As a quiet HSP who gets easily overwhelmed by external stimuli — from background noise to someone’s strong perfume — verbal communication can be a struggle.
“Your communication is very poor, residents struggle to understand you! Obviously, your accent makes it even harder. It is too early for you to think about a senior post.”
My manager in the care home (similar to a nursing home) I worked at paused for effect, glaring straight at me. Snuggled tightly in a comfy chair, she tapped her pen against the table — it sounded terrifying, which forced my brain to stop thinking and shattered my last pieces of confidence.
I looked back at her and felt tightness in my chest. I understood that anything I could possibly say would be pointless; she’d already made her decision. Besides, she was absolutely right. The elderly people I was looking after — all with various forms of physical and mental disabilities — often did struggle to understand what I said. Or what anyone said. Some of them gradually become less reliant on speaking (verbally) altogether, due to their inability to remember the words, speech problems, or hearing loss. It did not help that if anybody else listened to my conversation with them, like my manager, despite all my efforts to stay calm, my throat would immediately tighten. This would tangle my voice, and my words would become forced, unnatural, and hard to understand.
But inside my brain, I was a big thinker: I formed beautiful, colorful, passionate, funny, and clever words. Yet when I needed to speak them out loud — especially during important moments like work reviews or interviews — those carefully selected phrases never appeared. Or, they’d come out weak, lifeless, and dull, making it seem like I had little to say. My colleagues, on the other hand, seemed to have no problem speaking up and couldn’t care less who was listening.
A Lightbulb Moment: Learning I’m a Highly Sensitive Person
I wondered what was “wrong” with me and how I’d ever climb up the career ladder if I lacked the basic ability to communicate. But then I discovered that I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP) — which means I feel things much deeper, notice even the smallest details, have higher-than-usual sensory perceptions, and require more time to process information. We HSPs are deep thinkers, analysts, empaths, and very intuitive. I also realized I’m not alone — highly sensitive people make up around 20 percent of the population (or more) — and that being an HSP is not a disorder. Coming to the realization that I’m an HSP was a lightbulb moment for me, and a relief to find out that nothing is “wrong” with me, after all.
In doing research on being a highly sensitive person, I discovered that other HSPs, too, are reserved and cannot always verbally express the deepness and brilliance of their thoughts. Others often tell us to be “stronger,” “louder,” and “more assertive” — and, my favorite, “to stop being so sensitive.” In a world where “strong” means being less responsive to stimuli, an HSP who cries seeing a beautiful flower or becomes overwhelmed by a loud sound is not taken seriously enough. And if we don’t speak often enough, we have almost no chance to be understood. All that said, here’s why verbal communication can be difficult for HSPs like me.
Why Verbal Communication Can Be a Challenge for Highly Sensitive People
1. HSPs have to think before they speak vs. blurting out the first thing that comes to mind.
While some people say the first thing that comes to mind, HSPs don’t do this (it’s a challenge for us) — we have to think before we speak. Our highly sensitive brains collect and analyze all our thoughts thoroughly and consider every possible outcome of the situation we’re thinking about.
We’re biologically programmed to mentally research and think (and overthink) every word, and others’ words, too. And by the time we’re finally ready to share our carefully crafted ideas, the conversation has usually moved on. HSPs, being so deep in our thoughts, often lose out, and others may misinterpret this as our being slow or strange for not answering soon enough.
2. Highly sensitive types are greatly affected by both their environment and other people’s feelings.
We highly sensitive types are greatly affected by our environments and other people’s feelings. Uncomfortable surroundings may interfere with our thinking process since we HSPs get overwhelmed by all the stimuli around us. Whether it’s a hard chair, background noise, or someone’s strong perfume, these can all create barriers which can distract HSPs and cause us to not be able to form words.
And sensing others’ emotions may override our own thoughts and feelings, which also prevents us from being able to speak our minds. It is difficult for us to talk about an upcoming holiday, for instance, when someone else in the room is emotionally distraught due to an issue they’re having. We will feel that pain and our brain will be so busy processing it that their issue will become our focus instead.
3. Many HSPs don’t like small talk — they’d rather have deeper, more thought-provoking conversations.
Most highly sensitive people dislike small talk and its forced nature. Even though it’s often considered a conversation-starter, we feel it depletes our energy. Instead, we’d like to have deeper, more thought-provoking conversations.
And HSPs are usually comfortable in the presence of silence, too, as we listen to others speak and think of a response. Constantly seeking understanding and meaning, every word we speak must serve a purpose.
4. Speaking in front of others can cause HSPs to feel pressured and anxious.
It can also be extremely difficult for highly sensitive people to handle the pressure that comes with speaking in front of other people; it makes us feel exposed, judged, and anxious. HSPs are already more overwhelmed day-to-day than non-HSPs, so speaking up — especially if someone puts us on the spot — causes even more overwhelm for us.
Yet the requirements of life makes it necessary to be a good communicator. Our ability to speak can be crucial to obtain a desired position in society or a dream job. So how can we do it as a quiet HSP?
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Ways to Speak up as a Quiet HSP
Over the years, I have learned a few ways to speak up — even as a quiet HSP.
- Use your sensitive powers to create connections with people. Highly sensitive people are masters in developing connections with others, even non-verbally. While working at the care home, I used gesturing, facial expressions, and body language, as well as verbally spoke with my residents. My highly sensitive brain recorded every tiny detail and analyzed tons of subtle inputs for information. I’d collect people’s thoughts and feelings, observe them, spend time with them, and placed all my findings together like pieces of a colorful puzzle. This allowed me to fully understand my residents. For me, the results were remarkable, and empowered me to care, comfort, and meet the needs of even the most uncommunicative (and often resentful) vulnerable people.
- Use other forms of communication in addition to verbal. Many HSPs love writing, as it allows them to think at their own pace. Written words have a special ability to influence our minds and give us control we usually don’t experience when speaking. Writing is a very calming process and a tremendously effective form of communication. If you have many unspoken thoughts, just journal about them. The time will come when your written words will be greatly received, wanted, and appreciated.
- Do not give up: one “bad” conversation doesn’t mean they’ll all be bad. Just because you had a bad conversation with someone, don’t deny others the opportunity to enjoy your words. After I had a conversation with my work manager, I made a cup of tea for an older lady in the care home. We had a small chat and shared a laugh. “Don’t go,” she whispered, as I went to the door and said my goodbyes (it was the end of my shift). Her eyes became wet with tears and she stretched her arms toward me. My highly sensitive soul immediately felt her panic. “Promise me you’ll never leave me,” she said. “You are the only one here I feel at ease to talk with.”
We all speak differently, but sometimes our differences cannot be measured by words, only felt. Naturally, HSPs are wonderfully equipped to sense these unspoken feelings. And one day, this remarkable power of sensitivity will be better recognized and treasured as an essential form of communication that humanity needs in order to thrive. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to speak — and communicate — the best I can.
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