Highly Sensitive People (HSP) and Relationships

Group of HSP women laughingMy last blog here, talked about whether you are, or might be in the 15-20% of the population who are  Highly Sensitive People (HSP). It’s sometimes hard enough to work out what we need on our own, but add in a relationship, and it becomes doubly hard. And we are all in relationships. Partners, family, colleagues, friends, even strangers we meet. So how can we manage these relationships without compromising our own needs?

Start with your HSP self

The first point is always to start with ourselves. We have to know ourselves; what we like/don’t like, our trigger points, our energy levels… Until we know about ourselves, we can’t explain to others, and we can’t put in boundaries to support our wellbeing.

Some HSP things to think about

Highly Sensitive People need to manage their energy use, so they don’t become ‘burnt out.’

Think about these questions, and maybe keep a note of your answers!

  • After a social gathering, how do you recharge your batteries?
  • What are your sleep patterns like, do you have good ‘sleep hygiene’?
  • How often do you spend time alone, resting and just ‘being’ you?
  • What would be your ideal Friday night/weekend?
  • What does your ideal holiday look like?
  • How do you manage food/nutrition?
  • When do you exercise/move your body?
  • Who do you most enjoy spending time with, and why?
  • Who do you least enjoy spending time with, and why?
  • How do you feel about conflict?

HSP and Conflict

The Gottman Institute has been researching relationships for decades, and has identified four behaviours that are present in troubled relationships. ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse’ are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. Communication of our own feelings and understanding how the other feels, can often reduce the points of conflict. We don’t have to agree with the other’s point of view, but if we can, at least, understand why they think that way, we are a step closer to deepening communication.

HSP and Conflict

You might wonder why I’m telling you about this! The last question in the list above was “How do you feel about conflict?” Most Highly Sensitive People try to avoid conflict at all costs because we know that it will probably end up with us as a blubbering wreck (or is that just me?!) The problem is that avoiding conflict often means going with the other person’s point of view. Because we value harmony so highly, we try and keep the peace, and our needs get ignored.

When that happens over a long period of time, we can lose our identity, forget what our own needs even are, and resent the other for making us feel that way.

HSP and Empathy

Hands up if you cry at films/TV programmes! What about ‘feeling’ a piece of music rather than just listening to it? Do you listen to friends’ stories and feel like you are right there with them, with all the ups and downs?

This empathy can be a huge gift (as a psychotherapist, it is more valuable to me than anything I learnt from a book). But this empathy also takes up a huge amount of emotional energy. If this isn’t managed well, it can mean there’s none left for anything, or anyone else.

Relationships with Other HSPs

As with all things, there is both positive and negative in this sort of relationship. It may mean that you are each able to recognise and take account of the things the other is going through. And there’s something special about sharing a box a tissues over a weepy film. But it may also mean that you both have limited time and energy to expend on each other, and if you are both ‘running on empty’, that’s when the conflicts might arise.

Relationships with Non HSPs

This needs more work on our part, to communicate what it means to feel the way we do, and, if I’m honest, even if we do explain, a non HSP person may not really understand. Having said that, it can be useful for us to have someone who doesn’t process everything as deeply as we do. Freud has been attributed with saying, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” (If you’re interested, in my HSP way, I found this article discussing whether it was really said!)

That means sometimes, our non-HSP friends will prevent us from going down a rabbit hole, and save us from information overwhelm.

So What?!

So, these are some of the challenges you might face as an HSP in any sort of relationship. Here are some ideas that can help us to manage our precious resources.

  • You are in charge of what you do! You can say ‘NO’ to anything that feels too much, whether that’s a social engagement, a work ‘do’ or a weekend away with your family. I’m not suggesting you do nothing, as that has its own problems, but you are allowed to manage the energy and emotions you have, doing what you want to do.
  • You don’t need to justify yourself to anyone. If you go to a party and want to go home after an hour, that’s OK. You can tell people you’ve ‘had enough’, if you want to, but equally, it’s not really any of their business! In fact, if you are concerned that people might try and judge and/or shame you, it’s better not to say anything. A simple, “Thank you so much for the party, I’ve had fun, and I’m going now,” might be all that’s needed.
  • Other people might not agree with how you live your life. They don’t have to. At the end of the day, we only get one life. If you end up living your life to somebody else’s rules, then it’s not really your life. Sometimes it can hurt when people tell us what they think. Again, no justification is needed; “Thank you for being interested in my life,” will often stop someone in their tracks!
  • Because of the way your mind and body work, you may need more care in certain areas. Most HSPs struggle without the right amount of sleep. Some are grumpy when hungry or thirsty. You are unique, so find out what works for you, and try and build them into habits. If lying in a bath full of bubbles in silence for an hour is your ‘go to’ for recharging your batteries, do that, and plan it into your diary.
  • You can use tools to help you overcome sensory issues. If lots of noise overwhelms you, find a really good pair of headphones/ear plugs, and wear them. Temperature might be your thing; wear layers and pay attention to how you heat/cool your home. Bright lights can trouble some; use Polaroid lenses, or wear your sunglasses. Remember, you don’t have to justify any of these choices to anyone! If they make your life more comfortable, then that’s brilliant!

What if this isn’t enough?

Sometimes, we have been given messages about ourselves that are so strong we don’t even realise we hold them.  This can be particularly true of HSPs if they have been told they are ‘over-emotional’, ‘too sensitive’,  their whole lives.   A professional can help you unpick what’s going on for you, and support you in positive ways to change things that are no longer helpful.

If you’d like a free 15 minute “getting to know you” phonecall , so you can decide if therapy is for you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch here!

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash