As a highly sensitive person, you feel your body deeply. But are you at home in it?
Do you feel at home in your body?
Pause for a moment and really let that question sink in. Do you feel at home in your body?
We live in a world in which we’re encouraged to live outside of our body, whether it’s mindlessly scrolling through social media or being exposed to doctored images with the message that our body doesn’t measure up. However, as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen that when we’re distant from our bodies, this can have devastating effects, especially for those of us who identify as highly sensitive people (HSPs).
What Befriending Our Bodies Means & Why It’s Important
Befriending our bodies consists of multiple elements: the ability to be present in our body, feeling at home in our body, and making peace with (and respecting) our body. Another way to describe this is embodiment, or feeling embodied. This also requires treating our bodies as we would a friend: giving them care, being kind, and foregoing judgment.
Because we live in our bodies, they are our constant home. No matter how much our external environment changes, we remain in the same body. Yes, of course our body is subject to some changes over time: the process of aging, how we dress and adorn it, perhaps medical or surgical interventions, as well. And yet, at its core, it’s still the same body.
For HSPs, the experience of being in our bodies is heightened due to our sensory processing sensitivity. This means we’ll likely experience physical sensations (and the accompanying emotions) greater than what non-HSPs experience. For instance, eating a piece of chocolate cake may taste especially fantastic, resulting in heightened delight, while conversely, we may also feel greater pain when experiencing a headache, and therefore, also feel heightened misery. For better or worse, these physical, mental, and emotional sensations are more difficult to ignore for HSPs.
And yet, so many of us don’t feel at home in our bodies. This may be because we’re running on autopilot, perpetually keeping occupied and distracted without adequate time to breathe. We forget what it feels like to simply be in our bodies. And this also could be due to society’s pervasive messages that if you don’t fit the mold of the ideal type of body, your body is therefore less-than. We forget that all bodies are good bodies.
The Consequences of Not Befriending Our Bodies
Being disconnected from our bodies can have serious consequences. Firstly, when we’re lacking embodiment, we tend to live less mindfully. When this is the case, we are more prone to burnout or injury because we’re not paying attention. We also miss out on the joys that can only happen when we are embodied, such as a cool breeze against our skin, being held by a loved one, or enjoying a delicious meal. Additionally, when we’re not in our bodies, we’re more prone to ignoring our body’s needs because we simply don’t know what it does need. If we aren’t giving our body the proper food, hydration, and rest that it requires, we risk developing mild illnesses in the short-term, and more chronic or life-threatening illnesses in the long run.
Further, when we’re disconnected from our bodies, those moments when we’re forced to be in our bodies, such as when we experience intense emotions, become so uncomfortable that we turn to maladaptive numbing behaviors and emotional buffering, such as substance use, binge eating, or self-harm. Finally, if we don’t feel at home in our bodies, we are more likely to experience body dissatisfaction, which can lead to engaging in disordered eating behaviors or even developing a full-blown eating disorder. The stakes for not befriending our bodies is high. All that said, here are seven ways for highly sensitive people to befriend their bodies.
7 Ways to Befriend Your Body as an HSP
1. Follow the principles of intuitive eating
Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, used their collective knowledge and experience as registered dietician nutritionists to create what they refer to as Intuitive Eating, which is essentially what it sounds like: using our intuition to make informed decisions on how, when, and what to eat. They outline 10 principles: (1) reject the diet mentality; (2) honor your hunger; (3) make peace with food; (4) challenge the food police; (5) discover the satisfaction factor; (6) feel your fullness; (7) cope with your emotions with kindness; (8) respect your body; (9) feel the difference with movement; and (10) honor your health with gentle nutrition. As the principles suggest, intuitive eating isn’t a diet in which we rely on external factors to prescribe a set of rules for us regarding our eating behaviors, often leaving us feeling dissatisfied and further disconnected from our bodies. Rather, intuitive eating puts us back in the driver’s seat with the confidence that we’re able to make wise decisions regarding our eating behaviors. With intuitive eating, embodiment is required.
2. Engage in joyful movement
Too often, our relationship with movement is not a healthy one. We often see exercise as an obligation, perhaps even a punishment. If this sounds familiar to you, then you’re likely engaging in a form of movement that isn’t right for you. How do you know what is right for you? When it becomes something you do because it brings you joy, you have fun, and it makes you feel good.
