This landed in my inbox the other day:
“I have a question for you. Do you also find that being an HSP, you are also very sensitive to how others perceive you? As an HSP, I’m finding that part the most difficult to control. I’ve wondered if I’m this concerned about perceptions because of my upbringing, having grown up in a family that’s very concerned with appearing a certain way. Or, if that is in fact a byproduct of being HSP? I find it hard to control this one part of my life. Picking up on small cues of what someone might think about me at any given moment, then becoming hurt by that and then isolating myself from certain people. I also find that I have a tendency to pick up on a lot more negative things than positive.”
That’s a great question! I certainly used to!
Here’s a very simple example: if someone hates blue, they’ll hate your blue sweater too. It doesn’t mean the sweater is ugly or that it doesn’t suit you. Similarly, if someone is angry because of something unrelated to you, then chances are still pretty high that they’ll snap at you more than they otherwise would.
It’s all pretty easy to see and understand from a distance. Yet, when we’re in a one-on-one situation with someone (even if it’s only a brief moment of passing each other on the street) then most of us are wired to assume that there is some kind of cause-effect relationship between “what I do” and “what they do”. If someone smirks, we wonder whether our clothes are funny somehow. We usually don’t think: “ah, that person must have been thinking of something completely unrelated to me and smirking because of that”. In other words, we have a tendency to take things personally.
Is this just an HSP issue?
This really isn’t just an HSP issue. I used to think that perhaps it was, until I slowly stopped taking everything so personally and then noticed that loads of people around me (HSP or not) made the same mistaken assumption: that what they saw in others was about them somehow. I also noticed that when I was having a bad day, and not hiding it (nor taking it out on anyone either) random people would act defensively out of the blue, assuming that I was unhappy about something they did or didn’t do. It was really weird actually! I remember ordering something at a restaurant, and the lady serving me jumped to the conclusion that I was unhappy about the service, simply because I was grumpy (note, I didn’t even snap at her nor complain!)
Reversely, I know people who expect that when they “show grumpiness” (without any indication of what they are grumpy about) the other person “should” understand that it’s a reflection on them. I certainly used to think this way too once.
There’s more to it than just you
The thing is, when you are interacting with someone, there are very many things influencing the other person’s perceptions and reactions:
- There are a multitude of things beyond your awareness that they may be thinking about right now. E.g. someone might act impatient with you because they need to visit a relative in the hospital, are running late, and are nervous about the relative’s operation. They may have indigestion. They may be unhappy about their financial situation, etc.
- Humans have moods. Those moods are not exactly chosen. Mostly, they just kind of happen. It’s not fair to equate moods with conscious, chosen reactions.
- We all have preferences. We all have very personal likes and dislikes. These have little to do with other people. Yet, when other people display one of our dislikes, we’ll usually have a strong reaction.
For example, I am not a big fan of cars. I get carsick easily, and I much prefer traveling by bike or train. This leads to all kinds of complicated misconceptions when it comes to someone who offers to pick me up by car. I usually refuse and it can be difficult to explain things in a way that the other person doesn’t take personally. They might think that I don’t like them, or don’t like their car, or that I don’t want to be honest with them. For many people it’s pretty much impossible to imagine that anyone could simply not like cars- no more, no less!
Hence, depending on what is normal in your universe, you might draw the wrong conclusion about why someone responds a certain way too and vice versa (e.g. I used to assume that if someone made a detour by car, that it was always, necessarily for some practical, errand reason. Yet, lo and behold, I started to realise that there are real flesh and blood people who actually enjoy driving around in a car in and of itself. For me that is (still! :) ) really hard to imagine and hence, I’ve made a lot of mistaken assumptions about other people, their car travel and what it all was about.)
It’s out of your hands, mostly
Perceptual processes are complex. You cannot “control” what someone else will conclude about you. Most of our conclusions are a mix of conscious and unconscious motivations, preferences, experiences and knowledge. Someone might either like or dislike you for as little as that you remind them of their aunt Trudy. Then, when they get to know you better, they change their mind, or they might even jump to a different quite random association.
