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How Hypervigilance, People-Pleasing, and Enabling Destroy Your Life

May 22, 2024

In a recent coaching session, a high-achieving entrepreneur–let’s call her Penelope–came to me with a problem. Penelope prided herself on handling anything that came her way. She was the go-to problem solver, always ready to handle anything.

I’ve even once seen her in a situation where her friend’s child fell and hit his head. Penelope rapidly organized the bystanders, called the ambulance, and was checking the child’s vitals–all while in a foreign country. She seemed like the perfect person you’d want to have around you in a crisis.

But as we went deeper, we discovered that constantly being “always on” was costing her, personally and professionally.

The Roots of Hypervigilance

Penelope traced her need to always be ready back to her childhood. She grew up always feeling like she had to prove that she belonged in the Pakistani culture. She discovered that by paying close attention and catering to others’ moods, she could prevent conflict and preserve harmony. 

So Penelope became highly skilled at spotting potential issues and fixing them before they blew up. She was constantly trying to be a model child of not just her family, but also her culture. The pressure to represent and be a good Pakistani daughter was extremely high.

For example, when visitors came to the house, her parents expected her to attend to the most important people first. The hard part? They expected Penelope to know who the important people were, without any guidance! When she did it well, her parents praised her. Later on, they came to expect her to constantly and automatically anticipate the needs of others.

The Toll of Constant Hypervigilance

The dangerous thing is that these traits were a big part of Penelope‘s success in building a thriving business. That‘s what made it hard for her to understand that there was an issue. It wasn‘t until she suffered serious health problems that she realized that the constant hypervigilance was exacting a heavy toll.

She described feeling constant pressure and being unable to relax, always watching out for the next fire to put out. She hadn‘t been able to read a book for over 20 years. Her mind was always racing from one thing to the next, so she resorted to Netflix to numb.

woman coping with burnout and stress by watching Netflix

Unfortunately, too many years of this mental load began to make itself known physically. She developed high blood pressure, ultimately landing in the hospital because of dizzy spells and fainting.

The mental exhaustion was so heavy that Penelope was no longer able to keep up with her responsibilities. Things like appointments, emails, and school plays were falling through the cracks. Even simple decisions felt so uncertain that her mind would go spinning through endless worst-case scenarios. 

And although she continually said that she would feel better if she made more money, her actions spoke otherwise. More money created more stress instead of relief because she was always mentally allocating the funds for future catastrophes.

Hypervigilance Creates Survival Mode

As we dug deeper, it became clear that Penelope’s need for constant readiness was fundamentally about survival. She always wanted to know what to expect, because that brought a sense of safety and control.

And when anything threatened her need to know what to expect, she didn’t didn’t handle it well. Uncertainty and ambiguity were intolerable for her. This is why she was often impatient and couldn‘t stand to leave things undone. She had to close things out and finish projects, at any cost.

woman executive no work life balance in burnout working late at night

She worked all hours of the day and night, ignoring the fact that she was suffering from massive burnout.

People-Pleasing and Enabling

Through our work together, Penelope began to see she wasn‘t alone in her experiences. Many high achievers I work with have similar patterns of extreme work and enabling behaviors.

This often happens because they grew up in unstable or high-pressure environments. They learned to derive their worth from their performance, by keeping everyone around them happy. Over time, this leads to a pattern of overextending, taking on too much, and feeling like everything rests on their shoulders.

This often manifests as people-pleasing. People pleasers go to great lengths to avoid disappointing others, often at the expense of their own needs and boundaries. This person agrees to take on extra work, even when already overwhelmed. They also say yes to requests they don’t have capacity for, all in an effort to be liked and accepted.

And then there’s enabling behavior. This person consistently steps in to solve other people‘s problems, and pick up the slack. The issue is that this inadvertently shields people from the natural consequences of their actions. In the short term, this can feel good - the enabler gets a boost from being needed and appreciated. But over time, this creates a cycle of resentment and dysfunctional dependence.

The Toll of People-Pleasing and Enabling in the Workplace

Penelope and I explored how these patterns played out in the workplace. She recognized how her people-pleasing and enabling tendencies were showing up as difficulty delegating, micromanaging, and being overly accommodating of underperformance.

