In 1991, Dr. Elaine Aron began using the term “sensitive” to describe adults with a certain set of unique characteristics that set them apart from the larger population. If you think of yourself as a “sensitive soul,” you’re not alone.
Over the last three decades, Dr. Aron and her colleagues researched sensitivity as a trait in both children and adults. They’ve studied questionnaires and brain scans, physiology and genetics, all in order to better understand the subset of the human population that can be classified as “highly sensitive persons” or HSPs.
The characteristics of a ‘highly sensitive person’
According to Dr. Aron, approximately 20 percent of the overall population can be classified as HSP based on four core characteristics:
- the depth at which they process information;
- a natural tendency toward empathy;
- sensitivity to stimuli and subtleties in the environment;
- a need for large amounts of alone-time to recharge mental and emotional batteries.
I count myself as an HSP and recognize many of these factors in my own experience. Because we make up such a small portion of the population, our sensitivity is largely seen as a weakness. We’re indecisive. We’re easily overwhelmed and emotionally reactive. At our worst, we’re melancholic and angsty.
On the flip side, though, when we finally do make a decision, we make better decisions. This is why you’ll often find HSPs in leadership positions of all kinds. At our best, we’re perceptive and empathetic. The well-supported and self-aware HSP will often meet the needs of their loved ones before their loved ones even recognize that they needed anything at all.
In short, high sensitivity can be a genuine superpower, but only if we accept it and cultivate it. Here are a few gifts you can give yourself in order to do just that. And the best part? These gifts don’t cost a penny.
Give yourself space to grow
As usual, Jesus is a good example to start with. When the crowds got out of control and everyone was vying for his attention, Jesus would pull an Irish goodbye and disappear for a while. He would go off by himself to pray and be alone and sit in silence. His actions show us that it’s crucial to get some space in order to love others well.
Try to follow a 1-1-1 rule. Set aside one hour per day, one day per week, and one week per year for yourself. Depending on your circumstances, it may not be possible to get away for a full hour each day, or a full day each week. Maybe you have young children or a demanding job, or both. Maybe you’re caring for a sick parent or partner. That’s okay — the idea here is that we set aside some time at regular intervals to meet our own needs so that we can continue meeting the needs of others.
You might do this by reading a book, taking a walk, meeting up with a friend, or going to the gym or to daily Mass. Or you might pursue a creative endeavor, join a group, or take a class. What matters is that you get serious about making and protecting that space in your life and in your schedule.
Give yourself permission to set boundaries
Boundaries, shmoundaries, amiright? Who wants to be the wet blanket who says no to a weekend trip with family or another night out with friends? And what about when people are counting on you at work to come through on that big project or presentation? No rest for the weary!
The fact is that when we don’t set boundaries, it actually hurts us both professionally and personally. When we’re trying to be everything to everyone we’re not giving anyone our best.
In the wise words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.”
One of the most admirable traits of the highly sensitive person is their ability to anticipate the needs of those around them and meet those needs before their loved ones have the time or awareness to even ask. The problem with this is that you can’t help everyone without spreading yourself too thin, leading to serious burnout.
As a highly sensitive person, it’s especially important to set and maintain firm boundaries. For an HSP, boundaries need to be based on a clear and compelling “why.” Making a vision board can help you get clear on what you value so that you can give with your whole heart.
Give yourself kind words
HSPs are often great at giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. Everyone, that is, but ourselves. No one is harder on an HSP than we are on ourselves. HSPs have a strong inner critic reminding us of our mistakes and missteps, of all the ways we don’t measure up and could be better.
For HSPs it can be helpful to create an inner coach, a persona in our mind who is in our corner like Mickey was for Rocky. I mean, who doesn’t cry when Mickey says, “GET UP… CAUSE MICKEY LOVES YA.”
Find your inner Mickey who cheers you on and pulls you along when your inner critic is yammering on about that time last year when you accidentally hit reply-all on an email meant for your work BFF only. Write positive messages to yourself on post-its and stick them where you’ll see them throughout the day. They can be favorite quotes, song lyrics, Bible verses or “I am” statements like: “I am a beloved child of God. He will provide every good thing.” It may seem hokey at first, but that’s because your inner critic is trying to keep you small.
Here’s the thing: HSPs don’t want to need forgiveness. We want to be perfect and we feel like we should be perfect. HSPs hold themselves to impossibly high standards and we never grade ourselves on a curve. Needing forgiveness means we messed up, and for an HSP there’s no room for mistakes.
The truth is, we all mess up — HSP or not. None of us are perfect. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We get it,” say the HSPs as they roll their eyes. We know this cognitively, but it doesn’t stop us from feeling like we’re the exception to the rule. HSPs have a highlight reel playing in our minds with all of our perceived sins and shortcomings.
Forgiving yourself is an important practice for HSPs. Reserve for yourself a portion of the empathy you so generously dole out to everyone else. Take it easy on yourself, friend. God’s love for you has never changed. Embracing forgiveness is not weakness. It frees us to love more deeply — by allowing ourselves to experience God’s love more deeply.
A bonus gift
Now that you’ve identified that you are, in fact, a highly sensitive person, where do you go from here? Author and Psychologist Lori Gottlieb warns us that “insight is the booby prize of therapy.” Insight alone may look shiny, but it’s fool’s gold. The real value comes from putting that insight into practice in our daily lives.
I suppose the fifth gift HSPs can give themselves is permission to receive the other four: space, boundaries, kindness, forgiveness. You were uniquely made with these special characteristics. Your sensitivity is a gift, a power that will bear fruit if you tend to the needs of your own body, mind, and soul.