Have you ever heard yourself say, “I can only relax when I’m alone”? Sensitive people are keenly attuned to people around us, and for some of us this attunement can morph into exhausting vigilance. Read on to understand how this pattern develops and how you can change it.  

Mary, my friend and colleague, emailed me recently. She had recently realized the extent to which a painful pattern had been affecting her life. Mary wrote,

I had a Focusing session today that brought up a lifelong issue for me: my inability to feel safe and to fully relax and be myself except when I am alone, with no other living thing in my environment. I am continuously aware of other people and animals in my environment. This can include plants inside and outside!  To say the least, this has hampered my self-care and personal practices.

Mary asked, “Do you think this is a boundary issue, or an HSP issue, or both?” I believe it is both: a boundary issue that is closely related to being highly sensitive (HSP). I’m grateful to Mary for bringing up a challenge that many of us face.

To be clear, all HSPs need the boundary of time alone with no new stimuli coming in. We need to rest, and to process our experiences. But Mary is describing an additional need: the need for freedom from perceived demands from other living beings.

Mary commented, “It feels to me that there is no separation between me and others and my actions are determined by how I perceive their needs to be.” When we struggle to keep boundaries around other people, plants, or animals, solitude becomes a necessary strategy— not only for rest, but for emotional freedom and self-connection.

How do we become so sensitized to others’ energy?

How might Mary have come to this point?  For many sensitive people, this pattern starts in childhood. If you are a sensitive child under stress, you will turn to your natural strengths in order to cope. Those strengths include:

  • A marked ability to sense the emotions of people around you
  • A keen eye and ear for subtleties of phrasing, expression, tone of voice. Combined with empathy, this helps you read others’ moods, and even their intentions, with surprising accuracy
  • A thoughtful approach: you watch and learn, then adapt your behavior to your surroundings

You may recognize these strengths— emotional intensity and empathy, sensory sensitivity, and deep processing— as three of the traits all HSPs share.  We also share a fourth trait: we get overaroused more easily than most people. We find this overarousal highly unpleasant. And few experiences are more painfully overarousing than when people we care about disapprove of us, criticize us, or shame us.

In an attempt to avoid these unbearable feelings, we turn our formidable powers of attention outwards. We use our sensitive strengths to monitor our environment, adjusting our behavior to avoid trouble. We adapt a stance of emotional vigilance.

The architecture of vigilance

I lived in Hawaii for five years, where cockroaches are a fact of life. Being forced to observe my cockroach roommates, I developed a respect approaching awe for their survival instincts. The humble, horrible cockroach can help us better understand our HSP vigilance.  They have hairs all over their legs that can detect the slightest movement of air. They have eyes with two thousand lenses that can take in a 360 degree view of their surroundings. In short, cockroaches are survival machines.

If this cockroach talk is grossing you out, please forgive me. I want to drive home the degree to which sensitive people leave our bodies when we are in a vigilant mind state. It’s as if all our attention-energy goes out to the end of those movement-detecting hairs. And that means there is no one home to “mind the store.” We completely lose touch with our own body—which is the only place we can truly sense whether we are safe or not.

“I can only relax when I’m alone”

This habit of vigilance becomes so ingrained that you do it unconsciously. You’ve learned that taking good care of others and being exquisitely attuned to their needs is a way to keep the waters calm. If your childhood trauma was pervasive, your vigilance will extend beyond situations that are overtly conflictual or overarousing. It will be activated any time you feel remotely responsible for any other being—even plants, in Mary’s case.

I’m guessing this may explain Mary’s feeling that she can’t relax— even around her plants. As a child, Mary likely used her sensitivity to attune to others in an attempt to avoid the overarousal of intensely painful situations and emotions. Now, it’s hard for her to “turn off” that vigilance. No wonder she can’t relax unless she is utterly alone. Sadly, too, our vigilance can sustain a vicious cycle in which we attract self-absorbed partners. Mary had experienced this herself, commenting that “I have had many men in my life who seem able to be completely oblivious or unconscious of others in their environment.”

How can you learn to feel safe around others?

Have you experienced this vigilance Mary and I have both struggled with? Fortunately, there is a way out. You’ve been accustomed to send all your attention-energy outwards. Now, you have to train yourself to bring your attention back inside your own body.

But here’s the problem: our vigilant parts truly believe their vigilance is preventing disaster. So pulling them away from their sentry posts is like trying to separate your dog from his bone. If you make an aggressive move, you will get “bitten”.

Accordingly, when I realized I needed to let go of my vigilance habit, I had to start very small. I began in a safe, manageable environment: my Focusing partnership sessions. My goal was simple. Could I keep some awareness of my own body in the presence of another person?

I found this effort surprisingly physical. It was as if my attention were a Great Dane on a leash, and it wanted to run towards the other person. I had to determinedly hold it back. For many weeks, my vigilant “inner dog” kept pulling like this. If I forgot even for a moment to pull my awareness back into my own body, my inner dog would surge forward and pull me out.

Replacing vigilance with Presence and spiritual intuition

I gradually began to build the new “muscles” I needed to rein my attention inwards. But this created a new challenge. Whenever I succeed in keeping some of my attention inside, my vigilant parts would panic. To them, it felt like driving with a blindfold on.

I needed an additional strategy: to cultivate Loving Adult Presence towards my vigilant parts. I quickly discovered these parts had no idea I existed. So it was slow work. And no wonder: functionally, I hadn’t existed for them in the past. Every time I had left my body, I had left them alone, too.

I spent a long time sensing what kind of company would help these parts know I was there. Then I spent more time hearing how terrified they had been, managing on their own. By practicing these two skills—keeping my awareness inwards, and being present with my vigilant parts—I gradually retrained myself, giving myself the lived experience of safety that comes when only when we are present in ourselves.

From this kind of Presence, we can use our formidable sensitive abilities to sense what is truly needed to keep us safe. On an even deeper level, we can access our spiritual intuition and begin to trust that it is our ultimate source of safety. And as we let go of our habit of vigilance, we can let go of feeling responsible for others, and fully relax around them.

Image © Emily Agnew 2019