Highly sensitive people, or HSPs, share a common number of traits. So what is a highly sensitive person? Are you one? Read through this list and notice how many of these traits resonate with you:
- you’re easily overstimulated through the senses (i.e., sight, sound, taste, touch, smell)
- your nervous system is often jumpy or on edge (i.e., you jump at loud noises and are easily startled)
- you need a lot of space + alone time to recharge
- you need quiet to recharge
- you need more rest than most people you know
- you tend to feel things very deeply
- growing up, you often heard, “don’t be so sensitive!” or “stop taking things personally”
- you tend to absorb and take on others’ energy, feelings, thoughts, and sensations
- you’ve often felt weird, different, strange, or weak because of your sensitivity (i.e., you might often ask yourself, “why can’t I keep up with others??” or “why do I have to be SO sensitive about everything?”)
If you see yourself represented in this list, then you’re a highly sensitive person. You’re possibly an empath as well, since both categories tend to overlap. (It’s difficult not to be empathic when you’re highly sensitive!)
The question we’ll be exploring in this post is how can you navigate an extroverted, fast-paced world as a highly sensitive person who feels everything deeply? At the end of the post, I’ll offer specific strategies you can implement in your life to help you do this.
The Rhythm of Dominant Culture Versus the Rhythm of the HSP
One of the first problems we need to address here is how the rhythm of our dominant Western culture doesn’t align (at all!) with the natural rhythms of the highly sensitive person. What does this mean? Dominant culture is all about speed. Moving fast. Multitasking. Doing a million things at once. High productivity. Constant movement. Pushing yourself to the limit and being hyper-productive are considered virtues in our culture. Multitasking – the practice of doing many things at once without really being present for any of them – is seen as the apex of productivity.
Living surrounded by and within this kind of fast-paced, frantic momentum has disconnected many of us from our natural rhythms. It has also disconnected us from nature, which has her own rhythms of activity and rest, productivity and stillness. What’s worse, our dominant culture often sees rest, stillness, and introspection as a waste of time. As selfish and narcissistic pastimes.
The highly sensitive person is wired very differently from dominant culture.
The highly sensitive person requires rest, stillness, introspection, and silence as a matter of survival. These are the nourishing foods of the highly sensitive person, without which that person will be totally drained of energy and will eventually get sick, depressed, resentful, burned out, or all of the above.
It’s so important, as a highly sensitive person, that you become intimately familiar with your own natural rhythms. When do you need rest? When do you need activity and socializing with others? When do you need stillness and silence? Listen to the cues of your body and mind. If you start feeling irritated, resentful, on edge, and overwhelmed, those are clear signs that you’ve pushed yourself too far. It’s time to STOP whatever you’re doing and take a break.
This means, though, that you must have the courage to go against the rhythms of dominant culture. In the words of Wayne Muller, resting is an act of rebellion in our fast-paced, action-oriented culture. Be willing to engage in this “rebelliousness” to protect your sanity, time, space, and energy. You do matter, and your needs are not outrageous or selfish.
High Sensitivity and Shame
Another issue we commonly face as highly sensitive people is shame. This has more to do with how we grew up and the messages we received from parents and peers about our sensitivity. If you often heard “don’t be so sensitive!” or “don’t take things personally” or if it was taught to you – directly or indirectly – that emotions shouldn’t be expressed, you’re probably carrying some shame about your sensitivity.
Feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, or self-consciousness might be associated with this type of shame. You might even feel selfish for needing so much time to rest and just be, without taking care of anyone else or getting anything “done.” The antidote to this shame is reframing your sensitivity as a superpower (if you need extra help with this, I have a 5-week course you might be interested in: The Powerfully Sensitive Program). For example, rather than seeing your sensitivity as a weakness or flaw, you can recognize all the ways in which it helps both you and other people. Here’s a short list of the benefits of sensitivity, to which you can add your own:
- it helps you read between the lines of a situation
- it helps you recognize when someone is being truthful or not
- it enables you to empathize with others and extend compassion to the world
- it helps you decide whether a situation or relationship is right for you (if you hone your sensitive and intuitive skills, you’ll feel these things in your gut)
- it keeps you safe from physical danger by helping you tune in to the energy field of a room, building, place, or situation (through your sensitivity, you can feel that clear “YES” or “NO” in your gut)
- it helps you remind and show others that being sensitive, vulnerable, and intuitive is natural and powerful
- it helps you connect deeply to other people, to yourself, and to Spirit
- sensitivity is tied to creativity and a rich imagination
Two Dangers for the HSP
Another two dangers exist for the highly sensitive person. These have to do with boundaries, which are so important in maintaining our sanity and well-being.
The first danger is being “over-boundaried.” This means having too many or too rigid boundaries. These boundaries often arise as the result of experiencing burn out or of not taking caring of ourselves for a long time. We can swing too far in the opposite direction and establish boundaries in our lives that actually keep us confined and limited, rather than serving as a supportive container.
As highly sensitive people, we sometimes become afraid to venture out into the world or try something new. This is especially true if we’ve tried to connect with people before but ended up being overwhelmed or suffocated by them. Sometimes, if we try to have relationships or friendships with extroverted and less sensitive people, we can neglect our own needs and try to keep up with their own rhythms. This can easily lead to burn out and resentment, which then makes us retreat into a safer, smaller, more comfortable space: home.
