Discussions of lifestyle usually center on net worth, material possessions, travel, and social life. The word conjures up thoughts of “life outside a person”: What do you have? Where do you go? What do you do for fun? What can you afford? Do you keep up with the Kardashians? But, for the Highly Sensitive Person, “lifestyle” is an expression of a unique, rich, vibrant inner life. It is carefully, thoughtfully chosen, as much out of necessity as out of preference.

For the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) who understands and embraces the unique trait of High Sensitivity (HS), life can be gloriously lived.

For the HSP who still lives in the dark with regard to the trait of High Sensitivity, life can be a constant struggle to fit in.

Who are these HSPs? And what is so special about them that they warrant a discussion of their own “lifestyle”? 

Highly Sensitive People come into the world that way. High sensitivity is an inborn trait, not something cultivated, practiced, or achieved.

If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. Even some HSPs are still unfamiliar with this special neurological make-up that wasn’t really discussed or researched until the 1990’s. 

Because HSPs process information deeply (their most defining characteristic), their formula for being happy in life doesn’t equate with that of the majority.

HSPs need somewhat different things in life than non-HSPs to be happy.

Making the most of the Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle depends, in large part, on keeping the inherent strengths of High Sensitivity at the helm. Only then can the many advantages of HS prevail.

The HSP who lives true to the special gifts — and needs — of High Sensitivity can live a life rich with meaning, depth, and pleasure. 

In other words, an ideal Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle.

This is about congruence and the alignment of thoughts and feelings with the body’s HS experience.

The result of this congruence is an added dimension infused into each moment.

If you are an HSP, you probably have an instinctive awareness that what works best for the majority of people (non-HSPs) may not work so great for you.

And how could it? The High Sensitivity trait is present in only 15-20% of the population. The majority of people don’t operate on your frequency.

What is (and is not) High Sensitivity?

High Sensitivity is defined differently from the dictionary definition of “sensitive.”

It’s not a flaw, diagnosis, disorder, or curse. Nor does it mean you are “too sensitive,” a “crybaby,” or weak.

Unfortunately, HSPs and non-HSPs have been conditioned–at least in this culture–to view sensitivity as bad. 

HSPs are used to being told they are “too sensitive” and “need to toughen up,” as if being Highly Sensitive is a fault and not a “wiring” present from birth. 

Contrary to our cultural understanding of sensitivity, HS is associated with what has been referred to as “superpowers.”

What does that mean?

For starters, it means that, from the first moments of life, you’re aware of subtle messages both outside and inside yourself.

You’re sensitive to emotional stimuli (e.g. feelings, facial expressions, words, social cues of people around you) as well as physical stimuli (sounds, lights, textures, temperature, smells). 

You feel deeply and care profoundly.

But wait, there’s more!

Empathy, conscientiousness, creativity, attention to detail, perceptiveness, and an ability to pick up on nuances that others miss are just a few additional strengths.

When you understand what High Sensitivity is, you recognize that you, like all HSPs, are anything but weak.

Your strength is in the details. You have no “weak links” because you pick up on, process, and respond to…well…everything!

And the more your Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle aligns with your unique intrinsic preferences, the more your strength increases.

But superpowers come with responsibility. And the weight of that cape can sometimes feel heavy.

In fact, only 15-20% of the population has one to begin with. And that means a small slice of the world is navigating life very differently than most of the world. 

It’s imperative, therefore, that you know the kind of lifestyle that best suits you as a Highly Sensitive Person.

Having innate sensitivity bestows both advantages and disadvantages. Recognizing the pros and cons of the trait provides ample opportunity to create the perfect Highly Sensitive personal lifestyle for yourself.

A Highly Sensitive Person lifestyle should include space, both practically and metaphorically.

