Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter, Volume V, Issue II: May 2000.
Someone recently asked me why I did not have a list of “tips for friends and lovers of HSPs” at the end of The Highly Sensitive Person in Love–they had found the three pages of tips for health-care providers, educators, and employers so useful at the end of The Highly Sensitive Person. So, here are the new “tips,” an exclusive for Comfort Zone readers.
1. Read The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, or at least take the self-test and read Chapters 1, 5, and 8. Honestly, it will help a great deal. Sensitivity is not some new syndrome I made up. It’s based on solid research, my own and others. I just gave the trait a better name and description, from the inside. (I’m an HSP myself, and by the way, my husband of thirty years is not. He’s contributed greatly to these Tips.) And accept my apologies for not coming up for a better term for you than “non-HSP.” It was hard enough to saddle HSPs with “HSP.” I leave the naming of the majority temperament to a member of that majority.
2. Especially if you score much lower on the self-test for sensitivity at the front of the book, believe that you truly experience the world differently. (However, even though equal numbers of males and females are born with the trait, on the average men score a little lower than women, and women frequently think a man is not an HSP when he actually is. All this is because, in this culture, men must cover up the trait more.) Don’t be afraid that being born with very different temperaments must put a gulf between you. It could make you closer–knowledge truly is power, and application of knowledge of each other’s temperaments in a caring way can increase love. But first you’ll have to control the universal human urge to see a difference as better-than or worse-than. Neither of your ways of experiencing is superior to the other, but equal, neutral in value. Yes, sometimes one is more useful, but at other times it’s the other that shines.
3. Count your blessings. HSPs pick up on subtleties and details. They like to reflect deeply, and do this both consciously and unconsciously. Thus they are generally quite intuitive and aware of possible outcomes and consequences. So, acknowledge all the specific pleasures and benefits you enjoy because of your HSP. Some of these might be his or her depths; spiritual or philosophical inclinations; care with details; thoughtful listening to you; good taste; conscientiousness; considerateness; loyalty; concern for social justice; the ability to intuit what’s going on in situations, especially sensing the needs of those who can’t speak (babies, animals, plants, bodies); the calm and gracious environment that he or she needs but you find you enjoy too; or the reminders to take care of your financial security, health, and the like. Then there are the subtle worlds you might have missed without your HSP–perhaps in the arts, music, science, nature, or your own inner life and dreams. Of course everyone’s sensitive to some degree, and your sensitivity will be enhanced by knowing an HSP. Meanwhile you can enjoy watching your HSP learn new ways from you. Finally, note all that the two of you can do as a team that two with the same temperaments cannot do. You’ve got “hybrid vigor” (a term for the strength seen in the offspring of two very genetically different parents). You would not have these benefits if you were not in a relationship with an HSP.
4. Face the rest of the “package deal,” the things you don’t like about the fact your HSP is so darn sensitive–the things he or she will never be able to do or at least enjoy. It is just a fact that anyone who picks up on subtleties has to be easily overwhelmed by the non-subtle–loud noise, sudden change, crowds. It’s important to grieve that there are certain ways in which your HSP can’t change, just as left-handers shouldn’t be expected to become right-handers and vice versa. (Certainly you can expect and ask for change in other ways, such as the HSP respecting your innate way of being in the world as much as you respect his or hers.) If you need to, be angry about your fate, but not at your partner. You didn’t get everything you wanted in this person, but your partner didn’t get everything he or she wanted either. It’s no one’s fault when it rains on a picnic, even though it may feel better to be angry about it for awhile. But as much as possible, be in a place of acceptance.
5. From that place of acceptance, get creative about ways to do things together that work for both of you. For example, HSPs are often overstimulated while traveling. So in a new city, you should probably be the more active one, running around checking out hotels and restaurants, making phone calls, changing money, buying tickets, while your HSP saves energy for the things you really want to do together. Of course there’s a limit, which is when you stop enjoying doing these things for the two of you. Then you two share the tasks or hire someone like a travel agent to do them for you.
6. Do what you can to help the HSP get enough down time and rest. Finding it hard to believe (since you don’t need to stop as soon), you will probably experiment now and then with pushing these limits, but note how it goes. When an HSP is overaroused and exhausted, he or she can become irritable, tense, or even ill. That’s not fun for either of you. So help the HSP stop before these happen and support the HSP’s attempts to eliminate the unnecessary stimulation from his or her environment.
7. Don’t feel rejected when your HSP wants to be alone. Just check to be sure that there’s no trouble between you underlying the withdrawal. Then believe him or her if you hear, “I just need some quiet.” Set a time for rejoining too, so you can count on it. Then enjoy doing whatever you want to do.
8. Encourage the HSP to have friendships with other HSPs. These may feel a bit threatening to you, since HSPs in a sense have something to offer that you do not, but you also have unique things to offer that HSPs do not. And do ask for reassurance as is appropriate.
9. Take care of yourself too. When helping or protecting the HSP, don’t do more than you truly want to. Don’t overprotect, be a doormat, or become secretly resentful. And be sure you get the level of interesting stimulation in your life that you need as a non-HSP. So you may need some adventures by yourself and some non-HSP friends or groups to spend time with, without your HSP.
10. Watch your “volume”. Yes, in part I mean turn down the radio or TV when your HSP is around, but I also mean the strength with which you make a point, ask a question, make a request, or, in particular, give unpleasant feedback. We all tend to assume that others receive communications best in the form that works for us, but an HSP picks up on subtleties and so needs less volume and appreciates a gentler approach than you do. Instead of saying, “You’ve really made a big mistake this time,” try “Would this be a good time to discuss something we may need to correct?” Do give the feedback, but adjust it. Likewise, your HSP may communicate too softly for you to hear–maybe with a hint, a gesture, a tone of voice–then be angry with you for not getting his or her message. You both have to adjust your volume for the other.
11. Sensitivity is considered less than ideal in this culture; be aware of subtle ways this affects you. This is not true in all cultures. But it certainly is in ours, and as a result maybe you notice your HSP’s lower self-esteem (inevitable when you grow up being told “don’t be so sensitive” but can’t change). And maybe you admire confidence in people. Maybe you even, unconsciously, use the HSP’s sense of being inferior to your advantage, enjoying lecturing him or her or being a bit domineering. Or you have a perhaps half-conscious idea, from the culture, that the HSP is actually just sick or weak (or you hear this implied by others). So you feel less confident about your choice and, again, maybe feel a little superior.
To counter this, remember the strengths of the HSP and benefits you derive from these, and also the ways the culture often ignores or derides sensitivity. In some cases it may also help to know that HSPs are more affected by having troubled childhoods–such a past can, for example, make them anxious, depressed, insecure, or shy as adults. This has nothing to do with the trait itself –HSPs with good-enough childhoods do not have these troubles. Nor are the problems unchangeable. They can be vastly improved by your attitude and by your HSP’s inner work, especially in skilled psychotherapy (sometimes along with medications). The work is slow and often difficult, as is almost anything worthwhile. HSPs often like this inner work–they are well designed for it–and that can make it seem “addictive” to someone with less need or liking for it. (Or it can be actually going the wrong direction, at least temporarily, depending mostly on the skill of the therapist.)
All of this aside, think again about the advantages of an HSP partner or friend. More and more will come to mind as you recognize the trait for what it is, a reflectivity that goes deep and can bring back riches.