I love you but I just can’t go out tonight.
I love and appreciate you, truly. I know it may seem like I don’t like spending time with you or value your friendship, given how often I turn down invitations to “do my own thing.” It hurts me that I may have to hurt you in order to take care of myself.
See, it’s not that I’m afraid of meeting new people. And it’s not that I secretly don’t like you or don’t like having fun. I like the fond memories we make together that get captured in Polaroids that I string along the walls of my room. I love and crave that joy in my life as much as anyone else.
But the truth is…
…I’m a highly sensitive person.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are the 20 percent of the population who process stimulation very deeply, from smells to sounds to emotions. There’s nothing wrong with being an HSP; according to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, this trait occurs naturally in over 100 different species. It comes with some incredible superpowers, such as strong intuition, heightened powers of perception, and increased empathy.
But all that deep processing means I also get overstimulated easily. It means I sometimes can’t handle the loud noises in the bar, the crowds of bodies stuffed together in one room, or the anxiety of having to sideline my sensitivity for the sake of social convention. It’s hard to act like I’m not bothered by all the stimulation — especially when other people don’t seem to experience what I do. Sometimes I feel like the only one who is completely overwhelmed by all the noise and activity.
And, when you invite me out in the evening — after a long day at work — I’m often already exhausted from processing my experiences and emotions from earlier in the day. I might be emotionally burned out from experiencing secondhand emotions from the people I saw today, emotions I had no business feeling. (We HSPs can be empaths, absorbing other people’s feelings as our own.) Yes, I’d love to spend time with you, but I’m emotionally, mentally, and physically drained.
I’m sorry, I just can’t go out tonight.
Your HSP friend
The Highly Sensitive Person’s Friendship Struggle
HSP, have you ever wanted to write a letter like that to your friends?
Guilt can be a common space holder in many friendships that HSPs have, especially if those friendships are with non-HSPs. Whenever I feel the need to turn down a friend’s invitation to go out on a Friday night, I find my mind automatically reciting some form of the aforementioned apology letter and later feeling intense waves of guilt at having to say no to them.
I even feel afraid I might lose friends if I continue to say no to all the invitations to go out to parties, bars, or whatever “fun” social outing they have planned. Sadly, I often have lost friends. People learned to not ask me if I wanted to go out because often the answer was no. Or just as likely, they didn’t feel like being continuously rejected, so they skipped the risk of asking me altogether. Honestly, I don’t blame them.
But it also sucks to feel isolated in this way.
Along with the isolation, there’s a sense of self-consciousness when establishing friendships. I never truly know how receptive a person will be to my highly sensitive proclivities — especially in social circumstances like group dinners after work at busy restaurants or bars where the overall mood isn’t primed for meaningful conversation.
For a long time, I was afraid of having people flat-out not understand my sensitivities to large groups, strong smells, and loud noises and dismiss me as “too sensitive” or “weird.” As a result, I wouldn’t reveal the real reason I couldn’t go out. In those cases, my rejections probably came off more harshly or emotionally removed than I would have liked. Often, no matter what story I used, my reason for staying in just felt like an excuse. Phrases like “Sorry, I have to work early tomorrow morning,” “No, I’m busy,” or even the ubiquitous one for students, “Sorry, I have homework” sounded like a weak get-out-of-jail excuse for attending an event I didn’t like.
What I Wish My Friends Knew About Me as an HSP
It’s hard to lose friends when there’s a misunderstanding about the reasons why I can’t go out. Here are three things I wish I could say to past and present friends about why I keep turning down their invitations.
1. Going out is not a matter of desire, but ability.
I want to go out with you. Seriously. I crave that sense of belonging and connection with you. I want to create fun, spontaneous, crazy memories with you. I just literally can’t bear to be bombarded with external stimuli like that for hours and not feel drained for days after. I want to go out and have fun with you, but doing so would mean incapacitating my senses and brain function and depleting my energy.
2. On the other hand, it’s likely I don’t have the mental energy prepared to endure the overstimulation.
I already spend most of my emotional and mental reserves just making it through my responsibilities during the day, and I need quiet downtime to recharge. Usually, this looks like staying home or in another safe space to let my senses settle (a.k.a. “doing my own thing”). Many common social outings include fast conversation and different things vying for attention all at once, especially if you’re in loud environments like dance clubs and restaurants — and HSPs wilt in those settings. Personally, it’s not that I don’t enjoy spending time there once in a while. It’s that I usually prefer to spend time doing leisurely activities and being in calmer environments if I want to feel happy and truly enjoy myself.
3. I feel guilty for needing to take so much time for myself just to be able to function.
I know it may appear selfish, because it means less time for other people. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t highly sensitive to things you’re not sensitive to, so that I could enjoy a regular night out with my friends like so many other people do. I know I’m missing out on a lot of bonding opportunities, but taking care of myself and my mental well-being is my top priority. I wish you could understand that it is not a reflection on you.
Fighting the Fear of Missing Out
Another thing HSPs may find themselves dealing with is FOMO (fear of missing out) when declining a social invitation. When I was a university student, self-care often meant staying in my dorm room on a Friday night while it seemed like every other student was out with their friends making crazy memories for their “responsible” adult selves to wistfully smile about. Because I wasn’t present for most of the crazy parties or adventures out on the town at 1 a.m., I found myself excluded from many of the conversations that would take place during Sunday brunch or Monday morning in class.
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As I got older, I found friends who were much more supportive and understanding of my boundaries. Saying the words, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t go out tonight” no longer comes with the guilt of taking time for myself or the urge to go out just to make others happy. It now comes with the assurance that my friends understand my boundaries — and the confidence that I’m doing what’s right for me.
These supportive friends are the ones an HSP really needs. Good friends will understand your needs and encourage you to do what’s best for your well-being — even if it means skipping the party.
For HSPs, the feeling of missing out might sometimes be inevitable. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time and space you need to care for yourself. Yes, your needs as an HSP require a different, slower kind of attention, but learning to honor them is to love yourself.
Find friends who can and want to honor your needs in the same way — and you’ll find yourself mentally composing fewer apology letters.
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