life stories and problems. I want to be nice and so I listen and try to be helpful and understanding but truth is I process what they say so deeply that it wears me out. I am not a very forward person and would not like to make anyone feel uncomfortable so I "mold" myself to their needs by listening because in the end I would like the same treatment. Yet I find myself being the one everyone runs to when they need help and an ear to listen to. Being nice for an HSP is a fine line to walk, at least for me. I can really see how it can become unhealthy, it has for me.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 19, 2012:
Lisa, thanks for commenting, and for courageously sharing as openly as you have! Most often, "people pleasing" grows out of chaotic or abusive upbringings, especially for HSPs. When you're surrounded by dysfunction... sometimes (as adults) the best thing we can do is to simply remove ourselves from the situation, difficult as that may be. I did so, myself, with my "functional alcoholic" and prescription drug addicted mother. It's sad that so many of us have had to endure things like you describe... continued blessings on your journey!
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 19, 2012:
Poolgurl, thanks for your comment! I think one of the "issues" sometimes facing HSPs is a (false) notion that being assertive somehow makes us "bad" people-- but assertive doesn't have to mean "pushy" or "arrogant." As you say, it takes practice... and sometimes a LOT of it. I started re-inventing myself at 29 and the process continues, and I am now 52. Pausing and processing has become very important for me, as most of my poor "just to get along" decisions have been made in the heat of the moment...
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 19, 2012:
Nate, I think a lot starts with simple awareness-- "what is my pattern, here?" One truth I often remember is that IF I catch myself trying to mold myself to someone/something else... I must pause and ask "IS this even someone I want to spend energy on?" As I wrote in the article, nothing inherently wrong with flexible or being nice... trouble only arises when we "lose ourselves" in our efforts.
Lisa on November 19, 2012:
This article really touched a nerve. First, since figuring out that I am highly sensitive, I also have figured out who else is an HSP in my life. And not everyone of them is nice. In fact, many are quite difficult to deal with. Several co-workers are HSP's. My father is one. He is conscientious, but can also go so overboard with his help that he is insulting. And his sensitivities make him seem somewhat narcisissitic at times.
In regards to being nice myself, I am like that in love relationships. I lose myself and cater to the other person until I have a melt down out of frustration and my needs not being met. I also have a problem with boundaries and letting others abuse me. The fear of abandonment is one of issues I grapple with. When I was about 5, I overheard my mom telling her friend on the phone that she and my father wanted to send me away and were seriously considering it. There were many moments like that in my family, which has many overbearing dysfunctional alcoholics in it. I no longer see most of these people and find a lot of comfort in the boundaries I have set with them. Its taken a long time though. Thanks for the very well written, thought provoking, and meaningful article.
poolgurl on November 19, 2012:
Of course, pleasing others has changed as I have matured (57) and I see/understand myself more clearly thanks to articles like this. Family, friends, work, acquaintances, etc. tend to each tap into a different place for me. Learning that I have power and how to be assertive to express myself and my own feelings. This has taken practice and time with each new incident that has arisen as i will feel drained physically and emotionally. For one who enjoys my own company, I have to really process how I am feeling (what is it I want? or need?) maybe after the fact but over the years this has helped me feel more contained with all the demands. Especially practicing not being negative or being around negative people. I am a lot more happy!
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on November 17, 2012:
Yes, it seems part of being sensitive is that you are aware of the effect you have on others; but this can be carried too far in trying to please others and stifling yourself. I think you're right too, that we must be aware of our motives; in a nutshell, we often simply don't want to lose people or even we don't want to look bad. On the job, I've been called "flexible" which, in my case, meant I would do whatever was asked of me, no matter how unreasonable or how many other people rightfully refused to do the task asked of me. Generally, I've also followed this pattern of trying to please people and not ruffle feathers and to tolerate a lot of abuse and nonsense in all areas of my life. What I have found was that me doing all that was just not honest, and the more aware I am the less I can tolerate my own or others' contradictions. Very good piece here, once again; very good information for the HSP and anyone else interested in the subject matter. Thanks for sharing.