I am a highly sensitive person, and if I’m being honest, it’s not easy being me. I am not like other people, and sometimes I don’t fit in. I have little patience for shallow conversation, arbitrary rules, loud disorganized environments, hatred, or purposeful unkindness. I can “feel” it when we connect, and I am very aware when we don’t. And I am interested in conversations that get to the root of things; I am not interested in listening to what you think I want to hear.
However, I haven’t always been able to express these preferences. I grew up believing I was too sensitive. I formed thick barriers around myself to guard against emotion. Emotion, in my world, could and would be used against me.
Unfortunately, blocking out mad or sad feelings also blocks out happy feelings. I was not a happy person. As a result, trying to fit in and make people like me became exhausting. I was not able to say no, simply because I wanted approval — and I ended up resenting the demands that I allowed others to make on me.
Today, I’m working towards living a more authentic life. Self-care is a new term for me, and I’m realizing more and more the importance of setting boundaries. Anyone is welcome in my world, but there are a few rules. I’m choosing not to be manipulated, guilted, or shamed into doing things that don’t align with my vision for a healthy life.
You know the crazy part of all of this? I have way better relationships and a stronger sense of belonging now. Here are seven “rules” I follow that protect my energy as a highly sensitive person (HSP) — and may help protect your energy, too.
‘Rules’ for Sensitive People to Protect Their Energy
1. If you’re not nice, you cannot come here.
Being a highly sensitive person means that people are the brightest thing on my radar, due to the way my brain is wired. So when someone makes passive-aggressive comments, I notice. I don’t acknowledge it generally, but you better believe I caught it. Likewise, when the conversation veers toward gossip, it can be so easy to get sucked into the negativity, and it always makes me feel awful just for having participated in any way. And, if you talk down to me or make me feel judged for not liking what you like, that’s not okay either.
Sure, I will be gracious to you if we come in contact, but you are not welcome in my home, neither will I attend one of your functions. The energy that emanates from negativity is like a poison to me, and it’s not what I wish to absorb. So I avoid these people at all costs.
2. Limit contact with people who take advantage of your generosity.
Highly sensitive people are givers by nature. Empathetic and caring, we want to help whenever possible. But there are some people who will take advantage of our generous nature. Spending too much time with them can sometimes actually make me feel physically sick from exhaustion.
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You know the type. These are the ones who always want something, are always complaining, or are always playing the victim. You know, the one who has to one-up you: “Well, if you think that’s bad, you should hear about what happened to me.” These people will suck you dry if you allow them to. If they could, they would have you taking their children to soccer practice and making them dinner while they’re at the spa!
3. Stop the glorification of busy.
We live in a culture that glorifies “busy-ness.” If you’re not busy, then you’re not productive, maybe even lazy. I would like to suggest that this is not the case. If you’re constantly run down, can’t commit to anything, don’t have time to help out a friend once in a while, or are continuously stressed and frazzled, it might be time to re-evaluate. Are you living life the way you want to, or do you feel as if you’re spinning like a top and barely hanging on for dear life? Do you do things you enjoy, even just occasionally?
I used to think I had to prove my worthiness with a rundown of all the appointments, soccer games, clubs, Society of Martyrs meetings, etc. Now, I am delightfully, unapologetically un-busy. I take time to drink a cup of tea and play with my kids. You want to meet for coffee? Sure, I got time. As a highly sensitive person, I love meaningful conversations over a hot beverage.
And yes, of course, I have a million things to do, but I have prioritized and eliminated the things from my to-do list that don’t jive with my vision for my life — or at least the vision for today. Some days are busy and it can’t be helped. I acknowledge that. I’m not saying you should quit your job and stop feeding your kids! Obviously some things are mandatory.
But seriously, prioritize. Your worthiness is not attached to your productivity — don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
4. Read more.
I know I’m not the only highly sensitive person who drinks in books. I need words like I need food. There were many years when I did not make the time to read. I thought it was selfish.
But reading is the kind of downtime that soothes and informs. It’s a win-win. There’s nothing better than the connectedness that happens when words written decades or even centuries ago speak to one’s heart and remind us that we are not alone.
5. No is a complete answer.
You don’t need a reason to say no. People almost never ask why. If saying no right away feels too uncomfortable, try buying yourself some time to answer. For example, “Can you make three dozen cupcakes for the bake sale?” You: “Wow, I’d love to help with the bake sale, but I should check my schedule first. I’ll get back to you.” This gives you time to give it some thought. Maybe you do want to do it. But if you don’t, it gives you time to come up with an alternative solution like purchasing cupcakes rather than baking them.
If someone will not take no for an answer, it might be time to sit down and discuss boundaries. I find this happens most often within families. If you fail to lay out boundaries, trust me, you will live in resentment. I know, because I’ve been there. Having an honest conversation can be hard, especially for us highly sensitive people, because conflict can be overstimulating for us. But resentment can be much harder on a relationship than an honest conversation in the long run.
(If you have trouble saying no, see tips here to say no effectively and guilt-free.)
6. It’s okay to feel “too much.”
It’s tricky living in this world that can feel so sad, broken, and lonely. From a woman’s perspective, sometimes we hide our true feelings because we don’t want to perpetuate the idea that women are irrationally emotional, or worse, emotionally unstable. It’s not any easier for a highly sensitive man to show his feelings, either. But it can become dangerous when we bottle up our emotions. Obviously, there is a time and a place for everything. The important thing is to make space to process your feelings.
If you’re not sure how to do that, maybe start with journaling. Feelings that go unacknowledged don’t go away. They lay dormant and come out in ways that are almost always negative and destructive. Have you ever snapped at your spouse and thought, where in the world did that come from? I know I have. Maybe it was because he forgot to bring home that loaf of bread — last week — and you were still holding on to feelings of anger.
7. Take things with a sense of humor and a grain of salt.
Dear sensitive soul, you are different. You process things differently and more fully than others do. You are going to pick up on things that are not meant for you. I wish someone had told me this years ago. I used to take things very personally until I realized that the moods and attitudes of others rarely have anything to do with me. This was a lightbulb moment because I never realized it was “weird” to notice things like that. Now that I know, I can let things go. I don’t take “little” things as personally as I used to.
Alternatively, others won’t always pick up the signals that you put out. I used to think I was being obvious about my needs, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t stating them clearly. Learning how to speak up for my needs was a real turning point for me. And with that came the realization that people are not going to love me in the same way that I love them, but that doesn’t mean their love is less.
HSP, it’s not selfish to care for yourself. It’s not selfish to schedule downtime. When you have rules that protect your energy, you are at your best for the people who need you. You will find yourself more willing and able to be generous without feeling resentful. Find ways that work for you that get you closer to your vision for your life that you have. If people and situations make you uncomfortable, there is a reason for that. Trust those instincts, because they will help you create the life you want.