Sunday, November 15, 2009

HSPs and the Power of Saying "No"

Over the years, I have written a number of posts here, about various aspects of "boundary setting," as it relates specifically to HSPs.

As a group of people, HSPs probably have more issues with poorly defined (or completely lacking) personal boundaries than the population at large. One of the great challenges for the HSP is using the word "no." Of course, many non-HSPs also struggle with saying no, and with a sense of "guilt" when they do say no.

"No" is a simple little word, and yet it's extremely powerful in terms of helping us establish personal boundaries, keep our sanity, and prevent us from becoming horribly overwhelmed by the "stuff of life."

So why are we so afraid to use it?

Based on talking to hundreds of HSPs over the past decade, the underlying reasons and rationalizations are many and varied. Perhaps you know some of them.

Top of the list is the basic fear that people won't like us (or won't love us) if we tell them no. Someone comes to us with some kind of request or problem... and some small (and sometimes LARGE) demon on our shoulder tells us we can't say no, even though we already have 372 things to accomplish during the coming week. Ultimately, this is a self-esteem issue-- the core fear being that we (falsely) perceive that we're only lovable as human DOINGS not as human BEINGS, and that our friends, family and other acquaintances will reject us, unless we do their bidding.

The irony of the above scenario is that it often contains an element of truth: Those who are overly accommodating often draw to themselves people who are looking for a free ride... people who will, indeed, "reject us," should we sudenly not serve their needs, at all times. And so, part of the challenge becomes to step back and ask ourselves if we really want these people in our lives.

This "fear of rejection" can be especially strong in family situations where the choice "to end the relationship" is off the table. Perhaps we are taught to "obey our parents" and so we perceive it unthinkable to say "no" when they "tell" us we should become a lawyer, when we really want to be an artist. Conversely, parents may fear their children will "reject" them for saying "no," in any number of scenarios. And yet... unless the child learns to say no, they will grow up to question nothing in life; if the parent never says no, the child remains "a child" and eternally dependent.

Another common reason HSPs don't say "no" has to do with the fact that we are often highly capable, conscientious and responsible individuals. Because we tend to introspect and have an interest in self-development and learning, we're often more educated and better informed than many. In the simplest terms, we often are "the best person for the job" when something comes up.

A few years ago, I led a small workgroup on "HSPs and work" at an HSP retreat. As I recall, there were nine people in our group... and an interesting commonality we uncovered was that every single one of us had repeatedly found ourselves in the position of being "manager, by default." That is, some project came along, and even though we had NO interest in leading it and were basically minding our own business, we somehow ended up as "the person in charge." Someone said (for example) "You know, Peter knows more about this stuff than ANYone else here-- HE should really lead the project."

Sometimes these situations unfold subtly and indirectly... nobody actually forces us. We look at something and decide/realize that it will "never get done" unless we take it on... and next thing we know, a simple desire to "help out a bit" has resulted in our becoming "in charge of everything." Either way, we forget to back away and consider the possibility that it is simply not our job to be in charge of something, simply because we happen to be "the best" at it. And if someone pushes the leadership baton towards us, we are within our rights to say "no thank you."

Loosely tied to the above is a general fear or avoidance of confrontation, common in HSPs. Many of us don't like to "cause waves" or "stir the pot," and we are generally extremely sensitive to causing others discomfort and annoyance. And so, rather than standing our ground and saying no, we go along with the flow... often to our detriment.

Something else I've frequently come across, in talking to HSPs, is that we have a tendency to obsess a bit, about "what others are thinking of us." Although we may not like to look at this less-than-pretty aspect of our HSP-ness, we often have an ego attachment to what others think of us. Specifically, we develop a self-image as "helpful" and/or "nice people." And then we project onto this reality that "nice people don't say no, when asked to help."

Of course, being able to set boundaries and say "no" has little to do with being nice, and a lot to do with unhealthy co-dependency.

