To build a more sustainable HSP life, you need a long-term vision and moment-by-moment awareness.
What does it mean to live a sustainable sensitive life? Clearly, there can be no single blueprint for a highly sensitive person. After all, we represent a fifth or more of the world’s population; we come from a wild variety of backgrounds; we grow up in wildly different circumstances; and each of us has arrived where we are with wildly varying resources and levels of support.
Still, the question is a crucial one. What does it mean to live a sustainable sensitive life? No matter where you live or what your circumstances, defining your current vision of sustainability will have two powerful effects:
- You will notice, celebrate, and be motivated to reinforce any ways in which your life is already sustainable.
- You will clearly see the ways in which your life does not feel sustainable.
As you define your vision, then look at what is actually happening in your life right now, you invoke the power of contrast. You’ll feel the inherent tension between “what is,” and “what could be.” This is a positive, generative kind of tension: feeling it will naturally propel you towards a life that truly works for you.
Defining your vision of sustainability is like setting the destination in your GPS. You know where you want to go. But what do you do moment by moment? In the most practical sense, how do you “steer the car?”
Realizing your vision of sustainability, moment by moment
Let’s say you’ve defined a vision of a more sustainable life—whatever that means for you here, now, today. Now you need the next steps to realize that vision. You can use this second pair of questions to identify the moment-by-moment actions that will move you gradually yet steadily towards your vision of sustainability:
“What do I need right now? Is there an action I need to take?”
No matter your circumstances—and those will vary wildly throughout your life, just as they vary from HSP to HSP—you will get clear answers when you ask these two questions. In fact, I recommend you ask them daily. Ask any time you are unsure what to do next, or out of sorts.
As you get in the habit of asking these questions, you’ll discover that there is always something you can do to make your circumstances more sustainable in the moment. At the very least, the deceptively simple act of accepting “what is” can bring surprising relief. Even if the steps you are able to take seem tiny they will add up to take you a long way.
In other words, while there is no single blueprint or model for a sustainable sensitive life, you can use these questions to guide your steps as you create a life that will be sustainable for you.
Sustainability requires a long game
In some ways, sensitive sustainability is like saving for retirement. If you start young, you can save a modest amount at a time, but it will add up to enough to support you when you are older by sheer virtue of years of accumulation. Likewise, if you are lucky enough to find out you are highly sensitive when you are young, you can actively create a lifestyle that works for you.
For those of us who were born before the sensitive trait was identified, the path towards sustainability has necessarily been more haphazard. We learned by trial and error (in my case, it was mostly error.) We may have found out too late to take advantage of the “gradual savings” approach.
However, it is never too late to move towards a more sustainable life. Wherever you are on the path, these five principles will guide you.
1—Learn as much as you can about the HSP trait
This recommendation sits at the very top of Dr. Elaine Aron’s list of four key HSP life tasks. No wonder. Thanks to Dr. Aron and the many others researching and writing about high sensitivity, knowledge of the HSP is much more widespread than it was even 10 years ago. Even so, surprisingly few sensitive people know much beyond the very basics about the trait. Quite a few HSPs—and many doctors and therapists— have never heard of it.
Thank goodness this is changing, because every day I witness the transformative effect for HSPs who dive deeper to understand the trait and who take time to ponder the very individual ways their sensitivity has affected their lives. If you are new to the trait or don’t know much about it, I recommend you begin by reading about deep processing, overarousal, emotional intensity, and sensory sensitivity.
2—Look around you and find HSPs who are living sustainably
Another key HSP life task on Dr. Aron’s list is spending time with other highly sensitive people. We see so clearly the wonderful qualities our fellow HSPs possess which we may have failed to see—or worse, judged harshly— in ourselves, causing us to feel shame.
Simply seeing and enjoying these qualities in another HSP can help you see and value them in yourself. However, healing shame is only one reason to hang out with other HSPs. We also need role models for sensitive people who are living sustainable lives.
Burnout from trying to live the wrong lifestyle is all too common among sensitive people. Many of us know all too well what that looks like. Knowing what you don’t want is helpful, but knowing what you do want is essential if you want to make purposeful changes. For that, you need role models.
3—Ask yourself, “What action could I take now to move towards sustainability?”
This step might seem too obvious to mention. It’s not. If you are convinced there’s no way you can possibly reach a place of sustainability in your life, you won’t even think to ask yourself what steps you could take to move towards that. Keep reminding yourself that no matter where you are starting, there is always some small step you can take.
Look at your HSP role models and ask, “What action could I take today, however small, to move towards that way of living?” What can you do, within your means of time, money, and energy, to make your life more sustainable in the way that this person’s life is more sustainable? Don’t underestimate the power of small changes, and the cumulative effect they will have over time.
4—Continually update your vision of sustainability
Our needs change constantly given our relationships, our circumstances, and our age and stage of life. Look at the people of Ukraine, many of whom found themselves overnight in a basic sustainability struggle for electricity, heat, running water, shelter, and medical care after the Russian invasion.
Sustainability challenges can arise overnight from positive events too. Certainly, my life changed overnight with the birth of my child. That event was the most wondrous of my life…and it blew my HSP self-care routines out of the water for quite a while. Moving or getting promoted can have the same effect.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are life changes we can anticipate. Having just returned home from visiting my elderly parents, the idea of defining sustainability at the end of life is very much on my mind.
Sustainability at the end of life
Several years ago, my parents sat down with me and my siblings to ponder what would make life sustainable for them as they approached the end of life. Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal proved a wonderful inspiration for these conversations: I recommend it highly.
Now, my dad is in hospice care. He is being lovingly cared for at home by my mother, a team of caregivers, and their cat Cleo. He’s 87, and his heart is slowly giving out. Still, even as he gets weaker, he is living a life he has defined as sustainable.
He can still eat ice cream, watch soccer, and be at home with my mother, napping with Cleo on his lap—the very things he described years earlier. For my dad, these are the elements of a sustainable life. Even as he approaches death he is living the life he defined as worth living.
“What am I needing?”
Building a more sustainable life requires conscious effort over the longer term. But even long-term efforts consist of many moment-by-moment choices and actions. Along the way, keep asking yourself, “What am I needing right now? Is there an action I need to take?”
Am I eating well? Am I drinking enough water? Am I getting sleep? Am I breathing? I ask myself these questions every day. (Note: “Am I breathing?” might seem like a silly question. It isn’t. Breath practices are my single most important self-regulating resource: I even did them at 3 AM next to my mom’s bed in the emergency room last week. She’s OK, thank goodness.)
For HSPs, it’s wise to start by reviewing your physical self-care. Then you can begin to ask yourself what emotional first aid you need. This is sustainability on the local level—like the small steering adjustments you make as you drive down the road. Combined with a bigger vision of sustainability, this targeted moment-by-moment awareness will help you create a more sustainable HSP life.
My grandfather always urged my dad to allow for what he called “the constantly occurring, non-recurring” events of life. As an unknown wag ruefully put it, “Life is just one damned thing after another!” It’s true: life is the whole enchilada. It’s a complex, ever-varying kaleidoscope of the wondrous, the marvelous, the banal, and the terrible.
There is good news here, though. You, as a highly sensitive person, are uniquely equipped to savor this wonderful, terrible richness. The question is, can you care for yourself well enough to maintain that perspective, rather than feeling like you are being pummeled by the constantly arising waves of life?
The question is an ongoing one. Thinking of sustainability as a long-term project with short-term tweaks will help you navigate this lifelong challenge.