Are you highly sensitive? Here are four key areas you need to focus on to create a sustainable life.
I never used to think of myself as a gardener. As an apartment dweller for many years, I didn’t have the opportunity. My partner and I did add some perennials to our garden after moving into our house in 2006, but those took care of themselves.
All that changed overnight in 2011 when a friend gave us an unassuming-looking plant. It had a single stem and four or five green leaves. Imagine our surprise when it shot up to five feet tall, then produced its first spectacular flower. It was shocking pink, the size of a soup bowl.
What was this plant? A dahlia, we learned. With dahlias, the more blooms you cut, the more you get. From July to October that summer, our house was graced by a succession of some four dozen big blooms, all from that one plant.
This profusion ended overnight in October. When the first hard frost came, we found out why dahlias are less common than daisies. You have to dig up the tubers; divide them; cure, dust, and wrap them; store them in a cool place keep and them moist, but not too moist; start them in pots inside in the spring; then replant them in the garden.
This was far more effort than I’d ever put into any plant.
On the other hand, how could I resist a plant that produced dozens of lavish flowers from a tuber the size of a big man’s thumb? I succumbed without a whimper. I even joined the local dahlia society for several years. We now shoehorn thirteen dahlia varieties into our garden.
Why highly sensitive people are like dahlias
Being an HSP (highly sensitive person) comes with significant challenges. If you are an HSP, you know this already. You find criticism crushing. You get overstimulated and exhausted more easily than people around you. You may suffer from a chronic feeling of being different, weird, or “too intense.”
It’s hard not to compare ourselves to other people. If you’ve been in the habit of doing that, you may have concluded something must be wrong with you, because things bother you that don’t seem to bother others around you.
This conclusion has an insidious negative effect on your self-care. Instead of focusing on what you actually need, you end up focusing on what you think you should (or shouldn’t) need.
The fact is, sensitive people do need special care to flourish. That doesn’t have to be a problem, as long as we accept the reality of it and commit to giving ourselves that care. Self-acceptance doesn’t come easily for many HSPs. But the effort is lavishly repaid by the greater well-being we feel as a result, and by the gifts we can then give back to the world.
Daisies can be soaked, parched, and completely ignored. They grow well anyway. You, however, are not a daisy. If you think of yourself as one, you won’t thrive. Accept your dahlia nature, then commit to being an attentive gardener to your highly sensitive self. Here are the four key commitments that will help you flourish:
1—Educate yourself about high sensitivity so you understand how it affects you
Start by reading about the four attributes all HSPs share, as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron: depth of processing, overarousal, emotional intensity, and sensory sensitivity. Take time to reflect on ways these characteristic aspects of the HSP trait have affected you.
Simply by reading and reflecting in this way, you are already engaging in the essential task of reframing your life in terms of your sensitive trait. Your past and present reactions, experiences, and decisions will make more sense to you. This perspective is healing.
Too many HSPs struggle with a sense of shame, believing they are “too sensitive.” Accurate information is the first step towards understanding and accepting yourself. Dr. Aron has written many helpful articles over the years. You’ll also find dozens of articles on different aspects of sensitivity here on the Sustainably Sensitive blog.
2—Own and celebrate your strengths—especially your spiritual strength
HSPs are highly intelligent. And, when properly fed and watered, we can be deeply kind, conscientious, thoughtful, and far-seeing. We empathize well with others. We are highly creative. We have vivid dreams
We are also deeply moved by truth, beauty, and goodness… and these are the manifestations in the world of the spiritual. So it follows that HSPs have a profound capacity for spiritual connection. You could even say we are built for that. As a result, we can be natural spiritual leaders, often hiding in plain sight.
Even our challenges push us towards a deeper spirituality. Being very sensitive can be excruciating. Just reading the news can break your heart. We are forced to become more resilient in the face of our own sensitivity to our pain and the pain in the world. Remembering our true nature as spiritual beings is our most direct path to resilience and lasting peace.
3—Seek out your fellow HSPs
Not everyone can or should understand how different life is for an HSP than for the non-HSP majority. We can’t get inside another person’s skin. But it is an incredible relief to have someone in your life who truly gets what it is like to be highly sensitive, and who effortlessly accepts that aspect of you.
In the end, learning to appreciate and celebrate your strengths is what I call “an inside job.” It’s between you and yourself. Along the way, though, hanging out with other HSPs and appreciating them is a powerfully effective strategy to help you see your own good qualities more clearly.
Do you judge yourself for “thinking too much?” You may be surprised to find that in a fellow HSP, you see this behavior as conscientiousness and thoughtfulness. Do you berate yourself for taking “too long” to make decisions? You’ll feel differently about this tendency after hearing a fellow HSP unpack a decision in detail in order to be sure they’ll feel right about the outcome.
4—Equip yourself with tools to deepen your inner relationship and regulate your sensitive nervous system
There are obviously countless practices and modalities you could try. I’ve tried many of them myself. But in my experience, having found peace from constant anxiety and having helped many clients do the same, there are three practices that are particularly powerful for HSPs:
1—Coherent breathing: To lead a sustainable life as an HSP, you need a powerful, reliable way to regulate your nervous system and your emotions. If you don’t have such a practice yet, I can’t overstate how much this will improve your quality of life.
To be clear, Focusing and meditation—which I’ll talk about next—will also contribute to your self-regulation. But sitting down to focus or to meditate in a dysregulated state is like using extra-fine sandpaper to smooth a very rough board. It’s going to take way, way longer.
With coherent breathing and related practices taught in the Breath-Body-Mind program, you can rapidly attain a more regulated state. A regular practice of coherent breathing will permanently reset your nervous system to a healthier balance. In addition, you can dip into the practice anywhere, anytime, to find your center when you feel yourself getting tired, stressed, or jangled.
2—Focusing: No wonder $HSPs love Focusing. It is like an emotional and creative Swiss army knife for us. Focusing helps you connect deeply to yourself, process your intense emotions, and connect to your spiritual intuition so you can find your right way forward day by day.
In addition, Focusing partnership can transform your way of being in relationships, giving you the experience of a safe space to be fully yourself in the company of another person, without the overwhelm and overstimulation relationships so often stimulate in us. HSPs are attracted to Focusing, so Focusing partnership courses are a wonderful way to meet and appreciate other HSPs.
3—Meditation: To be happy and at peace as an HSP, you need to be connected to your higher self—your spiritual intuition. Whether you achieve this through connection with the Divine, through nature, through a sense of connection with what Buddhists call Mind, or some other way, you need a daily practice to quiet your mind with the intention of connecting to your higher self.
From this quiet place, you can sense your right way forward, then set your intent for the day. This is life-changing practice.
Finding your best way of being
These three practices synergize with each other. Coherent breathing lays the groundwork to be present in your body. It soothes your nervous system, harmonizing your brain waves to create a sense of calm, alert well-being. Focusing provides a powerful way to create a good inner relationship with yourself, empowering you to keep yourself psychologically and emotionally “clean” and on track.
With your nervous system well-regulated and a healthy inner relationship in place, you are poised to meditate effectively. Now you are engaged in the most important task of all: connecting to your true nature. Whatever you decide to do in the world will be powerful, if you do it from this place of deeply connected beingness.
Image: ©2023 Emily Agnew
Note: This is a substantially edited version of a post that first appeared on November 9, 2015.
References on high sensitivity:
Aron, Elaine (2010). Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person. New York: Routledge.
Aron, Elaine (1996). The Highly Sensitive Person. New York: Broadway Books.