An Open Letter to Socially Timid Highly Sensitive People

Dear fellow highly sensitive person,

Like many of you, I didn’t know I was a highly sensitive person (HSP) for a long while. I just knew I was “different.” For me, this was particularly marked in social situations. Other people went shopping together to unwind, but I felt tense in brightly lit malls bombarded by flashing advertisements, milling crowds, and heavy perfumes. My friends didn’t wince at dances when the music was turned up, they danced harder. My classmates in college seemed like they could relax and focus, while I noticed the flickering lights, the quality of air, the spot on the professor’s shirt, the scratch of pencils on paper.

Sound familiar? If you were like me, you were sure this wasn’t normal—but you weren’t sure what to do about it. I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to get over my shyness and start acting like other people. I had discovered my Myers-Briggs personality type was INFJ when I was preparing to graduate high school as a homeschooler, but it wasn’t until I was floundering through the social landscape of college that I started really researching it. I began at the library, desperately digging through books, looking for ways to cope with my introversion.

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In that narrow section of shelving, I found Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain and The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron. Oh. My. Goodness. These authors didn’t think I was crazy. They didn’t think I needed to change my core self to fit into the world. Instead, they assured me that my introversion and sensitivity could be a strength.

Excuse or Empower?

Do you remember that moment when you found out you weren’t the only one? Perhaps you had an experience similar to mine. The deep sense that you’re broken and different was finally replaced by the realization that you’re not alone nor defective. That knowledge brought an immense relief, but it didn’t necessarily make being sensitive any easier. It’s how we react to learning about our high sensitivity that determines which of two paths we follow moving forward:

  1. You can use the realization that you’re an HSP to avoid anything that makes you uncomfortable. You now have an excuse for why you can’t go to the mall with your friends, why you don’t want to attend a dance, why you shouldn’t go back to school. You can define yourself as “too sensitive” for everyday life and decide you’re okay with that.
  2. You can use your new knowledge of your sensitive nature to empower yourself. Figure out what stresses you and come up with strategies to defuse, cope with, or avoid such situations. Learn what you need to function at your best and make sure you get it. You can take your knowledge of your sensitivity and use it to live life on your terms.

I’ll admit, my first instinct was to go with the first option, at least socially. I’m not just introverted, I’m shy. Social situations make my hands shake, my sensitivities harder to deal with, and my overthinking mind shut down. It was so much easier to eat lunch by myself, avoid small talk with co-workers, and spend every evening at home alone.

If you’re reacting to your high sensitivity by avoiding social situations like I was, I want to encourage you to rethink that approach. I really believe that we can’t find fulfillment and peace with ourselves if we’re hiding from something. It’s one thing to know your limits and set healthy boundaries. It’s another thing entirely to avoid making friends or to stay away from an event you want to attend because you’re scared. When we let fear drive us, we’re turning over control of our lives to a malevolent, enslaving force.

Thriving in the World as an HSP

I’m not sure exactly when I made the decision to acknowledge my fears, take stock of my triggers and sensitivities, and then live my life anyway. It was probably when I started reading blogs like Introvert, Dear and getting in touch with other introverts and HSPs online. I’d also kept researching introversion, studying personality types, and going back to Elaine N. Aron’s book. Originally, I had focused on the part of her subtitle that talked about the world overwhelming you. Now, I focused on the part about how to thrive.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Just a few months ago I made the decision to attend a young adult event sponsored by my church. I was honestly looking forward to it, and I knew I’d see many of the people I’d spent the last few years cultivating friendships with. Then the day I was loading up my car to leave, I was hit with the first panic attack I’d had in years. I was rattled by too many unknowns—how many people would be there, where had my friend arranged for me to spend the night, would I get lost, and what if I have a melt-down in front of people and they think I’m weird?

I could have canceled. Instead, I got in my car, turned up Fall Out Boy and drove south. So many things worked out for that weekend to be a success that I describe it as a blessing, but part of it had to do with me as well. Instead of trying to ignore my need for introvert time, I carved out spaces for reading and meditation. Instead of freaking out about group mixer activities, I participated in a few and then sought out one-on-one conversations for the rest of the evening because that’s the sort of interaction I enjoy. I even met another INFJ. I thrived because I’ve been learning how to navigate a world that overwhelms me.

Never Give Up

Don’t give up, dear HSPs. It is possible to overcome your fears, make friends, and be social on your own terms. The better you know yourself and respect your own boundaries, the more successful you’ll be at getting others to hold space for you and at navigating social situations successfully. If you want to be somewhere or with someone, don’t let your fears hold you back.

Also, don’t beat yourself up when you don’t hit every one of your goals. Sometimes that happens, and it’s okay. It takes time to climb mountains, especially metaphorical ones. You’ve probably already overcome more obstacles than you give yourself credit for. Give yourself permission to be yourself when you’re around other people and applaud yourself for every victory, no matter how little it seems.

I know how hard it is being a socially timid HSP. But I also know how rewarding it can be to cultivate friendships and push yourself outside your social comfort zone (at least a little). Good luck, my friends.



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