“Sometimes you’ve got to look straight into the tired eyes of the woman staring back at you in the mirror and tell her that she deserves the best kind of love, the best kind of life, and devote yourself to giving it to her all over again.” ~S.C. Lourie
I learned the hard way that in order to have an intimate relationship (and life) that feels deeply satisfying, nourishing, and fulfilling, highly sensitive people (HSPs) need to attend more to their emotional well-being than non-HSPs.
Before I knew I was highly sensitive (which is a normal trait found in 20-30% of the population, where we process all stimuli more deeply than others)—or what it took to stay grounded and emotionally well as one—I was married to a good kind man. Together, we took on a wild pace of life and lots of responsibilities in quick succession over the course of a couple years. We had kids, built a house (by ourselves!), and were both developing our careers.
There was little to no time for taking care of myself. I was always on—even at night when I was taking care of my two young sons, who were poor sleepers.
I was overwhelmed, irritable, and stressed out much of the time. I remember thinking something was wrong with me, like I was a “problem person” because I was grumpy and short-tempered so much and couldn’t access that sweet feeling of peace and calm I felt regularly as a younger person.
I also had trouble feeling connected with my husband and tended to blame it on him a lot—which just drove a wedge between us. (I now know this was due more to my stress levels than anything he did or didn’t do.)
The toll this took was the loss of our happiness together—and eventually our marriage.
Later, when I realized I was a highly sensitive person, and how important it was to support my nervous system and learn to work with my big emotions in intentional ways, I realized not knowing or doing this was the downfall of my marriage.
Over the years, I’ve taken on big projects, built another house and a business, and had another baby, and I am very happily remarried. But this time I did all of it while truly caretaking and honoring my sensitive system. The difference has been huge.
After talking with many other HSPs who also experienced shifts in their relationships after learning to support themselves better, I’ve concluded that we HSPs simply require more conscious attention to our sensitive mind-body-heart systems than non-HSPs do.
If you are an HSP, you may not love hearing this fact. Most of us HSPs living in these busy modern times have trouble with this, including myself. At least I used to. Because it can feel a bit unfair—like, why do I have to put so much effort into feeling well when others don’t?
I get it. It’s normal to expect yourself to be like non-HSPs because, well, that is the norm. And also, maybe you didn’t know that you are highly sensitive until recently—or just now!
Also, the message we get left and right is that we all should be able to keep up with the frantic pace of modern life, to push through with few breaks without much more than a yoga class here and there and be FINE.
But the truth I’ve found is, once we accept that our systems need more loving attention from ourselves—more spaciousness, more quiet and downtime, more emotion-tending—and get to work honoring all of this, magic begins to happen in our relationships.
But before we are good at that, our love lives can feel hard. Because love can’t flow from stress and fear. Connection can’t come out of a defended, stressed state.
Because confidence, security, and internal safety (essential for strong, fulfilling relationships) can’t come from overstimulation and a nervous system that’s regularly in a fight, flight, or freeze state.
Because effective and connecting communication can’t come from the closed-off heart that we have as humans when we’re run down, overwhelmed, and on edge.
Because we can’t respond effectively to our significant others when challenges arise if we’re coming from a reactive or overloaded nervous system.
For love to thrive in our lives, as I now know from deep experience, we need to be able to access all of these things (love, connection, security, confidence, responsiveness, and communicating well).
And this all comes from being in a centered place in ourselves: our heart and higher brain.
Like my experience in my first marriage shows (and briefer moments here and there still remind me!), we can’t be there steadily as an HSP when we aren’t actually listening to and honoring the needs of our sensitive body, mind, and nervous systems, and guiding them back to “home.”
So how can we be in that centered place more steadily?
For me, I had to learn quite a few things and break some old ways of thinking and behaving (like not listening to my brain when it pushed me to just push through, learning to say no, setting boundaries with myself and others, and more),
For today, I’d love to offer you four things you can get started with right away that were key for me.
1. Accept you need to attend to your emotional well-being more than most people.
Just like one person needs to eat more regularly than another to keep blood sugars level or needs more sleep than their friend to be well rested, you simply need to pay more attention to your mind-body-heart system than non-HSPs to be at your best.
We are all different, and that’s that.
It can also help to know the benefits you and your relationships will reap. For example, you’ll feel more attracted to your partner and more attractive to them; you’ll feel more secure and be less likely to take things personally; and you’ll be better able to access your intuition, advocate for what you want and need, say no, set healthy boundaries, and more.
