Navigating Your Natural Tendencies When You’re a Highly Sensitive Person

By Margarita Tartakovsky

Being a highly sensitive person (HSP) comes with gifts — such as greater empathy — and some challenges. For instance, HSPs tend to get overwhelmed by their environments. We’re bothered by everything from big crowds to bright lights. (In an earlier piece we shared five ways to navigate this overwhelm.)

HSPs also are keenly aware of their shortcomings, and they’re especially critical of themselves, said Jean Fitzpatrick, LP, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with HSPs. They usually put “a great deal of thought and care into [their] actions. Their philosophy is ‘do it once and do it right,’ which leads to a tendency toward perfectionism.”

“HSPs tend to ruminate on bad experiences and have trouble letting them go—even when they head home from work,” said Vince Favilla, a psychology professor.

Thankfully, you can navigate these challenges and natural tendencies effectively. Below, Fitzpatrick and Favilla shared six strategies.

Remember you’re worthy

When highly sensitive clients struggle with self-criticism, Fitzpatrick helps them realize that we’re all worthy human beings who will make mistakes. “Often our weaknesses are the flip side of our strengths,” she said. For instance, while you might be extra vulnerable to negative feedback, you’re also a great friend who empathizes and listens intently.

Go beyond ruminating

When you’re stuck in a cycle of self-criticism, Favilla suggested taking a more objective perspective. “[T]ry asking yourself how you’d judge this situation if it were someone else and not you.”

Remind yourself that your action, at that time, made sense, he said. Instead of bashing yourself, try to learn the lesson. For instance, you might tell yourself: “Next time I’m in that situation, I’ll do _____ instead.”

Find what works for you

As a child, Favilla was artistic, reflective and emotional—and he felt like a weirdo. Today, he sees his sensitivity as a strength. “We all have our quirks, and it’s a bit cliché to spin your supposed ‘weaknesses’ as strengths. But I really do think…HSPs just need to find a lifestyle that works for them and they can be tremendously happy and successful.”

This might mean having a job that honors your strengths and tendencies. For Favilla that’s teaching. He gets to connect with people, do meaningful work, and enjoy time off to mentally recharge.

According to Fitzpatrick, “Highly sensitive people shine in settings where they can use their depth of processing, attention to subtle stimuli and attunement to others.”

Cultivate joy

“If the person is weighed down by the challenging aspects of the trait or by life events, I encourage taking an opportunity to cultivate joy,” Fitzpatrick said. She encourages her clients to think back to earlier experiences that brought them joy, even as far back as childhood.

Often these memories involve simple pleasures, such as dancing and being out in nature. These kinds of activities “pull us away from our computer screens and into a richer, more joyous experience of life.”

Find compromise with non-sensitive people

“If you have a non-sensitive partner, accept that you are different and focus on building a life together that will work for both of your temperaments,” said Fitzpatrick, who has also worked as a marriage counselor for more than 20 years.

Take travel, for instance. You want to have meaningful experiences on your tropical vacation, such as visiting ancient ruins and taking a yoga class. Your spouse wants to motorbike and zip line. You lead your partner to try a meaningful experience, while he helps you get out of your comfort zone, Fitzpatrick said. As a compromise, you decide to go snorkeling, she said.

Be yourself

Be vulnerable, Favilla said. “This is how you find those trusted friends…Use your personality to screen out people who aren’t a good emotional match for you.” By being honest about who you are, you’ll attract people who understand and appreciate your traits, he said.

In other words, “don’t apologize for [being highly sensitive].” “Own it,” Favilla said. Embrace your natural tendencies, work through challenges, practice good self-care and be proud of who you are.

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