Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person's minimalistic bedroom

How Minimalism Changed My Life as a Highly Sensitive Person

Put me away! Clean me! Tidy me up! I don’t go here! I’m broken! Fix me! I don’t fit! Wash me! Throw me out! Remember me!

Repeat.

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), the things in my home aren’t inanimate objects that simply sit there for decoration or use. They speak to me — not literally of course — but they each have emotional stories to tell. Walking through my living room, my eyes catch the vase on the shelf, which brings up a memory of my mum who made it, and the time we sat in the pottery studio while I painted it. It’s a happy memory, but as an HSP, I experience it intensely for a few seconds, and it uses up valuable energy.

More often than not, my eyes catch the unfinished things: the dishes calling out to be done, the plants demanding to be watered, the clothes screaming to be put away or washed, or the cat that needs feeding. (Okay, the cat does literally meow at me, but I swear sometimes the dishes speak, too!) Other times, my eyes are drawn to the brightly colored decorations: the paintings on the wall, the cushions, or the knick-knacks on the shelf. Every object is “on my radar,” and it can be exhausting.

For highly sensitive people, who process every detail in our environment deeply, a house loaded with stuff can easily become a source not just of fatigue, but also of anxiety, even if many of the memories are happy. It took me a long time to realize I needed to make a change — and a philosophy known as minimalism made a crucial difference.

“I kept adding and adding to my home and my life: not the things I truly needed but the things our consumer culture told me I needed.”

How My ‘Lovely’ Home Became a Nest of Anxiety

When I first left my marriage in 2015 and moved into a new rental, I was desperate to create a home that felt cozy for my two young children and myself. It needed to feel like me, like them, and be a place they wanted to come home to when they weren’t with their dad. I dove into gardening and creating an outdoor haven. I brought plants inside and taught myself macramé so I could hang them on the walls. I took in any and all free toys and children’s clothes that were offered by friends.

I was also growing on the inside. I was working out who I was now as a single mother and single woman again, in my late thirties, so I added clothes to my wardrobe in new styles that I thought I “should” be wearing, or that “women my age” look best in. I had previously spent a few years paring down my wardrobe, but that went out the window and the shelves began to bulge again. I had a few (disastrous) attempts at dating, which of course required “date clothes.” Or so I believed.

I kept adding and adding to my home and my life: not the things I truly wanted and needed, but the things our society and consumer culture told me I needed.

It all hit the proverbial fan this spring: my youngest started school, I picked up extra work, I began a part-time Masters in Therapeutic Arts, my eldest was having difficulties at school, and one morning, my brain exploded in an anxiety attack.

I couldn’t stop crying. I got home, and every single thought that entered my brain caused a fresh wave of hyperventilation and tears. None of my usual strategies were working to calm myself down, and I knew I had to get help. Luckily a girlfriend was free and came to help me talk and think through my anxiety. But in the days that followed, one main thing stood out to me: my home, which had always been a refuge for me, was now so full of “stuff” loaded with hopes and worries that it only served to increase my anxiety. It had ceased to feel like me.

“Suddenly, I understood that as an HSP, every time I added things to my home, I was adding to my sensory load.”

Sensitive Souls Need Less, Not More

What slowly emerged from that awful morning was the deep desire to only have things in my home and my life that brought peace, love, and joy. I realized how many times each day I had to press my OVERRIDE button: the big red button that allowed me to ignore the quiet whispers of my sensitive body and soul that needed less.

Suddenly, I understood that as an HSP, every time I added things to my home or activities to my schedule, I was adding to my sensory load. Physically, there were more things to take care of, more things to put away, more things to clean. Mentally, there were more things to remember, keep track of, care about, process… ARGH!

That was when I started reading about a life philosophy known as minimalism. I devoured Fumio Sasake’s book Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism, and also a brilliant post by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, Focus as an Antidote for Wanting to Do Everything, in which he questioned our incessant desire to do, have, be, and know every little thing that happens to interest us. The message of both was simple: peace comes from culling down the “things” (both physical and otherwise) in your life to just the ones that bring you happiness.

While I hugely admire and enjoy reading about extreme minimalists like Sasake who only have enough possessions to fill a small suitcase, that doesn’t work for our family of three. We enjoy having furniture, clothes, personal belongings, toys, and I intended to keep those things — just less than many other people. And certainly less than we once did! It was time to get rid of the extra weight that demanded my mental, emotional, and physical energy (hello laundry) all day long.

Minimalism Changes Your Priorities, Not Just Your ‘Stuff’

So I began. First, I noticed the things on the walls and shelves that triggered even a hint of anxiety. I culled my indoor plants to just my favorites, easing my watering load, and I took down some bright Christmas decorations that I love, but which always distracted me (plus Christmas was long gone!). Already, I felt less tightness in my chest.

Once I got used to those changes, the next layer of anxiety triggers presented themselves: the extra sofa in the lounge room that my mum said “completed the room” (but we rarely sat on); the kitchen bench clutter; the fridge-top clutter; the inside-the-cupboards clutter. One day at a time, I was finally listening to my body about how I felt living in this home — not how other people thought I should feel living in this home.

Finally, I uncovered the big ones: my wardrobe, my social media, and even my hair. I looked at my wardrobe with my newly-honed sensitivity to what felt right to me, and left only the clothes that felt and looked 100 percent great to me. I filled a donation box with the “dating” clothes (eyeroll), and vowed with every item that I would only buy the things I loved and truly needed. I stood back and felt a sense of delicious calm spread through my body at the neatly folded and minimal clothes on shelves.

Next, I allowed myself to feel how much anxiety Facebook and Instagram were causing me. Even when I took “breaks” from them, they were still in the background, an endless checking of friends and distant family, of posting photos, of the unending urge to know all the things about all the people all the time. It was too much mental and emotional energy, too much of my time. So I closed down both accounts. I saved my contacts and decided to send emails and photos when it mattered, old-school style.


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Lastly, I shaved my hair off to a few very short centimeters. This was a very personal choice — not required by minimalism at all — but I had whittled my life down to the priorities, and spending time on my hair simply wasn’t one of them. It’s graying, and I want to enjoy that change — no dye. The texture is changing, too, and I don’t want to fight it anymore. I can now get up, wash my face, and put on anything from my wardrobe because everything matches and everything fits. It takes all of 5-10 minutes to be ready to walk out the door.

And how I feel? I feel smart, sexy, so very feminine, and so very me. The anxiety about how I looked versus how I thought I should look is gone. I look like… myself.

How to Start Your Minimalism Journey

I truly believe anyone can do this. If you’re an HSP like me, you can use your innate sensitivity to look at your home and your life with fresh eyes, and ask yourself: How does my body feel in my home (or in this room, this corner, this drawer)? Notice if you physically feel tight, heavy, achy… or light and free. Continue to check in with your body as you get rid of objects: Are your feelings shifting? And feed your sensitive soul by giving away belongings to those who need them or simply donating them.

Once you begin the process of feeling your way through your possessions, you may notice an increased sensitivity in the rest of your life to what truly matters. You might begin looking at your relationships, schedule, work, volunteering. This is difficult and deep work, and may need the support of a good friend or mental health professional if you decide to really dig down. But in the end, you will come to deeply appreciate your sensitive soul and how you can work with it to create the life you want and need.

Ultimately, minimalism changed my priorities, not just the stuff I owned. Those priorities are simple, really: love myself, love my children, love the world. In that order, because every day of my life ultimately begins and ends with me, and every action I take ripples out from there. When I set myself up right, I am there fully for everyone around me. I am calm and light as I move through my uncluttered home, and through my uncluttered life.

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