7 ‘Rules’ for Highly Sensitive People to Protect Their Energy

a highly sensitive person firmly waving her finger to say "no"

Anyone is welcome in my world, but there are a few rules, because I’m choosing to no longer be manipulated or shamed for being sensitive.

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, hate, or purposeful unkindness. I can “feel” it when we connect, and I am very aware when we don’t. 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 ones. At that point in my life, I was not a happy person. Trying to fit in and make people like me was 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.

A Life-Changing Realization

Later in life, I learned that I’m a highly sensitive person — and this changed everything for me. To put it simply, everyone has a sensitive side, but roughly 1 in 5 people are more sensitive than others, or what researchers call highly sensitive people (HSPs). HSPs tend to process information very deeply, which can make them quite gifted — but it also means they “burn through” a lot of mental energy. Too much stimulation completely drains them.

(Wondering if that might be you? Here are the signs you are a highly sensitive person.)

Today, I’m working toward living a more authentic life, and that starts with self-care. Despite all the photos brightly splashed around Instagram, “self-care” was a new term for me. I’ve since learned that good self-care isn’t just a bubble bath — it’s also about setting the right 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 craziest part? I have way better relationships and a stronger sense of belonging now. So here are seven “rules” I follow that I hope will help you, too.

7 ‘Rules’ for Sensitive People

1. If you’re not nice, you cannot come here.

For HSPs, other human beings are the brightest thing on their mental radar, all on account of their brain wiring. So when someone makes passive-aggressive comments, I notice. I usually don’t acknowledge it, 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, nor will I attend one of your functions. The energy that emanates from negativity is like poison to HSPs, and it’s dangerous for our mood and outlook to absorb. So I avoid these people at all costs.

2. No takers.

Highly sensitive people are givers by nature. Empathetic and caring, we want to help whenever possible. But there will always be some people who abuse our generosity. These people are called takers, according to psychologist Adam Grant, and they focus only on getting as much as they can from others. Spending too much time with them actually makes me feel physically sick from the exhaustion.

You know the type. These are the ones who always want something, are always complaining, or are always playing the victim. Or the one who always 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 of your mental and physical energy 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 being busy. If you’re not constantly running around, getting things done, then you’re not productive, maybe even lazy. However, this is not the case, especially for highly sensitive people, who need more downtime than others to recharge. 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’s time to reevaluate. Ask yourself: 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 my 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 fit with my vision for my life — or at least my 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, so don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

4. ‘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, buy yourself some time to answer. For example:

Pushy PTA lady: “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 since conflict can be overstimulating for us. But, in the long run, resentment can be much harder on a relationship than an honest conversation.

(If you have trouble saying no, here are some tips.)

5. It’s okay to feel “too much.”

Especially right now, this world can feel so sad, broken, and lonely, and nobody feels that deeper than a highly sensitive person. But as sensitive people, we may bottle up our true feelings because we don’t want others to think we’re “too much” — and this is dangerous. 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, start with journaling, which can be especially helpful for HSPs during troubled times. Trust me, feelings that go unacknowledged don’t just disappear. 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? Maybe it was because he forgot to bring home that loaf of bread — last week — and you were still holding onto anger. Journaling will help you process your emotions, everything from frustration with your spouse to anxiety about the world at large.

6. Read a little every day.

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.

Like what you’re reading? Get our newsletter just for HSPs. One email, every Friday. Click here to subscribe!

7. Not everything is about you.

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 these words 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 for me because I didn’t realize that most people don’t notice as much as I do. Now that I know, I can put things in perspective and let them go. She may not have answered my text because she’s busy, not because she’s angry at me, I tell myself.

Alternatively, others won’t always pick up on the signals that I 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 — in a way that only a highly sensitive person can — 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 of the life you want. 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.

You might like: