I’ll never forget the look Dr. S gave me when I showed up in her office one morning at the university health center. I was a sophomore, and her expression indicated that I was living up to that title—by behaving sophomorically.

As a hard-working music student, I had recently discovered the social-anxiety-soothing effects of beer, the favorite beverage of my brass-playing friends. There was a hitch, however. “When I go to parties and stay up until 2 AM drinking beer and eating potato chips,” I explained to her, “my stomach feels bloated in the morning and I feel tired and icky.”

Dr. S eyed me wearily. She said, “Then don’t go to parties and stay up until 2 AM drinking beer and eating potato chips.”

This was not what I wanted to hear.

In fact, her words left me speechless. Give up my Budweiser—so refreshing when imbibed from a plastic cup (such were my 19-year-old tastes)— and my Ruffles with sour cream onion dip? Was she kidding? I searched her face for irony, but found only irritation. Clearly, no morning-after pill would be forthcoming.

I left feeling indignant. As a typical 19-year-old, I had a menu of acceptable options in mind, and behavioral adjustments were not on that menu. Dr. S was throwing the responsibility for my bloated stomach back into my lap, and I wanted none of it.

This post-party discomfort was not the first time I paid a price for something I’d done the day before. But it was the first time I connected the price with my actions of the previous day. So, while my search for a hangover pill was unsuccessful, I had at least taken the first step towards greater awareness of the connection between my actions and my well-being. I had overdrawn my energy account, and I knew it.

Energy overdraw is a serious issue

I laugh when I tell this college story, but energy overdraw is a serious issue for us as sensitive people. Many of us struggle to accept our sensitivity, and this non-acceptance is itself a barrier to good self-care for HSPs. In addition, we suffer more than non-sensitive people when we overdo it.

Energy overdraw is painful. If you drank the night before, you may literally feel hung over or bloated as I did that day in college. Or you may feel mentally “hung over”, as I feel if I do intellectually demanding work in the evening after a full day of writing and being with clients.  My body has let me know in no uncertain terms that it needs a complete break after dinner or I will pay with unpleasant fatigue the next day.

Similarly, given how hard I work during the week, if I cheat and make withdrawals on my sensitive energy account on Saturday and Sunday, I wake up Monday morning feeling desperate. I’ve learned the hard way that I need to take the weekend off work. If I don’t, I become illness-prone. (Sadly, many HSPs get sick because it’s the only way they feel they have a legitimate excuse to rest and recover from energy overdraw.)

Why energy overdraw is challenging to address

Why don’t we just snap out of it? Why didn’t I just take Dr. S’s advice and give up the parties, the beer, and the chips? If you remember yourself at 19, you know the answer: it is hard to face our limitations.

That’s why self-empathy is an essential skill for sensitive people. We need to have compassion for ourselves. Focusing is a powerful tool for self-compassion. Hanging out with other HSPs is another key way to normalize our needs for rest and down time. Watching other HSPs, we feel encouraged and inspired to rearrange our own lives to work better for us, instead of trying to rearrange ourselves to fit the habits of the non-sensitive majority.

It’s not all bad news—on the contrary

This may sound like managing your sensitive energy is all about giving things up, and that HSP life is a litany of “can’ts” and “don’ts”. This is not true. Yes, you will have to make tough choices sometimes. But here’s the energy secret I’ve discovered, after years of experimentation and observation:

You can approach the point of energy overdraw repeatedly, as long as you pause to rest before you cross the line into energy overdraw.

That’s it. You do what you want to do, if you know how to manage your energy skillfully. You have to learn to pace yourself.  Only you can discern the fine line between garden-variety fatigue and true energy overdraw, and it takes experimentation to tell: you may not know until afterwards whether you made the right call. This discernment is the key, because once you enter that deeper level of depletion, it is much harder to recover.

To develop this discernment, you have to—

1—Observe yourself closely and notice the flow of your energy: what drains it, what recharges it, what patterns you see in it. Do this by the minute by minute, and do it hourly, weekly, monthly, and yearly. (Tip: Pretty much everything affects your energy: sleep, food, exercise, company, spiritual practice, stress level. Leave no stone unturned.)

2—Decide what needs to be changed and what needs to be kept the same

3—Tweak your routines, your schedule, your work, and your play as needed so you have the flexibility to work hard when you have energy and pause to rest when you approach energy overdraw. Then go back to Step One and repeat.

Managing your HSP energy is a long-term project

If you repeat these three steps patiently and faithfully, you will see a significant increase in your energy over time. 

That said, you may sometimes choose to break your carefully crafted self-care rules and do something that requires energy overdraw. I did this myself recently, choosing to drive home from the Midwest in one day in order not to miss events I had scheduled for the coming week. I knew that 11 hours of high-concentration, caffeine-fueled driving  would send me into energy overdraw, and it did: I got home safely, but I needed extra rest for several days in order to recover.

In this case, the recovery time was worth the chance to spend an additional with my elderly parents after my dad’s surgery.  But the unpleasant sensations of energy overdraw reminded me why I so rarely choose to override my body’s fatigue signals as I had done that day.

Instead, I keep a close eye on my energy, and when I find myself approaching energy overdraw, I pause to rest. I never let myself get down to my last few cents. As a result, I rarely get sick anymore, and I have more energy than I’ve ever had in my life, despite being as busy as I’ve ever been in my life.