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Honoring Sensitivity in a High-Pressure World


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I’ll come out and say it—I’m sensitive.

Indeed, a “highly sensitive person,” as my closer companions often call me—“HSP” for short. And I’d like to acknowledge for a moment that it takes courage to share this identification with the world.

We pay a lot of lip-service to sensitivity these days. Brené Brown’s Power of Vulnerability skyrocketed from bestseller to instant-classic-manifesto status. We proudly proclaim ourselves as “empaths” (albeit with a twinge of self-pity) and we find ourselves riding the wave of the millennial self-love revolution. “Staying in is the new going out!” read lifestyle magazine headlines. And I can’t argue with any of it—most of the time I’m in full agreement—but does our culture actually mean what it says?

Frankly, I’m calling bullsh*t.

At the end of the day, we live in a high-pressure world. The new American Dream demands us to rise up, keep up, and make a name for ourselves—all while being 100 percent self-sustaining, “healthy,” environmentally conscious, and making a thriving living off our entrepreneurial dreams. In a culturally-relevant (i.e. expensive) urban oasis. Oh, and honoring our sensitive nature.

I have a hard time believing our culture is sincere in supporting this sensitivity. We can be sensitive as much as we want—off the clock. We can be sensitive as long as we are still highly-functioning, profitable members of society. Ultimately, we can be sensitive if we keep it to ourselves.

Does this pose a dilemma for you? Because I’ve been mulling it over for months, if not years. How do we honor our sensitivity in this high-pressure world?

First of all, we have to honor it within ourselves.

This is easier said than done—but it’s a must. It starts with a simple acknowledgement: “I’m a sensitive.” Hey, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Honoring our own sensitivity requires deconstructing the judgments we hold against it. I am in firm belief that our true nature is one of self-acceptance, so sourcing our inner-critic requires a little personal archeology.

Who said it wasn’t okay to be this way? Was it the boss who told us to get our sh*t together after a breakup? Was it the parent who signed us up for countless extra-curriculars, or demanded academic perfection? Or perhaps it was the schoolyard peers who said crying is for sissies. Dig deep and find the root of the belief.

Once I understood why I didn’t accept my sensitivity, I was able to have compassion for myself and change the script. While the outer world may still supply this message, I was no longer one of the voices. I became my own voice of care.

Then, honor it with our actions.

This often requires compromise. I hate to burst the invincible bubble, but we actually cannot do it all. We are human beings. As a sensitive, this is even more valid. Honoring our sensitivity means assessing our energy-level frequently and respecting where we’re at. Checking-in with our physical and emotional bodies allows us to make loving and informed decisions about how to fulfill our deeper needs.

We aren’t going to be up for every invitation or request. This requires saying “no” to others a lot more than we’re likely comfortable with. Start practicing. If we need to, we can say “no” in small ways and work our way up. “I’m sorry, I can’t drive you to the airport next week. I have a lot on my plate.” could eventually become “I love you, but I can no longer engage in this relationship.” or “On second thought, I never wanted to be a doctor.” If it was scary to read that, don’t worry. Baby steps.

Lately, I’ve scaled way back on the expectations I put on myself in my spare time. I spend a lot more “me time” at home: cooking healthy meals, playing music, journaling, or reading inspiring books. I love people, but when I acknowledge my sensitivity, being an on-the-go social butterfly doesn’t fit my life right now. Maybe again someday, but what’s important is I’m listening to my needs in the present and making the kindest choices I can to reflect that.

Get clear on priorities.

Sensitivity is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for life’s difficulties. There is no such thing. Sensitive or not, there are aspects of life we have to face to survive (and ideally, thrive) in this world. And I believe it’s entirely possible for us, so long as we’re clear on our priorities.

I like to think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for this thought exercise. I’ve literally drawn the pyramid out in my journal and made commitments to each layer of personal development. The base of the pyramid is “physiological needs,” meaning food, shelter, and sleep. If any of these aspects are out of whack, it’s highly difficult to feel balanced and healthy, much less engage with the world without getting drained. So we start there. Prioritize a good night’s sleep. I know it’s not “sexy,” but you know what else isn’t sexy? A zombied-out HSP.

Then, prioritize a stable, sustainable work and home situation. Sensitives are more impacted by change than others, so finding a good fit long-term in these areas is super important. Despite my sensitivity, I’m highly ambitious, so I used to set myself up in harsh, demanding work environments for the challenge and prestige, but ultimately would burn out and return to the same ungrounded, high-risk place I started in.

I’ve learned my limits and I’m clear about them with everyone in my life, so now I’m confident in the long-term potential of my current life choices. I go to bed before 11 p.m., I maintain a nutritious diet, and I created a cozy, modest home that feels good to return to. Much peace arises from these choices.

Lastly, commit to self-care practices.

Reclaiming my sensitivity began when I learned (and consistently practiced) meditation. This is something I believe all sensitives would benefit from embracing. Meditation is, quite simply, taking time to be with ourselves. Free of demands, judgment, pressure, or misunderstanding. Sitting with ourselves allows us to get to know what’s actually going on in our minds, bodies, and hearts. How else could we know how to best take care of ourselves? After several years of practice, I now receive direct, intuitive insight in my meditation sessions about the best choices to make, and answers to questions I’ve struggled with off the cushion.

There are infinite other self-care modalities we can adopt, as unique as each of us. I have a friend who is devout about her yoga practice. Another who is basically a mermaid and jumps straight for an Epsom-salt bath. Another swears by reiki to rebalance after tough weeks.

We all benefit from different tools at different times. Usually, quiet time writing does the trick for me, but other days I just need a long talk on the phone with someone who loves me. When sh*t really hits the fan, I break out my emergency first-aid kit (“When Harry Met Sally” and a very large bowl of popcorn).

I write all this in hopes that I, and my fellow sensitives, can embrace who we are and empower ourselves to build our strength, restore our health, and live out our best lives. I don’t want to view this quality as an adversity; it’s just another part of how we walk through the world.

We can, and we will, rise to meet every day with integrity, honesty, and the beautiful sensitivity we have to offer. We are everything we need to be. We are enough.

In Soul, Danielle

(This post was originally published on Elephant Journal)