Do you ever wish you could time travel back to an era that was simpler, slower and more HSP friendly? Although I appreciate many of the benefits of living in this age, I often long for the time of my childhood when I could easily spend an entire day reading on the couch without interruption or worry. Our society’s rhythm is increasingly fast, loud and demanding - a pace that is overstimulating for Highly Sensitive People who notice every little detail.
Growing up I didn’t know I was a Highly Sensitive Person, but I did know that I was different somehow. I was introspective, emotionally attuned, perceptive and thoughtful. Deep inside, I felt that I had important work to do, but kept hearing messages from others that said I needed to change myself - talk more, think less. After many years of trying to be what others expected of me, I learned that I was a Highly Sensitive Person and my whole perspective shifted as I began to slowly embrace my true nature. Below I share five ways that I am living by my own rules to be able to thrive as an HSP in this busy world.
Saying No Most of the Time
Do you struggle to say “no” to requests from loved ones and co-workers or feel pressured to say “yes” to social invitations when you really want to hibernate at home? You’re not alone! One of the most difficult tasks for many HSPs is setting boundaries because either we feel guilty about disappointing someone or worry about the potential conflict saying “no” may cause. Our high capacity for empathy and low capacity for stimulation makes it difficult to set limits with others.
There is a high cost to sacrificing ourselves such as exhaustion, anxiety, illness and resentment in our relationships. Although it may feel difficult at first, setting boundaries and prioritizing our needs does get easier with practice. I suggest to start by saying “no” to a situation with low stakes such as being offered a cup of tea or with someone who you trust will honor your needs.
Prioritizing My Needs
Putting ourselves first is another edgy practice. Up until a few years ago, I always put the needs of others (work, family, friends) first. Most people don’t understand that we have different needs compared to non-HSPs such as requiring more quiet time, more depth, less overstimulation, and so forth. As a result, we’ve often been told our needs aren’t valid, don’t make sense or that we shouldn’t need what we need because it looks different than what the majority needs. Let me assure you that your needs are valid and it’s okay to prioritize yourself.
For me, prioritizing myself looks like:
- feeling comfortable being quiet in a group
- closing my eyes in public when I feel overstimulated
- setting aside at least one day per week to stay in my PJs at home
- not going to networking events
- limiting the number of social events I attend per month
- taking time outs at social gatherings by going to the restroom or for a walk outside
- only answering work emails and calls during work hours
- doing yoga and meditation regularly
Working Outside the Box As Sensitive People
One of the most essential keys to contentment for an HSP is meaningful work-life balance that feels sustainable over the long-term. This means being able to engage in work that feels purposeful while having enough energy left over for ourselves at the end of the day. In my work as a psychotherapist, I see many clients struggling with burnout, depression and anxiety because of work demands and the internal pressure to over perform. Many HSPs are perfectionists who struggle to set limits for themselves and most workplaces do not prioritize self-care, leaving the burden to either advocate for ourselves or choose work environments that suit our temperaments.
Before becoming a psychotherapist, I spent many years working over 40 hours per week and spending my evenings and weekends in hibernation mode. Now that I work for myself, I have control over my schedule and have created a work environment that looks vastly different than many of my colleagues. For instance, I start my day around 11am, give myself 30 minutes between clients, take a long lunch break and only schedule four appointments per day. I may not make as much income as someone seeing 25 clients per week, but I am much happier than I was before. I also have the benefit of pursuing other streams of income such as hosting retreats which are so fulfilling for me and inspire my work as a therapist.
I understand that not everyone has the freedom that I now have, but you may have more leverage than you realize in your current position. To name a few of our Sensitive Strengths, Highly Sensitive People are very perceptive, conscientious, creative thinkers, dedicated, passionate and effective problem solvers. In essence, we bring a lot of value to our workplaces yet are often struggling in environments that were not designed with our needs in mind such as the dreadful open office plan!
According to a study by Bhavini Shrivastava (2011), HSPs are often seen as the most productive employees by management, but feel the most stressed. I often encourage my clients to advocate for their needs by highlighting the value they bring and that they can only bring that value under certain conditions such as being able to work at home part of the week, working an alternative schedule (to reduce commute traffic and busy offices) or working fewer hours per week.
Turning Off Notifications and Setting Digital Limits
Our Highly Sensitive brains are wired to deeply process and need ample time to transition between tasks which makes distractions incredibly disruptive! The constant pings of phones, social media and email can be not only overstimulating to our nervous systems, but make it impossible to get anything accomplished. I personally have all notifications turned off on my phone and computer almost 100% of the time so that I can choose when to engage. This practice allows me to deep dive into whatever I’m focused on, whether that be a work project, connecting with a loved one, or practicing self-care.
Another component of this practice of reducing the overstimulating clutter of technology is setting limits on when and how often we check in. There is a lot of pressure to respond immediately to every message, email, and phone call, but how often is the situation actually that urgent? Not usually! Instead of letting the demands of communication overwhelm your life, I encourage you to choose a time of day (or a few times per day or week, depending on your situation) when you intentionally opt-in to return messages and calls. Let the people in your life know that you may be available less often or only during a certain window of time to minimize worry or frustration.
Treating Myself with Compassion
I consider self-compassion a radical act of self-care that is a soothing remedy to the ultra competitive and fast-paced world we live in. Instead of comparing myself to others or doubting my abilities, I remind myself that “I’m doing the best I can with what I have in this moment”. As much as possible, I aim to treat myself as I would a friend or loved one, with empathy and care. Self-compassion shows up in how I talk to myself (“It’s okay to feel upset, it makes sense”) and how I act (taking quiet time when I feel overwhelmed). As a result of practicing self-compassion, I feel more calm and resilient.
Although we may not live in a time that was designed by and for Highly Sensitive People, we can start to advocate for our needs and set our own rules. When we value our innate trait of High Sensitivity, we’ll take enough downtime for ourselves and be able to more frequently access our Sensitive gifts of empathy, perception, creativity and so much more. You deserve to be your best self and live a fulfilling life.
The Undervalued Self by Dr. Elaine Aron
The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope
Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo
The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg