For years I was told I was ‘too sensitive’.
I thought there was something wrong with me because I cried easily, felt the emotional states of others around me, got upset at watching the news, felt the cold, needed extra sleep, felt easily stressed at work, or got irritated at the sound of radio adverts or noisy music playing while I was trying to have a conversation.
I thought that I was just weak or flawed for getting so easily overwhelmed by the world.
And then I heard the term highly sensitive person, and my world changed.
Apparently, approximately 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive. This sensitivity can be emotional but also physical – I tend to notice the cold and the heat more than others, feel more physically tired than others, notice sounds and other physical sensations more than others.
And then, of course, there’s the emotional side: I can cry very easily for a range of reasons. Generally when I’m feeling stressed, overwhelmed, angry, upset, joyous, relieved, frustrated… crying is often my natural response. As a teacher of teenagers, it has taken some practice to hold it together in the classroom at times!
Since learning about the term and discovering it is supported by scientific research, I have come to accept and even celebrate what I was often told was a flaw when younger. I have come to see that my sensitivity is part of who I am and that it can also be a gift.
That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with challenges, though. I’ve come to learn that there are things I need to do to take care of myself to ensure I don’t get too easily overwhelmed by life. I want to share the things that help me to stay happy and living my best life as a highly sensitive person.
This is a tough one, because I find our culture is all about productivity, growth and striving. It has taken a real conscious effort to be ok with the fact that I need more rest than a lot of others. This doesn’t make me lazy, it’s just the way my body is. My partner and family have also come to accept this about me, which makes it a lot easier. I need more sleep than others and can only manage so much in a day before needing a nap. I allow myself to rest because I know the consequences of not resting tend to be some sort of emotional breakdown, which is much worse!
2. Check in with yourself, often
For me, journaling is the best tool for this. It is a place to spill my thoughts and fears onto the page and acknowledge how I’m feeling. It is a way to remain aware of what’s going on for me, and notice if there are areas in my life that need attention. By checking in often, I can be aware of when I’m feeling overwhelmed and come up with solutions. This way it doesn’t build up until it becomes too much – it stays manageable. Journaling is an essential tool for the highly sensitive person.
3. Say no
Again, this is a tough one (who said this would be easy?!). When people you care about want things from you, you naturally want to help. And I’m certainly not suggesting you shouldn’t help if you can. But sometimes, you will have to put yourself first. Journaling can be a great way of checking in to see if you should be saying no to commitments – check in with your body and how you are physically feeling, and also your emotional state. At the end of the day, you can’t please everyone and you will die trying. I’ve found that those who really love and care about me will always understand if I need to say no. Brene Brown (her work is life-changing, if you haven’t read anything from her, get reading immediately!) has this wonderful saying that I use to remind myself: choose discomfort over resentment. That is, choose the discomfort of saying no at the time, over the resentment of committing to something you don’t really want to do.
4. If necessary, cancel
Again, a tough one – possibly tougher than the others. If you have committed to something that you just can’t fathom going through with, you have the option to cancel. It is, after all, your life, and you make your own decisions. Of course, you may have to deal with some serious disappointment from others, and it’s up to you to weigh the consequences of cancelling. But, often when I find myself overwhelmed from a tough day and dreading something I’ve committed to, I remind myself that I have the option to cancel – the choice is mine, if I want it. Sometimes even just reminding ourselves that we have the choice can be enough to make us feel better.
5. Nurture close relationships
After all this talk about saying no, resting and cancelling it can sound like HSPs lead very quiet lives, but this isn’t true at all. As much as I tend to need quiet down time alone, I also need to feel closely connected to those that are important to me, and I’m guessing this is the same for all HSPs. The people closest to me support me when I’m feeling overwhelmed, and of course bring love, joy, humour, connection and other wonderful things. One thing I have really noticed is that I struggle to maintain relationships with lots of extensive groups of people, because I also need a lot of time alone. Instead, I focus on nurturing and maintaining the relationships I have with those closest to me. Focusing my energy on these relationships is much more rewarding for me, than scattering that energy between many people.
6. Take walks in nature
This is one of the most nurturing things you can do for yourself. Nature has so much healing power, and the calming energy from a walk amongst the trees or along the shoreline can do wonders for a frazzled soul. If you find yourself overwhelmed with life, stressed with work or even just tired, getting out into nature can remind us that everything happens in its own perfect timing, that everything is perfect as it is. Being in nature is the best therapy.
7. Allow time to just play
I think one of the things that makes me feel most overwhelmed is that I feel like there isn’t enough time to do the things I want to do. By scheduling time in to just play, or being flexible and allowing for spontaneous play, we remind ourselves that there is enough time. It takes a bit of practice to step away from whatever is stressing us out but it can be very rewarding. Not to mention, the fun from just playing in and of itself can be enough to help us feel good. For me, play includes: painting and journaling, watching TV shows and movies I love, hanging out with my partner, family or friends, playing with my puppy, going for a random drive somewhere, anything that includes laughter or being silly or goofy, dancing and singing. Your play can look any way you want it to, as long as it feels light, playful and enjoyable.
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You can learn more about being HSP and take a self-test here. If you have any further tips or thoughts about being HSP please comment below.