Highly Sensitive Refuge
A sensitive person with a strong, brave look on her face because she has developed her emotional resilience.

How to Build Emotional Resilience as a Highly Sensitive Person

As a highly sensitive person, I’ve found that there are two things we really need to thrive. First, we need our sensitivity validated — which is the opposite of what many of us have been told all our lives. Being highly sensitive simply means that you notice more, process it deeper, and feel a little more strongly than everyone else. We need to understand that that’s OK. That we, as sensitive people, are OK. 

But we also need some way of handling all those extra feelings we feel. We can’t actually turn off the world when it gets overwhelming, so instead, we need a tool to process it all safely. 

We need to build our emotional resilience. 

What Resilience Is — and Is Not 

Emotional resilience is being able to mentally and emotionally cope with a stress or crisis and then be able to adapt and return to that pre-stress state. In our current climate, resiliency might look like being able to adapt to the current “stay at home” orders by putting systems in place that allow life (work, food shopping, etc.) to carry on despite the limitations.

It’s also important to define what resilience is not. It’s not “toughening up” in the sense that we ignore our feelings. Rather, resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness” and is also described as having elasticity, being able to “bounce back” to one’s previous form. 

In other words, we are all expected to go through difficulties (this is life, after all), but being resilient enables you to recover from those difficulties. If you suddenly lose your job, although you may be upset and surprised, once you accept the loss, you’ll likely start sending out resumes again and may find an even better job.

Being resilient also doesn’t mean we have to ignore or forget the tough times. Elastic things usually show the wear and tear of their stretching, like a woman’s belly after giving birth. Resilience implies learning or growing through trials, rather than ignoring the experience. 

For a long time, I thought that sensitivity and resiliency were mutually exclusive — that only one was possible at a time. But resilience and sensitivity can coexist. And as HSPs, we not only need that all-too-precious acceptance of our sensitivity; we also need a little extra resilience.

After all, as HSPs, we’re already deep thinkers, and we tend to easily absorb others’ feelings as though they’re our own. So building emotional strength? It may sound impossible, but I’ve discovered some strategies to make it less so.

5 Ways to Build Emotional Resilience as a Highly Sensitive Person

1. Practice training your resiliency like a muscle.

Just because HSPs are naturally more sensitive people and you may be inclined to have lower emotional resilience, it doesn’t mean we can’t be resilient. Remember that resilience still allows for sensitivity and going through a tough time — like bouncing back after a job loss

However, if you aren’t comfortable with your own sensitivity, or have been belittled for it in the past, you may not be able to bounce back as quickly from difficult things. But with practice, you can.

The important thing to remember is that emotional resilience is like a muscle: you can exercise, build, and grow your resiliency.

2. Accept, then embrace, your sensitivity.

Loving yourself as an HSP is important, and acceptance is the first step. The more aware and accepting of your sensitivity that you are, the more likely you’ll handle challenges that come your way.

For example, over the years, I’ve wanted to cultivate a healthier relationship with alcohol. The journey needed to begin with an acceptance of my susceptibility to unhealthy drinking habits. I had to look within and try to figure out what would lead me to drink.

I figured out that this predisposition to drinking was partly due to a familial history of alcohol dependence, and partly due to my high sensitivity — alcohol is great at numbing all the feelings! 

But this didn’t mean that I had to accept this would be my own fate. Instead, this knowledge allowed me to honor the impact my genes, and being an HSP, may play regarding my drinking habits, and then set realistic goals based on this information.

This enabled me to go from binge drinking regularly to being able to have one or two drinks and stop. I have also spent long periods completely dry and void of alcohol. 

By accepting and embracing my sensitivity — instead of running from it or trying to hide it — I was able to become more resilient when it came to alcohol.

3. Create a self-care routine.

Having a self-care routine is really important as a HSP. Learning to take care of yourself well enables you to enter the world with more resilience.

My morning routine, for example, sets me up to get through the day well with two young children. I feel more resilient and capable of what might come up during the day if I’ve spent a portion of my morning doing things that “fill my cup,” so to speak. 

Everyone’s self-care routine or ritual looks different. Figure out what you need to feel calm, grounded, and taken care of. It might just be as simple as spending the first 20 minutes of your day reading a book over a cup of tea. The key in building resilience is making this a habit. 

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4. Practice becoming more flexible.

While many HSPs, myself included, love their routines and struggle with uncertainty or a sudden change of plans, flexibility is a key tool when building resilience: The phrase “play it by ear” makes our skin crawl! But learning to bend and flex with the circumstances is, by definition, resilience. 

In fact, research has found that resilience is more about being flexible versus staying positive. So, even if it’s challenging as an HSP, practice being more flexible, such as keeping an open mind when it comes to new ideas or new perspectives. 

Personally, I’m a stickler for the tried and true. But over the years, I’ve mindfully used phrases like “Maybe I can try it a different way this time” (like a recipe) or “Some things change that I can’t control and that’s OK” (like a delivery arriving late).

The more I practice being flexible and accepting of these changes, the more I go from being reactive to being resilient — and it can work for you, too.

5. Try to become a ‘realistic optimist.’

People sometimes think HSPs tend to be pessimistic or view the world through a “glass half empty” lens. Even research has found pessimism and high sensitivity may be related.

But if you want to build more resilience, try embracing “realistic” optimism instead. The distinction is being able to see your own ability, despite your circumstances. 

In Laurence Gonzales’ research on traumatic events (like plane crashes), those who survived, or were resilient, were able to assess their situation and then take autonomy over it. 

For an HSP, retraining yourself to think even 10 percent more positively could make a huge difference when it comes to your resiliency and reactions to situations.

For instance, when you’re faced with bad experiences, there are two questions that can help you view things in a more positive light:

  • “Is this situation permanent, or temporary?” And…
  • “Is it my fault?”

I have used both of these questions many times during the last few months as my family and I have navigated different levels of quarantine. 

It helps immensely when I feel stressed and overwhelmed to remind myself that this situation is temporary and it is not my fault

Although there is not much I can do to control the overall outcome, I can practice good hygiene habits and build up my mental resilience by remembering my answers to my questions: This situation is temporary and it is not my fault

Learning about and understanding how I can build my resilience as an HSP has made a big difference in how I navigate the world and has also been a valuable lesson when it comes to raising my highly sensitive children.

Remember, as HSPs, we can have both resiliency and the beauty of high sensitivity. When you think about it, it’s a wonderful combination.

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