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3 Reasons Sensory Processing Challenges Can Contribute to Social Awkwardness

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Social stuff and sensory stuff might seem like two unrelated topics, but in my experience, they’re more closely linked than they’re usually given credit for.

In all fairness, it might seem strange to start with noticing sensations in your body if your goal is to make friends. Or to identify the extent of your own sensory differences if you’re trying to understand, or become more comfortable with, school or work social dynamics. But it can make a difference. Here are three big reasons to start working on sensory stuff if you want to get more comfortable socially.

1. Sensory processing struggles take a lot out of you.

When your energy is being used up dealing with your sensory needs, you don’t have any left to be pleasant to potential friends.

Imagine you get home at the end of a long and exhausting day, you didn’t get enough to eat, you have a headache, the dog won’t stop barking, someone burnt toast so now you have that smell to deal with, and you only want five minutes of peace except a little kid is happily singing at the top of their high-pitched lungs. You’re probably not going to have the energy to roll with it or politely redirect them to a quieter activity. You’re not going to be your best self.

Now imagine that day is every day.

Because of the second reason.

2. Your sensory stuff is probably affecting you more than you realize.

Which you can only find out if you start actively paying attention to how your body feels.

How your body feels is something that most of us on the spectrum, and with other sensory differences, often learn to ignore as children. Which makes complete sense. If you’re constantly being hurt by something, and have no idea what to do about it, and the people around you don’t know what to do about it, your options are either to suffer or numb your feelings.

Many people unconsciously default to numbing, at least to some degree, so you may not even know how much sensory stuff is affecting you, or alternately, how useful it can be.

This brings me to reason three.

3. Your body has a wealth of knowledge, but you can’t tap into it until you practice using it.

Our senses take in approximately 11 million bits of information per second. That’s a vast quantity of data that is being processed by different parts of your body, and that you’ve been collecting for years, decades, your entire life. However, we can only consciously process roughly 50 to 120 bits of information per second. That’s millions less than what we are taking in!

Your body has been gathering and storing that information away, categorizing it and making sense out of patterns, and yet only a tiny bit of it is available to your conscious awareness. You can access the rest, but only if you get in touch with how your body feels at any given moment.

For most people, this comes across as a gut feeling, a hunch, or intuition, and a lot of times that intuition turns out to be pretty accurate. Not always — the system isn’t perfect — but it’s trainable. You can learn to use this consciously and integrate it with the data in your conscious awareness, and when the two systems work together, accuracy goes way up.

With experience, you can use this system to help you make decisions about things like, is this person being nice to be manipulative or will they be a good friend to me? Are they teasing me playfully or to be mean? Is this person someone I should avoid? Is this a bad situation for me?

Some people, like those of us on the autism spectrum, HSPs, trauma survivors, and plenty of others, tend to be either overly trusting or overly skeptical, either getting ourselves into bad situations or avoiding every possible situation. Neither extreme is particularly helpful, and using an integrated body-mind approach is a great way to balance the extreme reactions that come from using only our minds to make judgments.

I hope this helps as a brief overview of what sensory stuff has to do with making friends.

What do you think?

Getty image by Doucefleur.

Originally published: July 12, 2022
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