"No" is a standalone word. It doesn't need to be extensively "window dressed" with rationalizations, explanations, excuses and justifications. This was a very hard lesson for me to learn... and from the people I've spoken to about this topic, I am not alone. Even when we DO use the word "no," our tendency is to provide all this excess "wrapping" in order to feel less guilty about turning someone down.

Some person we don't really like says "I'm having a party next week, can you come?" and we go off on a really long song and dance about all the things we need to get done, and visiting our parents out-of-town the day before, and getting in late, and... and... maybe we end up at a non-committal "Well, I'll TRY to come," even though we know perfectly well that we have no intention of going.

Seriously? There is no such thing as "trying" to go to a party. What is going to happen? "Well, I was driving down the street to your house, but every time I got the the four-way stop, my car mysteriously kept turning left all by itself, and just couldn't get all the way down the street. I tried fourteen times, before I gave up and went home. Sorry."

All that's needed is a neutral "No, I won't be able to come."

Some might tell me "but they'll ask WHY!"

The follow-up would be "I'm really not comfortably discussing that."

Some person asks you to help them with computer troubles, and you already don't know how you're going to make it through the week. Maybe they are a good friend... but you must prioritize. Again, the song and dance of the 100 reasons why you're busy is not necessary.

A simple "No, I'm really busy this week" will suffice.

"But then my project will be late!"

Whereas that may be true, it's not your responsibility, because it is not your project. If it's an extreme priority for them, they CAN call "Nerds to Go," or someone else who fixes computers for a living.

In these cases, the "boundary issue" is also about assuming responsibility for the outcome of someone else's life. That may be appropriate if we have children, or the person in question is working for us and their outcome does affect our life. But otherwise? Not so much.

As a business consultant, writer and newsletter creator/editor some years back, one of the issues I had to deal with was no longer doing the extensive "pro bono" work I was doing for friends, and "barely friends." I'd get asked (constantly!) if I could create a newsletter for someone's business or organization, or give them advice on starting their own business. Asking your friends for a free consult is akin to asking the doctor you befriend at the dinner party if she'll examine the wart in your ear, over cocktails.

Now, I'm not someone who's just going to coldly "blow off" my friends. So I had to develop a compromise. What I eventually settled on was recognizing my friends who asked for advice as "special," by inviting them to set up an appointment, and giving them 50% off my normal rates for an initial consult... and then offered a "sliding scale" rate (but NEVER less than 50% off) if they wanted to have follow-up advice/work done. It made THEM feel like I cared, and ME feel like I was still getting paid... and it mostly allowed me to skirt the "outright no" issue.

Whereas "no" tends to be a very definitive and clear-cut word, it doesn't have to be "absolute." We can always choose to create a situation based around "mostly no, but with conditions."

"No" is a very important word, especially for HSPs. It helps us establish boundaries, and it also helps us "map" our priorities. As long as we never say no, everything ends up having equal priority, no matter what we think.

As I close this out, it occurs to me that I ought to address the fact that learning to say "no" (and standing by our no's) is not easy. It may feel wrong to you, for a while. You may feel like your self-image is being challenged. You may feel shaky and anxious, the first few times you tell that pushy co-worker that no, you will NOT file their report, as well as their own, because they want to leave early for happy hour. You may get your feelings hurt when certain people decide they no longer want to be your friend. Then you may get your feelings hurt a second time, when you realize that those same "friends" only were hanging around to "get your free stuff."

As a final side note, I'd like to add that it often holds true that the most rewarding relationships we have, with emotionally healthy people tend to be the result of having healthy boundaries, not the result of indiscriminately agreeing to what everyone else wants us to be, do, or say.

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Talk Back: Do you have a difficult time saying no? Do you often find that you are carrying other people's workload, because you set inadequate boundaries? DO you often feel like your "good nature" is being taken advantage of? Are you afraid that "people won't love you" if you say no? Or they'll think you're a "bad person?" Alternately, have you successfully learned to set healthy boundaries? Please share your experiences and leave a comment!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Moments and Insights That Change Us

I've been away for a couple of weeks, and have been pondering long and hard where to resume my writing. It's not "writer's block" that's the issue, it's "too many ideas syndrome."

