When you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), life can be overwhelming. “Little” things that are only minor annoyances to other people can really throw you, like a noisy restaurant, a busy weekend, or a coworker’s angry words. Compared to others, HSPs simply have a lower threshold for stimulation.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. (Although, if you’re like me, you may have felt like something was wrong with you, at least until you learned you’re an HSP.)
Why are we like this? It’s genetic. Our sensitive nervous systems simply pick up on — and process — more. This sensitivity imbues us with incredible gifts, such as reading people like a book, thinking deeply and creatively, and noticing details that others miss. But it also means we can easily get overwhelmed.
However, that doesn’t mean we alway speak up. Yes, it’s our responsibility, and ours alone, to set boundaries and advocate for our needs; we’re not asking other people to read our minds. But HSPs tend to be highly conscientious, so we don’t like to complain, rock, the boat, or burden others with our troubles.
And here’s the thing: You probably have an HSP in your life (research suggests we’re 15-20 percent of the population!). Nothing makes us love and trust others more than feeling heard and understood. So, here are six things highly sensitive people say — and what we might really mean.
The Deeper Meaning Behind a Highly Sensitive Person’s Words
1. “I’m sorry, but I have other plans.”
Yes, the HSP might have other plans, like a dinner date with a friend, a work event, or some other obligation. But other times, when you invite an HSP to attend something — the girls’ night out or family day at the amusement park — their “plans” might be staying home.
You see, HSPs need plenty of downtime to function at their best. (You can read the science behind it here). Basically, highly sensitive people spend their day processing sooooo much: that distracted look in their friend’s eye, all the busy bodies bustling around the office, the symphony of sounds on the bus. When your brain automatically reflects on your experiences very deeply — whether you want to or not — you get worn out. Really worn out.
(This is different than being an introvert. Introversion is internal — it’s about where you get your energy. High sensitivity is about how you process all the information from the external world, and how deeply you digest it.)
So, when HSPs say, “I have other plans,” they’re not lying; it’s just that their other plans may mean relaxing at home, walking through nature, spending time with just their family, or any other meaningful activity. And what they wish you understood is that this is perfectly valid; it’s how HSPs soothe their overwrought senses.
2. “I know we just got here, but can we leave?”
Depending on their mood and energy levels, HSPs can sometimes handle — and even enjoy — highly stimulating situations like a concert, party, or bar. But other times, these same places can simply be too much. There have been times when I’ve walked into a loud, crowded restaurant, the kind of modern place with no sound dampening (also known as an HSP’s personal hell) and asked my partner if we could turn around and walk out.
So, even if it seems like you just got there, or it would be fun to stay longer, please understand that to the HSP, this request is everything. It’s them hoping to avoid total overstimulation — and a total crash.
3. “I knew before you even told me.”
Because our sensitive systems pick up on so much information, we tend to read people well. In fact, according to research, our brains respond with incredible empathy and even increased consciousness around people; human beings are essentially the “brightest things” on our radar. This means, while others are focused on things or tasks or words, we notice the people themselves — their expressions and the way they might be feeling. Yes, we can notice those other things too, but we’re most deeply in tune with the life around us.
As a result, we may know when someone is lying. We may know when someone says they’re fine but aren’t. We definitely notice when our spouse had a bad day but is trying to hide it. Sometimes we know what someone will say or do before they actually say or do it. HSPs glean things from your facial expression, body posture, tone of voice — and more — that you didn’t even know you were telegraphing.
So when an HSP says, “I know,” trust them.
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4. “Tell me when it’s over.”
HSPs are — you guessed it! — sensitive to what they watch, hear, and read. Each HSP is different; some simply cannot tolerate violent or scary movies, while others actually enjoy a good thriller every now and then. Personally, I love a good spooky or suspenseful movie, but gore and violence really get under my skin. I’ve also turned off podcasts that discussed animal abuse in detail, because as an animal lover, it was more than I could bear.
So if an HSP asks you to “turn it off” or covers their face when the chainsaw murderer steps into the scene, there’s a good reason. Disturbing sights and stories have the power not only to make us feel sick to our stomach and upset in the moment, but also to stick with us for days or even years after the fact. I can still recall some of the most gruesome movie scenes I’ve witnessed, and I have an emotional reaction every time I think about them.
5. “I’m sorry.”
Due to our empathy, we can feel responsible for the emotions of everyone around us, and even for problems that have nothing to do with us. For example, in school, when the teacher scolded the whole class, I would feel guilty, even though I knew I wasn’t part of the problem. I wasn’t stealing pencils out of desks — clearly, it was other kids! Yet I felt as bad as if I had done it myself.
HSPs may be quick to apologize, even when they’re not at fault. You see, we tend to absorb other people’s emotions, sometimes taking them on as our own. Your stress becomes our stress; your pain becomes our pain. When we say, “I’m sorry,” it might be because we’re drowning in emotions. (Like me, if you’re an HSP who struggles with absorbing emotions, this post will help.)
6. (At a big event) “I need to run to the bathroom.”
HSPs can shine at parties, networking events, and other social functions, because we excel at connecting with others. But these events can also quickly overwhelm us, especially if they’re loud, busy, and crowded. Again, it goes back to our deep processing. Sure, if an HSP keeps excusing themselves to the bathroom, it might be that they drank a lot of water. But it could also mean they’re overstimulated — and looking to escape. Decompressing in a quiet, private space (even if it’s a little stinky) can go a long way for the HSP.
Are you a highly sensitive person, or do you have one in your life? What are some things you say that have a deeper meaning that others miss? Let me know in the comments below.