Are you a highly sensitive person?
These are a series of questions for you, the same questions I had to ask myself when I was first discovering why all these emotions were taking me over!
Does the sound of your children’s boisterous play sometimes overwhelm you and make you want to retreat to a quieter space?
Does being in a loud and chaotic household make you want to retreat to a quieter space?
Do you feel overwhelmed by lots of things happening at once?
Do you constantly feel like you’re short on time, and there’s always so much to do which frazzles you?
Are you deeply and easily moved and do little moments bring you great joy?
Do you feel deeply empathetic to your children’s pain and a rollercoaster of emotions?
Do you feel in tune with the way people feel and can sense any changes that occur in them?
Do you feel utterly exhausted, both from the emotional and the physical overwhelm of daily life?
If you answered yes to most of these, chances are you’re a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), and while the negative aspects can be overwhelming, it can be your superpower!
I know, at this point you’re asking how do you know this? I am one!
Let me explain. Being sensitive all my life, I’ve felt the emotions of everyone in the room, been deeply moved by both beautiful and paralyzed by awful things. I’ve had trouble concentrating in big crowds, and process my outer world at an intense level.
Being a mom has definitely sharpened my sensitivities, in fact, I think they have heightened over time. Sometimes feeling daunting. As an adult, I’ve been more adversely affected by fast-paced life of motherhood and starting a career again, and I can easily become exhausted and out of balance.
So, are you also a Highly Sensitive Person? How do you know? Take a look at the list below, and see if you recognize yourself in any of these common traits of Highly Sensitive People:
- Overwhelmed easily
- Aware of subtle changes in the environment
- Sensitive to pain, noise, smells and touch
- A desire to withdraw into solitude often
- Overwhelmed by light and sounds
- Extremely conscientious to the point of being insecure
- Easily annoyed and frustrated
- Avoid violence and confrontation, including on TV and news
- Changes and transitions are very challenging and anxiety-inducing
- Easily overwhelmed by too many options or choices
Now, you don’t exactly have to be all these traits all the time to be a highly sensitive person, each of us is different with different experiences and histories that shape who we are.
The term HSP was first coined by the psychologist Elaine Aron who began researching “high sensitivity” in late 1991. According to her website, she continues to do research on it to this day, also calling it Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS, the trait’s scientific term) Dr. Aron says that this trait affects 15 to 20% of the population.
Don’t despair, your trait is normal and it’s innate (meaning you’re born with it). In fact, the trait has been discovered by biologists in over 100 species!
Although HSP’s can face many challenges due to being overstimulated and emotionally exhausted, there are ways to remedy them by getting some needed downtime. Many of the suggestions I’ve come across are both doable and practical tools for busy moms.
The website, Expansive Heart has an amazing piece about 4 great ways to overcome the struggle for more downtime:
Let Go of Perfectionism
This is not easy, but getting more space for ourselves will involve taking off our perfectionist hat and setting some difficult boundaries. Saying “no” is one of the most uncomfortable things to do, I know, but it’s the first step in prioritizing our needs for downtime. Prioritizing ourselves often feels impossible or selfish, especially if we have children or others depending on us in some way. The guilt is probably already starting to rise up, telling you all the reasons you can’t put yourself first. That’s okay! Don’t let the guilt stop you from taking care of yourself because it will most likely always be present at some level. The trick is counteracting guilt with self-compassion, otherwise known as talking kindly to yourself as you would a friend.
Make Downtime a Routine
Transitions and decision making are often difficult tasks for Highly Sensitive folks because we are wired to process every decision at length, to pause and reflect before acting. This is why it’s easier for us to follow a routine rather than be spontaneous. If you are someone who tends to work late and skip lunch breaks, this becomes a comfortable pattern, despite the end result of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. The thought of beginning something new, even if it will decrease stress levels, can create some resistance. Therefore, the secret to getting more downtime is to get more downtime! In other words, schedule your downtime in and make it a habit. Try starting small by blocking out 15 minutes a day to relax, take a walk, meditate or do nothing.
Soften Your Inner Critic
When we begin to offer ourselves more downtime, our inner critic will surely have an opinion about this and won’t be shy about expressing its displeasure every chance that arises. You may hear the “shoulds” (i.e. you should be working right now) or fear tactics (i.e. you’ll never get ahead if you take so many breaks). Don’t let this stop you! The critic has good intentions of wanting to protect you from harm, criticism, or failure but it loses touch with reality sometimes. It fails to see that pushing you so hard is causing more stress.
Next time you notice your self-critic, take a few moments to listen to what it has to say and then rewrite the narrative you’re hearing. For instance, “You should be working right now” can be transformed into “I know taking a short break now will help me be more focused to meet my work deadline.”
Put Yourself First
Prioritizing myself has been my biggest obstacle to getting more downtime and maybe yours as well. It is so incredibly difficult to choose ourselves when others seemingly need our support or we could put more time into a work project. However, putting ourselves at the bottom of our priority list will eventually catch up to us in the form of stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, overwhelm, anxiety, among other issues. So how can we prioritize ourselves? It’s as simple as setting aside some time each week to get quiet and focus on an activity that we enjoy.
Quiet downtime is an essential practice for all Highly Sensitive People because, without it, we end up feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious or irritable. We can find the balance between productivity and rest by letting go of our perfectionist habits, creating a consistent routine of prioritizing our needs and not taking direction from our inner critic.
The process of accepting yourself as an HSP may be difficult at first, but if you reframe it as a gift, rather than a curse, your inner narrative begins to shift. Each of us are individuals and have our own gifts and strengths.
Sometimes it helps to be reminded of the positive aspects of being an HSP. I’ve listed some below that are uniquely beautiful traits to have as a parent:
- Highly Sensitive People pick up on subtleties that others miss. Noticing little details allows HSPs to be able to anticipate the needs of others, which is a huge asset in family relationships
- Highly Sensitive People are very caring, empathetic and emotionally responsive towards the needs of others due to more active mirror neurons (the part of the brain responsible for empathy). (I am very empathetic to my children’s feelings, and I’m known as an “Emotional Processor” as I help my children process their own emotions).
- A more active insula in the brain creates heightened perception, insight and intuition allowing the Highly Sensitive Person to notice nonverbal cues and pick up subtle nuances. (As a mom, I sometimes see before my child is even aware themselves that they are hungry or need a break).
I hope if you are recognizing yourself as an HSP after reading this blog, you will take the time to explore it more. Sometimes being an HSP as a parent can be downright exhausting, and disrupts your “inner compass,” putting you entirely out of balance. If you remember to care for yourself by taking some downtime, not just because it’s a good thing to do, but it’s necessary to do, then you will be better equipped to handle the household chaos.
And finally, ask yourself this question: Are you an HSP? What do you do to give yourself downtime?
Megan J Law