Highly sensitive people are actually wired to rocket beyond others and thrive — if we learn how to create the environment we need. Here’s how to do it.
Modern-day society isn’t exactly built for those of us who are sensitive. We live in a fast-paced, consumer ridden culture where we’re connected to technology almost 24/7. We’re bombarded with an overwhelming amount of information — this can be too much for most people, let alone those of us who are highly sensitive people! We process the world on a much deeper level and are more attuned to subtleties in our internal and external environments.
This can lead to unique struggles if, like me, you are a highly sensitive person (HSP). These challenges range from feeling exhausted, stressed, overwhelmed and, in extreme cases, burnout. It’s a mismatch between our fast-paced, often overwhelming society and the deep-diving brains we sensitive people are born with.
Research suggests, however, that it doesn’t have to be that way.
How Environment ‘Boosts’ HSPs
Highly sensitive people are actually capable of thriving — in some ways, more so than the average “less sensitive” person. An emerging body of research led by Michael Pluess, a behavioral scientist at Queen Mary University of London, shows that HSPs are more likely to thrive in nourishing environments or with the right resources in place. In fact, Pluess has found, sensitive people who have such an environment actually have better outcomes than less-sensitive people given the same nurture and support. This is called “vantage sensitivity,” and it means that we HSPs are not destined for anxiety, depression, or overwhelm (as many people think we are).
Instead, while we may at times struggle more with these challenges, we also have the potential to be profoundly successful and become some of the best leaders and visionaries in the world today. (Or to just enjoy life and feel happy and at peace.) We have many more secret powers than not.
But we do need to create that positive environment for ourselves. And that means learning to maintain it even when the world at large isn’t helping.
Thriving as an HSP means we need to cultivate specific skills that will ensure our success and ability to navigate the difficulties that come our way. Here are eight skills to develop so you can thrive as a highly sensitive person. Each of these is something you can do in “secret,” without anyone knowing you’ve changed anything — except how much more confident and capable you seem.
8 Skills That Will Help You Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person
A consistent mindfulness practice is crucial to our well-being as HSPs — it gives us the ability to manage emotions, like worry, fear, or irritation. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a renowned mindfulness teacher who has secularized mindfulness, says it is “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
For HSPs, mindfulness may be the single best tool for handling (and preventing) emotional overload.
Mindfulness can be as simple as noticing the quality of your thoughts, the sensations in your body, and bringing awareness to the in breath, as well as the out breath. Even if you do this for as little as five minutes a day, you’ll notice a difference in your ability to regulate your emotions. (Here are our tips on how to do mindfulness for HSPs.)
2. Rewrite those limiting beliefs and recognize all your HSP strengths.
There are a surprising number of misconceptions surrounding sensitivity. We are programmed from a young age to believe that sensitivity is a weakness, some kind of disorder, or it means we’re flawed or broken somehow.
The first step to thriving is recognizing the gifts that come with our sensitivity and rewriting any limiting beliefs. Sensitivity means we are incredibly intuitive, empathetic, and compassionate — we develop great connections with others, and are incredibly creative and innovative.
You will notice that some of the most successful people of our time embody the traits of sensitivity. People such as Brené Brown, Albert Einstein, and Alanis Morisette are thought to be highly sensitive. Take time to acknowledge these HSP role models and recognize how these qualities exist within yourself. When we embrace our authenticity in this way, we are also more likely to express our innate traits as highly sensitive souls.
3. Set healthy boundaries — recognize when you are saying “yes” to too many things.
One of the biggest struggles for sensitive people is maintaining their energy levels. We get quickly drained and overwhelmed by other people’s energies because we process information and feel emotions so deeply. We are also highly empathetic and absorb the energies or feelings of others (like it or not). In fact, this is partially why we need to spend a lot of time on our own to regroup and recharge.
Setting healthy boundaries is learning to discern when we’re saying yes to too many things, and feeling overwhelmed or pushing people away to try and protect ourselves. It can go in either direction! Trusting our intuition and the messages our bodies give us can help maintain healthy boundaries.
4. The art of self-compassion.
As highly sensitive people, we tend to be very compassionate and caring towards others, but we can sometimes neglect or forget about our own self-care. We can also be quite critical or judgmental toward our sensitive traits; you probably have a strong inner critic and may thrive toward perfectionism.
The best thing we can do is take time to be gentle and compassionate, letting ourselves know it’s okay to make mistakes or take breaks. Research carried out by Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Paul Gilbert on self-compassion has shown the incredible benefits of self-compassion practices for reducing anxiety and stress levels, as well as improving well-being and even the functioning of our immune system. So when you’re feeling overwhelmed, step back and engage in self-care, whether that means taking a walk (nature soothes the highly sensitive soul), putting your phone in Airplane Mode, or simply holing up in your HSP sanctuary.
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5. Communicate your needs to others — the caring but direct way.
We all have unique needs, and if you’re highly sensitive, you might need more time alone or feel more sensitive to the emotions of others — there is nothing wrong with this. While it’s important to recognize your needs, it’s just as important to communicate your feelings and needs to others. I know, this may be difficult at first — we don’t like disappointing others — but it gets easier with practice.
One of the most valuable tools for expressing feelings and needs is Non-Violent Communication (NVC) developed by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD. The four-step process helps you notice: what’s going on in a situation, what you feel, what your needs are, and make a request about those needs. For example, your partner wants you to make dinner again because they’re running late getting home; you are frustrated — you have cooked the last several nights; your needs are to have more balance in the relationship; you express this to your partner (and decide to order takeout tonight).
6. Build awareness of what’s important to you.
When you ask yourself what’s important to you, you build awareness of your values. In turn, you can make decisions that move you closer to your values, which will lead to you reaching (and exceeding) your potential. This will then lead to a more fulfilled and healthy life.
If connection, intimacy, and quality time are important to you, you must create time in your life to generate those connections and intimacy with others. You will feel frustrated when you’re living a life that is removed from your core values. This is why one of the most important things we can do is build awareness around our values and make decisions that bring us closer to them daily. So take time to think about them now — start writing them down. Then assess what gets most of your time now and what you’ve been prioritizing vs. what you’d like to prioritize more so.
7. Go beyond the ego and engage in grounding rituals.
Much of our anxiety and stress arises because we’re operating in a state of narrow awareness and functioning in high-alert mode — fight, flight, or freeze response. We’re wired to feel stressed and can even become addicted to the hormones of stress, stuck in racing thoughts about what’s going to happen in the future or ruminating on past events.
When we can move beyond the limitations of our mind by connecting with what is beyond our individual and separate sense of self, we are more likely to feel relaxed, connected, and at ease. We can understand this as a connection to something greater than ourselves, such as a collective intelligence or consciousness. We might experience this through meditation, yoga, spiritual practices, or even by spending time in nature. And, as HSPs, these grounding rituals can naturally calm us down.
8. Authenticity and Integration
Authenticity means honoring who you are in your words and actions. Integration means extending that to all parts of yourself.
This crucial process is known to psychologists as “shadow integration” — making the hidden parts of ourselves known — and is considered essential for our healing. Since we were small children, each of us learned to sometimes hide certain parts of ourselves because it wasn’t safe to express our authenticity, or we believed our sensitive traits meant we were flawed. We might have pushed certain aspects of our character into the “shadow.”
According to Carl Jung, the “shadow” is the part of ourselves that we want to hide, deny, or repress. Part of our healing and thriving as sensitive people is to embrace, accept, and love all aspects of ourselves, and bring to light the parts we have pushed into the shadows.
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