Being on holiday allows for an interesting break of state. We "step out of the loop" of our daily grind, and stop running for long enough to stand back and observe ourselves. And we can see things we don't see, while we're trapped in our busy-ness. Sometimes, we can see the "current me;" sometimes we gain insights into specific moments and insights that allow us to realize "Oh! That's how I got here...."

Change-- that is, the kind of
real change that shifts the course of our lives-- often happens in a moment. Someone says something that changes our course, and even though we may go through years of what feels like "gradual" changes, we suddenly realize that we can point back to a moment, an event, a conversation, and recognize "Yeah. That's when everything changed course."

HSPs are "deep processors." That can be both a blessing and curse. It's a blessing in the sense that we tend to examine our lives and pursue personal development, rather than glide through our days on oblivious cruise control. The "curse" aspect lies in our knack for inadvertently getting stuck in analysis paralysis... or, worse, getting stuck in "specific events," without moving on from them.


Some 15+ years ago, I found myself in therapy, trying to parse and process what I'd call an "unfortunate" marriage. Although I was ostensibly in therapy for the purpose of processing the relationship, I was
really there to process my life... which had been a rather unfortunate assemblage of attempts to fit into the mainstream of life.

I was brought up to "be a certain way," which largely had to do with being "normal." I won't get into a long analysis of what "normal" means; suffice it to say that I am
not normal, for many reasons not relating to sensitivity. Point being, my life felt a bit like I was 5'4" tall and trying to play professional basketball.

Anyway, one day I was going about my usual lamentations about how this, that and the other felt "off," and how this person and that (and not even my soon-to-be-ex) seemed to be making life difficult and miserable for me, and how tired I was of carrying everyone else's burdens and wiping everyone else's metaphorical rear ends whenever they mess up something.
Kathleen-- who was an excellent therapist, and probably an HSP herself (this was before Elaine Aron's first book)-- held up her hand and said "Can I stop you for a moment...."

So I stopped.

Then she said "
Let me ask you something. Who would you BE, if you didn't have all this chaos and turmoil around you? Who would you BE, if you didn't feel compelled to take care of all these dysfunctional people's problems? Who would you BE, if you could just be YOURSELF?"

At the time, I didn't have an answer. As I recall, I said something non-committal... perhaps "
That's complicated, I'll have to think about it," or "Can I answer that as homework?" And then we continued with the session.

However, a seed was planted.


Sometimes we get stuck in our paradigms. We end up repeatedly and relentlessly choosing the very things we claim we want to
not have in our lives-- chaos, poverty, unhappiness, abandonment, disconnection, even abuse. Even if we feel vaguely aware that something "isn't quite right," we often feel powerless to change things... and we'll even make active excuses like "But I have no CHOICE!"

It was some years before the deeper implications of Kathleen's questions hit home for me. During the years leading to that particular therapy session (and for some years after) it was my core (albeit false) belief that my only "value" in life came from what I could DO to keep (pardon the bluntness) "deeply messed up people" from completely falling apart. In other words, I felt that I had no value, simply being myself.

And so... I kept making choices that made me feel like I had "value," even though those choices were misguided,
and made me feel bad about myself. It wasn't that I didn't recognize "healthy" people-- but somehow they seemed either "less interesting," OR I simply didn't think they'd be interested in me, since they didn't need me to be "of value" (as I perceived "value") to them.

"Blind spots" can be very hard to discover. However, unless we find them, we can end up in a painful pattern... and not even understand why, no matter how much self-analysis we may engage in.

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Talk Back: Do you have moments in your life that changed your direction? Did you realize it at the time, or was it years later, when you realized that something said/happened changed your path completely? Did you escape from a painful pattern, as a result? OR... do you find yourself stuck in a pattern that just doesn't make sense? Share your experiences-- leave a comment!

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