If small things bother you, how do you handle it? This is a challenge for many HSPs.

When I spotted this small, jewel-like bug in our garden, I found myself thinking about the small things that bug us.

I’m not talking about small physical stuff, like scratchy tags, grating noises, annoying odors, sandy toes, or a binding waistband. Annoying as those things can be, you can typically take care of them yourself.

Things get trickier when other people are involved, though. I’ll give you a personal example. My partner can’t smell very well at all. I, on the other hand, could qualify for a second career as a bloodhound. It took us years to come to an arrangement around his deodorant choices.

He’d change types (and smells) every few months, depending on what was on sale, then he’d feel distressed and irritated when I’d pull away from a hug, protesting, “Ack! I just got used to the smell of Garden Fresh, and now you are switching to Ocean Spray?!”

It sounds silly, doesn’t it? It was a real stressor for us, though. He felt like I was being unreasonable and controlling. I felt frustrated and hurt that he wouldn’t humor me with what seemed like a relatively easy fix, especially as I had let him know that strong smells really do bother me a lot (I almost threw up in the car once as a kid, smelling the hotel soap we had all used.)

He finally settled on one brand (Mennen Speed Stick Regular, if you must know), for which I am eternally grateful. But we had a tough time with this seemingly small thing.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff”

Back in 1997, psychotherapist and motivational speaker Richard Carlson wrote Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all Small Stuff. The book clearly hit a chord. It topped the USA Today bestseller list for nearly two years. In essence, Carlson pointed out that you can compromise your own peace and happiness by worrying too much about things that aren’t essential priorities for you.

He’s not wrong, of course. I know, as I’m sure you do, what it’s like to upset myself over something, only to wish I hadn’t. Still, I can only be as compassionate, tolerant, and nonreactive as I can be, given my resources in the moment. If I pile judgment on myself for having upset myself over something I consider “small,” I only make matters worse. (I even have a name for this: the HSP hall of mirrors.)

Let’s face it: I’m highly sensitive, and I can be reactive. Therefore, I need to cultivate the attitude that having a reaction to something small is, itself, a small thing. No big deal. It will pass, and hounding myself for it will only prolong it.

Discerning the import of “small” things

Cultivating self-compassion is only part of the story, though. Even in my example about the deodorant you can see how “small” things may not be so small. The topic was deodorant, but underneath it was, “How do we, as intimate partners, each take responsibility for our needs while respecting and caring for each other? How do we deal with conflicts?”

In other words, “small” things are sometimes the tip of a much larger iceberg. When this is the case, you’ll experience what seems like a disproportionately painful “bump.” Not realizing there’s a bigger issue that lies under the surface, you wonder why such a “small” thing bugs you so much.

The iceberg phenomenon is, in fact, the major pitfall of the “don’t sweat the small stuff” stance. Only you can differentiate the incidents that truly are small from the ones that constitute a real problem for you. Unfortunately, in the process, HSPs are at risk of denying, minimizing, or even completely repressing any awareness of significant problems.

I’m sure you know why we do this: we find conflict overarousing and upsetting. We fear rocking the boat. We feel terrible when we tell ourselves we’ve hurt or upset someone else, and we so want to be good, kind, and “spiritual.”

Unfortunately, the “ship” of our relationship is much more likely to sustain major damage if we chronically ignore the presence of icebergs in the water. So we have to find a way to muster the courage to acknowledge real issues and bring them up.

Building your conflict resilience

How do you develop the fortitude to look forthrightly at “small issues” so you can decide whether they need attention or not? I’m sorry to say there is no magic hack or overnight fix. On the bright side, though, these are all things I’d recommend to you anyway, if you are highly sensitive:

  • Learn as much as you can about your HSP trait, with a particular emphasis on overarousal and emotional intensity. The more you can accept your sensitivity, the better you’ll be able to handle conflict.
  • Master self-regulation practices so you can better tolerate discomfort. Coherent breathing and 4-4-6-2 breathing are powerful tools for self-regulation. I recommend them unreservedly for HSPs.
  • Cultivate your inner relationship. Focusing gives you the tools you need to be with whatever comes up in you. Inner Bonding helps you understand the dynamics of relationships and to see conflicts as learning opportunities rather than disasters.
  • Cultivate your spiritual practice. Connecting to your spiritual intuition will make you sturdier in every way, including responding better to conflict.

Notice that these are the same suggestions I offer if you want to improve your overall well-being as an HSP. That’s no surprise, because in the end, handling conflict better comes from accepting who you are and knowing what you value and what you need.

Once you’ve clarified and accepted your own needs and preferences, it’s much easier to express them to someone else in a kind, un-defensive way. Then conflicts stop becoming something to be feared and avoided.

Photo ©2024 Emily Agnew