The HSP Relationship Dilemma
Are you too sensitive or are you neglecting yourself?
Posted February 2, 2018 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
According to research by Elaine Aron, relationships are generally less happy for highly sensitive people (HSPs). We are more aware of our surroundings, and the people in it, so we are more likely to become unsettled by our partner’s behavior and worry more about the possible consequences. We also feel stress more and need more downtime, which can put a strain on the relationship.
Despite these challenges, many people are very attracted to the sensitivity of HSPs. They love our empathy and compassion and our concern for their feelings. They love our desire for deep, meaningful relationships and our distaste for the superficial. For someone who has never met a highly sensitive person before, our authenticity can feel like a breath of fresh air.
We also tend to be attracted to people who need our help and who are attracted to our open, generous, compassionate and empathetic personality. But this attraction can be deceptive. All too often, people find it easier to take advantage of our caring, giving nature than to help themselves and we end up as personal therapists or doormats rather than equal partners.
Many HSPs also have feelings of self-doubt or low self-esteem because their sensitivity is not always accepted or appreciated. So finding a romantic relationship in which our trait is desired can drive us to be even more empathic, helpful and sensitive to others’ feelings in an effort to gain acceptance and love. Aron’s research has actually revealed a characteristic in highly sensitive people called “mate sensitivity,” or the ability to quickly assess what pleases our partner. When we know what someone wants, we try to make them happy. Again and again and again.
But problems can arise when we give too much. All too often, the more we give, the more other people take, and ultimately we ignore our own needs, and end up exhausted, resentful and unhappy. At the same time, we’re unsure why we feel so unfulfilled when we’ve worked so hard and blame ourselves.
Relationships can be challenging for a highly sensitive person. But the difficulty is often that HSPs feel so good about helping others, we end up putting their needs before our own.
Instead of trying harder to help our partners, we HSPs need to learn to help ourselves. Here’s how:
1. Get to know yourself. Figure out what you need first. If you don’t know what your needs are, you’ll never get them met. Whether it’s lots of downtime, peace and quiet, or one-on-one conversation, if it’s important to you, it’s important to the relationship. HSPs are so concerned with being a good partner and friend, says psychologist Dr. Margaret Paul, we may not give ourselves what we need.
2. Accept yourself. When you accept and appreciate yourself as you are, others will learn to do the same. Don’t put up with anyone who tries to tell you that you’re “too sensitive” or that you need to change. Someone who tells you that you should “just relax” or that you’re making a big deal out of nothing is not the right person for you. Sensitive people are naturally expressive, says Aron. We can’t help but show our feelings, whether it’s fear, anger or joy. It’s important that both you and your partner appreciate and accept that. It can take some time for non-HSPs to understand what being an HSP is really like, but someone who loves you will make the effort to understand and accept you for who you are. Being sensitive is not a flaw that needs to be hidden or corrected – it is a gift to be nurtured and valued. The first person to do that is you.
3. Set boundaries. HSPs need to develop strong and clear fences to protect our sensitivity. It’s not selfish to say no or to tell people what you need. It’s simply taking care of yourself. In the book Safe People, authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend assert that a safe person will not be threatened by your need for intimacy, closeness, your fears or worries, your awareness of their feelings or your need to understand them. They will strive to be the person who will reassure you and respect your boundaries.
4. Take responsibility. It’s up to you to get your needs met and those needs might be quite different from your partner’s. Many people think about themselves too much, but HSPs usually think about others too much. The key to a successful relationship, says Dr. Paul, is taking responsibility for our own life. You should be giving as much love and kindness to yourself as you do to your partner.
5. Don’t be a rescuer. It might feel wrong to stand back and watch someone struggle in life, but you are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings. It’s your job to look after yourself so that you can be truly yourself and fulfill your potential. People need to fall down, brush themselves off and get up again or else they will never learn how to walk on their own. You can still offer compassion, but sometimes you just need to step back and let them figure it out for themselves.
6. Beware of vampires. Some people don’t want to learn or help themselves. They want you to do it for them. And then they want more. But a drowning man will pull you down to save himself. You can still help people, but make sure you stay on solid ground and throw him a line so he can get himself out. If you’re dating, consider not how useful you can be to someone, but how much they allow you to be yourself, to be relaxed and happy, secure and safe as you both grow, with someone who will be there for you when you need them.
7. Don’t nag. Don’t keep trying to make your partner understand you, be there for you, or love you when they don’t. Whatever they may say in words, believe their behaviour. Tell them what you need, be there for them, give them a chance to change, and if you’re not feeling loved, appreciated, respected, and valued, move on. You will find someone who meets those needs.
8. Stand up for yourself. HSPs dislike conflict and we will often avoid it rather than face it, which means we put all our energy into soothing and placating our partner, rather than standing up for ourselves. Sensitive people can feel torn between speaking out for what they believe in and staying quiet for fear of a harsh reaction from others, says Aron. But disagreement doesn’t have to be aggressive. Say what you think calmly and clearly and expect your partner to do the same. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict and apologize if you’re in the wrong. If things get heated, take a break and walk away until everyone has calmed down.
9. Heal yourself. Sometimes we need to take some time to heal ourselves from past experiences or hurt feelings before deciding to end a relationship, says Dr. Paul. Our own fears and insecurities often contribute to our relationship problems. And it’s within a relationship where we can learn how to grow, as long as our partner supports us and wants to heal and grow as well.
10. Love yourself. When you love yourself, you give yourself the time, attention, patience, caring, respect and love that you would give your own child. It doesn’t mean that you will love anyone else less. It means that you don’t have to depend on someone else to give you the love you need and deserve. You can give it to yourself. This can feel very wrong to HSPs, who feel others’ emotions so intensely and want to help so urgently. But when you love yourself, you’re ensuring your own needs are getting met, and then you can give to others without sacrificing anything. You can give freely and lovingly because you are constantly replenishing your own store of love from the inside out.
The key to good relationships for highly sensitive people is not to give more to others, but to give more to yourself. When both partners value themselves enough to make sure their own needs are met, when they communicate those needs to each other and have enough respect to accept each other as they are, a healthy, loving relationship can flourish for HSPs and non-HSPs alike.