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  • Writer's pictureMonica Stanley

The HSP Experience - Social Situations

My current and continued growth in social situations comes largely from reflecting on past experiences.

The hard shit. Ew, feelings! As with everyone, HSPs will have negative and positive experiences in life. Research shows that when HSPs have negative experiences, they are more susceptible to negative outcomes than non-HSPs, such as developing depression, anxiety, or poor health. It also shows that when HSPs have positive experiences, they can have more positive outcomes than non-HSPs, such as higher levels of creativity or feelings of pleasure and meaning.

Evaluating your past can be helpful to enable you to gain some perspective on yourself and why you might be how you are today. It's important though to reflect on both the positive and negative experiences of being an HSP - they truly are there as a balance.

Processing Memories

Taking the time to reflect on and process memories can help bring some insight and clarity to your current emotions. Recalling and writing about positive and negative memories from childhood can help you dig into and reframe some things about yourself, and those you interacted with at the time. Was it them or you, or something else entirely, that caused the positive or negative experience?

When reflecting on those past memories, ask yourself how did your HSP trait enhance the experience? Who did you experience this with? In what way did their reactions contribute to your experience?

That is just a simple exercise to introduce the balancing of the good and challenging parts of being an HSP. It's easy to only focus on the negative of things, so it is important to also recall the positives that come with being an HSP so you can celebrate who you are.

Social Situations and Events

Oh boy. Here is where it gets fun and super challenging for me. "No" is a word that is so hard for me to use. I prefer when people are pleased with me. I do know how unhealthy that is and I have spent years and years now trying to develop that skill better and to do it without the guilt. I still haven't mastered that part, but I do know I am much better at it than I used to be and the guilt is way less than it used to be. Progress, not perfection.

It's not just about learning to say no. It's about learning what events you should and should not attend and what kind of prep or post actions will be needed on your part to get you back to a less-sensitized level to continue to do such things with any level of grace.

It even could entail working through adding another person to a treasured-twosome of friendship you have. Let's say I have a friend or co-worker I really enjoy having lunch with. It is a blessing to my day, we just click and have a lovely time - every time. That time with them is a refilling of my cup, if you want to call it that, and those connections aren't easy to find. One day, we add another friend/co-worker (either at the friends request, or that persons) to the mix, and frankly you do have a lovely time with them as well, everyone's engaged and enjoying themselves and, by all accounts, it looks like a great success. But why the hell am I so drained after that interaction when that's not what happens when I'm solo with my OG pal? Typically there are less breaks/quiet in the conversation when you add more people in, I'm processing multiple interactions between each of us individually and collectively - let's just say, it adds to the processing I was going to do anyway and it can be exhausting and turn a fulfilling situation to an unfulfilling one real quick. Then what do you do when that OG friend now wants to bring that other person in on your party all the time, or way more than before?

Making decisions about what to be involved in and what to skip this time is a real challenge. Some things that have helped me and others I know navigate events:

  • Be more of an observer in groups - you don't always have to be the engaging one.

  • Continuously check in with yourself and what you're needing at that time - what worked one day or didn't seem like a big deal, won't always feel that way. Pay attention.

  • Remind yourself it isn't your responsibility to make sure everyone is comfortable and happy - again, you don't always have to be the engager.

  • Arrive late, leave early, and take breaks - less time in the overstimulating environment can be all you need at times.

  • Treat yourself the way you do your friends - give yourself the compassion and understanding you extend to everyone else.

  • Change your mind - this kind of goes with "no" for me in the level of difficulty I have with this one. I don't have issue changing my mind, that happens all the time! I take issue with un-committing from something I committed to - changing my mind on someone else or an event I said I'd go to, things like that.

I didn't really "teach" myself to say no. I conditioned myself like a little lab rat. I just forced myself to do it over and over again until my brain started to recognize that the world didn't end because I didn't do something another person wanted me to do. And shockingly to me, many of those people actually understood my need to say no, or at least respected it out of respect for me.

Decision time! How do you choose WHAT events to say yes and no to?

