It’s neither simple nor easy to own your HSP.
I may sound like I’ve got it all figured out. But I don’t. I keep at it. I still get overwhelmed. I still have a hard time making decisions. I still think about all the different variations of how things could’ve gone or endlessly imagine how to handle what’s coming.
Just recently, I got another (not so fun) opportunity to practice how to own my HSP. I’d agreed to teach for a masters degree program a couple of months ago. I love the learning process, and I felt like the place was a great fit for me.
But it hadn’t been a good fit for a number of reasons. Still, I had wanted it to work because teaching interested and excited me, so I agreed to do it. Since then, I realized that with the other things I’m doing, I knew I was going to run myself into the ground if I went through with it.
I was getting migraines, I got sick, and my low back started to spasm as my brain went over and over how I could make it work. But I ended up shutting down. I escaped and withdrew.
I felt trapped and I worried about how I was going to do it all. I felt guilty for not having made a better decision earlier. And I kept going over and over it all in my mind trying to find a solution.
This went on for several weeks. Finally, I reached out to a good friend who reflected back to me the craziness of “trying to make it work” and the legitimate fear that I would end up exhausted and burned out all over again.
She helped me remember that I have to set limits that support my health, and that I have to prioritize those limits, especially as a sensitive person.
It’s not just setting limits with other people. Sometimes it’s setting limits with myself, even when I don’t feel like it. Sometimes it’s acknowledging I didn’t make the best decision, and that the fix is going to be messy because it affects other people negatively.
This is one of those moments when I owned my HSP. It was a series of “little things” I did to get me there.
It wasn’t pretty. It would’ve been easier to push myself beyond my limits because it would’ve meant not disappointing others. But in the longer run, it would’ve cost me my health. Ultimately, the school would not be getting the teacher their students need.
It’s the things you do along the way that help you own your HSP. Reaching out to a trustable person, being vulnerable, acknowledging your own limits, and being willing to disappoint others.
It’s a process, and you just keep working at it. Some moments you own it, some moments you don’t.
Still, even though it’s not easy and it’s not simple to own your HSP, it’s also not magic.
I’ve discovered through lots of trial (and mostly error), that you can pick apart some of the big challenges of being highly sensitive and learn to do “little” doable things that draw on your strengths as an HSP.
In reflecting on my own experience, owning your HSP is a journey of learning these little things, but it’s also having patience and understanding the direction in which you’re headed.
My hope is that knowing these stages will help you understand where you might be in your journey on how to own your HSP.
Stage One: You don’t know who you are as an HSP, or the vulnerabilities that you feel are actually common among HSP’s. There are a number of challenges you could experience.
You try to “get a thicker skin.”
Who of us hasn’t been told (or felt like) they were “too sensitive”? Or that they felt “too much”? The logical solution is to be tougher and feel less. It’s kind of a lose-lose situation. You could be someone who just can’t appear “tougher” and come off as being weak, too emotional, taking things too personally. Or you could be like me and appear tough–competent, strong, capable. I am these things, but I pushed myself to do the most challenging kind of work there is in social work. It’s been meaningful (and I wouldn’t change it), but doing it has come at a steep price.
You feel what other people feel
While you’re trying to be tougher (or wishing for it), you feel what other people feel. Their emotions overwhelm you in addition to your own emotions – sometimes you cannot tell them apart from your own.
You get easily overwhelmed or over-stimulated
You are easily over-aroused. Your nervous system is on high “alert” and vigilant. This over-stimulation (arousal) can come from fear, joy, sadness, change, or conflict, for example. It can contribute to physical ailments like migraines, fatigue, chronic pain, etc. It can keep you from being your best.
You can be sensitive to the external world: touch – like clothes or physical touch, sounds, sights, tastes and textures. This stimulation can feel violating or intrusive. It can stress out your body and lead to higher levels of cortisol that’s trying to reduce the inflammation in your cells and body.
You can be sensitive to what’s inside of you, too: your physical sensations, your thoughts and feelings.
You might prefer to avoid
You avoid to try to make up for the over-stimulation. You might avoid conflict (by people pleasing), attention (by being shy), avoid people (by withdrawing or isolating), and you might avoid doing what you know is helpful, healthy, necessary, or preventive (by procrastinating)
You think about every detail of what you could’ve, should’ve and didn’t do in the past. You rethink your words, actions, reactions and play them out in your head over and over to try and “figure out” the “perfect” way to have responded in an attempt to reduce the amount of pain or frustration or hurt you felt.