When it comes to being HSP, one of the key things we tend to get judged for by others is our sensitivity. Yet, someone who e.g. is loud and takes a lot of risk, will tend to be judged by others for that too. Everyone on the planet will have something which sets them apart and for which other people will judge them. Instead of taking it as a blow to the head, it’s possible to reframe a negative judgement as: “Thank you for noticing one of my inherent qualities. The fact that you don’t appreciate that quality very much is hereby noted.” And leave it at that.
How important are other people’s judgements really?
Without conscious correction, most of us have a lot of faulty thinking processes going on all the time. We judge and assume and associate constantly. The conclusions of all that will show in our body language and behaviour. Yet many of these processes are lighting quick and instantly forgotten too. That lady walking down the street with the ugly glasses… would you be remembering that as little as an hour later? Perhaps, but probably not. Would you want her to do something about those glasses? Perhaps, for a split-second. Yet, would you honestly want her to take your judgement to heart?
So, in reverse too, other people will have a lot of judgements about you, and pretty much forget about them right away or not consider them truly noteworthy. (There are of course the toxic kind of people who love to endlessly point out all that is wrong with everyone, and expect all those people to change in order to suit them. Obviously, those people are worth ignoring completely).
Is it worse for HSPs?
For us HSPs the combination of caring a lot about what other people think paired with our sensitivity is quite a strong punch. It’s one thing to care about perception when you’re not too aware of other people’s reactions. Yet as HSPs we can be hyper aware to what is going on around us. If we pair that awareness with the assumption that it’s important to keep track of what other people think about us, then we’re setting ourselves up for massive overwhelm. What’s more, on top of keeping track of other people’s reactions, it then seems only “logical” to start to try and manage the impression we (think we) are creating with others.
The only problem is, with so many different people judging you, you’ll need to keep up a constantly changing act: what makes a good impression on one person, does not necessarily please someone else. And as pointed out above, the whole process is rather unpredictable and uncontrollable anyway.
So in a long and winding way I can say, yes, being concerned about what others think does tend to be an HSP “thing”, but definitely not a trait. In other words, you have the natural ability to notice people’s responses more strongly than most other people do, but this does not mean that you MUST take all those things personally. Taking people’s responses to heart is not a fixed part of your internal make-up. The taking things personally part is just our conditioning at play, and we can learn to stop taking it all so seriously. You can actually give other people permission to have their own random and crazy opinions, even if it’s about you.
Don’t go overboard with your perception skills
The thing to remember is that just because you notice more about what is going on with someone else, doesn’t mean that you have all the facts. Mistake number one is to assume that the other person’s reaction is completely and necessarily about you. Mistake number two is to assume that you have all the facts needed to put the other person’s reaction into the right context.
As HSPs we often expect ourselves and others to mind read somehow, instead of speaking up when something is amiss. It’s easy to overestimate our own ability to know exactly what is going on with someone else, and it’s also easy to slip into an expectation that “words shouldn’t be necessary”.
Yet, life gets a lot easier when you keep an open mind about what someone may mean. Not feeling pressured to react unless someone addresses you directly, brings a lot of ease into your life. It’s not your job to figure out what someone might say before they’ve actually said it. It’s also not your job to figure out what someone may mean if they are being vaguely critical. In other words, if someone frowns at you when you’re reaching for the last cookie…well, that could be for a whole host of reasons. If it’s important to them that you don’t eat that cookie, then they better tell you directly. Otherwise, how on earth were you to know that they weren’t just trying to hold back a sneeze or thinking about something depressing?
How do you make it stop?
The most important thing is to stop negatively judging yourself. When we are already criticising ourselves internally, then any suspected similar judgement from someone else will derail us. This is not because the other person has so much power over us, rather, it’s because deep inside we’ve already decided that we are – indeed – “too X, not enough Z and wildly inappropriately Y”.
In the end, all those fingers from other people, pointing (or seemingly pointing) at something about us, all fall away, and the only thing of substance is our own finger and the way we point at ourselves for something.
Other people are allowed to have their challenging views and their outrageous opinions. We are however by no means required to assume that we need to do anything about it nor do we need to take it to heart. That is a decision we can make. There are just too many people out there potentially having some kind of opinion about something concerning us in some direct or indirect way. We can’t process it all, we can’t figure it all out, and we don’t need to.