Some workbooks I have used have decision trees - super helpful stuff! I particularly like the one in Dr. Amanda Cassil's workbook, "The Empowered Highly Sensitive Person". It is succinct, has meaningful questions, and can be helpful when you're having decision fatigue.

Ask yourself some of these questions:

  1. Is this required or necessary? If yes, GO! If no, you've got more questions to answer.

  2. Would it be problematic to not go?

  3. Do the repercussions of not going outweigh the benefit of going?

  4. Is there a compromise or exit strategy you can employ?

  5. Are you excited about going?

  6. What is the benefit of going? Is that benefit worth what this event will take from you?

  7. Are you holding on to guilt/shame related to people pleasing?

  8. Advocate for yourself and compromise for an adjusted attendance (i.e. come late, leave early).

People pleasing is not a good reason to expend limited resources. Sometimes you'll come across an event you really and truly should say no to, and you just can't seem to make yourself and you don't know why. This might be worth exploring further with a trusted friend or therapist.

It's also important to assess how the events you attend affect you, both before and after. That will help you hone your abilities to determine what you should and should not spend your time on. I know, more of that annoying inner-self work. Here are some questions to help you assess things:

  • What is my body trying to tell me and how does it relate to my feelings about the event and the people there?

  • Do I feel drained or energized by the event/people?

  • What do I need for this to feel successful? Maybe you need to have one or two deep conversations for it to feel successful. Whatever that is for you at that event.

  • How much energy/resources do I currently have to give toward the event/people? How much sleep have I had? Do I have other large commitments coming I need to account for? Maybe you can either go and "be on" for an hour or can be a laid-back participant for the full four hours.

  • What do I need afterward for recovery?

  • What needs do I have that might be competing? Am I okay with the need that is currently winning and the cost I am paying to meet this need? Maybe you need a certain amount of sleep, but you also need social time with a friend you haven't seen in a long time. Do you stay up late talking with that person knowing it means you will be tired at work for the next few days? Are you okay with that sacrifice?

  • What can I plan in advance that would be helpful?

  • How will I know when I have reached my limit? I start to feel tired and have a hard time following conversations at that point.

  • When I feel ready to be done, what is my exit strategy?

  • If I cannot leave early, what can help me sustain my energy? I like snacks because if I get hungry, it's hangry. Napping beforehand or clearing the AM schedule to sleep in is a big one that helps me do that.

As with everything, the more you do this, the better you get at it. At first you probably won't know your triggers or your body's tips to you. For me, it takes experiencing something to understand it, when it comes to this anyway. Once I learn how something affects me or a new way my body is trying to tell me things, I adjust. But it's not always pretty or graceful in the discovery stage. It's a process, a journey. I don't know that I'll ever reach the destination. Might be boring anyway.

Common Challenges & Reflecting on Past Experiences

Most HSPs struggle with balancing out their needs with others needs. Our initial tendency is to err on the side of giving more to others, as people tend to respond positively when being cared for - which can be rewarding and draining. Then when we try to course correct, many times we wind up going to the other end of the spectrum in protection of ourselves. Learning you have been severely neglecting yourself, and that others have allowed and enabled this, can be unsettling and we don't handle it the best all the time.

Trying to find a healthy balance where the HSP isn't getting everything just because they are sensitive, but they also aren't just "sucking it up" and dealing with it because no one else feels the same way. Getting that balance requires the ever promoted word, communication. Speaking up about your feelings and insights and what adjustments you need to request.

Advocating for your own self is a big challenge for HSPs, more so than non-HSPs. It can start with small comments here and there, it doesn't have to be a big proclamation - can be if you want it to be though. It doesn't mean you'll get what you want every time, but finding your voice can be a boost of confidence, help you feel you have some control over your actions, and shine a light on the type of people you are in relationships with. If your friends make you feel bad for being sensitive, it's probably time to expand your friend group.

As HSPs have such depth of processing, along with a heightened emotional experience, you can see how negative experiences can get locked in - at any age. Early experiences though are the guide for how you will experience things moving forward, whether you like that fact or not. It's automatic (i.e. assuming someone is annoyed with you because your family was always annoyed when you brought up a sensitivity-related concern). HSPs are pretty familiar with feeling different and misunderstood. In groups, especially groups of children, being different is often associated with being isolated, teased, or embarrassed.

