Dr. Susanna La
Relationship Considerations for Highly Sensitive People
Updated: Feb 14
Are you a highly sensitive person in love? Do you find relationships meaningful but also challenging?
Dr. Elaine Aron states, “when highly sensitive people confide about love, there is notable depth and intensity. They fall in love hard and they work hard on their close relationships… an HSP in love notices every nuance of another, reflects deeply on the other’s charms, and is overwhelmed by the whole experience”.
Traits of Highly Sensitive People
If you are reading this, it is likely you or someone you know is a highly sensitive person (HSP) as HSPs are about one in five people. The term highly sensitive is used to describe distinct traits some are born with including: heightened awareness of subtleties (most don’t notice), deep levels of processing/reflection, and intense emotional experiences that can feel overwhelming.
These innate qualities allow HSPs to be aware as well as thoughtful of their internal/external worlds and the interactions between both worlds. In other words, HSPs are highly attuned to their own thoughts/feelings, the behaviors and emotions of others around them, how they come off to others, and how they are impacted by others. Because of the depth of processing HSPs experience in all interactions, they may tend to value quality (deep and meaningful) over quantity (surface-level) relationships. You can read more about HSPs here.
Challenges of Highly Sensitive People in Relationships
While HSPs are born with their inherited traits, many do not have the vocabulary or information needed to describe their experience to themselves and others. Additionally, many HSPs may not have received the nourishment they needed in their relationships from parents, teachers, peers, and/or colleagues that emphasized the value of their traits. If this has been your experience, it is possible you felt the need to disconnect from your sensitivity.
How to Honor Ourselves in Relationships
HSPs tend to excel in validating and supportive environments as well as the opposite, including intense pain/suffering from rejecting and unsupportive spaces. Many adult HSPs are still recovering from the effects of a difficult childhood.
Healing can look like developing a neutral or more positive understanding of your sensitivity and giving yourself permission to be your authentic self. Imagine the sensitive child you were and what you needed. Perhaps, you needed some self-soothing to manage feelings of overwhelm (you can read more here), set boundaries with others, and/or communicate your needs. Building relationships with a trusted person, such as a friend, partner, or therapist can be opportunities to practice vulnerability and accept our authentic selves.
How to Manage Overwhelm as an HSP
Due to a sensitive and highly-attuned nervous system, it is important to learn strategies to soothe experiences of overwhelm. The first step is to notice when we are feeling overwhelmed and to be aware of situations that can prompt this response.
If possible, you can leave the situation by going to the bathroom, retreating to a quiet area, going on a walk, or leaving altogether. Our nervous systems need time to rest and recover, so breaks are necessary. If you are unable to leave a situation, you can survive the overwhelming moment by repeating kind phrases to yourself, focusing on each in-and-out breath, or practicing self-soothing exercises in the moment (you can read more here).
According to Dr. Aron (2013), it is important to cultivate a lifestyle aligned with our sensitive rhythm, so we can understand our sensitive needs and have balance, such as necessary down time for calmness.
Setting Boundaries as an HSP
As an HSP, you are more likely to be affected by other people’s emotions in addition to all the thoughts and feelings you have. Some HSPs also have traits of being an empath, which means you can strongly feel and absorb the feelings of others, especially loved ones (you can read more here). Being sensitive to other people’s needs allows us to be helpful and caring as we don’t want others to suffer. Sometimes, this can stir in us the desire to please people or prioritize the needs of others before our own; unfortunately, we also can get taken advantage of.
Everyone needs boundaries to protect themselves; this is especially vital for HSPs. Boundaries help others to understand our limits by preserving our health and safety. In relationships, this can look like rescheduling a hangout, declining an invite, not responding to messages immediately, ending a conversation with someone talking about a topic you are uncomfortable with or who is yelling at you, etc. You can review our previous blog about honoring boundaries here and how to practice boundaries at work here as an HSP.
Communicating Our Needs as an HSP
To help reinforce boundaries, we can express our feelings/reactions by sharing what works and doesn't work for us. For instance, if we tend to absorb pain and are deeply affected by the intense emotions of our loved ones, we can communicate with others to be thoughtful of their emotional volume. Words, facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc. are all parts of emotional volume; if too heightened and intense, we can get overwhelmed. It can take time to understand our limits and practice communicating them clearly as well as comfortably, so take your time and take time to practice.
It is possible for HSPs to have trusting and close family, friends, romantic relationships, and colleagues. It takes us knowing ourselves and interacting with others to understand us. It can take some time/work to understand your sensitive needs, process past unmet needs (such as in childhood), and practice setting boundaries, including clear communication.
If you are interested in working with highly sensitive therapists on the topics discussed, you can reach out to us here.
Stay tuned. Our next topic is "The Love Languages of Highly Sensitive People."
Aron, E.N. (2013). The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.
Aron, E.N. (2016). The Highly Sensitive Person in Love.
Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.
Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.