So why DO we take things personally?
Apart from the motivation to “keep up with the Joneses” and a general social-animal desire to predict how other people will behave, there can also be specific, deeper reasons why we might pay special attention to other people’s reactions.
Trying to “stay ahead of” other people’s negative opinions can be a very strongly embedded survival mechanism. If you grew up in a family where you felt unsafe somehow: whether physically unsafe, or emotionally unsafe to be yourself, then you will have learned to do your best to create the best possible impression on those around you. You learned that in order to be safe/ appreciated/ supported you had to take on a certain role. You couldn’t just be yourself. Hence, being what other people wanted you to be became more important than being yourself. Knowing what other people wanted from you became more important than knowing what you wanted. What other people thought of you became more important than what you thought of yourself.
It’s possible to keep living this way forever, but at what cost? Taking your power back, by taking steps to stop caring about other people’s opinions, can feel threatening. However, that’s only because the little child part inside that feels threatened doesn’t necessarily realize that “things have changed”.
When you’re a little kid, you don’t have the kind of options that you have as an adult. When something painful in childhood seems to be an ‘unavoidable truth’, then that “truth” tends to get written into our internal software, and those old inner responses will keep running long after our outer circumstances have significantly changed. It’s only when we realize that we actually have new choices now, that the inner hold that such conditioning has over us can start to loosen.
So next time you are worried about what someone else thinks about you:
- Do a fact check. What EXACTLY did you notice? (Facts only! No interpretations of what those facts mean!)
- Do a scenario brainstorm. Hypothetically, what are some out-of-the-box reasons why this person might have reacted this way? Be sure to include scenarios that have nothing to do with you!
- If you’re convinced that it IS about you, then spell out the judgement. Then turn it around; are you judging yourself this way too? If so, what could you do about that? (Your judgement, not the other person’s!). Did someone from your past judge you in this way too? If so, then that is probably where the deepest pain is.
- Give yourself permission to have this judgement. Give the other person permission (in your head) to have this judgment. Give yourself permission to have a reaction to this judgement. Yep, this is the grown-up world. It’s full of people judging people. That’s just how it is. No worries. You’re just a part of that big noisy flow.
- Is this a judgement about who you are? Or is it a judgement about something you do? You can change what you do, but you can’t change who you are. Getting these two straight is very important. No matter how much you may feel judged for who you are, it’s not your job to change who you are! Really, it’s out of your hands. What you can do is something about the way you consciously respond to things. Yet, it’s up to you to decide whether you think something is worth changing at this point.
It would be nice if everyone in our life was in full support of everyone else, wouldn’t it? Yet, that would also mean that we would need to be in full support of the criminal in our neighbourhood, the people who annoy us, and all the things that we really dislike in others. In other words: a pretty impossible scenario.
The thing is, simply by being a unique individual, we are all bound to piss someone off. There will be at least one person in your environment who opposes everything you most love and stand for. Chances are, you won’t like that person much either. And that’s o.k. It’s o.k. to judge that person (how could you not?). It’s also o.k. that your judgments don’t keep that other person up at night, right?
A note on empaths
If you are an empath, then what you may be affected by most is probably not so much how you are perceived per se, but rather other people’s energies in and of themselves and how those “stick” to you. You can read more about being an empath here.
We live in a world filled with disagreement. Some of the disagreement is constructive, some of it is just painful but, either way, we live in a world of diversity. This means that it is impossible to make or do anything in such a way that everyone likes it.
Similarly, it’s impossible to be liked and thought well of by everyone simply for who you are. If you live in a secluded three-person village, maybe. If you are a toddler trying to please your parents. Sure, there may be a particular tried-and-true formula that works. But once we are “let loose” into the great wide world, we are constantly up against people who agree and disagree with who we are and what we do in infinitely changing ways. The only way to move through that effectively is by anchoring ourselves in who we really are, and stay there.
This requires that for every judgement that derails you, for every criticism that upsets you, you consciously bring yourself back to: what do I think about this? What do I want here? What is important from my perspective, regardless of what anyone else thinks?
You don’t need to ignore everyone around you. Yet, you do need to put other people in the right context. They are not the expert on your life, you are. Hence, in the end: