Do you sometimes feel like you’re too sensitive? Too emotional? Too over-reactive? Or does the world ever feel like too much for you? Too noisy, too fast, too overwhelming? I used to feel like that for years. When I was a child, people called me shy. When I was a teenager, they said I was introverted. And I felt terrible about both these terms. They sounded negative and not exactly true, to be honest. It was not until my 40s that I came across Elaine Aaron’s work around the Highly Sensitive Person, and I finally felt understood.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
Elaine Arron introduced the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) in the 1990s. After extensive research, she found out that approximately 15-20% of the population displays a characteristic, innate personality trait that is connected with a specific survival strategy- namely observing before acting.
Interestingly, this trait is not specific to humans, around 100 other species display it too, but it is always the minority of the population that carries it. (You can take a self-test here.)
As you might imagine, being highly sensitive means your brain is wired for observation. And this has two far-reaching consequences:
- You are very sensitive to small details and nuisances in your environment (both around you and inside you)
- You process information very deeply and thoroughly.
As with all things in nature, being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is neither good nor bad. But unfortunately, it often feels like that when it is translated into our everyday life in the contemporary world.
On the one hand, as a HSP, you might get easily overwhelmed with too many people around or too many tasks to fulfil. Your emotional reactions might feel more intense, and you might find it difficult to differentiate which emotions are yours and which belong to other people. You probably tend to analyse things deeply and are prone to overthinking. Pressure or necessity to act quickly and without preparation – is definitely not your cup of tea.
On the other hand, you are very empathetic, you easily get what others feel or think, even if they are not expressing it directly. Your attention to detail is amazing. You tend to appreciate things more and are easily moved by art or beautiful landscapes. You are very creative, a deep thinker, and an invaluable friend to have.
In other words, if you do not know how to manage your precious and fine-tuned nervous system, it can create a lot of confusion and pain in your life, but once you learn how to do that, high sensitivity can actually enrich your life immensely.
Let me share with you some steps that you can take in order to befriend your nervous system and start using the amazing gifts and strength that it gives you. Remember, being a HSP can feel like a superpower, too!
3 Steps to Thrive as A Highly Sensitive Person in A World That Feels Like Too Much
Step 1: Ground in your body
Your body is always here and now, and it can help you find peace, stability, and grounding in the moment. By bringing your attention back to your breath, to your heart, to sensations in your body you can get off the rollercoaster of thoughts and choose to take intentional actions to bring your nervous system back to balance.
Your body always tells you when things are becoming too much. It tells you when you need to slow down, take a break, or even remove yourself from a too-intense situation but, do you ever stop to listen?
Your body is your anchor. And with a bit of time and practice it will make you feel present, safe, and confident no matter how sensitive your nervous system might be.
Step 2: Learn how to stay in charge of your emotions
The second most important trait of a HSP is emotional reactiveness. Your nervous system responds stronger and faster to both positive and negative events, situations, and interactions with others, as well as your own internal processes.
In order to stay well (and sane!), and at the same time be able to navigate the world where you are bombarded with information, stimuli, and triggers, it’s absolutely necessary you learn simple, quick, and effective ways of managing your emotional reactions.
This means noticing and acknowledging your emotions, letting them run their course, and also letting them go. It also means understanding where your emotions are coming from, how they relate to your needs and wants, and what actions they prompt you to make.
There is deep wisdom behind each and every one of your emotions, even behind the most intense and challenging ones. Once you learn how to manage them, your high sensitivity becomes a gift that helps you navigate your life and your relationship in a much easier way.
Step 3: Set healthy boundaries
This step comes third for a very good reason. Setting healthy boundaries, contrary to what you might think, always starts inside of you. And of course, it involves communicating them to others at some point, but if you start too early, you are in for a tough ride.
You need the first two steps to be able to set and maintain your boundaries efficiently and with ease. Once you feel safe and grounded in your body, and you know how to surf the waves of emotions you will not only be much clearer about where you need your boundaries to be but also, what’s even more important, you will have a deep sense that you have the right to set them in the way that feels right to you.
That’s very important because for an HSP setting boundaries is a very individual and ongoing process. There are so many factors impacting your nervous system and you need to learn how to respond quickly to your own changing needs.
This includes learning how to say ‘no’ without guilt, being very intentional about how many tasks and responsibilities you are able to take on, and keeping a just-right-for-you balance of social engagement and alone/rest time. It also involves learning how to maintain your emotional boundaries – so that you do not take on any emotions that are simply not your own.
Setting your boundaries in a way that respects and protects your sensitive nervous system but also gives you a sense of belonging and having meaningful connections with others is absolutely necessary for each of us to thrive.
Thriving as a Highly Sensitive Person
When you choose to follow the 3 steps above, very soon, you will start to see your high sensitivity trait in totally new eyes. The world, other people, and your own reactions will simply stop feeling like too much once you know how to take good care of yourself and your precious nervous system.
Each and every one of us need self-love and self-care, but as an HSP you need large doses administered in specific ways and at specific times. And yes, it does require time, practice, dedication, and skill to figure out how to create and implement your own, tailor-made, effective ‘wellness and balance’ strategy.
So, the right kind of support is simply invaluable here. But once you have this strategy in place, being an HSP becomes the superpower that adds an extra flavour to your inner life, to your relationships, and to the way you see the world around you. A flavour that I would never ever change for anything else.