Highly Sensitive Refuge
A woman embraces being a highly sensitive person

7 Ways to Adapt — and Embrace — Being a Highly Sensitive Person

The sooner you embrace being a highly sensitive person, the sooner you can leverage your sensitivity to your advantage.

I first found out I was a highly sensitive person (HSP) two years ago, when my stepdaughter asked me if I was an “HSP.” I had never heard the term before, so she described what it was, and I read everything I could on the subject, finding Dr. Elaine Aron and HighlySensitiveRefuge.com to be great resources. 

There was no doubt I was an HSP — the description fit me to a T. Taking Dr. Aron’s self-test in The Highly Sensitive Person, I marked “true” in virtually every category: I am easily startled, loud noises bother me, I absorb other people’s emotions as though they’re my own, and I am overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, and coarse fabrics.

At first, I didn’t want to accept the HSP label — it made me feel flawed. I thought back to my childhood and realized I’d probably been an HSP all my life (which makes sense since a trait is responsible for HSPs’ increased sensitivity).

I’d Always Been ‘Different’

Since I was a kid, I’d always been “different.” I thought it was my environment. I was raised by a hard-working, single parent who was great with her patients (she was a nurse), but who lacked empathy for her children. Plus, I was overly sensitive to constructive criticism and very defensive when friends would tease me about being short. In essence, I was never comfortable in my own skin.

The constant yelling and criticism from my mother caused me to retreat into myself. I was a broody, quiet child, often hiding in my room and seeking out solo pursuits, like drawing or writing to entertain myself. (I’d later learn that HSPs are often naturally creative.) The only other times I was ever really happy was when I was with my dad, aunt, or grandma. In their company, I felt accepted and loved for me, exactly as I was, even though I was not always who I thought I should be.

As an adult, I still feel different and awkward sometimes, although the degree depends on the situation and my comfort level. While my friends and colleagues might describe me as outgoing, I am generally uncomfortable socially and a closeted introvert. I prefer to spend my time alone, yet I occasionally crave the company of others. 

During the pandemic, while others desperately wanted to get out of the house, I was content to stay in it: to read, write, watch TV, paint, or get out now and then and go for drives. I’d get my fix for connection by texting, occasional Zoom happy hours, and sending cards and letters to family and friends. 

So, even though I didn’t want to accept the HSP label initially, I soon began to enjoy my uniqueness. After all, being highly sensitive means I’m an attentive listener (because of feeling everyone’s emotions), a deep thinker, and notice emotional and situational subtleties others may not. 

These days, instead of being embarrassed by my sensitivity, I have learned to embrace it — here’s how.

How I Embraced Being a Highly Sensitive Person

1. I realized I’m not alone — around 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive.

I learned that I’m not alone — around 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive, too. We don’t have a disorder; rather, we have a distinctive gift.

I have found comfort in knowing that there are others like me who have similar feelings and challenges. My adult daughters are both HSPs, and knowing that has helped me understand them better and to be compassionate when they need something HSP-related, like time alone. 

Being an HSP has also helped me be less judgmental. I can’t possibly know what goes on inside other peoples’ complex inner selves. I now take people at face value and don’t assume that their reactions or behavior are because there is something “wrong” with me. Who knows? They may be overly emotional as a result of being highly sensitive, as well.

2. I started telling people I’m highly sensitive, from my partner to select friends and family members.

For a long while, I constantly pushed my partner away and could never understand why. I decided to share my HSP-ness with him so that he could better understand me. 

Knowing that I’m an HSP, I can now see that while he craves my attention, I am more comfortable with less intensity. I told him I need quiet time, space to process my emotions, and can’t always handle his desire to talk (constantly). He was very understanding and loving, and it helped him see me in a new light. I now feel safe asking for what I need.

I have also told a few friends about being an HSP. In most cases, the information was received well. One friend, however, felt like it was an excuse for me to be sensitive, defensive, or not as social. Not everyone will understand, but those who really care about me (and you) will try.

