I was recently afraid of angering someone when I told them I was unhappy with something they did. They are neither family nor friend, and I may never even see them again in my life. Yet I still worried about how they’d see me. You might think that I shouldn’t care what they -- or anyone -- thinks of me. I often hear patients lament their “need” to please others. I get it. But it’s also important to keep in mind that as social creatures, we are concerned about how others judge or react to us.
Working together effectively is a matter of survival, so being in each other’s good graces -- or at least not prompting a negative response -- is essential. However, this becomes problematic when the desire to please becomes your primary motivation in relationships. More specifically, issues can arise related to your emotional sensitivity and behavioral reactivity to what others say or do.
Emotional sensitivity is how easily and strongly you are affected by others. Highly sensitive people are upset by the slightest nuances in language and behavior. For instance, Paul felt powerfully rejected when his longtime friend Brian had to keep their phone conversation short because he needed to address a work issue. Even though he knew that Brian really did have to handle a difficult situation, he still felt painfully rejected. Similarly, Hannah tended to feel hurt when friends would fail to respond immediately after she had texted them.
On the other hand, some people have such a low sensitivity to others that it can create problems. It’s not uncommon for partners in a relationship to have different emotional intimacy needs. Those who have less of a need might not even realize that their partner is feeling alone, or not realize the level of distress when their partner says that they feel alone. Unsurprisingly, their relationship may be strained by this lack of sensitivity.
Behavioral reactivity refers to how reflexively, versus thoughtfully, a person reacts to a situation. Hannah, for instance, might send a nasty text just an hour after not receiving a response from a friend. Or she might recognize her sensitivity about this and give her friend more time, reminding herself that her friend might have other priorities or might not have even seen the text yet.
Again, it is because people are social by their very nature that they care about what others think of them. By paying attention to the emotional sensitivity and behavioral reactivity of yourself and others, you can keep your concerns in check. If they are causing you unnecessary anxiety or driving you to behave in ways that negatively affect you or your relationships, then it’s important to put your concerns in a healthier perspective.