You think about what might happen in the future, you plan about all sorts of “what-if” scenarios to try and prevent what you fear could happen
You feel intensely
It can get so distressing that it keeps you from functioning in the way you would like in your life (feeling intensely is not the issue, the issue is feeling intensely and being so distressed by it that it up-ends you).
Someone gossips, someone uses a nasty tone, or is insensitive in some way, and you lose your center or your footing – you cry, get angry, or say things that you later regret, or you shut down completely and might feel like a doormat at times
You might sacrifice yourself to maintain relationships, no matter what the cost, eventually leading to feeling resentment
You’re less and less able to keep the mask up because your coping mechanisms stop working
You get paralyzed, can’t think, can’t move, don’t know what to do at times. You freeze. You might be easily influenced by others. You also might:
- have a tendency to feel depressed or anxious, “stuck,” or “lost”
- experience shame
- over-trust or don’t trust at all
- be in a brain-fog or get “brain-freeze” when you have to make decisions
Stage Two: You hear or read something about HSP’s and you wonder if you could be one. And you ask: what is HSP? Am I HSP? Am I strange or weird?
Something inside of you resonates with articles you’ve seen or Elaine Aron’s book Highly Sensitive People. You doubt whether you might be HSP, and if it’s just something you’re making up to feel better. You start to read more articles or books, or maybe even join an online community
Stage Three: You seek connection and community to understand and accept yourself
You take steps to learn more or maybe you join a group, or talk with other HSP’s. You might have this feeling that you belong in a way you hadn’t expected – which might feel strange or odd – but also good.
Other people write words you could’ve written or said. You find yourself saying “me too!” around things you thought you were the only one doing.
You start to feel like you’re not alone – like you are part of a community. You start to feel like there are these things you’ve always done that have been so different from other people you knew.
You start to see that you’re not so different from these people. You start to recognize how your sensitivity affects your experience as an HSP – and understand why you do some of the things you do
Stage Four: You practice how to own your HSP:
- You don’t expect perfection from yourself or anyone else – you are HSP, and embrace the wonderful aspects along with the hard parts, too – you learn to recognize when you’re hard on yourself and others
- You do “little things” to care for yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually
- You recognize your own limits and, though you might challenge yourself to go past your comfort zone, you listen to those limits as best you can
- You reduce people pleasing and set limits with other people to support your health, even when it’s hard and may create conflict
- You get better at saying “no” to the people, relationships, and the situations that deplete you so you can say “yes” to what sustains, nourishes, supports you
- You avoid when you need to give yourself space, and you speak your truth, even when it might cause conflict, if your health and wellbeing is at stake
- You reach out to others and can be vulnerable and trust trustable people
- You weigh the cost of sacrificing yourself to maintain relationships
- When you get frazzled, over-stimulated, over-whelmed, or your brain freezes, you experiment with what works for you to bring you back to center
- You practice how to think, so over-thinking doesn’t happen as often and isn’t your “go-to” way of dealing with what’s already happened
- You practice recognizing when you worry, and you practice bringing yourself back to the present moment
- You can take in comfort from others, feel the warmth and care and love they offer – even when you are hurting or angry
- You use rituals or tools to help you stay grounded in your own energy, your own emotions, and your own needs so that your empathic abilities serve you rather than overwhelm you
- You trust your “gut,” your intuition, and you balance it with using your rational brain
- You develop your intuition
Part of the value you bring as a Highly Sensitive Introvert is that you’re thoughtful and you feel what’s beneath the surface deeply in yourself and in others.
This takes time.
We serve the world by slowing things down. By considering, reflecting, creating, teaching, counseling, helping people connect with themselves, and by exploring. In The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine Aron writes:
HSPs tend to fill that advisor role. We are the writers, historians, philosophers, judges, artists, researchers, theologians, therapists, teachers, parents, and plain conscientious citizens. What we bring to any of these roles is a tendency to think about all the possible effects of an idea. Often we have to make ourselves unpopular by stopping the majority from rushing ahead. Thus, to perform our role well, we have to feel very good about ourselves. We have to ignore all the messages from the warriors that we are not as good as they are (italics mine).
It’s not easy to learn to own your HSP because it means changing underlying negative beliefs about yourself that you might’ve developed. It means finding the strength within you to speak up when needed. And it means being able to survive being unpopular, and still stay connected with yourself deeply.
When you own your HSP, it means recognizing your strengths and your own wisdom and expressing them without fear. Yes, it’s a lot of other things, too. But what I’m learning is that this is the heart of it.
May you own your HSP.