HSPs And Self-Care: Putting Yourself First Is Not Selfish

Highly Sensitive Persons– as a group– tend to be very giving individuals, often putting the needs of others ahead of their own.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a giving nature, but the issue many HSPs end up facing is that they “give and give and give” and end up burning out, at which point there’s nothing left for them to give to the people who are– perhaps– dependent on them.

Is Saying “No” Selfish?

Over the years I’ve met a number of HSPs suffering from such burnout. After a brief conversation, it becomes evident that they may be excellent at caring for everyone else, but they are utterly clueless when it comes to taking care of themselves. In fact they would rather just ignore their own needs altogether.

The conversation might continue for a bit, and we discuss how they have to “take care of Bob’s dogs while he’s away,” and are “doing Susan’s overtime at work while she’s recovering from surgery,” and “helping the neighborhood association with their fundraiser,” and then there’s “this and that family event” involving some family members it turns out this particular HSP doesn’t even like.  It quickly becomes quite evident that they are overloaded, overstimulated and frustrated by the sheer load they are carrying, as a result of caring for the rest of the world.

Have you ever considered simply saying no to some of these people?” I will ask.

Oh, no, no… I couldn’t do that!” comes the reply, “they are depending on me. They need me. Besides, that would be very selfish of me!

Respecting Limits Is Not Selfish

HSPs often struggle with poor or “soft” personal boundaries. They especially struggle with taking on too many things in service of being helpful, and fear using the word “no,” even when it is perfectly appropriate to do so.

One of the most pervasive issues we face as HSPs is how to manage overstimulation; how to deal with a life that simply has “too much stuff” in it. There’s lots of advice out there– seminars, workshops, and guidebooks on how to better manage time, and how to “have it all” through any number of time management systems. For an HSP, however, the problem with all these systems is that their focus is on how to juggle “too many balls,” rather than on how to avoid overextending yourself, in the first place– i.e. how to not pick up too many balls to juggle. This is problematic because a central part of healthy self-care for HSPs is about keeping our load down to a manageable size.

When I mention “taking care of yourself” to an overburdened  HSP, the response I often get is that I am asking them to be “selfish.” And that saying no to someone who’s asking for help just can’t– and shouldn’t– be done. Regardless of whether such a response is the result of a helping and idealistic nature or questionable self-esteem, fact remains that we need to take care of ourselves!

Bottom line: What good are you to ANYone, if you’re too exhausted to keep your promises?

It’s Not Selfish To Be At Your Best For Others

Putting yourself first– when it comes to staying balanced and healthy– is not selfish. This may sound painfully obvious, but when I make that observation I am often facing an assortment of protests. So, when I do point out to someone that they must focus on themselves— and objections arise– I like to distinguish between the words “selfish” (as in, someone who is self-absorbed and self-involved) and “self-ish” (meaning someone who takes healthy care of themselves). I also like to use another metaphor, for illustration purposes. Most of us have been on an airplane. Before the flight starts the flight attendants will go through their “safety on board” demonstration. This includes how to use the oxygen masks, in case of a high altitude decompression. The key element to remember, which they always say: “If you are traveling with a child or someone else who needs your help, please put on your OWN mask before helping the other person.

It’s an important reminder that we HSPs must take care of ourselves before we get too busy taking care of others. And if staying healthy requires it, we must be willing to say “no” to the next person or project clamoring for our attention, if that’s what’s required of us!

About denmarkguy

Peter Messerschmidt is a writer, beach comber, rare stamp dealer and eternal seeker. When he’s not wandering the beach or the Internet, he facilitates groups & retreats for HSPs, and shares his musings at “HSP Notes,” the web’s oldest HSP-specific blog, at HSP Notes. He lives in Port Townsend, WA with the great love of his life (also an HSP) and several furry “kids.” To read some of his more in-depth articles about the HSP trait please visit: Hub Pages - Denmarkguy and Squidoo - Denmarkguy.