  • (Cue the HSP theme song: Don’t Fence Me In.) HSPs need physical, mental, and emotional space. 
  • HSPs require an opportunity to reset their nervous systems after stimulating activities that deplete them.
  • After a particularly unfulfilling or shallow interaction, HSPs’ emotions feel drained. Taking space in the form of solo refuge and quiet surroundings helps. So does finding a different physical space in which to re-energize.
  • At the end of a long day, resorting to a quiet, dimly lit area in the home helps to reregulate the nervous system and provide more inner calm.
  • Having a quiet, safe, beautifully decorated space to retreat to is super important. Adding “soothing tools” (music, clay, adult coloring books, etc.) is an extra step toward helping you feel at ease. 
  • How space looks and feels matters. It can rejuvenate and soothe…or create unease and discomfort. Be intentional!
  • The most awesome space for HSPs is in nature.  Ocean, beach, woods, mountains, fields— all are examples of physical space that provides luscious inner mind space.
  • What kind of space has the opposite effect? Think of a crowded elevator. And all the crammed-in strangers are just leaving a hot yoga class on the 10th floor. For an HSP, that 10-floor ride might as well be a field trip to Hell.

HSPs also benefit from having enough time.

  • Rushing or nagging an HSP with time pressures will have a crippling effect, and everyone will lose. HSPs need time to transition between activities/days/schedules, time to respond in conversations, and time to arrive for appointments “on time” or early.
  • Time to adjust to changes is important to HSPs. Even positive changes, like starting a new relationship, can be overstimulating and thus require an additional period of adjustment.
  • The tendency to straddle the “Old Soul” and “Late Bloomer” line has to do with an existential sense of time. 
  • HSPs tend to be more aware than non-HSPs of mortality, and their depth of processing reflects that awareness.
  • Because of deep processing, HSPs may appear to move more slowly than non-HSPs. It is actually not about moving more slowly, but having more considerations, thoughts, and feelings to process. 
  • HSPs need more time to make decisions and complete activities because of all the data they process in their minds at once.

HSPs seek and need meaning in life.

  • Our culture tends to emphasize the external.
  • To go within ourselves and get in touch with ideas, feelings, and theories is super healing.
  • HSPs tend to be lovers of animals, whose souls feel kindred!
  • And being with someone who understands and/or values that practice is invigorating and adds even more meaning to our life.
  • HSPs crave deep connection with others. They may even get bored in relationships lacking meaningful interaction. HSPs may work harder to create intimacy with their partner.

“Sensitivity can be overwhelming, but it is also like having extra RAM on my personal hard drive…Creativity is the pressure valve for all that accumulated emotional and sensory data.”

–Deborah Ward

HSPs need replenishment.

  • HSPs don’t do well on a go-go-go schedule.
  • Time to relax lowers stimulation levels and restores balance.
  • Everyday sources of depletion include small talk, loud environments, crowded spaces
  • Key sources of replenishment include nature, quiet time, meaningful relationships, and rest.
  • HSPs need a restful night of 8 hours sleep to offset the day’s impact on their nervous system.

Being intentional about how and where you spend time and energy is central to creating an ideal lifestyle. Be deliberate about how you create your way of living life so that your strengths as an HSP are indeed superpowers.This includes making sure you provide yourself with time and space to attune to your internal self. 

A Chatham seal, representing a hypothetical lifestyle perk for the Highly Sensitive

HSPs crave and pursue meaning. Questions such as “who am I”? “Why am I here”? “Why was I put on this earth”? “How can I make a difference?” are common.

Being aware of how you spend and replenish time and energy, and what kind of lifestyle feels most fulfilling, makes a huge difference – to you, your community, and the world at large.

(By the way, plump, juicy berries with fresh mint leaves as garnish are the kinds of “little” things that make for a happier, more meaningful and beautiful dish – and life! Sometimes the best recipes are the simplest.) 

Dr. Elayne Daniels is a clinical psychologist in the Boston area. Helping HSPs thrive and live their best lives is one of her greatest passions. 

P.S. The photo of the seal is from my annual HSP retreat on Cape Cod.