As a Highly Sensitive Introvert, I Hate Feeling ‘In the Way.’ Here’s How I Deal With It.

A highly sensitive introvert shops

Because sensitive introverts are extremely observant, they’re hyper-aware of how they might be inconveniencing others. 

A couple weeks ago, I lost my wallet. And it was totally because I’m a highly sensitive introvert. If you are, too, you know how this can happen. Let me explain.

Do you ever feel like you’re “in the way”?

As a highly sensitive introvert, I’m always just a little on edge when among other people.

It’s not a huge deal. Just a quicker pulse, tense muscles, thoughts running at a faster pace than usual. It’s been like that all my life, so I don’t think too much about it.

I am, however, hyper-aware of everyone around me and what they’re feeling, or seem to be feeling. This awareness peaks when I’m in line at the grocery store checkout, restaurant, movie theater, or department store.

The last thing I want to do is be in anyone’s way.

I can feel them standing behind me, waiting impatiently for their turn. They want to get through the line and get on with their day. I understand that. I do, too. So I try to hurry it along as quickly as I can.

That means I’m at risk of missing something.

Usually, I rely on my habits to help me get past my nerves. Put the things on the counter (quickly, of course). Have my card ready to go. Coupons, if they apply. Zip-zip. Swipe the card. Done and out. Next person, here you go. No delays from me.

But now and then, something changes, and inevitably, it throws me off.

That’s what happened last week.

You see, I got a new purse….

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Establishing New Habits Can Cause Overwhelm

It’s a beautiful leather purse. I absolutely adore it. I looked at it for weeks before I finally broke down and bought it. After publishing my third novel — in hardcover, no less — I convinced myself I deserved it.

Problem was that the purse was set up a bit differently. Typically, I go for the ones that have the organizers in the front. That allows me to whip out my cards and a pen when needed, then put them back in and go without delaying anyone.

This purse doesn’t have an organizer. All it has is a small front pocket. Perfect for fitting a small wallet and a pen. (As a writer, the pen is a must.)

After I got it, I shifted things around. No longer could I pull out a single card. Now I pulled out the small wallet. It takes a moment to fit this wallet back into the pocket.

I’m talking maybe five seconds.

But that five seconds, the first few times I did it, felt like an eon.

The people behind me! They were waiting! Come on, let’s move it! I could feel their eagerness.

I hurried. But I just wasn’t used to this new system. It was a change. I had to establish new habits (all while people were waiting impatiently behind me).

Worrying About Others’ Emotions Can Cause Us Problems

I did okay until I went to the movie theater. There, a nice young man behind the counter engaged me in conversation. It was fun to talk to him while he rang up my order and got my popcorn.

But when it was time for me to move on — and allow the other eager people behind me to place their orders — he was still talking. I didn’t want to be rude. He was nice, after all. I kept talking while trying to put my things away, but I could feel those people behind me.

Come on. The movie’s about to start. Are you done?

In the course of my rushed thoughts and worries and distractions, I somehow left my little wallet (that was supposed to go into the pocket of the new purse) behind.

I didn’t notice it. My hands full, I stepped aside, got my napkins, and went into the theater. There, I did my best to unload everything and put it away. But it was dark and the movie was starting.

It wasn’t until after the movie that I realized what had happened: I’d lost my wallet!

I raced back to the theater, but to no avail. The wallet was nowhere to be found.

That meant I had to cancel all the cards that were in it and arrange to get new ones.

Overwhelming and a pain in the neck, for sure. But worse, I derided myself for being so careless.

How could I have done that?

Highly Sensitive Introverts Are Sensitive to Time Pressure

Turns out that we highly sensitive introverts are highly sensitive to time pressure. (Read more about why highly sensitive people hate feeling busy and rushed here.) Having to hurry along in line — even though this is a requirement I’m putting on myself because I fear other people will be inconvenienced by me — can cause me to feel flustered.

Ergo, the lost wallet.

