As a highly sensitive person — someone who feels deeply — I often make a high priority out of arranging my life to avoid potentially distressing or overwhelming situations, and that goes double for conflict. HSPs are peace-loving individuals who do their best to avoid upsetting those around them, because it typically takes us longer to recover emotionally from disagreements.
When an HSP senses tension or disagreement, we feel it deeply — even if it’s not personal. For HSPs, criticism and negativity can feel like toxins, easily throwing our butterfly-like nervous system into a tailspin.
An ongoing disagreement bubbles in words and body language, and we have a knack for noticing those subtle cues and for reacting more acutely to tones and words. It’s no wonder HSPs tend to feel extra anxious when conflict arises. And it is not uncommon for HSPs to experience physical symptoms of anxiety, like tense muscles and stomach aches, around conflict.
But instead of becoming conflict-avoidant (which is impossible), I’ve learned over the years how a handful of unique strategies can lessen the chance of encountering conflict or reduce the emotional impact of conflict. Without utilizing these strategies, conflict would hurt too much for HSPs, who are already more prone to becoming more overwhelmed than others by intense situations.
Here are six ways to handle conflict as an HSP. They’ll help you mitigate tense situations not by running from them, but by embracing the opportunity to learn more about your HSP superpowers and grow in turn.
6 Ways to Manage Conflict as an HSP
1. Major in ‘learning from mistakes.’
At school, work, and even when interacting with friends, HSPs try extra hard not to make mistakes that will lead to conflict. If you know your sister gets upset when you leave your straightener on their side of the sink, you make sure it’s always put away — even when you are running late.
So that conflict does not become a mood, we take the time to remember a person’s hot buttons just like we are studying for a test. This is where our deep-processing minds come in handy — you remember which table is wobbly or which shelf is loose, and you don’t put delicate objects on them. The same goes for people’s peeves.
2. Anticipate objections.
HSPs also anticipate people’s objections to avoid conflict, like a chess player two moves ahead. If you know your mom might object to — or even start an argument about — buying you a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, you’ll come prepared to explain the benefits of fueling your caffeine addiction.
That coffee isn’t just a coffee! It’s going to help keep your eyes open as you write thought-provoking articles, which in turn will help you pay the rent. That way, if you’re well-prepared with a reasonable rebuttal, the chances for conflict are far lower.
2. Do not twist yourself into a pretzel.
HSPs tend to be people pleasers because we never want to upset or hurt anyone — not even a spider. (But that may just be me.) However, for our well-being, we must sometimes abandon our Yoda peacekeeping nature. We cannot twist ourselves into pretzels to make everybody happy all of the time. If we do, we’ll only sacrifice our happiness.
HSPs can express their needs and desires while still being attentive and respectful. Those things are not mutually exclusive. In order to successfully establish boundaries, we must remain calm and fearless, prioritizing our needs in a way that asserts our importance. Although HSPs can react to negative energy, we will gain the most respect for boundaries if we remain steadfast about the importance of our non-negotiable needs and desires.
4. Flip conflict on its head with humor.
As Sarah Blakely (the inspiring founder of Spanx) says, when someone hits a negative energy ball, you do not own it. Hit the ball back.
A lot of highly sensitive friends I know will hit the ball back in the best possible ways. They respond with a playful joke their audience can relate to. Think of a time where your roommate had the audacity to make a leaning Tower of Pisa’s worth of dishes. How do you think the conflict would go if you made a big stink about it? Or what if you laughed, pointed at the dishes, and said, “Since when have you wanted to create the next Tower of Pisa?” The latter will be more fulfilling, even if responding with humor is almost scarier for you.
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5. Ask questions and get curious.
Another tactic, similar to humor, involves getting curious, as Jonathan Van Ness does during each of his podcast episodes. Jia Jiang also encouraged it in his TED Talk, “What I learned from 100 days of failure.” He created a list of tasks to test his gnawing fear of rejection, and the internal conflict that created. One day, he asked a stranger if he could plant a flower in his backyard. The stranger initially said no, but instead of freezing with fear, Jiang asked, “Why not?” He found out the stranger was afraid animals would eat his plant, like always. Then the stranger encouraged him to ring his next door neighbor’s bell to plant the flower there.
HSPs are more likely to avoid or lessen conflict by leveraging creative jokes and demonstrating curiosity rather than simply reacting.
6. “Let it go, let it go” like Elsa.
When people say, “Let it go,” I want to screech. It’s like someone saying, “Just get over it,” or the dreaded “Are you okay?” when your lips are frowning and you’re clearly not. Nothing in extremes is a good thing, said some philosopher — Oprah or Plato or whoever. You will receive negative and positive feedback on just about everything you do.
Don’t put too much emphasis on either. When conflict and the resulting negative emotions feel as powerful as your dog’s nose for peanut butter, let them flow through and out of your body. Let your negative emotions pass instead of ignoring them. If you ignore them, they will become a boulder over time. And do not over-glorify your positive emotions either, because your negative emotions will hit like a thousand blazing suns in comparison. But do soak up all the joy and positive emotions when you have them — yesssss to feeling like Lizzo is your #1 fan.
If you approach conflict with as much neutrality as you can, there is a greater likelihood the conflict won’t turn into a roaring fire because you’re not helping feed it — you’re helping manage it. Conflict is only as big of a deal as you make it.
Like Brené Brown exclaimed in her famous TED talk, “Listening to Shame,” “Get in the arena, show up and do your thing and don’t be afraid of getting your ass kicked a little bit.” As HSPs, the idea of getting hurt is scary. But your critics and conflict itself do not define you, and learning to brace yourself to weather the storm instead of hiding every time you see a cloud will make all the difference.