How I Learned to Speak Up, Say No, and Take Up Space as an HSP

A highly sensitive person outside looking thoughtful

I thought my behavior was typical and made me a “good friend.” Then I learned about boundaries. 

Most people in my life would call me an extrovert, and I often refer to myself with that label as well. On the surface, I appear friendly, talkative, and enthusiastic, and those characteristics became part of my identity at an early age. I enjoy being around other people and value my interpersonal relationships. 

I also participate in a variety of social groups and remain connected to friends near and far despite our busy schedules. I have often attributed my love of people to the fact that I am an only child who always wanted to spend more time with kids my own age.

Despite my friendly nature, I am also a highly sensitive person (HSP), which means I often felt drained after social interactions, especially when they involved large groups of people and sensory overload. (There is often confusion between highly sensitive people and introverts. The difference is that sensitive people get drained by any overstimulating environment, whether it involves two people or a thousand.) For years, I dreaded small talk, mingling at parties, and events where I didn’t know anyone, because they left me feeling overwhelmed and empty. 

For example, my anxiety was sky high when I first met my husband’s friends, because they had all known each other since childhood, and I felt like an outsider. Usually I tried to skip out on situations like this. preferring to focus on the environments and people that I already knew.

Even in familiar social situations, I still often came home feeling depleted and wondering if I was “too sensitive” and needed to toughen up. (This was especially confusing because I thought extroverts felt energized by social interactions. HSP extroverts, however, do best with smaller, more intimate groups in low-key settings — simply because it’s less overstimulating.) 

This paradox left me feeling torn between wanting to attend social events and worrying that I would feel exhausted afterward. Which made me ask: Why? And how do I change it?

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How I Recognized My Own People-Pleasing Behavior

This journey would hopefully allow me to develop a deeper level of self-awareness and learn how to take better care of myself. As I paid more attention to my thoughts, feelings, and behavior at social events, I noticed three things that might explain my exhaustion: 

First, I was hyper-focused on how I came across to others. I wanted to be liked, make a good impression, and be viewed as fun. I spent a lot of mental energy simply wondering what people genuinely thought of me, including friends that I had known for years. 

Second, my empathic, sensitive nature both made me an excellent friend and caused me to respond in a heightened way to negative social interactions. People leaned on me for support, and even when they didn’t, I often absorbed their stress

Third, I worried a great deal about others’ feelings and wanted to make sure that everyone was having a good time. As the host of parties or gatherings, I went out of my way to ensure that the house was spotless, the food was plentiful, and the environment just right. Even when I wasn’t the host, I found myself studying everyone’s reactions to see if they were happy and had their needs met fully. I even avoided choosing group activities out of fear that people would not like my decisions. In other words: I made it my responsibility to take care of everyone even though no one had asked me to.

These three factors came together in an alchemy of people-pleasing. If someone wasn’t in a good mood or a conflict arose, I immediately intervened to be the peacemaker or lighten things up. In conversation, I acted like an interviewer, asking other people endless questions to demonstrate my interest in them and make sure they were feeling good. I began to realize that even my closest friends didn’t know much about me because I was so guarded with them. My fear of boring others, seeming conceited, or talking too much prevented me from being authentic.

For most of my life, I thought these behaviors were typical and even smart ways to be a good friend. In reality, I had become a chameleon who adapted to any environment, didn’t speak up, and focused on pleasing everyone else at my own expense. 

No wonder the events I loved so much always left me wiped.

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The Struggle to Set Healthy Boundaries

Not every HSP has my particular social struggles. Many HSPs, however, do struggle with people-pleasing behavior, just as I did. 

For me personally, this behavior involved coping strategies that I had developed from an early age due to an intense fear of being left out, disliked, and alone. My highly sensitive nature had led me to experience all emotions at a heightened level, so that both the joy of being liked and the sting of disapproval felt very intense to me. I also happen to have a particularly loud and strong inner critic, causing me to ruminate and expect perfection from myself.

So what’s the solution? 

I came to learn that as a highly sensitive person and empath, I needed to set emotional boundaries to prevent myself from becoming depleted. For example: 

  • A healthy individual holds space for others’ emotions and experiences without making it their responsibility to fix, save, or protect them. 
  • A healthy individual voices their own preferences and needs, and treats this as normal rather than a burden for others
  • A healthy individual is honest about their opinions
  • A healthy individual says no to things they dislike, things that make them uncomfortable, and things that they do not have the time, energy, or inclination to do, and 
  • A healthy individual seeks friends who like and respect them for who they are

You can’t just flip a switch to put these behaviors into practice overnight. But, I began to realize that while I do love people and enjoy interacting with others, these situations would be more fun if I slowed down, checked in with myself, and focused on being truly present. I needed to practice turning the spotlight on myself for the first time, making choices and doing activities that worked for me as a highly sensitive person.

The difference it made was unimaginable. 

What Happened When I Began to Practice Boundaries

When I allowed other people to manage their own feelings rather than jumping in to fix, save, and protect them, it freed up more time and energy for me. I also allowed myself to open up and engage fully in conversations, sharing small details at first and allowing other people to carry the conversation. These behaviors showed me that it was safe to take up space and let people get to know me.

Instead of blending in and always going with the flow, suddenly I could practice offering my opinion, choosing a restaurant or a movie for the group, and turning down social opportunities when I was tired or uninterested. I knew that I needed to take these steps slowly because they would require courage and I didn’t want to give up out of overwhelm. I also began to learn to trust that people wouldn’t abandon or reject me for speaking up and making choices that honored my sensitive, empathic nature. 

And if I did lose friendships or people didn’t love everything about me, I could handle that reality and survive. My mantra became “I am not for everyone and that is okay.” 

Since that time, I have made strides toward relaxing, being present, and releasing control. I can instead allow myself to “just be.” Some days and situations are easier than others to practice this new mindset, of course. But now that I have self-awareness and understanding, I can more easily catch myself when I engage in people pleasing behaviors to earn love, praise, and acceptance.

I pause, take a deep breath, and remember that I am allowed to take up space, that I deserve to have fun and be myself, and that my needs, feelings, and opinions matter.  In doing so, I enjoy social interactions, even with new people, more than I ever did. And that has made all the difference for a social butterfly like me.

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