Ask Alane: Why Are Relationships So Draining for HSPs?

A highly sensitive person laying down on a bed after feeling drained by their relationships

How do I stop feeling drained by my loved ones?

Dear Alane, I am drained by people around me. I have two very close people in my life. One is always negative and the other is careless and always expects me to justify his violent actions and argue that he has the right. What can I do about this? —Indy

Indy, I feel drained by the good people in my life, even the ones I love. As a highly sensitive person, I’m a bit of a sponge. I pay so much attention to others and process what they say so deeply that I feel full and tired when I spend time with them. 

Here’s the thing: You cannot control how these two people act, but you can control how you preserve your own energy and how much of it you give them. 

When I feel drained by people, I know I am not spending enough time in solitude, in silence, in nature, and in movement. These four things are my prescription for myself (and you). If I have enough of these four “magic pills” in my life, being around people is not so draining — it’s my recipe for social success.

(Note: I happen to be an introvert, although the solitude and silence is just as important for HSPs who are extroverts. That’s because extroverted HSPs can experience that relationship overwhelm even more often and more acutely than the introverts. Why? Well, my sensitive extrovert friends, you know why: You have the impulse and instinct to be with others more than your sensitive brain can tolerate, so you might not spend enough downtime alone.)

The truth is, no one starts their day with just the right amount of each of the four ingredients. Yet, it is a non-negotiable recipe for each of us. Follow it the same way your grandma cooked: a bit of this, a bit of that… Oh! It didn’t come out just right? Adjust the ingredients until you are making the best Social You that tastes just right to your palate. And if it doesn’t taste great to those around you — the drainers? Oh well! They can go find a different flavor of person because it’s about your palate. 

And, Indy, I’d be surprised if you still have those negative, careless, violent, or argumentative people in your life once you start to figure out your recipe. When you start to follow your recipe, those people tend to fall away — you are no longer so appealing to them because they have been using your sensitivity to fill up their own limited cups, and suddenly you’re taking care of your own needs instead. 

Of course, if the “drainers” are your parent, child, or sibling, it’s not going to work to let them fall away from your life. In that case, it’s time to set limits. This is something most HSPs struggle to define and implement. You are not alone! Keep reading below for my suggestions about limit-setting.

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How do I say ‘no’ and set limits with difficult loved ones?

Dear Alane, I have a friend who is very high strung (she refers to herself this way) and she seems to me to play mind games. I take what I can and leave what I can’t. I have compassion for her, I see the hurt little girl inside of her, and when we click we have a good time. And, there are times when I need my space from her and it is these times I don’t know what to say. “NO” is a complete sentence but I feel more of an explanation is needed. Just saying no feels awkward to me. I don’t know how to explain to her my limits without potentially hurting her feelings. —Trying to Just Say No Trixie

Welcome (unfortunately!) to the challenging-loved-ones club. Here’s how I recommend setting limits for social HSPs, in four steps:

1. First, set limits with yourself

This is a tough but important place to start. What are your values for your life? Where do you want to spend your energy? Do you want to be your best self in this world? If so, you have to value yourself above all else. That’s the rule. That is the first limit you need to set, and it’s one you yourself have to follow.

As a highly sensitive person, you will always have empathy for others and act with open-hearted kindness EXCEPT for when you are overwhelmed — a.k.a. drained — but overwhelmed-you is not who you really are. When you get to that point of what we psychological professionals call overarousal (read: having too many straws on the camel’s back) not only will you not be nice, but the first person you will be mean to is yourself. So stop all that. Take care of you. 

Do that by giving yourself solitude, silence, nature, and movement early and often. 

2. Know the Warning Signs

This one is sort of a limit with yourself as well, but they all are if I’m being honest. The truth is that I am often unaware of just how much I am feeling drained or done with an interaction until I am so upset I can’t function. That leaves me blind to the dysfunction in the relationship until I can’t take it any more. I suspect I’m not alone in this. 

That’s why working on our awareness is key. Awareness means knowing when a limit is getting crossed — or someone is draining you — before it becomes a crisis. You can do that by monitoring your physiological self (scan your body for muscle tension, and pay attention to your heart rate, breathing, and pain) and your emotional self (distraction, sadness, frustration, self-doubt).( We HSPs don’t think without feeling, so you will do well to notice emotion-driven thoughts, not just overwhelming feelings.) 