Knowing you had needs that were not or could not be met can open the door for some self-compassion, it wasn't all you, I promise. Resiliency requires you to understand your past emotions and experiences.

Early Messages

An HSPs early years are often confusing and isolating, especially if you didn't discover the label until adulthood (most of us), or have parents with a style that naturally works well with an HSP. Reframing negative experiences from your past, now that you know your trait, can be really helpful.

I am an HSP that largely had a positive childhood/upbringing. It wasn't perfect, nothing is, and there are certainly things to work through there and reframe - but by and large I don't have quite as much inner-work to do there that some other HSPs had on the early-childhood/family front.

I do however have a hoard of messages to work through from the time I entered middle school, but especially since graduating college and stepping out into the corporate world - and all that comes with that for a young female HSP involved in more male-dominated industries.

Ignoring just the sexual harassments and issues related to me being an attractive and intelligent female in environments full of wanna-be alpha-males, there are plenty of examples of mistreatments by superiors. From not appropriately acknowledging my talents, contributions, and certainly not paying me near what I should have earned - any inequities are real triggers for me at this point (personal and professional, even though it was largely only happening on the professional front).

I grew very tired of people continuing to "use" me and my talents for their glory and purpose, without enabling me to do the same for my own. It has taken me a long time to recognize those signs and stop acting like they aren't there. If my "superior" tends to only use the word "I" instead of the "We" we all know it was... I'm out girl scout. I won't even talk to them about it at this point, it's a narcissistic trait I've not seen someone overcome yet, male and female alike.

I always thought if I'd help them lift themselves up, they'd do the same for me. They even said they would. When the opportunity would come, guess what, they didn't.

I wish I had started working for myself sooner, but I also hadn't set myself up for that opportunity because my HSP giving-self was too busy giving myself to everyone else, and embroiled in self-doubt for the rest of it. I have a major case of imposter syndrome. Always waiting to be "found out" that I'm not as good as everything thinks I am... but guess what, turns out I am!

Some suggested questions to help you work through and reframe prior situations:

  • What messages did you receive from authority figures (i.e. parents, other family, teachers) around sensitivity?

    • What was communicated explicitly?

    • What did you pick up on implicitly (i.e through observing nonverbal communication or indirect comments)?

  • What messages did you receive from peers around sensitivity?

    • What was communicated explicitly?

    • What did you pick up on implicitly (i.e through observing nonverbal communication or indirect comments)?

  • Did you understand your sensitivity as something to be valued, overcome, or something else?

  • In what way, if any, did gender factor into messages you received around sensitivity?

  • In what way, if any, did race factor into messages your received around sensitivity?

  • In what way, if any, did faith or religion factor into messages your received around sensitivity?

  • What would have been helpful to you, as a child, in managing your sensitivity in different contexts (i.e. home environment, family dynamics, school expectations, socializing with peers, faith events)?

  • What challenges did you face due to being an HSP that you did not realize at the time?

This can be an intense experience - pace yourself and allow yourself to pause and feel the feelings that come up so you can truly reflect upon them. This will help you understand why you respond the way you do to things now and gives space for compassion and the ability to move forward.

As HSPs we are constantly processing our environment and it can be overwhelming. Being mindful of this can help you create a life that is more accommodating to your needs and allows you to function at your best.

Finding your optimal level and what you need to do to keep yourself there, or nurture yourself when the overstimulation is unavoidable, has helped me quite a bit. Again, I've had to make some relationship adjustments to get to that point, the hardest part of all for me, but it has been worth the time and effort to continue to put the right people in my life that can support and sustain me, like I do for them - not continue to cause me stress or pain.

Oh and the word is spelled "N" "O" for those that need to practice that some more. No. Say it again, No. "No thank you." "Nah, I'm good." "Thanks, but no thanks". Any way you want to say it... get so good at it that it's a natural response. Your soul will thank you.

- Monica

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