Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person reflects on how she's not responsible for others' emotions.

Highly Sensitive People, You’re Not Responsible For Other People’s Feelings

Years ago, I worked for a startup on a tight budget, with ten of us working out of an extremely cramped office. The woman who sat next to me wore a strong perfume that reminded me of the candle store in the mall. Usually by mid-morning I had the beginnings of a throbbing headache, and by the end of the afternoon, I was downright nauseous.

At that point in my life, I hadn’t yet discovered that I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP) as well as an introvert. I just knew that I did not mix well with strong smells, loud noises, or crowded places. I was prone to headaches and anxiety and something as simple as a strobe light could set me off.

So, even though this woman’s perfume seemed like such a small thing, it was actually wreaking havoc on my daily life.

Thankfully another one of my coworkers had become a close friend. She was very similar to me — intuitive, people-oriented, and sensitive. When I told her about the perfume lady, she said simply, “Why don’t you ask her not to wear that perfume to work anymore? Tell her it bothers you.”

I was stunned and speechless. That was allowed? I could ask other people to modify something because it was causing me a problem?

Rationally, I understood this concept. But emotionally, it felt like my entire world had shifted.

“This is a fight we’ll never win. We simply cannot be in charge of everyone else’s emotions. Nor should we be.”

Why It’s Hard for Highly Sensitive People to Speak Up

I’m sure I’m not the first sensitive person to struggle with this issue, and I definitely won’t be the last. Speaking up for ourselves is not only hard to do, but it tends to bring up a ton of emotional baggage from our past.

Most of us have felt for our entire lives that our personal needs as HSPs are weird and inconvenient to others. We need more space than other people. We need more time. We need more complexity and more depth. Because other people are often confused by these needs, or can even feel rejected in some way, we learn as children to compromise on them constantly.

As a result, instead of figuring out how to negotiate with others for what we need, we withdraw further into our own world. We attempt to meet all of our needs there, totally on our own.

That works about half the time. The other half, we end up feeling resentful, unheard, isolated, and powerless.

So, as highly sensitive people, we have two choices. We can step into our power and be uncomfortable now, in the present moment, by speaking up for what we need. Or we can choose powerlessness and guarantee that we’ll still feel uncomfortable — and probably angry, bitter, and emotional exhausted — in the future, by suppressing our needs and keeping our mouths shut.

Many highly sensitive people struggle with people-pleasing tendencies and a penchant for codependency. We really, really want to make sure that everyone in our environment is happy — especially with us. But this is a fight we’ll never win. We simply cannot be in charge of everyone else’s emotions. Nor should we be. That’s what this whole “free will” deal is about: everyone gets to choose their own adventure here. In order to truly honor someone else, it’s essential to step back and let them have their own choices and even their own reactions.

“I hereby give you permission, from this day forward, to communicate your needs through the written word, whenever and to whomever you want, without feeling guilty about it.”

How to Stop Feeling Responsible for Others’ Emotions

Not every HSP struggles with this. But if people-pleasing and feeling personally responsible for others’ emotions has always been an issue for you, this four-step process will help:

Step 1: Evaluate Your Needs

Does the thing you need encroach on the rights of anyone else? Is it harmful to other people? If you’re not invading anyone else’s space or being disrespectful of someone else’s boundaries, it’s safe to say that you’re justified in asking that your needs be respected. Use common sense here as well. Sure, your coworker might argue that listening to dance music at top volume is his inalienable right, but most sensible people would agree that his argument doesn’t hold water.

The Takeaway:

If you’re able to speak up for what you need and still be respectful of others, then do it. It’s not your responsibility to set boundaries for other people — only for yourself.

Step 2: Use Your Preferred Mode of Communication

Many HSPs have the misguided idea that we should push ourselves to have face-to-face confrontations with people, when there is nothing that makes us feel more like we want to crawl under a rock. But there is a solution. I hereby give you permission, from this day forward, to communicate your needs through the written word, whenever and to whomever you want, without feeling guilty about it. So send that email. Write that letter. Leave that note in your neighbor’s mailbox.

The Takeaway:

If you feel comfortable speaking to someone in person, go for it. But, as long as you state your needs as honestly and respectfully as possible, writing is perfectly acceptable — and might even get better results.

Step 3: Maintain Your Boundaries Over Time

Even after you’ve identified what you need and found the courage to ask for it, sometimes the other party will still try to push your buttons (by being consciously manipulative) or forget your previous requests (by being unconsciously oblivious). So, sometimes, you have to go through the whole process again. The upside is that every time you go through it, you get more practice on how to take back your power.

The Takeaway:

Asking once might not be enough. If you have to repeat yourself, that’s okay. Think of it as a practice.

Step 4: Hold Responsibility Only for Yourself

There will be many times when it feels “easier” to put someone else’s comfort before your own. When you’re evaluating your needs, you might be tempted to push them aside so that your coworker can go on enjoying his crazy loud dance music every morning. Or when you’re speaking up, you might try to soothe someone else’s defensive reactions. And maintaining a boundary can be trickiest of all — you might give in when someone tries to tear down your fence because they’ve always been allowed into your garden before, and now they don’t like feeling left out. Sound familiar?

But guess what:

The reactions of other people are not your responsibility. They never have been and they never will be.

The Takeaway:

You are responsible for your stuff and everyone else is responsible for theirs. You’re not helping anyone by trying to manage the emotions of other people.

Speaking up for your needs isn’t easy. But if you’re truly committed to living your best life, then it must be done. And the more you do it, the more you’ll be able to readily identify what’s yours, what belongs to other people, and how to draw the line between the two. You’ll come to a place where you step into your own power consistently, with passion and purpose.

And when you look into the mirror, you’ll respect the person looking back at you, because you’ll know that person speaks up for their needs.

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A version of this article has also appeared at Introvert, Dear.