But fully retreating from the world is never the answer. We’re still social beings and we need to bond with others to have complete lives. Of course, the level and frequency of bonding you need might be different from what other people need (especially extroverts). Just because you need less bonding or less socializing doesn’t make you weird or antisocial. Having one or two close friends as opposed to hundreds of acquaintances is ok, too.
Consider the places in your life where you might have boundaries that are too rigid. Does it ever feel like those boundaries are confining you rather than supporting you? You might need to reevalute them and see if they can be softened in some way.
The second danger for the highly sensitive person is being “under-boundaried.” This means, in contrast, that your boundaries are too loose or non-existent. This is a more common form of dysfunction in the life of the highly sensitive person. How can you tell if you are under-boundaried? Here’s a common list of symptoms:
- you’re unable to say no, even when you really want/need to
- you’re always on the go
- you neglect your need for rest and silence
- you’re already experiencing burn out, resentment, or stress-based illness
- you tend to “lose” yourself in other people (i.e., you’re not sure where they end and where you begin, or which emotions are theirs and which are yours)
- you don’t listen to your body’s needs… and if you do listen, you neglect them or put them on the backburner
- you take care of everyone else first
- you feel guilty if you say no or if you try to put yourself first
In all of these cases, your boundaries need to be strengthened. This isn’t an overnight process, of course, and it will take time to learn how to prioritize yourself and speak up for your needs. But this is so important because your sanity, health, and peace depend on it. Consider the areas in your life where it’s hard for you to say no. Ask yourself:
- What pattern do I fall into when it comes to setting boundaries?
- When is it hardest for me to set boundaries? What makes it hard in those situations?
- When it is easy for me to set boundaries? What makes it easy in those situations?
- What’s the first boundary I can work on strengthening this week? Is it saying no at work, at home, with friends? Is it setting an internal boundary, where I allow myself more time to rest and stop multitasking so much?
These questions can reveal powerful insights that will help you tend to your boundaries as you move forward.
Strategies for Navigating an Extroverted World
Finally, here’s a list of practical strategies you can try out in the world to stay sane while being a highly sensitive person. I encourage you to try some of these suggestions:
- Strategic engagement with the world: try something new that motivates you to go out into the world, but do so in small increments. Start with 15 minutes, and build up the time to an hour. This might mean that you take a new yoga or exercise class, join your local gym, go shopping at a farmer’s market, or call up a friend to meet you for lunch. Keep your needs and boundaries in mind so you don’t burn out or overwhelm yourself.
- Stop comparing: don’t compare yourself to what other people can do. Don’t try to “keep up” with others who are more active, extroverted, or who need lots of external stimulation. Go at your own pace and make your needs known. Sometimes, it’s so important to say, “I’ve had so much fun, but I need some rest now. Time for me to go.” Know your own rhythm and limits, and don’t be afraid to speak up when you’re feeling tired or overstimulated.
- Carefully tend to your schedule: this means not overscheduling yourself and also blocking out times for rest and relaxation in your week. We schedule and make time for so many things: work, laundry, grocery shopping, picking up kids, running errands for others, exercise, etc – but we don’t schedule rest. Block out a day or an afternoon every week (at least!) for play and rest.
- Work on boundaries & saying NO: using the information in this article, you can start investigating where you are in terms of boundaries. What boundaries do you need to implement? Which boundaries might be too rigid? Where are you having trouble saying no, and why? Figuring out the underlying motivation and fears behind your inability to say no is an excellent first step. Then, work on saying no gradually – or at least saying, “I’ll think about this and get back to you” rather than overcommitting.
- Pay attention to your body’s needs: according to Elaine Aron, a pioneer in the field of sensitivity, the body of the highly sensitive person is very much like the body of a baby or infant. Your body will support you in everything you want to do if you care for it tenderly, feed it when it’s hungry, and allow it to rest when it’s tired. If you ignore and trample over your body’s needs, your body will throw a tantrum – just like an infant. It will stop cooperating. It might even break down. So, listen to your body and give it what it needs. This is especially important if your needs were neglected growing up. You need to re-parent your body and let it know that it’s safe now, because you will care for it lovingly.
- 911 Strategies: I call these “911 strategies” because they’re so useful for those moments when you are overwhelmed, overstimulated, and you have reached your breaking point. (Even taking great care of ourselves, we all sometimes get to this point!) In these cases, you can:
- remove yourself from the situation (i.e., leave the room, end the phone call, step outside, go to the restroom)
- close your eyes for 10 minutes to shut out some external stimulation (breathing deeply at the same time really helps)
- shut off or turn down the volume of the TV, music, car radio, etc. (if that’s the source of the stimulation)
- put your phone & other electronic devices away for 20 minutes
- take a 10-minute break
- drink water or eat a snack
- take a bath
- adjust your posture and notice if you’re holding tension anywhere, then breathe deeply to release it
- remind yourself “this too shall pass” or “just 30 minutes to go” or any other words that give you relief
Ultimately, being a highly sensitive person has some challenges, but it’s also a divine gift. If you implement these practices and care for yourself and your needs, your sensitivity can become a powerful asset. Compassion, empathy, and sensitivity are desperately needed in the world today. So don’t shut off or curse your sensitivity! You’ve been given this gift so you can do good in the world, for yourself and others.
If you need more support as a highly sensitive person or empath, I invite you to check out my Powerfully Sensitive Program. I’ve designed this program to help you shift from overwhelm to empowerment, heal any sense of unworthiness about your own sensitivity, and learn how to BE in the world without getting burnt out or carrying other people’s baggage.