How Highly Sensitive People Can Stop Saying Yes When They Want to Say No

A highly sensitive person is happy she was able to say no.

As a highly sensitive person, saying no is one of the hardest things for me to do. Turn down a friend who wants to hang out? Not answer my phone at odd hours? Restrain myself from re-organizing my schedule to accommodate yet another person? Even when I want to say no to these situations, I find myself saying yes.

But that means I’m saying no to myself.

I’m not alone in this problem. In general, highly sensitive people struggle with saying no. When we say yes to people and put them first, it makes us feel like we’re being a great friend or partner. But we’re often left wishing others would reciprocate this pattern of being “yes” people.

Not only does saying yes make us feel good about ourselves, but the people in our lives enjoy it and might actually encourage it. They may, unconsciously or consciously, start taking advantage of this characteristic of ours. As a result, we HSPs get walked all over. We end up exhausted, emotionally and physically.

Let’s take a closer look at why HSPs are prone to saying yes — even when it comes at a cost to us — and how we can balance the scales by setting better boundaries.

(To learn more about what it means to be a highly sensitive person, read this in-depth guide.)

Why Highly Sensitive People Struggle to Say No

There are many reasons HSPs might struggle to say no to people, especially when it comes to their loved ones. The overarching theme is empathy. We have the capacity to not only put ourselves in another’s shoes and imagine what they’re feeling, but actually absorb the emotions other people are emitting and feel them ourselves.

Empathy is basically the HSP’s superpower, but it can also be our downfall if we do not learn how to turn it off when we need to. This relates to saying no because we can usually tell that the other person wants us to say yes. Therefore, we desperately want to say yes as well.

It’s like being caught in a double bind. We want to say no, but we can tell that they want a yes — and then that desire becomes our own feeling. In order to say no, we have to set our minds on not listening to the absorbed emotion. And that’s no easy feat.

In addition to absorbing emotion, many HSPs are terrified of rejection. This fear is in no way limited to HSPs, meaning, people who aren’t highly sensitive experience it too. Really, fear of abandonment is one of the most common human fears.

Consider survival instincts, and this fear makes total sense. Isolation kills, so we desperately want human contact. HSPs often crave deep connections with others, so the absence of them has a more significant effect on us. Saying yes leaves less room for abandonment than saying no, so we say yes in order to feel safer in our relationships.

HSPs also tend to feel hurt more easily and have the unfortunate habit of taking things quite personally. We could easily take being told no as a personal slam, therefore, we avoid doing the same thing to others. HSPs hate making other people upset due to our empathy and fear of abandonment, so we never want to be the cause of someone’s negative emotions. Our empathy is too strong for that.

How HSPs Can Say No Effectively

All of these HSP traits combined make it exceedingly difficult to say no to people. However, when we constantly say yes, we slowly but surely become depleted and emotionally exhausted. And because HSPs tend to feel emotion more sharply, this depletion can have greater effects on our well-being. Learning how to set boundaries and say no is therefore a crucial skill for HSPs to develop.

Saying no comes back to setting healthy boundaries, and realizing that sometimes when we say yes to other people, we are in fact saying no to ourselves. Often times, the simple fix to this problem is being open and honest with our loved ones. Though it sounds unnecessary and nerve-wracking, explaining your need to say no can be super effective with friends and family.

For example, cutting off a conversation that’s going too late into the night when you’ve got an early morning could simply look like, “Hey, I really want to hear the rest of what’s going on with you, but I need to call it a night. What time can I call you tomorrow?” This lets the other person know you’re eager and intentional about hearing the rest of their story. I can’t imagine any solid friends or family members responding negatively to that.

Putting your phone on “do not disturb” mode when you’re relaxing is also effective. If someone really needs to get ahold of you, your phone will let you know. Otherwise, enjoy the quiet.

Saying no is more difficult with family and friends who take advantage of our selfless acts of service or who don’t quite grasp our need for some “me time.” Again, when we’re open about the reasons we need a break, people tend to soften.

For example, after a busy work week, if a friend asks you to hang out, stating that you’re exhausted and need a self-care night is a completely legitimate excuse — though be prepared to have to say it a couple times.

Or, when people ask you to help them with something that isn’t your responsibility, try a technique called “reflecting.” This involves noticing their emotion and reflecting it back to them. It can be just what they need — and not necessarily you doing the job for them.

For example, say a friend continually asks you for favors. Instead of simply doing them, try saying something like, “You seem pretty stressed this week. Is there anything going on?” Simply opening the door to a vent session might reveal the reasons they’ve been using you, and by addressing the emotions the person is feeling, they feel heard and cared for much more so than if you had just said yes. And if they still need help, having had that conversation will allow you greater insight into what would actually be helpful to them.

Sometimes, HSPs just need to get a little more comfortable with not pleasing everyone all the time. As Dr. Seuss once said, “Those who mind, don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

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