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Being a Highly Sensitive Person Does Not Mean You Have Social Anxiety

Peter learned he was an HSP in 1997. As a student of sensitivity, he has met 100s of HSPs in person and writes extensively about the trait.

Although they can overlap, social anxiety and being a highly sensitive person are not the same thing.

Although they can overlap, social anxiety and being a highly sensitive person are not the same thing.

"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.

Highly sensitive people like to have time to themselves.

Highly sensitive people like to have time to themselves.

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!

Sometimes people who are highly sensitive need to teach their friends what it means.

Sometimes people who are highly sensitive need to teach their friends what it means.

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.

Final Thoughts

  • 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.

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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

© 2018 Peter Messerschmidt

What Do You Think? Are You an HSP Who has Been Told You Have Social Anxiety? Do You Think the Two Overlap? How Do You Cope? Leave a Comment!

Chantal on May 17, 2019:

I'm highly sensitive and also have social anxiety. I think that while the two are definitely not the same, they might be closely linked. I was not socially anxious as a child; rather, the anxiety developed over time as I became more perceptive of people's emotions and reactions, as well as through some negative experiences like bullying and struggling to deeply connect with my peers.

My sensitivity in relationships, the ability to "read the room", and how my brain seems to absorb others' emotions made me all too aware of negativity in social situations. So, I think being highly sensitive is at least partly responsible for my social anxiety. It's a learned response. Thoughts?

Evonne on November 01, 2018:

I am 70 years old, and the HSP issues seem more intense. . .or is it because I only have found out how it has been recognized and more accepted in recent years. Have struggled all my life with being over sensitive, not recieving much help.What I have found in recent years, my relationships have changed, I tend to avoid those who have strong aggressive personalities, people who talk excessively, dominating conversations. I am a conservative Christian who loves the Lord and very much the peacemaker in my family.

Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend, WA, USA on September 28, 2018:

Hi Ellison, thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found the article useful!

Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on September 13, 2018:

I have social anxiety and have been told I'm highly sensitive, though I don't feel that I'm. Great article by the way!

Kelly on September 12, 2018:

This article has nailed it for me. I am a casualty of the current downturn in the Petroleum Industry and have now been off work for almost a year. My task is to look for work but deep down I am reluctant and have thus been procrastinating with the whole job search thing entirely. This quote from your article pretty much sums up how I feel:

What I do feel is a hesitation/unwillingness to experience the overstimulation. It doesn't feel good. And I know it will come, and I know that there's nothing I can do about it... except leave.

Compounding my reluctance is the fact that I couldn’t “just leave” when at work.

I dislike explaining myself to those who pass judgement and go on to verbalize my “shortcomings” or “weaknesses” as they see them, so I usually end up pulling a chameleon act everyday to avoid the false, unsolicited opinions altogether. This leaves me feeling frustrated, depleted and unable to be my true self. Any wonder why the reluctance toward getting back to work?

Thoughts?