Being a Highly Sensitive Person Does Not Mean You Have Social Anxiety
"Sensitive? Sounds Like Social Anxiety to Me!"
Although it might feel otherwise, remember that when someone makes a statement like the one above, they are usually well-intentioned. They are not trying to put us down, or slight us; they simply don't have an understanding of the trait.
Sometimes it's not easy being a highly sensitive person (HSP). Even though the HSP trait has been in the public arena for more than two decades, there are still a lot of misconceptions floating around out there.
In this article, we'll take a look at why people still jump to the wrong conclusions about HSP and offer a couple of options for how to not feel hurt, slighted, or offended by their assertions.
HSPs Need Their "Alone Time"
One of the reasons some people compare high sensitivity to social anxiety disorder is that HSPs—especially those of us who are also introverts—often choose to spend time alone over being with other people.
This is often perceived as antisocial, so there must be something wrong with you. Crowds are sometimes overstimulating for an HSP, so we're also more likely to turn down invitations to events, both work-related and in our private lives.
Alone time, however, is a vital part of overall HSP mental wellness and is generally a voluntary choice, not something we end up doing because we have anxiety. We seek time alone because it's how we wind down from feeling overstimulated.
The Desire for Solitude Does Not Come From Fear
"I just prefer to be alone."
Some 15 years ago, I had to take a long hard look at my tendency to turn down invitations to public events, and my strong desire for quiet time alone. Did I suffer from Social Anxiety?
To answer that, I had to take a look at what social anxiety disorder really is.
Its roots lie in fear. The socially anxious person literally has a fear of social situations; in extreme cases, they can be terrified of having to interact with others.
At that point, I realized I have no fear of social interactions. But what I also realized is that being in social situations—and particularly crowds—makes me feel emotionally exhausted in a relatively short amount of time. I can handle an hour or two, and then I just want to get away and find some place that's serene and quiet. Which is why during crazy college parties, I would often go stand outside for 10–15 minutes.
It's less prominent if I am just having a quiet conversation with one other person; going to parties or being part of a large group at a restaurant wears me down much faster.
But I definitely don't feel fear.
What I do feel is a hesitation or unwillingness to experience the overstimulation. It doesn't feel good, and I know it will come. I also know that there's nothing I can do about it, except leave.
Some Thoughts About Overlapping Behaviors
I do want to make it perfectly clear that being an HSP and having social anxiety are not mutually exclusive.
You can be an HSP and have social anxiety. A person can also seem very sensitive due to social anxiety, but without being an HSP.
The question to ask yourself is whether or not the idea of social situations actually scares you, or you just know that you'll feel overstimulated and you'd rather not.
A preference for spending time alone is not a character defect! It's also not a mental illness. I highly recommend taking some time to do a little self-examination and self-inquiry to make sure you fully understand your situation!
How to Handle Social Interactions
So let's circle back to the beginning: What do we do when someone more or less blows off that we're an HSP by insisting we have social anxiety? How do we deal with that without being hurt?
Take a deep breath!
The first thing to remember is that they are, most likely, not being mean; they are trying to be helpful. The second thing to remember is that they are operating from a place of limited knowledge, and possibly even ignorance.
One of the things I've often said to people is that, "I just have certain sensitivities that make it so that I am best off taking regular mental health breaks."
Unless the person I am talking to is genuinely interested, I avoid detailed explanations and stick to broad generalizations. Almost everyone has heard of the idea of taking a mental health day when work is stressing them out, so I find it to be a good reference point.
I also point out that different people are affected by different things. An easy-to-understand analogy I have used many times is sunshine and sunburns.
"You know how some people can be out in the sun all day and just tan, while others turn bright red in 15 minutes? Think of it as my brain 'getting sunburned' more quickly than other people's brains."
It's surprising how many people understand that explanation, especially when I add that people who can't go in the sun much aren't afraid of the sun, they just burn easily.
- Remember that being a highly sensitive person is not the same thing as having social anxiety. Whatever someone might think or believe, there are more than 20 years of clinical research to show there is a difference.
- Getting in an argument with someone will probably be futile. Especially if they seem to have already made up their mind and are not open to new information. At that point, just step away!
Thank you for reading! Please leave a comment below, if you have anything to add, suggest, disagree with, or anything else.
How Familiar Are You with High Sensitivity?
You might consider taking the brief and totally free Sensitivity Self Test on Dr. Elaine Aron's website.
A Life Changing Book for the Highly Sensitive
First published in 1996, this is the definitive book about the HSP trait. I first read it in 1997, and it helped change my life from a state of confusion and distress to living with authenticity without being defined by my sensitivity. It's a must read!
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Peter Messerschmidt