If you have a much going on in your mind all the time as I do, you too may have asked yourself, “How much should I share?” Here are some (not all!) of my thoughts on this important topic…
I think about things. A lot. Being a sensitive person means having a brain hardwired for deep processing. But because of this fountain of thoughts and ideas, I constantly face a dilemma: how much should I share with other people?
Like a stairwell endlessly descending, I can go always go deeper. And in fact, I used to believe that true authenticity meant sharing in great detail. In reality this left me feeling overexposed. It also left my listeners overwhelmed. When this happened, I’d flip to the other extreme, trying to emulate John Wayne. Ha. That was a complete bust. I can be strong when called for, but silent?
So how do you curate the contents of your mind when relating to others? I want to be authentic, but I also want to be considerate. Not surprisingly, I’ve ended up thinking about this, too. A lot.
Three little words
My friend B., who happens to be a sensitive person too, told me he has sworn off the three little words. Not “I love you”: that wouldn’t have gone over well at home. He was referring to the ubiquitous “How are you?” “I hate being asked that!” he protested. “What does it even mean, anyway?”
I thought about his comment and realized how right he was. Most of the time, of course, when someone asks you how you are, they just want to hear, “Fine, thank you.” In business situations, “How are you?” is social code for, “Is anyone bleeding, on fire, or otherwise incapacitated here? Or can move on to business?” When you meet an acquaintance at the grocery store, on the other hand, the code typically means, “I see you there, and I don’t have time to talk.”
I was well into my adult life before I figured this out and began to curate my responses to the question, “How are you?” I stopped revealing that I had barely slept the night before, that my boyfriend had broken up with me, or that I was going crazy trying to prepare for an audition.
A mental health professional might have diagnosed me as socially awkward or even lacking in sensitivity to social cues. I could hardly argue with the awkward part of that assessment. However, my apparent obliviousness to social cues stemmed not from inability, but from sensory overload. I was so preoccupied trying to listen, and observe the other person, and figure out what to say, I didn’t have much bandwidth left to form all the data into a coherent social strategy.
In short, I was completely overaroused. Like many sensitive people, I prefer having deeper conversations with people, but I needed practice at assessing how much depth was called for in a particular situation. And, in addition to practice, I needed parameters. If you were entering a grocery store in the US for the first time, how would you know which of the 40 peanut butter options to select? Crunchy or smooth? Salted or unsalted? You’d need criteria to choose. So did I. Once I realized this I could begin to observe and experiment.
Being sensitive to capacity
My observations were humbling. Sadly obvious as it will sound, I realized I needed to stop worrying so much about what I wanted to say, and pay attention instead to my listener. The fact is, our capacity to take in information varies wildly, even from one moment to the next. A corporate consultant memorably demonstrated this for me by pouring water into my cupped hands. As the water overflowed, he said, “This is what happens when we share more than the other person can take in.”
Given my bias towards deeper conversations, I saw that my tendency would always be to offer more than others could absorb. So the image of hands overflowing has became a permanent reminder to me to stay tuned in to my listener. Sometimes more depth or detail is called for. But first and foremost I must respect the other person’s willingness and capacity.
Having a clear intent
Within these limits of care and consideration, though, I still have the question of how much and what to share. Here, it helps most to be clear on my intent. My default intent, established in my teen years is to try not to do or say anything embarrassing. But as Marshall Rosenberg used to say, “It’s hard to do a don’t.”
Besides, trying not to act like an idiot is an awfully low standard. Why not focus on what I do want? So, going into situations where I’ll be interacting with others, I make a conscious effort to set an adult intent.
For example, I recently sent a card to some neighbors expressing appreciation for the poetry stand outside their house. A new poem would appear in the stand every week or two, and for several years I’d been stopping by on my morning walks to read the latest selection. In my card, I suggested they might come over for tea. And, amazingly, they did.