3. I started realizing that being an HSP is a gift.   

By being highly sensitive, I’m naturally empathetic and a good listener, which has helped me as a writer and professional communicator. When interviewing people, for example, I’m patient enough to really listen to them, and make them feel comfortable and heard, so they will open up when talking to me. 

Being an HSP has also helped me be kinder toward myself. I have always felt like I was not good enough. Now I can look at facts more than feelings, and I have learned to love and accept myself in a way I couldn’t before. Being highly sensitive is a gift that not everyone has, and I am grateful for it.

4. I’ve learned to avoid triggers, like loud noises and bright lights. 

Like other HSPs, I am sensory challenged and easily overstimulated. I used to think this made me weird, too, but now I know it’s just part of being an HSP. 

Since loud noises, bright lights, yelling, and crowds often bother me, I have learned to adapt my environment to suit me and avoid situations that might trigger me. Instead, I typically choose soothing, quiet activities, like reading, writing, dinner dates, and game nights. 

I try to find balance, too, by choosing social activities carefully. If I want to attend a concert or hockey game, I plan ahead so I can fully experience and enjoy the event instead of waiting for it to be over, as I did before. And knowing that I can unwind and relax at home afterward in my HSP sanctuary helps, too.

5. I’ve realized it’s good to be empathetic, but also important to set boundaries. 

As an HSP, I am empathetic: I’m emotionally reactive to others and often absorb their feelings. I can usually sense what someone is feeling before they say it, and I take on those emotions as my own sometimes without realizing it. For HSPs, it’s easy to get mentally and emotionally flooded as a result. 

While this can be helpful in relationships, it can also be incredibly draining, so I set  boundaries (which can be challenging for us HSPs!) and remind myself that I cannot take on everyone else’s thoughts and feelings. (I have plenty of my own to manage!) 

The best thing I can do to help a friend in need is to listen, so I have learned to step back and remember we are all responsible for managing our own feelings. I cannot solve everyone’s problems and trying to do so comes at a personal cost. What I can do, however, is let them know I’m there for them and say things like, “I’m sorry that happened to you — that must be hard,” rather than always trying to help them find solutions.

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6. I’ve become more self-aware, like turning overstimulating situations into productive ones.

One of the key components to emotional intelligence is self-awareness. This has been something I have struggled with professionally, so I have to intentionally practice it. I ask myself: How are my emotions impacting my work? How do others perceive my feelings and behavior? What can I do to turn my HSP challenges into productive work practices? 

In some cases, this has meant confiding in those close to me. In others, it means practicing uncomfortable work situations at home, so I am prepared to handle them more appropriately at work. 

For example, one day when a conversation with a group of coworkers got heated and uncomfortable, I got up and walked out of the room. My reaction was not professional. If that happened again, I would be aware of my overstimulation and tell the team I wanted to go back to my office to work on a resolution I could present later. That would give me time to regroup without showing my raw emotions.

In another instance, a coworker wouldn’t smile at me or reply when I said “Hi.” Rather than judge her or take it personally (as highly sensitive introverts are prone to do), I stripped the emotions away to look at the facts. Is the work still getting done? Is she giving me the information I need to do my job? 

Using my HSP-ness as a gift, I looked at her with compassion. Maybe she’s highly sensitive, too, or maybe I’ve triggered something in her. Rather than confront her or assume the worst, I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

7. I’ve learned to regularly practice self-care, such as taking a walk or spending quality time with my pets.  

For HSPs, it’s easy to feel overstimulated. To center myself, I practice self-care and consult a list of things that calm me down — quiet time, writing, a hot bath, a walk, sitting quietly without doing anything, self-reflection, meditating, and so on. 

I always have the list nearby since, when I’m overwhelmed, I sometimes forget how to relax. With the list handy, the only thing I have to remember is the list. Soon, I go from feeling emotionally overloaded to calm.

The bottom line is, we are who we are, and the sooner we accept our HSP-ness, the sooner we can leverage it to our advantage. This way, we can use our sensitivity to improve our lives and the lives of those we want to be around. Others may not accept us for being highly sensitive, but those are probably people we don’t need in our lives anyway. 

I am a highly sensitive person and proud of it. I hope you are, too. 

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