When an employee didn’t do the work, or did a poor job, she had a habit of just doing it herself because it felt like the easier thing to do, instead of having the uncomfortable conversations to address these problems. And because she was always picking up the slack, she was continually letting them not meet the bar, because they literally didn’t know. If you think about it, how would you know you were doing a not-so-great job if no one ever tells you or asks you to do it again?

Penelope also realized her propensity to always have a ready answer and apparent unflappability was sending the message to her team that she was superhuman and didn’t need support. Not only was this untrue, it was also setting an unsustainable standard and causing her employees to skate by on lower standards.

Control: The Paradox of People-Pleasing and Enabling

Now, Penelope and so many other people out there will tell you the same thing on why they can’t slow down–they think that everything will fall apart if they take a step back. But the irony was that by never slowing down, Penelope’s judgment and decision-making were suffering. 

Tunnel vision and exhaustion were making it harder for her to think strategically and see the bigger picture. Her very desire for control was counterproductive because she was making more mistakes, taking longer to do the work, and her extreme working hours were encroaching on her time with her family. 

So Penelope wasn’t happy, and neither was her family and her employees.

Embracing a New Beginning

a woman conquering hypervigilance and people pleasing after working with Seattle life coach Jule Kim

The first step for Penelope was recognizing that her old ways of coping - the hypervigilance, the people-pleasing, the enabling - may have been useful when she was younger, but were no longer relevant or necessary.

This was a difficult realization for someone who prided herself on doing everything herself, being self-sufficient. Asking for help felt to her like an admission of inadequacy. But as she bravely confronted the truth, she realized that acknowledging you’re spread too thin is actually a sign of strength and self-awareness.

From there, we worked on starting to set boundaries, delegating, and building a support system of trusted people. She practiced having honest conversations with her team about what she realistically could and could not take on. She established clearer expectations and accountability structures.

Penelope learned to practice saying “no,” instead of waiting for someone else to recognize it for her and come to her rescue. She made the decision to trust that reasonable people would understand her limits, and to also trust in herself and her future. She also began relinquishing her need for control, and experimented with broadening her tolerance for the unknown, or the uncertain.

One major action step moving forward was to have her retrain her nervous system to feel safe without constantly bracing for impact. Penelope committed to slowing down, taking breaks, and building in time for rest and reflection to access her wisest, most creative self. As she began operating from a place of groundedness rather than depletion, she found herself making clearer choices and better able to weather the inevitable ups and downs.

A New Definition of Success

None of this was easy, of course. Unlearning lifelong habits and shifting into a new way of being requires patience, support, and a willingness to tolerate discomfort. 

Doing this takes real work, but it's not necessarily what you might think. Penelope had come to such a huge discovery about herself that her self-image was thoroughly shaken and her nervous system was overwhelmed.

She didn‘t like this feeling one bit.

Similar to most people, Penelope was very anxious to know what she had to do to get out of this. For high achievers and high performers like her, the hardest lesson to learn in times like this is that the best course of action is to do nothing, sit with the feelings, process, and to let time take its course.

I’ll be honest here: Penelope is in the midst of grappling with her old self and her old habits trying to make her revert back. This is natural. But she’s starting to fully understand that she’s now in a place where she can no longer continue to pay the costs of not making a change.

Like many women, Penelope found it hard to take a step back and take time for herself because she feared everything would fall apart. She‘d made so many mistakes that she felt didn‘t deserve to take a break.

As is the case for most people, she had to hit rock bottom to see that it doesn’t get any worse than this–the temporary growing pains might be unpleasant or scary, but she was living a life of death by a thousand cuts, which is far worse.

The unknown route might not have any guarantees, but the path she was walking was guaranteed to end with her losing everything that was important to her.

Seek Professional Guidance

If you’ve been struggling with something like this where you’ve desperately wanted to make a change but you’ve also been terrified of the aftermath, I hope this helps.

Life might feel like you’re standing at a river filled with crocodiles where all you’ve got is a shaky rope bridge and everything you want is on the other side. I get it–we’ve all been there. Go get support. Work with a therapist, or a professional certified coach like me. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

The life you want is waiting for you.