I had never met these neighbors. In fact, I had never even laid eyes on them. As a card-carrying introvert, I felt more than a little bit vulnerable inviting them over, cold turkey. So I took special care to consider my intent before they arrived for our dessert date.
I decided my simple but sincere intent was to share our hospitality with them and to convey my appreciation for their poetry gift to the neighborhood. Braced by this clarity, I spoke and listened in whatever way felt natural. We had a lovely evening. And my suspicion was confirmed that we were kindred spirits.
Savoring a meeting of the minds
No doubt, a certain maturity is required to maintain this level of intentionality and empathic awareness. When the kid in me longs for someone’s fascinated, undivided attention, I find it a struggle to act like a grownup. But as I’ve written before, taking time to fully process and celebrate events and realizations is principally an inside job. So I’ve had to cultivate presence and empathy towards myself—the ability to give myself space to feel how I feel and to ponder whatever is on my mind.
On the other hand, those times when we can connect around a topic of mutual interest, without holding back, are one of the rare pleasures of life. I once had such a conversation with a fellow professional oboist. Having dumped out all our reed making equipment, we dove into an insanely technical discussion about gouging machines, cane diameters, sharpening techniques. After one exchange that was as satisfying as it was obscure, I caught his eye. We burst out laughing. I said, “Isn’t this fantastic? Who else could even understand a word we’re saying?!”
Moments like this are precious. If you have a couple people in your life, let alone three or four, with whom you can go deep on topics dear to your heart, that’s a gift. Savor it and celebrate these friends and these conversations. They help us accept with good grace the more frequent occasions on which we choose to significantly edit our responses. In the end, this adult discernment is a way of caring not only for others, but for ourselves.
Photo by Riccardo Pelati on Unsplash
This is beautiful and mirrors some of what I’m going through in my life right now. Socially awkward is a pretty good description of how I’ve lived a lot of my life. I think we as sensitive people want to go REALLY deep with anyone we meet, whether they can handle it or not. As such, I’ve had a hard time keeping friends. But paying closer attention to OTHER people when conversing with them, and having my own outlets for my need for deep experiencing is allowing me more peace.
Michelle, that is wonderful you have found more peace with this. I agree, it really IS hard not to go deep…it’s like trying to drive a Porsche slowly…you can, but it really wants to go fast!;) I’m curious in what way this has made it hard in the past for you to keep friends…I think for me, it was just as much or more my own shame for feeling I had overloaded the other person) that would end up causing distance, if I felt I had “overshared.”
I am trying to understand the concept of feeling shame from oversharing. I understand feeling embarrassed after the fact of oversharing. I don’t have a dictionary close by to look up the definition of shame…but my guess is if we feel any shame it is something we are internalizing from the person we are sharing with or a trigger from the past that is causing shame. I know why we overshare…it’s because we process deeply in our minds, so my guess is, if we find someone who is willing to listen to us, we speak deeply and at length with our mouths! and often without boundaries, because our brains don’t have boundaries when it overproccesses …it just goes on and on like a pinball machine. As for having difficulty making and keeping friends…..I’m thinking it’s because as HSP people we need other HSP people to be our friends. Non HSP people just don’t get HSP people, unless they really want to know the person and understand the HSP trait.
A painful feeling of distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.
This is the first definition I found of shame online. So, my guess that as we overshare, if we have any feelings of shame…it is because either we are internalizing the other person’s attitute towards our sharing too much…and thus we interpret our behaviour as wrong or foolish…which it isn’t, OR we have past experiences that caused us to feel this way and we are presently being triggered by them to feel shame now. Not sure if you or any readers have noticed, but I try to encourage all people and be polite to all people. I was bullied and excluded much as a child and teen and young adult… and still even as an older adult…because of my HSP traits (I realize this now…but not then) , so it bothers me to hear others put themselves down. I spend less energy encouraging non HSP people in general now because they don’t reciprocate the encouragement or they don’t appreciate it. And when they do reciprocate the kindness I get suspicious wondering how long this fake kindness will last. And funnily enough…..for myself, I am not conscious of the feeling of distress neither do I think my behaviour was wrong or foolish until hours later after a conversation and then this is when I struggle to interpret it all. The world is just too busy, too stressed out, too cold for us HSPs at times. I wonder if all HSPs in all cultures experience the same experiences?
