The opposite of sensitive is not ‘tough.’ It’s insensitive. Sensitivity is a gift. Let’s nurture it, not squash it.” ~Glennon Doyle
I would run no matter how much snow and ice there was, no matter how tired I was or how much my joints hurt. Even if I was hungover. It didn’t matter. Sometimes I would be in incredible pain, but I wouldn’t stop.
I worked as a tree planter in the summers and got paid per tree. I would push as hard as possible, sometimes planting as many as 3,000 trees in one day. And, not surprisingly, I had my first back spasm at age twenty-one.
That’s how I lived my whole life in my early twenties. Pushing. I barely had enough time to get everything done with college, volunteering, and a part time job. I would consistently end up exhausted.
On top of this, bright lights and loud noises easily overwhelm me, but I pushed through that too. I didn’t really want to go to my friends’ loud parties, so would drink to the point that the loud noise didn’t bother me anymore.
Years later I learned I was a highly sensitive person (HSP) and it all made sense. HSPs are sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, and other people’s emotions.
And because HSPs only make up 15-20 percent of the population, it sometimes seems like the basic needs of quiet, space away from family members with big emotions, and soft lighting are self-indulgent or greedy. So HSPs often push through their sensitive nature.
In my twenties, despite my sensitivities, I pushed through. I didn’t feel like my life was worth much unless I was highly productive, getting good grades, and pleasing my friends, family, professors, and pretty much anyone I met. I was determined to be perfect, and it was killing me.
It finally came to a head during my first job after college. I was working hard to please my supervisors, co-workers, and the youth that were our clients. It was my dream job, but I ignored my own needs as a highly sensitive person to the point that I couldn’t do it anymore. I was exhausted and didn’t want to get out of bed in the mornings. I quit but I didn’t know what to do.
Are You Highly Sensitive?
Does any of this sound familiar? If you sometimes push through your own needs it could be a sign that you’re highly sensitive. Other signs you’re an HSP include:
- You feel the tragedies reported on the news very deeply
- You sometimes get overwhelmed by beauty—a breathtaking view or the kindness of a friend
- You’re sensitive to bright lights and loud noises
- You’re highly empathetic
- If someone’s in a bad mood, you feel the energy in the room
- Sometimes when a coffee date gets cancelled, you’re ecstatic that you get to stay hiding under the covers
- You love creativity whether it’s music, dance, photography, writing, visual art or interior design
And when an HSP tries to fit in, it takes a lot of energy. Ignoring your sensitivity will leave you drained. You’ll end up exhausted without much to give.
What Happens When an HSP Ignores Their Sensitivity?
HSPs often end up ignoring their sensitivities because they’re pressured to do so. Whether it’s a cubicle where you can hear 100 other people talking or your group of friends that want to meet in a noisy restaurant as an HSP, you’re constantly being asked to ignore your sensitivity.
And so many HSPs end complying and pushing through. You don’t want to disappoint your friends or inconvenience your boss, so you say yes even though your nervous system is over stimulated. Or other times you want to save money, so you’ll share a hotel room with your noisy and emotional cousin even though it would be better to have your own room.
The problem is, when your nervous system is constantly over stimulated, you end up exhausted. Your exhaustion might start out small, but if you continue to push, you may end up with a complete breakdown like mine. And because I’ve been through it, I really don’t want this to happen to you!
The good news is that it’s possible to protect your sensitive nervous system. It takes time and practice, but step by step, you can start to take better care of yourself and not worry about other people’s expectations.
How HSPs Can Heal After Years of Pushing
1. Rest when you’re tired.
The first and sometimes most difficult step is to get some rest. If you’re determined to fit in, you’re probably exhausted. You’ve been going and going and going and never stop to take a breath. You could:
- Take a five-minute walk outside
- Look out the window and breathe
- Make time for meditation
- Take a day completely off to recharge
- Spend time in nature
So start small and see if you can schedule even five minutes today to be quiet and rest.
2. Learn about your sensitivity.
The fact that you’re reading this article means you’re already on track to completing this step!! The more you learn about your sensitivity, the easier it will be to take time to rest, to say no to that overwhelming party invitation or to walk around downtown wearing giant headphones playing white noise to block out the sound.
And it doesn’t matter whether it’s through reading or podcasts or watching videos. Whatever format you like best will get you on track. Some of my favourites include the Highly Sensitive Refuge website and the Introvert, Dear podcast which is hosted by an HSP.
3. Honor your needs.
I know this is difficult to do especially when there are other people involved, but as you begin to honor your needs, you’ll begin to get your energy back. You’ll feel calmer, more relaxed, and more excited about life.
And so, even though it will involve some difficult conversations with your friends, your partner, you family and co-workers, I promise you it’ll be 100 percent worth it.
When I was in a new relationship where my partner was definitely not an HSP we would have a lot of conversations that went something like this,
Sweetie, you have to remember you’re dating someone sensitive.
If my blood sugar crashes, I won’t be able to recover.
I’m getting really overstimulated by that music.
It would really help me if you just sat quietly with me for a minute.
You can send your loved ones articles to teach them about highly sensitive people and what’s really happening for you. And sometimes, you just have to explain it to them step by step.
Some common HSP needs include:
- A slow pace of life
- Beautiful spaces
- Time in nature
- Deep and meaningful relationships
- Time to cry and feel your emotions
- A good night’s sleep
- Physical space after a conflict or challenging discussion
- Nourishing food
And yes, I get it; it’s hard to ask for. It’s taken me a decade but I’m learning to take better care of myself and now am able to share my supportive nature more fully with others. And you can too.
The less you worry about fitting in and the more you can take care of your HSP needs, the more you’ll be able to bring your sensitive strengths forward to make the impact you were meant to make.
Your Sensitivity is Your Strength
As a highly sensitive person, you have the real gifts of empathy, creativity, attention to detail, and bringing quality into everything you create. Because of this HSPs like you make the world’s best writers, therapists, coaches, interior designers, actors, caretakers, and artists.
According to an article by Jim Hallows, famous HSPs include Nicole Kidman, Edgar Allen Poe, Leonardo Di Vinci, Bob Dylan, Princess Diana, and Mother Teresa.