We also tend to become emotionally overwhelmed when processing a lot of input — in my case, the nice young man’s conversation, learning new habits with my purse and payment methods, worrying about the people behind me, and trying to manage everything I was carrying in my hands so I could get out of the way without spilling my popcorn. (The movie was starting!)

Most of the time, I’m happy with my ability to process a lot of what’s going on around me. It helps me as a writer. I can catalog feelings and emotions from other people, as well as characteristics, setting, mood, sounds, smells, and more.

“People having such trait [sic] can process larger amounts of sensory information than usual,” researchers write in a 2012 study on sensitivity, “making it an excellent attribute that allows to pick up subtle environmental details and cues. Furthermore, this trait correlates to some sort of giftedness such as higher perception, inventiveness, imagination and creativity.”

But it sure is inconvenient when trying to develop new habits in the world! So I’ve come up with a few ways to stay calm while in line, coping techniques I’m using to help myself when dealing with this “I have to hurry and get out of the way” feeling.

Is the chaos of life overwhelming you as a highly sensitive person?

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5 Ways to Stay Calm When You Feel ‘In the Way’

1. Focus on your breathing — it’ll help clear your mind.

It’s amazing how focusing on your breath can help in several types of situations. Being stuck in line is no exception. 

Now, when I’m feeling nervous because I can feel that the people behind me are in a hurry, I tell myself to breathe.

The simple act of taking a breath helps clear my mind and allows me to focus on what I’m doing rather than what other people are feeling. I trust this will help me make sure I have everything I need before moving on.

Whether you practice certain breathing techniques or create your own, just taking time to focus on it will help calm you down. Trust me.

2. Own your space — you have every right to take your time.

I’m now reminding myself that I have just as much right as anyone else in line to take the time I need to take when it’s my turn. I know this intellectually, but because I’m so in tune with others’ emotions, it can be hard for me to put it into practice.

Now, I stand in my space and remind myself, “Own your space.” It helps me remember that I’m patient with others in line — they can return the favor (or not) — and I have every right to take the time I need to finish the interaction.

3. Change your mindset — other people aren’t thinking about how long you’re taking.

Yes, most people waiting in line want to get on with their lives. But that doesn’t mean they are blaming me for the fact that they have to wait. I’m creating that assumption myself.

But I can change that assumption. I can imagine that the people behind me aren’t thinking of me at all (which most of them aren’t). They’re not watching my every move and saying to themselves, “Geesh, how long does she need to put her wallet away?”

Instead, they’re thinking about what they need to do next, where their kids are, what happened at work that day, or how tired their feet feel.

I can realize that the emotions I’m sensing coming from these other folks aren’t about me, personally, but about their lives. And I can’t control that — so I can release myself from that assumed responsibility.

4. Create a bubble around yourself to protect you from others’ emotions.

You may have heard that it can help to create an imaginary bubble around yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed by others’ emotions. I’m using that technique now when I’m standing in line and feeling that someone behind me is impatient. 

I imagine a transparent bubble coming down around me, which shields me from the emotions of the other person. It’s a protective mechanism that can help me avoid reacting to those emotions. 

“Even with activity around you,” writes former teacher Lynn Stout, “you can create a bubble and let your mind rest as you focus on the small steps and details of the process.”

5. (Quietly) hum a tune to help you relax.

It’s amazing what a little music can do for your brain. In a 2013 study, researchers reported that listening to music had a direct beneficial impact on stress.

You can always slip in your earbuds as you’re going through the line, but that may be considered rude by your checkout clerk. I prefer to listen to music on the way to the store (or other places of business), then stick to (quietly!) humming one of my favorite tunes to help keep my nerves relaxed.

Practice Makes Perfect (We All Need More Connection, After All, Not Less)

Now I’m happy to say that I can conduct my transactions at stores, movie theaters, and other locations with more calm and comfort than I have in the past. I can enjoy a conversation with a clerk without worrying (too much!) about whether the person behind me is becoming annoyed.

We all need more connection, after all, not less. My next goal? Turn around and smile at the person behind me, while wishing them the best of days. I have a feeling that would help us both!

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