I did my best to fit in and be like everyone else, not realizing that fitting in wasn’t the same as belonging.
As a child, I knew I was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on how. I just knew that I would get easily overwhelmed and stressed by other people and the smallest changes in my environment. I attributed it to my shy and anxious nature.
It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I came across the term “highly sensitive person” (HSP) and found that I ticked all the boxes on Dr. Elaine Aron’s self-test.
Of course, growing up with a negative, hyper-critical, and controlling mother didn’t help. The negativity was toxic to my highly sensitive soul. To survive, I developed a lot of coping mechanisms to ignore, protect, and manage my sensitivity. (Now, however, I’m glad I’m embracing it instead.)
7 Ways I Tried to ‘Manage’ My High Sensitivity
1. I hid parts of myself and learned to disconnect my feelings.
Instead of being easily affected by my environment and other people, I went inward and hid my sensitivity, putting on a brave face and training myself to become less responsive to external input. At school and in other social situations, I did my best to fit in and be like everyone else, not realizing that fitting in wasn’t the same as belonging.
I avoided saying or doing things that would attract criticism, or even too much attention. I was content to be in the background and fly under the radar. I surrounded myself with “nice,” supportive friends who wouldn’t challenge me.
I also learned to pretend that my mom’s judgment and criticism didn’t hurt me. For sure, it was eating me alive inside, but I refused to give her the satisfaction of knowing that her moods and words had so much power over me.
2. I withdrew from others, preferring my own company instead.
Perhaps the most harmful aspect of my childhood and upbringing was that it made me believe everyone was toxic like my mom, friendly and approachable on the surface, but picks you apart mercilessly as soon as your back is turned.
So I did my fair share of withdrawing, preferring my own company to the company of others. Those long weeks and months were intensely lonely, but in my mind, it was still better than having to face the potential criticism and rejection of other people.
In fact, I was so cut off from my own emotions that I actually stopped crying… for about 20 years. I know, I know, it sounds crazy and next to impossible. But here is what happened.
3. Instead of people, I focused on tasks, like completing items on my to-do list.
What’s more, instead of people, I turned my focus on tasks. Because, let’s face it: people — including myself — are so unpredictable, and I wanted to feel like I was in control of something. Anything.
I became a compulsive list-maker and my to-do lists ran my life. I got such a kick out of crossing a task off my to-do list that I mistook the feeling of relief for happiness. Of course, I had no idea what true happiness really felt like.
4. I tried to control what I could, like my time and energy.
Another way I’d try to control what I could was by setting strict boundaries around my time and energy. (I know boundary-setting isn’t always easy for HSPs!) This way, I’d avoid taking on too much and ending up mentally and emotionally exhausted.
Instead, I took frequent breaks during the day and avoided working overtime or on weekends. I said “no” to unreasonable requests and invitations that were not aligned with my values or my priorities, even though it was extremely confrontational to do so.
Needless to say, it’s still a constant battle for me to find that delicate balance between being “good” busy and doing too much.
5. I got really intentional with planning and preparation.
Not all my coping mechanisms were bad though. Some were actually quite healthy and I have kept them up to this day. For example, in order to avoid stress and overwhelm, I got really intentional with planning and preparation. I scheduled everything and was careful with distractions and interruptions. I also filtered my calls and turned off all notifications on my phone and my laptop.
I deliberately planned white space into my daily and weekly schedules, too, so when things ran over time, I didn’t have to rush around like a headless chicken trying to catch up. Time pressure was extremely unsettling for me — I’m sure other HSPs can relate! — and I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time for everything.
6. I tried to reduce my sensory input as much as possible.
I tried to reduce my sensory input as much as possible, too. I carefully monitored my news consumption, unplugged from technology regularly, and stayed away from scary and other “triggering” shows.
Speaking of triggering, it’s not just scary or violent movies or news that upset me; I also cringed every time I watched anything where people embarrassed themselves or got found out because they did something wrong.
I’d feel so bad that I’d have to physically leave the room to escape those uncomfortable scenes, because I was also experiencing the embarrassment and shame along with them. There was no separation between how they felt and how I felt. In true HSP fashion, we were one and the same, and I’d absorb their emotions whether I wanted to or not.
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7. I discovered power naps (and self-care).
I stumbled across self-care quite early on, but in the beginning, I had the same hang-ups as many women I knew when it came to self-care. I thought it was self-indulgent, trivial, and even selfish. As a result, I was always waiting to finish everything on my to-do list before I would give myself permission to do something nice for myself. It took me many more years to realize that self-care is anything but that.
Napping, however, is one of the few self-care practices that I’ve practiced consistently, before I even understood what self-care really was. Overall, we HSPs need more sleep than non-sensitive types since we’re so (over)stimulated all the time.
I started napping out of necessity — I’m someone with pretty low energy levels to start with, but my energy would slump sharply after each meal. It’s manageable after breakfast and dinner, but lunch seems to take the biggest toll on me, leaving me feeling extremely fatigued, lethargic, and yes, comatose.
And if I didn’t listen to my body and just soldiered on in the afternoon, I would end up hitting a wall by 6 p.m. Forget about cooking and eating dinner with my family — I was ready for bed by then!
Thanks to power naps — short naps of 20 to 30 minutes — I feel energized and focused, even after a long day. And more creative and productive, too. As an added bonus, napping challenges the virtue of pure productivity. It’s a daily reminder for me to briefly step out of my own busy mind, and by extension, our culture of busyness.
In addition to napping, I gradually added other self-care practices to my life over time — in particular, yoga, meditation and walks in nature. These practices probably saved me from burnout, despite my tendency to get overwhelmed and anxious on a regular basis.
Overall, I Found Self-Compassion for My Younger — and Current — Self
However, more than any of the numerous coping mechanisms that I’d developed over the years, it was self-compassion that turned out to hold the key to my own healing and growth as an HSP.
Looking back, I have a lot of compassion and tenderness for that girl who was just trying to survive. She learned early on that being highly sensitive wasn’t acceptable. Not at home, not in school, not out in the “real” world. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth; it was just what she thought, not what actually was.
The compassion I feel for myself has allowed me to soften and treat myself with kindness instead of judgment. Rather than beating myself up for my past mistakes and all my imperfections, I know that I’m always doing the best I can with what I know. And when I know better, I do better. Being harsh and critical of myself either stops me from trying in the first place, or causes me to quit when things get tough.
As for other people, well, I’ve learned to accept them, too. Today, my best friend is the most brutally honest person I know. I’m not afraid to hear feedback and even criticism, especially if I trust that the person who’s giving the feedback has good intentions. And I don’t hold grudges against my mom. After all, she was also doing the best she could with what she knew (she just didn’t know she had a highly sensitive child on her hands!).
Nowadays, I’m still easily overwhelmed and prone to anxiety. The difference is, I don’t make my feelings — and myself — wrong anymore. They are what they are. Some people are more calm by nature and aren’t easily rattled by a myriad of things, but that’s not me. And I’m OK with that. Actually, I’m more than OK with that. I wouldn’t change being highly sensitive for anything.
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