You are responsible for your stuff and everyone else is responsible for theirs.
Years ago, I worked for a startup on a tight budget, with 10 of us working out of an extremely cramped office. The woman who sat next to me wore an overpowering perfume that reminded me of the candle store in the mall. Usually by mid-morning, I had the beginnings of a throbbing headache, and by the end of the afternoon, I was downright nauseous.
At this point in my life, I hadn’t yet discovered that I’m an introvert and a highly sensitive person (HSP). I just knew that I did not mix well with strong smells, loud noises, or crowded places. I was prone to headaches and anxiety, and something as simple as a strobe light could set me off.
So, even though this woman’s perfume seemed like such a small thing, it was actually wreaking havoc on my daily life.
Thankfully another one of my coworkers had become a close friend. She was very similar to me — intuitive, people-oriented, and sensitive. When I told her about the perfume lady, she said simply, “Why don’t you ask her not to wear that perfume to work anymore? Tell her it bothers you.”
I was stunned and speechless. That was allowed? I could ask other people to modify something because it was causing me a problem?
Rationally, I understood the concept. But emotionally, it felt like my entire world had shifted.
Why It’s Hard for Sensitive Introverts to Speak Up
I’m sure I’m not the first sensitive introvert to struggle with this issue, and I definitely won’t be the last. Speaking up for ourselves is not only hard to do, but it tends to bring up a ton of emotional baggage from our past.
Most of us have felt for our entire lives that our personal needs are weird and inconvenient to others. We need more space than other people. We need more time. We need more complexity and more depth. Because other people are often confused by these needs, or can even feel personally rejected in some way, we learn as children to compromise on them constantly.
Instead of figuring out how to negotiate with others for what we need, we may withdraw further into our inner world, attempting to meet all of our needs there, totally on our own.
This works about half the time. The other half, if you’re like me, you end up feeling resentful, unheard, isolated, and powerless.
So, we have two choices. We can step into our power and be uncomfortable now, in the present moment, by speaking up for what we need. Or we can choose powerlessness and guarantee that we’ll still feel uncomfortable — and probably angry, bitter, and emotionally exhausted — in the future, by suppressing our needs and keeping our mouths shut.
The Codependency Trap
Slowly, and with the help of a therapist, I’m learning to address my people-pleasing tendencies. I’ve also learned to recognize a more extreme version of this behavior, called codependency, which often goes hand-in-hand with people-pleasing.
Both introverts and extroverts can be codependent, but sensitive introverts may be more prone to it than others, due to our naturally conscientious and empathetic nature. Codependency is a dysfunctional dynamic where one person disproportionately sacrifices their own wants and needs to please another person who often behaves recklessly and rarely returns support.
That may — or may not — be you. If you’re not sure, take a look at some of the signs. According to experts, some of the signs of a codependent relationship are:
- You’re quick to say “yes” to others without pausing to consider how you feel.
- Other people’s happiness is your top priority.
- You keep quiet to avoid arguments.
Codependent relationships sometimes also involve one person enabling another person’s bad behavior, for example, through covering up their drug abuse or illegal/unsafe activity. You can learn more about codependency here.
How to Stop Feeling Responsible for Others’ Emotions
Trust me when I say that keeping everyone around us happy is a fight we’ll never win. We simply cannot be in charge of everyone’s emotions, nor should we be. That’s what this whole “free will” deal is about. Everyone gets to choose their own adventure here. In order to truly honor someone else, it’s essential to step back and let them have their own choices and their own reactions.
If people-pleasing is an issue for you, consider working with a good therapist who can get to the root of your reactions and help you see things differently. Along with that, this four-step process will help:
Step 1: Evaluate Your Needs
Does the thing you need encroach on the rights of anyone else? Is it harmful to other people? If you’re not invading anyone’s space or being disrespectful of someone’s boundaries, it’s safe to say that you’re justified in asking that your needs be respected.
Use common sense here as well. Sure, your coworker might argue that listening to dance music at top volume is his inalienable right, but most sensible people would agree that his argument doesn’t hold water.
If you’re able to speak up for what you need and still be respectful of others, then do it. It’s not your responsibility to set boundaries for other people — only for yourself.
Step 2: Use Your Preferred Mode of Communication
Most introverts and HSPs have the misguided idea that we should push ourselves to have face-to-face confrontations with people, when there is nothing that makes us feel more like we want to crawl under a rock. But there is a solution. I hereby give you permission, from this day forward, to communicate your needs through the written word, whenever and to whomever you want, without feeling guilty about it.
So send that email. Write that letter and leave it in your neighbor’s mailbox. As long as you state your needs as honestly and respectfully as possible, it’s all good.
Many introverts communicate much more effectively in writing. Use that to your advantage.
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Step 3: Maintain Your Boundaries
Even after you’ve identified what you need and found the courage to ask for it, sometimes the other party will still try to push your buttons (by being consciously manipulative) or forget your previous requests (by being unconsciously oblivious). So, sometimes, you have to go through the whole process again. The upside is that every time you go through it, you get more practice on how to take back your power.
Asking once might not be enough. If you have to repeat yourself, that’s okay. Think of it as a practice.
Step 4: Hold Responsibility Only for Yourself
When you’re evaluating your needs, you might be tempted to push them aside so your coworker can go on enjoying his crazy loud dance music every morning. When asking for your needs, you might try to soothe someone else’s defensive reactions. When maintaining a boundary, you might give in when someone tries to tear down your fence because they’ve always been allowed into your garden before, and now they don’t like feeling left out. The reactions of other people are not your responsibility. They never have been and they never will be.
You are responsible for your stuff and everyone else is responsible for theirs. You’re not helping anyone by trying to manage the emotions of other people.
Speaking up for your needs isn’t easy, but if you’re truly committed to living your best life, then it must be done. The more you do it, the more you’ll be able to readily identify what’s yours, what belongs to other people, and how to draw the line between the two. You’ll come to a place where you step into your own power consistently, with passion and purpose.
And when you look into the mirror, you’ll respect the person looking back at you, because you’ll know that person speaks up for their needs.