I think I might relate to your comment of …’I think we as sensitive people want to go really deep with anyone we meet, whether they can handle it or not. As such, I’ve had a hard time keeping friends.” If I understand what you are saying , I relate 100 %. My thoughts are , regarding my own situation….not knowing I was HSP until I was 50 , and now I am 57, and only having the time to really read about and apply what it means to be HSP in the past year, I , in natural HSP form, whenever meeting someone would automatically reveal too much information about myself. This would repel potential galpals and voila….no lasting friends for 56 years. And the couple that I did have eventually said or did something that was much too overwhelming for me to accept, so I kindly ended the friendship…stating why. It’s only been in the past year that I by chance discovered the wife of a relative is HSP …what a wonderful surprise! And as you and Emily have said, when we find people of kindred spirit who help meet our conversational needs, we can significantly edit our responses with others. If anyone has any suggestions as to how to FIND other HSP people to actually get together with, please share.
This is another article that has so much valuable information in every sentence. My need to learn and understand the HSP trait and to be validated for who I am just flourishes when I read what you write Emily. Thank you. It gives my feet stable ground to stand on when others have a critical or negative comment about how I function or who I am. I find some of the older people in my life aren’t very inclusive in accepting and enjoying the differences in people. This article explains again, in an instant, why it has been so difficult for me to make and keep friends. Have you written an article about how to accept one’s past (for me 50) years of not knowing about being HSP and not see them as wasted years, or be upset because parents, doctors, teachers didn’t bring this trait to my attention sooner? I relate to so much of what you have said…especially when you say…’when the kid in me longs for someone’s fascinated, undivided attention, I find it a struggle to act like a grown up. ‘ Is this part of the HSP trait as well…or is this a result of unmet attention needs as an HSP child that have just carried over into adulthood? I often don’t feel like an adult. I can pay the bills, have an important conversation with my doctor, but when I am with people I love to be more childlike…not childish. I love to explore, I love to learn, I love to compliment, I appreciate it when people share the fascination about something that I experience….I don’t even know if I know anyone who even provides me with this undivided attention,..let alone fascinated undivided attention. I’d have to think about that. One way I have been able to achieve the ability to not reveal more information than necessary is to take a minute before responding or talking to someone and ask myself….how much energy do I want to use up in this conversation? For me, speaking uses up energy, because I don’t just talk to talk, I talk to communicate…so if I don’t want to use up too much energy…I won’t say much.
I’m wondering if anyone else ever says to themselves ‘why do I talk to people?’ I am still learning how much not to say to complete strangers, ie sales clerk I don’t know, or even ones I do know. I’ll often leave the conversation thinking….why do I talk to people?
By the fact that I keep commenting on this topic, I guess I will need to get some professional help in learning how to not overshare and not overexpose myself to others when I talk. One way I am trying to reduce my own stimulation of oversharing with others….do all HSPs get overstimulated by their own voice or words?……is by choosing my words more carefully. I am trying to speak more positive words and use less detailed words, even with people who I have known for years.
S, one thing that really helps me with the sharing issue is to give myself time everyday to celebrate, by myself and with myself, aloud or in writing, things that I am happy about or excited about or concerned about. Then I’m more at choice when it comes to whether to share with others or not.
S, you wrote, “Have you written an article about how to accept one’s past (for me 50) years of not knowing about being HSP and not see them as wasted years, or be upset because parents, doctors, teachers didn’t bring this trait to my attention sooner?” Many of my articles deal with different pieces of that question: it is a bigger topic than any one article could possibly cover: in fact, reframing your past in the light of your new knowledge that you are an HSP is one if the key life tasks Dr. Elaine Aron recommends for HSPs to heal old wounds.