  1. Douglas Eby on March 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks to Peter for this valuable reminder of self-care. We may use our sensitivity to discern when we may be getting too “over-giving” – as author and coach Cheryl Richardson points out, “We all have varying levels of sensitivity”…it is also “the mechanism that provides us with an internal warning signal that lets us know when we’re in situations that may be hazardous to our emotional, physical, or spiritual health.” – From post: Cheryl Richardson on protecting our high sensitivity

    • Maria on March 13, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      Thank you Douglas for showing how our sensitivity can help us in taking care of ourselves.

  2. Colin Machan on October 25, 2013 at 11:44 am

    Thanks very much for such a insightful article. One interesting point to raise: who should we say No to? A tricky choice to make, particularly for the HSP with ‘many hats’. I’ve met many people who encourage me to say No but dislike it and even apply undue pressure when you say No to them.

    • Peter Messerschmidt on October 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm

      Colin, thanks for visiting and commenting!

      There’s an element to saying “no” which involves us accepting that some people will perceive us as “the bad guy” if we’re not willing to carry their load for them. For me, the times to say “no” have been when someone has a history of “using” me, or I can determine that they have clearly made very little effort to solve their own problems/dilemmas and are instead trying to “farm them out.” I have also increasingly been standing my ground with those who feel the need to “debate me” over my choice to say no… if someone is still arguing with me after a couple of polite “I just have too much on my plate at the moment, so I’m going to respectfully say no’s” then it starts to show a lack of respect for someone’s (namely mine) boundaries… and I have to wonder what ELSE they have a lack of respect for.

  3. Cheri on June 6, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    This is so spot on, and this sort of thinking has helped me in the past. However, the level of giving sometimes escalates into areas I can’t say no to. The past couple of years has involved health issues for my husband (3rd open heart operation that followed months of MRSA, a colostomy, etc and now getting a 2nd skin biopsy with the “C” word). My daughter (chemo, double mastectomy, contiunual affects of chemo). Her daughter (6 yrs old and a HSC as am I). These issues overlap but sometimes I have a few days. I’ve had open heart bypass, and have a ICD(implantable cardiac device= defibulator that also has a pacemaker to pace the 3 chambers of my heart). My grandson is graduating from HS this weekend, My DIL’s brother is being buried this weekend, I’m in the process of moving, and I have to do all of the driving. On Monday, I’ll have to take hubby downstate for his 2nd skin biopsy and be prepared to spend time there in case they will be performing more procedures. Any way I look at it, I will need recovery time before I can drive us back home. My alternative is to let a stranger drive him.

    I have a therepy-comfort dog that I will take with, he really helps. but there will be added concerns with him needing the comforts of eating, walking, etc, but he is sooo worth it for the unconditional cuddling I can get whenever needed. I have prayer blankets too.

    As I write this out, I realize that there are no easy solutions for me, there are no “noes” I can use. This is not the normal ‘taking on too much’, this is my life. Last year when hubby was hospitalized for months, I knew early on I would have to make sure that I ate 3 meals a day, make time for the subsequent “output” of said meals (sorry) and get good nutrition and sleep. I need to do that right now, too. Last night, the 6 yr old came to me with nightmares, and I was able to help her self-soothe herself back to sleep. I’m greatful that I am able to be here to do it, and that she has the proper balance in her little hsc world. It cost me lots of sleep, but I’ve been given the day off from having to paint a bathroom because of it. She is my passion, the one I’m sure I’m on this planet for.

    Well, I started this note to see what kinds of advice I could pick up. I know there isn’t much. But I WILL get others to put together a few meals, do a little laundry, etc., so that I can get through the next week.

    Thanks for letting me vent, but sometimes I shouldn’t! It’s kind of depressing when I write it out, knowing I’m skipping so many issues, only hitting the highlights. ouch. Being a HSP can really suck when you feel their pain, for real.