Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.

The Highly Sensitive Person

The Ethics of Self-Care

The importance of self-care, especially downtime, for highly sensitive people.

Posted Jan 19, 2020

When my son (a writer for TV) read over the script for the feature film Sensitive and in Love, he said it surprised him that it emphasized the need for downtime. It seemed so self-centered, and he thought HSPs were more into helping others. They are, I assured him, and I adjusted the script accordingly. But it brings up something crucial.

When I and others advise you to attend to self-care and your boundaries, we just assume that you spend most of your time helping others. Why? Because HSPs need their work and their lives in general to be meaningful, more than others do. For most humans, meaningful boils down to helping others (parenting, teaching, building, farming, lawyering, healing, etc.) or contributing to knowledge or culture (as scientists, musicians, artists, etc.).  While others may settle for just decent pay, your work must have meaning. Your problem is not to overdo your meaningful activities.

I feel like a broken record, repeating all this about self-care, but you need to hear it, often. What solves overstimulation and holds burnout at bay?  Downtime, by yourself. Sleep, time in nature, meditation, prayer, music, a warm bath or a swim—whatever works for you.

Self-Care for All

It does not help that the new buzzword among the other 80% is “self-care,” and that it can seem, in some cases, to be more about narcissism or consuming extra stuff. On the other hand, what’s good for HSPs often turns out to be good for everyone. Worldwide, people are having to push themselves more to get ahead or just not fall behind. In the U.S. it seems that 30% are sleep deprived; worldwide, 50%. Let’s not even get into worldwide diet, exercise, medical care, and all the rest that determines self-care. We ALL need more self-care, and maybe HSPs helped that new buzzword surface.

Over half of the people I most love are not HSPs. Their lives are dedicated to the same kinds of meaningful things as yours or mine. And they also are at risk for burnout if they do not take care of themselves. But there’s a difference: My husband, who is not an HSP, managed better than I did when we used to pull all-nighters to help each other with dissertation deadlines. He is not so easily overstimulated, does not get crazy when he is very hungry, and is not as bothered by crowds. Above all, he is not noticing and processing so much. You and I feel a greater, more rapid decline when our gas tank of neurotransmitters is empty. We get cranky or feel awful, so that the people around us get us at our worst, not our best. That’s why self-care is part of our ethics regarding how we treat others.

Self-Care for the Sake of Those with Whom You Work

First I should say that by “work” I mean your calling. Some of you may need to work for the money, but do what matters to you on the side. Thus I will call “work” the things you work at that give your life meaning.

I should not have to go on and on about the ethical reasons for making self-care a high priority. You know about putting the oxygen mask on yourself first, before helping others with theirs. You know you work better and are more helpful when your mind is rested. You know that allowing the mundane things to drain your energy is wrong, because it means the most important things do not get you at your best.

Why do you slip up and what can you do about it? I will let you answer that for yourself, or read some of things I have written about boundaries. Boundaries are crucial to self-care, including boundaries with the smart, creative, caring parts of yourself that can think up so many better ways to do things. Often it feels like you are the only one who can do these things properly. (There’s the risk of narcissism for HSPs.)

Are you morally right, however, to take on everything you can conceive of? I know I am not. When I slip up and don’t take a break, I am a bit ashamed of myself. I do it all the time, but at least I know now that it is wrong.

Self-Care Out of Consideration for Those You Love

I know that love and work can overlap in many ways, as when you are a parent or a full-time caregiver, or simply love your clients or love all beings, including those you may help with your scientific discoveries. But when you come back from work mode, how do you behave around the people you live with and supposedly love? Or if you are at home all day with children, how have you behaved with the kids and with those who come home in the evening? What happens when you have not taken good care of yourself? You are irritable, yes? Fussy. Impatient. Prone to angry outbursts. Or sullen silence. Not able to listen fully. Getting sick or chronically run down so that in the end you need their help instead of the other way around. When you can avoid this (and I know you cannot always), you are morally wrong to let it happen. For some of us, downtime and self-care can seem to be the real moral wrong just because they feel good, but that has nothing to do with it at all.

So the only ethical thing, really, is to turn your back on others until you have returned to being your best self. Think of a mother cat: We put her in a box she can step out of but her kittens can’t—so she can get some food and escape being sucked, crawled on, and mewed at. Familiar? Step out of the box and feel your body relax. If this is a new behavior for you, others may not like it and you may not be good at remembering to say why you are going off alone (it isn’t about them), where you are going, and when you will be back. But get better at it. Ethically, you have no choice.