It was a cold winter day. There was snow coming down — a lot of snow — for the third time that week. All I had to do was work at my little desk tucked up against the living room window, something I do every day, no problem. But that day, both of my roommates were home with me, both had no plans to leave the house, and both were being “quiet” (one reading, one surfing her phone). But, to me, they may as well have been standing on either side of me holding a dance-off.
I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), and to be completely honest, I have a hard time living with other people.
It wasn’t just them, and it wasn’t just because we were cooped up on a snow day. I’ve had lots of roommates over the years, most of them great, and lived with partners and even family. And I’ve realized that, because I’m highly sensitive, sharing that space is really hard on me.
I don’t think I’m the only HSP who feels this way. Let’s take a look at why living with other people can be hard for HSPs, and four ways you can make it easier.
Why Sharing a Home Can Be Hard for HSPs
Let me get this out of the way: sharing a home can be tough for anyone. If it’s a roommate, you have to work out who does which chores, how clean is “clean,” how much noise is okay, and a million other negotiations. And if it’s a romantic partner, well, let’s just say there’s a reason that moving in together is a big milestone in a relationship.
But those are the problems everyone faces. For highly sensitive people, who are far more influenced by their environment, there’s a whole set of extra issues. Here’s why.
HSPs are born with a nervous system that processes sensory input — and all other kinds of information — very deeply. Even just on a physical level, that means we experience the world as “louder” than everybody else does. Yes, when you walk down the hall, we notice the floorboards shifting. Yes, when you clear your throat, it disrupts our attention. And yes, even tiny things like textures, smells, or the amount of clutter around us can really jangle our nerves.
But, more than that, we’re also fine-tuned to pick up on emotional signals. Most people think they hide their emotions well, but to us, you may as well be screaming them. If that sounds like it could really escalate minor annoyances between housemates, why yes, yes it can.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all that overstimulation means that HSPs need a place to go where they can be alone — somewhere where absolutely no one else is on their radar. This is true for both extroverted HSPs and introverted HSPs.
If we don’t get that alone time, the overstimulation can overwhelm us, which makes us brain-tired, exhausted and, in my case, cranky. For many HSPs, we even get anxiety.
And eventually we completely crash.
4 Ways to Make It Easier to Share a Home
Of course, most of us will end up sharing our home many times throughout life, either to split the cost of an apartment or because we fall in love. Here are four things I’ve learned about how to make sure it doesn’t overwhelm me.
1. Create a sanctuary.
For HSPs, there really is no substitute for having a place that’s truly “just yours” to retreat to. This is an area or room where everything is always the way you left it, where you can slip into the comfort of familiar surroundings with no surprises to take over your attention. Often, we make them into places of beauty and peace, and they double as a space to do creative work.
But not all living situations make this easy. If you’re living with a partner, for example, even your bedroom might be a shared space. And many apartments have thin walls so that even a room of one’s own offers little true refuge.
That’s why, in the past, I’ve had a corner of a shared room be “my” space, often where I put my desk, and that little corner won’t be touched by anyone else. For someone else it may be a craft corner, a worktable, or simply a favorite chair where you do your reading. This works fine if there are times of the day, or days of the week, when no one else will be home. The key is that you have control over how this one little corner looks and feels.
Another option is to use bathtime as “sanctuary” time. Just let others know first that you plan to take a long soak so they can do their “business” before you occupy the bathroom. One you’re in there, the bathroom fan or some favorite music can help block out any sounds from the rest of the home, and you can easily take a half hour just on your own.
2. Mentally separate what is “your problem” and “not your problem.”
Being highly sensitive is normal and healthy. Being a doormat, however, is not — and neither is being a control freak. Unfortunately, these are both extremes that HSPs can fall into if we feel like others aren’t respecting our space.
On the one extreme, HSPs really hate to disappoint or inconvenience others. We are wired at the neural level with high levels of empathy, so the idea of upsetting someone else is actually painful to us. That means it’s easy for HSPs to take over housekeeping duties, pick up after others, or suffer through obnoxiously loud roommates late at night rather than speaking up.
My own experience has been at the other end: When lots of little things are overstimulating me, I slip into the bad habit of nitpicking (“you didn’t hang up the dish towel!”).
Both of these reactions come from not setting some mental boundaries between what’s your problem and what isn’t. If someone is playing music at 1 a.m., that is your problem, and you have every right to go tell them to turn it off — they’re the rude one, not you.
On the other hand, if they leave a mess on their own desk, that’s not your problem. Sure, it’d be nice if the view was better, but at the end of the day, it’s not a public health crisis — and they’re the one who can’t find their stapler. Resist the urge to do their cleaning-up for them (or, if you’re me, to harangue them).
Of course, if their mess is making it impossible for you to use a common area, like the bathroom or the kitchen, it’s time to have that conversation.
3. Communicate your needs.
Every HSP who shares a home is going to have to communicate their needs — period. There’s simply no way for people to guess at your need for alone time, privacy, or occasional quiet. And, if you’re not open about it, they can easily mistake your actions for being rude or antisocial. They might even think you don’t like them!
The way around that is to just be open, friendly, and direct from the start. It’s as simple as, “I get overstimulated easily. Sometimes I’ll need to have quiet time with no interruptions, or I’m not able to function well. What’s the best way to make that work?”
Notice that you’re not asking if you can have quiet alone time. You’re just stating it as a fact. At the same time, you’re not being demanding; you’re letting them give input on how to make it work. Maybe your roommate will suggest hanging something on your door when you don’t want to be disturbed, or maybe they’ll have a different idea.
Corollary: You might have to have this conversation a couple times, and that’s normal. Gentle reminders help, and so can offering to share a book or article about HSPs.
4. Be flexible.
HSPs deserve a home where they can feel peace and safety and recharge from a too-loud world. But, non-HSPs deserve to enjoy their homes too. And the best living arrangements are ones where housemates not only respect each other’s needs, but enjoy spending time together, too.
So value your housemates’ needs just as much as you want to be valued. If needed, work out whether there are certain “quiet times” versus times when loud TV or music are fine. If they have company over, take a little time to stop and say hi and be social, even if you also need to retreat to your space after a bit. And keep the open communication going, as a two-way habit, so that you’re aware when they need something changed, too.
As long as both sides are making compromises to accommodate the other, it’s a good and healthy thing to do.
As an HSP, you are built for for this — no one is better at compassion and empathy. Especially on a snow day.