Many HSPs dread social events, even if they’re extroverts. Here’s why — and how to finally feel comfortable at parties.
The anxiety was palpable. I was getting ready to go to a party. Each time I had thought about it that week I had to quickly repress a sense of panic, but now the evening was upon me. While I was blowing out my hair just before the event, I was going through the usual internal pep-talk for myself: It’s all in your head. People love you. Once you get there you’ll be fine. I took a deep breath. Go to the bathroom when you need a break. Parties are fun, remember? After the event you always say, “I don’t know why I was so stressed about the whole thing to begin with…”
Social interaction for highly sensitive people (HSPs) is a fascinating subject. In my opinion, all of us HSPs have some degree of a love/hate relationship with socializing. To be clear, sensitivity is about how strongly you react to your environment and any stimuli around you — it’s not about being introvert or an extrovert, which are more social orientations. But high sensitivity is sometimes confused with introversion, and that is not the case. According to Andre Sólo and Jenn Granneman in their book Sensitive, high sensitive people can be introverted or extroverted, but both orientations of HSPs can become overstimulated during social events simply becuse they are often highly stimulating. Even extrovert HSPs may avoid too much socializing after becoming highly stimulated, as compared to non-HSP extroverts who may seem like they can keep socializing forever.
Whether introvert or extrovert, though, highly sensitive people often face a social stigma. In everyday life, high sensitivity can be perceived as “easily offended” or perhaps that we always “overreact.” Taking it even further, HSPs can be viewed as weak or deemed a “snowflake” which can be especially difficult for sensitive males against society’s ideal of strong and invincible. These stigmas can impact whether or not HSPs even get invited to the party in the first place! And when they do get invited, if they leave early due to overstimulation, they may be labeled as unfriendly, socially awkward or downright strange. Furthermore, because an HSP’s brain is wired to process information so deeply (and therefore take longer on average to digest new info) small group conversations often move too fast for us to keep up. We are then asked the dreaded question, “Why are you being so quiet? Are you OK?” We might as well have a spotlight shining on us at that point.
It is possible for HSPs to thrive in a social environment, however — even at a busy party. Let’s take a look at what happens inside the HSP brain that can make social interactions so stressful in the first place, and how to fix it — whether you are an introvert or an extrovert.
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Why Do Social Interactions Cause Stress in HSPs?
There are three main factors that cause many HSPs to get stressed out about social interactions. All of them start with anticipating the problem before it even happens, and all have their roots in how the HSP brain works:
1. Many social events are too big, too long, too late, or too crowded.
HSPs process information far more deeply than our non-HSP counterparts. At parties, there are many people all in one place, lots of chatter and possibly loud music. One of the biggest challenges is the length of time that a party can go on. We might feel energized and ready to take on the world at the beginning of the party, but into the 4th and 5th hours, we are all set. (Especially when the party is also throwing off our crucial sleep schedule by keeping us up late.) All of this is a recipe for overstimulation for the sensitive brain, which cannot handle that much stimuli for that long — even the extroverted HSPs who enjoy every minute of the conversation.
The result is that, to many HSPs, a party that is supposed to sound fun instead sounds like a nightmare, long before we get to it. We may be dreading it well in advance simply because we feel that it’s going to overwhelm us.
2. We may feel like we never know what to say.
In her workbook for highly sensitive people, sensitivity researcher Elaine Aron talks about how small talk can move fast in groups and HSPs like to process deeply. Likewise, highly sensitive people crave deep, meaningful conversation and struggle with how shallow or meaningless normal small talk can seem — which further drains us. Of course, I remember my husband coaching me that not every conversation has to be a monumental sharing of feelings, and I understand that not everyone wants to go down a deep rabbit hole on a topic. But it’s still hard for me to focus and stay interested in conversations that jump from topic to topic and never go more than skin deep.
For HSPs, this desire to go deep can leave us feeling like we never know what to say — or like the things we do say seem out of place. Often, before we even go to an event, we’re stressing over what to talk about when we get there.
3. We may arrive “pre-stimulated.”
HSPs may be exhausted and overstimulated before we even get to the party! Putting aside how common it is for our normal daily lives to overstimulate us, we’ve likely spent a lot of time planning and overthinking the party before we get there. Highly sensitive people feel anxiety much more intensely, so we’re already spent before we even set foot in the room because of all the possible spinning that has already gone on in our heads. Maybe we had negative social experiences in the past and they come to haunt us ahead of social gatherings.
Together, these three factors mean that, for HSPs, much of the stress of a party happens before the party ever happens — leaving us on-edge, overstimulated, and out of energy before we even get there.
Ways to Thrive at the Party
The truth of the matter is that no matter what your social orientation, research shows that everyone can feel happier after socializing. There are two different ways HSPs can do that — (and enjoy it). The first way is to rule the party circuit by leaning into your sensitivity and leveraging your HSP superpowers. The second way is to challenge yourself to learn some social tactics we HSPs don’t necessarily gravitate towards. I recommend attacking this challenge from both angles, which will fortify you to not only survive social gatherings but actually thrive and look forward to them.
Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System?
HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?
That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.
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Here is how to put both methods into practice:
3 Ways to Leverage Your HSPs Strengths for Social Situations
- HSPs have a gift to match someone’s mood and put people at ease. In the book, How to Talk to Anyone, Leil Lowndes discusses how small talk is actually extremely effective at doing both of these things.We need to reframe our belief that small talk has nothing to do with connecting with people or is useless. I used to think that I had to have really deep conversations all the time because it was just how I was built and how I made incredible connections. In all actuality, banal makes a bond by making people feel calm. Sometimes people can feel turned off by the deep stuff if they don’t share our love for conversations around the meaning of life.
- HSPs connect deeply with others. In The Skill Of Self-Confidence: How To Be Relaxed Talking To Anyone, Aziz Gazipura talks about how there are two modes of chatting with people. One of them is performance mode and one of them is connection mode. This one hits home especially for the highly sensitive among us. Oftentimes because we process so deeply or because we are perfectionists, we can be in constant evaluation mode of how our conversations are going. This has a negative impact on the actual conversation. If we let go of trying to perform and focus on connecting, then there is a tremendous amount of stress taken off of the conversation. What’s wonderful about this strategy is that connection is something that comes naturally to us. But we must allow ourselves to get into connection mode in the first place by dropping the judgment and therefore dropping the stress level.
- HSPs can read a room better than anyone. We notice all of the subtle nuances that non-HSPs don’t. We can tell easily when is a good time to approach a group and when it’s not. In many larger parties, there are folks that look a bit more nervous than others and are just begging for someone friendly to come and engage. At a recent social event, I knew that one person did not know the group as well as everyone else. Therefore, I knew she was feeling out of place. I went out of my way to engage with her and took a genuine interest in how she knew the host outside of the rest of us as an opener. Not only did that give me someone new to connect with, it also gave me the opportunity to be altruistic, which is a core HSP strength. On top of that, it made her feel much more comfortable and at ease. It was a win-win!
4 Tactics to Overcome Your Biggest Social Challenges
I would argue that the better skilled you are at chit chat, the more energized you’ll feel during a party and more likely that you’ll make stronger bonds with the people there. And, with practice, you’ll find that small talk doesn’t always have to be so small, and can become a stepping stone to deeper conversations and making meaningful connections with people.
Here are four tactics to navigate conversation and overcome any roadblocks to master it:
- Understand the structure of small talk. In Marti Olsen Laney’s The Introvert Advantage, Laney gives the basic structure of all small talk — which makes it incredibly easy to both enter a conversation and (if you want) participate more. Below are the four elements of small talk, according to Laney:
- Openers: Statements or questions that can toss out a new subject. This realm is where it’s good to be up on the latest news, or to come with a couple interesting topics in mind.
- Sustainers: Ask something about the current discussion topic to keep it moving. Think about possible questions as people are talking through openers.
- Transitions: Steer the conversation back to something that was said earlier. This can help us stop worrying that a topic is going to dry up too soon. We could say something like, “Did you say _____? Can you elaborate more on that part?”
- Closers: Standing chit chat groups last an average of 5-25 minutes. This was wonderful for me to learn given that I’m always worried about stalling out and not knowing what to say next. At some point, a topic is simply done and it’s time to see if we can find another opener!
- Know what to do when you just want to listen. In Jenn Granneman’s book The Secret Lives of Introverts she recommends that you simply get the other person to tell the story. To do this, ask open-ended questions that include a hook to get the person talking. For example, instead of, “How was your weekend?” you can ask, “What was your favorite part of your weekend?” Or, instead of, “Where did you grow up?” ask, “Tell me something interesting about where you grew up.” These types of questions naturally get people thinking about specific fun stories to share and allow you to play the role of listener rather than speaker.
- Know what to do when you want to talk. In her seminal book on HSPs, Aron tells us to plan ahead to plant a topic we enjoy and will want to go on about. This is where it’s also helpful to keep up with news or topics of general interest. For example, the latest Netflix shows, a fascinating new study that you read about, or something crazy going on in current events are all usually topics most people can chime in on, and any of them can make great conversation starters.
- Share stories, not answers. In The Art of Witty Banter Patrick King talks about being prepared to tell mini-stories so that you aren’t giving one-word answers to questions that chat partners might ask you. For example, if someone asks what you do for a living, instead of just saying “I’m a marketing executive,” try saying, “I’m a marketing executive, I deal mostly with clients. Just last week I had a crazy client that threatened to send his bodyguards…” Once you go on with the story, the response will most likely be, “tell me more!” and we’re on our way! (Of course, not every job is going to come with thriller-esque stories. But every job has an absurd project, a clueless boss, a pushy client, or a surprising recent development worth sharing — anything that surprises people or gets a laugh is a good one to share.
All of us are on a party tolerance continuum and most likely our own individual social journeys. Conserve energy as best you can before any event and wrap yourself in comfort after. Taking naps around social situations can always get us prepped. And as HSPs, we love soft pajamas, fuzzy slippers and a great comfy chair we’ve made into our home cocoons. As Aron tells us, stay realistic. Stop buying into the impossible ideal: stop expecting yourself to perform like a non-HSP extrovert in social situations and, instead, show up as the sensitive soul at the party — who is often the most interesting person there.
You Might Like:
- Why Verbal Communication Can Be Difficult for Quiet HSPs — and How to Change That
- Do You Crave Deeper, More Meaningful Friendships? You’re Not Alone
- 9 Signs of Chronic Overstimulation
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