How do you tell the difference between healthy downtime and self-isolation? For a highly sensitive person, this is an important question.

A highly sensitive (HSP) friend recently asked me, “How can I tell if I’m alone because I really need downtime, or because I’m isolating myself from other people?” Her question is a key one for HSPs. Our nervous systems can easily get overaroused. How do we handle that in a healthy way?

The term “self-isolation” has taken on a specific, medical meaning during the pandemic. People who’ve been exposed to the Covid-19 virus self-isolate in order to protect others.  For HSPs, though, self-isolation has long served the opposite purpose: to protect us from people (and situations) that we find overarousing.

How do you take care of your sensitive nervous system?

There’s no way around it: HSPs get overaroused if we are “out” too much, soaking in the stimulation of people and events. It’s my responsibility to take care of myself so I get the downtime I need. But how “in” or “out” do I want to be? But how do I tell if I’m isolating myself too much, or for the wrong reasons?

I’ve been asking these questions all my adult life, and I’ll probably be wrestling with them to my dying day. I can picture my 98-year-old self, wheeling her chair into a broom closet at the long-term care facility in an attempt to get some solitude…while simultaneously wondering if she’s in danger of becoming a hermit.

Though we share certain characteristics, HSPs vary greatly in our temperament and our circumstances. For that reason, I can’t give a one-size-fits all description of a healthy balance between “in” time—restorative down time— and “out” time—time spent out in the world, taking in stimuli.

However, once you understand the differences between unhealthy self-isolation and healthy downtime, you can discern the intent underneath your choice to be alone.  With this self-insight, you will be empowered to choose solitude from a healthy place.

Here are three ways unhealthy self-isolation and healthy solitude look and feel different from each other.

1—Externally referenced vs. internally referenced

When I’m alone in a self-isolating way, my intent is to pull away from other people. My solitude is externally referenced. That is, my aloneness has a “not-with-them” feeling, which includes a negative feeling about “them.”

To put this another way, self-isolation has a distinctly different felt sense for me than healthy alone time. Part of me wants others to notice I’m gone, and regret my absence. Another part wants to go into the witness protection program where no one knows I even exist. Either way, I’m not present in myself in a loving way, because a part of me is running the show.

With healthy solitude, by contrast, I feel like I’m happily turning inwards to myself rather than negatively pulling away from others. The world feels like a friendly place out there: I’m simply choosing not to focus on it at the moment. My point of reference is internal: I’m choosing solitude from a place of Loving Adult Presence.

I might choose to be alone because I need to rest, to think something over, or just to “be.” Or perhaps I need solitary time to focus on a creative project. Even something as seemingly mundane as creating order around the house can rest my nervous system and recharge my batteries.

2— Black-and-white vs richly ambiguous

I can recognize the energy of self-isolation in myself by the black-and-white quality of my thoughts and reactions: thoughts like, “I never want to see that person again,” or “I’ll never do that again,” or, “I’m pulling out of this situation immediately.” Underneath all that pushing away and pulling away, something in me feels profoundly unsafe.

In the extreme version of this self-isolating reaction, I feel as if I’m pulling into myself into a tiny space the size of a grain of rice. I perceive other people as if from a great distance, through an unbridgeable space.

When I consciously choose to take alone time from a thoughtful, centered place in myself, though, my feelings about my “in-out” choices are more ambiguous, complex, and rich: “Ah, I’m sorry to be missing that concert, AND it feels really good to be home and be quiet this evening.” Or, “Wow, I can’t believe he said that. I need some time to process this reaction I’m having to his comment.”

In other words, from this conscious spaciousness, I can hold contrasting aspects of my decision to stay “in.” I can empathize with the needs at play on both sides, and hold both.

3—Compulsive “hijack” versus mindful choice

In my late twenties I discovered a revered teacher had lied to me about something of great importance to me. This betrayal hurt and stunned me so deeply that I pulled away from everything and everyone for several weeks.

I say “I pulled away,” but at the time it did not feel like a choice: it felt as if deep inside me there was someone with a big hook that pulled on my stomach from the inside, yanking me back and away from the risk of relating to other people.

This is an example of inner “hijack”, when something in me takes over in an attempt to protect me. When the part is vigilant to this extreme—like a growling watchdog, hackles up—it’s relatively easy to catch.

The subtler version of hijack is a more serious danger for HSPs: we just stop doing certain things, seeing certain people, or going certain places— without even realizing we’ve made the choice.

Whether dramatic or subtle, though, hijack feels out of control inside me. Healthy solitude, by contrast, is a conscious choice I make from Loving Adult Presence. I notice I could use some alone time, then I arrange to get it. Or I notice I’m no longer enjoying a certain activity, and I choose to withdraw from it.

Putting this all together

For me, self-isolation is a compulsive pulling inwards by a part of me that takes over in an attempt to get away from something (or someone) in the “outside world” that feels too risky.  Healthy solitude or downtime, on the other hand, is a choice I make from Loving Adult Presence.

When I’m in this more spacious energy, I’m capable of acting on my need for rest or solitude, while also making room for regret or ambivalence about the experiences I’m choosing to miss.

The actual amount of alone time we need can vary dramatically. A big spiritual shift; a loss, with its attendant grief; a major life transition; an unusually busy, stimulating period of life—these events and many more create an increased need for processing and rest time.

If, on the other hand, you realize you are self-isolating because of unresolved fear and pain, then your next step is to build your capacity for Loving Adult Presence.

You may need support to do this: having company helps regulate your nervous system while you do the work of building an inner relationship with the parts of you that feel frightened and alone.

Once you know how to recognize the difference between healthy downtime and self-isolation, you can discern the intent underneath your impulse to be alone. Then your healthiest path forward will become clear.

Photo © 2018 Kaitlyn Wyenberg ( Thank you so much Kaitlyn.

Note: An earlier version of this article originally appeared on December 19, 2016.