Just because you’re sensitive doesn’t mean you have to let anyone take advantage of you.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) feel the world deeply. Many are spiritual, the majority are introverted, and all need plenty of downtime to recharge. (Are you a highly sensitive person? Learn about the signs here.)
But we live in a materialistic, productivity-obsessed culture that isn’t always ideal for HSPs. Mindful and perceptive qualities often don’t get the appreciation they deserve. As a result, being sensitive is — wrongfully — equated with having nothing to say. And, worst of all, kindness is often taken for weakness.
Many HSPs have experience being taken advantage of, so they may frequently end up feeling underrated, misunderstood, or isolated. Under these circumstances, it’s tempting and oh-so-easy to decide that the world has wronged you and to withdraw into a web of self-pity. But as Star Wars fans know: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” It’s a waste of your gifts to shut down out of fear of failure and rejection.
Yes, being an HSP can be challenging, but we are quietly strong. And that strength doesn’t mean suppressing your emotions and strangling your sensitivity. It’s therefore important to learn what I like to call “HSP self-defense” in order to avoid falling into the HSP victim trap. Here are seven ways that have helped me.
7 Tips for HSP “Self-Defense”
1. Learn all about being an HSP.
Your first step of self-defense is self-knowledge and self-appreciation. Being highly sensitive is not always easy, but it is a superpower. (Know any superheroes whose life is easy? Me neither.)
We notice more than the average person. Superpower! We have a built-in bullshit detector. Superpower! We are creative, intuitive, and emotionally intelligent. Superpower, superpower, superpower!
Thanks to our gifts, HSPs are natural-born leaders, artists, and healers. The more you learn about being highly sensitive, the more you’ll realize that what some “muggles” may perceive as weakness actually gives you a leg up! Work on your strengths and honor your needs as an HSP. You’ll emerge stronger and happier.
2. Refuse to be an “emotional trash can.”
HSPs are deeply empathetic, and some are actual empaths. This means we can absorb other people’s emotions and sense their needs. This ability (oh hey there superpower!) often causes us to become people-pleasers and at times even martyrs because we crave an atmosphere of peace and harmony.
But guess what? That you can sense people’s needs doesn’t mean you have to cater to them! Yes, really! Nix the savior-complex. You’re not everyone’s support system/life coach/therapist. You have your own stuff going on.
This isn’t being selfish, this is you refusing to be a trash can for other people’s emotions and letting so-called energy vampires suck you dry. If you’re constantly exhausted by trying to meet everyone’s expectations (and who wouldn’t be!) and other people’s bad vibes keep getting you down, it’s time for some serious “psychic self-defense.” Dig deep, center yourself, and make a conscious decision to stop being so available to everyone’s emotional needs.
3. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries
Speaking of being available, your self-worth and mental health will benefit immensely once you start setting boundaries. You need to treat your mental health as something sacred if you want a good quality of life. Protect it at all costs.
Your time and energy are your most valuable resources — spend them wisely. Family and close friends, the kind of people who respect you and are there for you when you need them, should be your priority. Don’t get “sucked into” random people’s drama. And keep people who drain you at arm’s length, even if they are family.
If someone ends up taking advantage of your kindness, start saying no. They won’t get better, but you will only get worse. Any type of close relationship should be a source of strength for both sides. If someone exhausts you with constant neediness or negativity, it’s time to take a step back and examine the balance of giving and taking. It may be a good idea to distance yourself. Remember, this isn’t being selfish, this is self-defense! Save your energy for the right people. If you can’t turn your back on someone completely, choose to start loving them from a (physical and emotional) distance.
4. As Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.”
For sensitive souls, the many sad and cruel events in the world can be a source of great distress. Sadly, in many cases there’s nothing you can do, but it doesn’t help anyone if you’re carrying the weight of the world. So should you just turn a cold shoulder instead? Of course not (we HSPs can’t anyway).
There’s a healthy alternative to either falling emotionally apart or closing off your heart. You can take back your power by getting active where you can actually make a difference. Identify your area of responsibility, then focus on that. For instance: You may not be able to help street dogs in India, but what you can do is volunteer at your local shelter and help animals in your neighborhood. This will be your area of responsibility. This is what you can do.
You can’t avoid being saddened by suffering, but you don’t have to dwell on it. Shift your focus to what you can do.
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5. Know where your responsibility begins and ends.
Because HSPs are such great helpers, we can find ourselves taken advantage of. If this happens, it’s important to remember that kindness is a strength, not a weakness. It’s not your fault if people wrong you. You are not responsible for their actions. Your reactions, however, are your responsibility.
Are you allowing them to make you bitter and resentful? Are you letting them fool you twice? Or are you able to acknowledge that a certain person wasn’t worth your kindness and move on? Acknowledging what is and isn’t your responsibility will give you back power in any social interaction.
If you’re nothing but helpful and friendly, but your coworker keeps being grumpy, that’s their problem, not yours. Keep your positive attitude, but don’t waste any time feeling responsible for their bad mood and trying to “fix” it..
6. Manage your emotions.
To be able to experience emotions deeply is a strength, but that’s not to say you can go around emoting all the time. Crying at the movie theater is just fine; crying at work, however, not (always) so much. For some settings, it’s a good idea to cultivate a bit of a poker face. You can still acknowledge your feelings without sharing them with everybody around you. Strong emotional reactions don’t make you weak, but it’s also a strength to learn how and when to control your outbursts.
Identify and process your emotions in a constructive manner. Let’s say you’re upset about an insensitive comment from your boss. Instead of bursting into tears, try to analyze the comment. Why does it upset you? Is it because your boss seems to have the wrong impression of you? Is there something you can do to correct this impression? Or is your boss simply stressed by something out of your control and the comment didn’t really have anything to do with you?
Also, learn to distinguish where any emotional overload is coming from. Is it situational or permanent? Are you momentarily overwhelmed because you need to withdraw from stimuli like noises and people (and all their “stuff”), or is the matter more serious? High sensitivity is not a mental illness, but it can often go hand in hand with anxiety or depression. In this case, you are not being “too sensitive,” but may need to find professional help to get back on your feet.
7. Connect with other HSPs
Feeling misunderstood is an issue for many HSPs. People who share our traits and have the same wavelength make us feel understood and stronger. There’s power in representation! Many HSPs are drawn to the arts, spirituality, or helping those in need. Any related organizations are a good starting point for looking for kindred spirits. Find your tribe, even if it’s only online. Let a feeling of community and belonging lift you up.
As you learn to build your self-dense as an HSP, there will be ups and downs. Please remember that being strong should never involve tamping down your emotions, pretending to be someone you’re not, and killing off your sensitivity.
It means knowing more about yourself, your needs, and your worth. It means tapping into your sensitivity when it serves you (not only others). It means saying “no” when you need to. Life is seldom fair and the world isn’t always a friendly place. Being a strong HSP means staying kind and seeing the world’s beauty, but making sure we protect the precious gift we each have. The world would be a sad place without it.