We highly sensitive persons tend to be gentle, smart, and highly conscientious creatures who prefer quiet environments.
I stumbled across the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) years ago in college. Though much of the description sounded like me, I blew it off as just another personality type, like Meyers-Briggs, or enneagram, or astrological signs (which are fun, sometimes insightful, but I’m not going to bet my life on them). So I didn’t spend much time looking further into the term. I only wish I had, as it may have saved me much heartache (and maybe even my first marriage).
Fast forward to after my marriage ended. I spent a lot of time trying to understand what happened to sabotage our love. I was acutely aware that the weight of heavy stress in our lives had played a large part in unraveling our marriage. The challenges of having children, owning a home, and making a living that appeared fairly easy for others to handle felt exhausting and overwhelming for me. And for my then-husband.
It was then that I re-encountered the term HSP. It was a huge “ah-ha!” moment. Because it turns out, we are both Highly Sensitive People. This was one of the primary reasons we both secretly kept asking ourselves over and over, “What is wrong with me?”, “Why is everything so overwhelming?”, and “Why can’t I hold it all together?”. It was why we both felt flawed and run down much of the time.
It was also why our love was eroding over time – because we were always “stressed out”.
Not knowing what a Highly Sensitive Person was, we didn’t understand how being an HSP can affect the health of our relationships. It requires a different approach to life and to love than normal.
Much research has happened in the last 15 years to validate that this is, in fact, a neurobiological trait that sets a full 18-20% of all species apart from the other 80% or so! We simply have a more sensitive nervous system.
This creates some very big challenges for HSPs living in cultures where speed, aggression, high stimulation, and insensitivity are not only the norm but are highly valued.
As I delved into learning more I was floored by what I discovered.
We HSPs tend to be gentle, smart, and highly conscientious creatures who prefer quiet environments.
It can be extremely overwhelming for HSPs to live in our type-a culture, with so much responsibility and never-ending to-do lists. Because of our sensitive system, we take in more sensory information (including emotions) and process it all deeply. This means we feel pressure, fear, sadness, anger, and pretty much everything, more intensely. We also become emotionally overloaded much faster than non-HSPs, if we don’t manage ourselves well.
No wonder I used to walk around feeling like something was wrong with me compared to others.
For example, parties can be overwhelming for me due to all the sights, sounds, scents, jostling bodies, and other people’s emotions (which HSPs tend to “catch” like a cold, being very empathic.).
Conflict with others is hard to shake off (this was problematic in my marriage).
Seeing others in pain brings tears to my eyes (this was problematic, too, as my ex was depressed a lot, which is also common for HSPs).
Making a mistake used to devour me with guilt (yep, this too wreaked havoc on my marriage, because who can be genuinely loving and kind when they are being eaten up by guilt?).
What relief I felt as I started to understand that all this is normal for many of us! And that I could learn to work with it, instead of letting it work against me.
If you have trouble bouncing back from strong emotions or don’t love big parties, like me, it might mean you are an HSP.
Other signs include you may be a “highly sensitive person.”
often feeling that everything is just “too much”
feeling emotions deeply
taking things “too personally”, “too seriously”, or being “touchy”
having been called shy as a child (or even still)
being a super smeller, or being bothered by loud or chronic noise
having a low threshold for stress and pain
needing more sleep than others or you feel terrible
picking up on the tension that others are experiencing (and taking it on as your own)
low tolerance for shallow idle conversation
love of beauty and meaning
being naturally creative
deep care about others suffering and desire to help alleviate it
feeling misunderstood or different all your life
Getting easily agitated or irritable
An aversion to hearing negative news stories
and on and on….
Perhaps some of the above sounds like you, or someone you love.
Why does this all matter when it comes to your love life? Because if you do not understand, honor, and learn how to work with this trait, it can sabotage your relationship. As HSPs we have unique needs and thus often need unique skills, in addition to regular relationship skills, in order to have the healthy fulfilling love life we long for.
Here are 6 areas where managing this trait poorly can affect your relationship in detrimental ways
- Because everything is more intense for us, we become overstimulated easily and then lose access to the calm place from which our relationship skills and love flow, as if we are locked out of our own heart. We can then become emotionally reactive, moody, touchy and irritable, or really withdrawn from our loved ones.
- We pick up on any subtle unkind tones or comments from our partner and take them very personally. For example, if our partner is only slightly agitated at us, we might feel it as real anger towards us and that (and any negative experience with our partner) can linger a long time inside us and be hard to shake off.
- We are likely to experience burnout and exhaustion (perhaps even depression and anxiety) as we try to navigate the overwhelming world. This leads to low energy, low libido, and low zest (which is so important for a vital healthy relationship).
- We need more down time and space to ourselves than others, but often don’t take it because we want to do our best at caring for and being available for others who rely on us (as we are so conscientious).
- We have high standards for others (and ourselves) and they don’t always live up to them, which leads to disappointment. We can be judgmental and critical because our deeply observant nature makes even the subtlest of faults in our partner (and yourself) loom large.
- We often feel flawed because we are different than the valued norm. This can lead to a lack of self-confidence, self-love, and ability to advocate for our own needs, which are often higher than non-HSPs. Yet, the basis for a deeply loving relationship between partners is real self-love.
If any of the above sounds familiar to you, maybe you can see like I did after my first marriage ended, how the above traits may have contributed to big rifts, distance, and deterioration in your marriage over time.
Though there is much more to say about how High Sensitivity can affect relationships (both positively and negatively), what I really want for you to understand is that having this trait does not need to lead to an unhappy love life!
In fact, as long as you can embrace and learn how to work with this trait, it is likely you will have one of the richest most loving and meaningful partnerships possible!
But, you must learn to work with it.
Making changes in some of these areas can improve your relationship tremendously. Skills for working with this trait and maximizing its gifts are easily teachable. Even just starting to understand the trait can be hugely transformative. I know it was for me.
As they say, knowledge is power. So the simple awareness that you are a Highly Sensitive Person is a huge leap forward in changing your relationships for the better. It is from the platform of awareness and understanding that we become inspired to learn the skills to address our challenges and harness our gifts so we can create and keep the love we long for in our lives.
As I have developed the vital skills I need to care for myself well, work with my emotions, communicate effectively, feel safe asking for what I need, and access my deep compassionate and loving nature, my new relationship has blossomed into a thing of such potent joy, support, and passion.
I am about to get re-married! And I couldn’t be more joy-filled or surer of the health of our relationship. It is a far cry from my first marriage and feels so right.
What I now understand, and what thrills me, is that sensitive people are built for deep loving connection more than any others. By developing the skills to do so, you not only heal your life and give yourself the very best chance at an incredibly fulfilling, supportive, and loving next relationship, but you also model that love for all others, which is exactly what the world needs right now.
And you? If you now suspect you may be Highly Sensitive, too, how do you thinking it has affected your love life as far as you can tell?