Although it may be inconvenient at the time or make for “achieving” slightly less each day, I now even consider myself lucky to need this extra attention from myself. Because those same things that restore and nourish my sensitive system tend to also feed my heart and soul—like long walks in nature, or a half hour yoga of nidra. And because I know I need them to be well, I weave them into my life regularly, and they truly make my life richer.
Once I experienced how much of a difference it made in my life and relationships—and how good I felt doing it—it was much easier to give myself the extra attention to emotional regulation I need. It will likely be the same for you!
2. Use irritability or reactiveness as a signal.
In fact, when you find yourself on edge, rundown, reactive, or feeling a lot of negative emotion often, it’s a signal from the intelligent wisdom of your mind-body-heart system telling you:“Slow down, my love. Take care of me, my love. I need your attention. I need your caretaking! Please love me. Please listen to me. Please support me.”
Listen to that wise part of you and get to caretaking your beautiful sensitive self, in one of the many ways you know how to. Or learn new effective ways. Which brings me to…
3. Learn about your nervous system.
You don’t have to understand a lot of the science of the nervous system to work with yours, but understanding how your nervous system states affect your life and how to support yourself to shift states is really powerful
In the most basic sense, your fight-or-flight system and your freeze system should only be activated briefly and fairly rarely.
You want to spend the majority of your time in the states of calm and connect (that peaceful, engaged state of being that allows you to access to your heart, wisdom, and ability to connect with others, and where oxytocin is produced); and you want to spend some time in rest/digest mode (the state that allows for digestion, as well as healing and regeneration of the physical body) so you can be physically and emotionally at your best.
To build awareness of your own states, start noticing what state you are in at any given moment. Are you in an agitated, anxious, aggravated state (fight or flight)? Or in an empty, shut down, numb and disconnected state (freeze)? Or are you in calm and connect, which feels like being centered, home in your heart? Or are you in rest /digest, which often feels like a peaceful, cozy almost sleepy state?
4. Find your favorite ways to support yourself back to or to spend more time in calm and connect.
For me, the beginning of real change happened when I started doing daily nervous system practices for twenty minutes or more. Luckily, there are so many to choose from that it’s not hard to find ones you enjoy. Long walks in nature, deep breathing practices, and, a favorite of mine, yoga nidra, are all great. Even dancing counts (movement can really help calm an agitated state or thaw a frozen state).
Yet, one bigger chunk of regulation alone often isn’t enough to help us stay primarily in our calm and connected selves, so pepper into your day smaller nervous system practices—such as feeling the ground beneath your feet, noticing your breathing without changing it, or slowly scanning the room with a curious noticing of what’s around you.
Here is one you can try right now that I love:
- Place your hand on your heart area so that you feel your own warm touch.
- Breathe softly into that hand and heart area, a bit deeper than normal.
- As you do, remember one moment when you felt safe and loved by another human being. This could be a partner or child, a friend, therapist, teacher, or even a pet. Don’t think of the entire relationship, just one moment of it.
- As you remember this moment, let yourself feel the feeling of that moment. Stay with it, allowing the feeling to wash through your body for twenty or thirty seconds.
- Notice any shifts in your sense of relaxation and calm and how in your heart you now feel.
The idea is to weave emotional regulation practices into your daily life on an ongoing basis. These practices are not just for when you feel off-kilter or triggered. They are for helping you go into those triggered fight, flight, or freeze spaces less often, and come out of them more easily. So make them part of your regular life, even and especially when you feel fine.
If you are anything like me, it can be tempting to go on as you always have, the way non-sensitive people can just go on, pushing through without slowing down to learn and do the work of honoring and supporting your sensitive mind-body-heart system.
But continuing to go on as always isn’t likely to get you the life and love that you want.
For HSPs, tending to our nervous system states is the basis for all the other mental and emotional skills that make up relational agency—which is our ability to guide ourselves back to a space where we can navigate life well and relate to our significant other in ways that generate deep connection, love, and intimacy.
It also allows the love-enhancing aspects of our trait of high sensitivity to come out naturally, paving the way for our best possible life and relationship.
So start caretaking your sensitive system as much as it’s asking for. Learn to listen to it. It wants all the best for you: love, peace, ease, intimacy, and adoration.