There’s an episode of Friends in which the character Phoebe runs crazily and without inhibition through Central Park because it brings her joy, reminding her of her childhood. Although she looks strange, she’s having fun, which is what matters. While there are plenty of people out there who genuinely take pleasure in a grueling workout, there are plenty of people who don’t, and that’s okay! You don’t have to embrace the “no pain, no gain” mindset in order for your movement to “count.” Gentler movement, such as walking, yoga, and stretching, has many physical and psychological benefits. If it’s a positive experience for you and you’re taking care of your body, then it counts!
3. Embrace “the health at every size” mindset
In this society that elevates certain body types while demonizing others, it can take more effort to have a positive and nurturing relationship with your body instead of a negative one. The truth is, however, that body size is not a black-and-white issue. Although there’s no denying the correlation that exists between weight and certain health outcomes, correlation doesn’t equal causation.
Indeed, there appears to be many confounding variables that contribute to this correlation, such as weight stigma (i.e., the prejudice one experiences due to being at a higher weight) and weight cycling (i.e., the consistent pattern of weight loss and subsequent weight gain). Dr. Lindo Bacon writes about this in their book Health at Every Size and recognizes that body diversity is a real and beautiful phenomenon! Some bodies are naturally smaller while others are naturally larger, and that’s okay.
What would happen if, instead of fighting against your body’s natural biology, you focused on actionable steps (such as climbing x flights of stairs without getting winded), all while allowing your body to use its innate wisdom to be at its set point? Dr. Bacon encourages individuals to accept their body shape and size, trust themselves (including their body), adopt healthy lifestyle habits, move their body in a pleasurable way, eat according to their body’s internal cues (while also finding pleasure and satisfaction in eating), eat nourishing foods without being regimented or compulsive, and recognize the beauty in size diversity. All bodies are good bodies; all bodies are worthy bodies.
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4. Make time to rest
Between our busy jobs and tackling our lengthy to-do lists, our hectic schedules can make resting an elusive concept. What’s more, folks tend to wear their long work hours, lack of sleep, and overflowing calendars as badges of honor, which can result in shame when we do make time for ourselves. However, this isn’t sustainable for anyone, especially for HSPs.
Due to our tendency to become overstimulated, giving our bodies the rest they need is non-negotiable. For HSPs, getting a good night’s sleep, doing a relaxing activity, or simply doing nothing is a magical remedy for our bodies, minds, and souls. An invaluable part of befriending our bodies is allowing our bodies (and nervous systems) to destimulate and get the rest that is needed.
5. Incorporate mindfulness into your life
Mindfulness, or nonjudgmental present awareness, allows us to be in our body, in the moment, just as we are. In order to befriend our body, we need to first be able to be in our body. When we are aware of what is going on, we can then better know what it is our body needs, and what it is we can do to take care of our body in the best way possible. Some ways to incorporate mindfulness include deep breathing (or focusing on our breath), doing a body scan meditation, and focusing on our five senses, one at a time.
6. Utilize your HSP compassion and empathy
If you’re experiencing difficulty accepting your body, know that you aren’t alone and it isn’t your fault. Rather, this is a natural response to a society that tells us certain bodies are ideal while others aren’t enough. This is where your HSP compassion can be beneficial. Consider how basically all forms of oppression are based on the body. And, as an HSP, your heart likely goes out to those who have unfairly experienced such oppression.
I imagine that, given an HSP’s propensity for empathy, you would say it’s wrong that anyone would have to experience that. I agree, and I want to remind you: You are someone. It’s wrong that you have experienced that, as well. So why not extend that same compassion toward yourself?
Additionally, when you claim your body as your own, you are sending the message that body-based oppression isn’t okay. Others will see this, and perhaps they will be inspired to accept their own bodies more. If this is something you struggle with, I highly recommend seeking out those with marginalized identities that are similar to your own who have befriended their bodies and are now advocates.
7. Tap into your HSP superpowers of intuition
Along with compassion, another HSP superpower that can be of use when befriending our bodies is that of intuition. Our intuition helps us answer basic yet invaluable questions, such as: How am I feeling? What do I need right now? What food will nourish my body and soul? What kind of movement is my body craving? Would it be better to rest now? Am I getting enough sleep? Am I approaching burnout? By tapping into our intuition, we’re then able to have a clearer answer to these important questions. And in order to truly befriend our body, we need to be able to meet our body’s needs.
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