You might notice warning signs of your own. I have come to know that if I think or say a swear word, it means I’m dancing with overarousal. Whatever your warning is, treat it like a big red stop light. Be aware that if things keep going as they are, you are no longer going to be your best self — which means this is not the time to do Step 3, below. Instead, you have to go back to the recipe Step 1: Withdraw as needed and give yourself solitude, silence, nature, and movement. 

But I bet, like me, that you’ll often just keep going. You might not even be aware that you are going over your edge. It’s very subtle (like all things HSP-related, except our occasional meltdowns!). But, I promise, it will all work out better if you work on this so you can notice when you need to step back. 

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3. Communicate Clearly & Use Appropriate Volume

Weren’t my sad eyes enough to let you know I wasn’t okay? I’m looking out the window, so it should be obvious I’m angry…

No. No, it’s not. 

I have created an entire curriculum around this that I call Speaking Volumes. We HSPs often think we have clearly communicated to our friends and families what we want or need. We feel like we have told them so many times that we must sound like a broken record. Yet they continue to step on our toes (and our hearts). 

Here is the problem: We communicate at too soft a “volume.” We are too nice (unless we hit the wall, then we scream or communicate drastically in some other way — again, at an inappropriate volume.) But most averagely-sensitive people don’t understand gentle, subtle communication to mean there’s a problem. They understand there’s a problem when something is direct and firm. Anything else gets screened out — unless or until you teach them about you.

Think back to the most gentle, polite way you’ve communicated an issue to a difficult friend or loved ones. Maybe you crossed your arms or looked away when you started to feel frustrated or uncomfortable. Maybe you softened it up by apologizing for your own part in it. 

Let me ask you, HSPs: Did that work? Did they even notice? Or did you get more frustrated because they just kept going

If this resonates, here is some homework for you: Think back on all the ways you have indicated your limits in relationships. For each way you have communicated a limit, note how effective it was. Was it clear to you? Was it clear to the other person? Finally, write down three ways you might make that communication more clear, by turning up your volume. (Writing it down is the key here, so get to it!)

4. Just Say No

I hear you, Trixie. “No” just feels too abrupt and, well, mean. And, you might be surprised to hear your mental health educator here agreeing with you.

As a young woman, I taught self-defense to teen girls. We spent a good deal of time raising our voices and yelling “NO.” We didn’t just say “No” loudly; we deepened the tone, believed it ourselves, and rallied our inner drill sergeant. And, yes: Practicing your hard No is a good practice. It could save your life one day, so I’m all in on a strong NO! The issue is that as sensitive people, the strong No has to follow a careful progression of raising your volume. You want to try all the steps above first, and the firm, clear language in Step 3 should do the job better than a mere “no” in most cases. 

Just in case, though, please do practice a hard, primal NO! in the privacy of your own home. It really does stop people in their tracks, which can help in an emergency. Just maybe close the windows when you practice. 

Here is an example of a “no” that might work for you: Speak your truth. Be brief and direct. State what’s not working, what you need, and what you’ll do going forward. For example: “If I’m going to come to family dinner on Sunday, I need to know that you won’t make fun of my politics. From now on, please don’t discuss politics with me at all. If you do, I’ll have to stop coming.” This is a high number on the volume scale, but you didn’t have to yell it.

Have a question for Ask Alane? Submit your question here.

The Power of Setting Limits

My dear sweet HSPs, I know you can relate to these two excellent questions. You are not alone. Although there are as many ways to be highly sensitive as there are highly sensitive people (and there are quite a lot of us) we all know what it’s like to feel drained by the people around us.

The hardest NO you will ever say is to yourself. I am tearing up as I say this because it is so true for me. But setting those limits with yourself, applying your supercharged empathy to inward and toward yourself will make you a better person, a better friend, and a healthier and happier HSP. 

Blessings and breath,

HSPs, are you always running late? Do you often find yourself feeling rushed? I used to run 20 minutes late almost everywhere. Thanks to this great HSP Hack, I now run early — and “late” looks like on time. I offer a FREE 20-minute video so you can learn this hack yourself, and stop feeling rushed. Get the free video here.  —Alane

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