Did you know that one out of every five people is predisposed to experience higher levels of mental, physical, and emotional sensitivity? They're called highly sensitive people (HSPs) and I'm one of them. Many, but not all HSPs are empaths as well—meaning they can feel and absorb the emotions of those around them.
Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. was one of the first to study and bring awareness to the unique needs and behavior patterns of HSPs. Aron found that highly sensitive people interact with their environments and approach relationships in a way that’s slightly different from the rest of the population. You can read more about her findings in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, or take this test on her website to determine if you are an HSP.
A few attributes of HSPs are that they're more likely to cry and become overwhelmed by sensory input; they also notice and respond to changes in lighting, sound, speech, and body language that others may not notice. Changes in plans, violent television shows, and even strong odors can completely throw HSPs for an energetic loop. This may cause a seemingly unwarranted emotional response or create a need for withdrawal on the HSP’s part. Sometimes when a highly sensitive person has reached his or her "limit," (s)he will begin to find ways to turn the noise down without explaining why to those around them.
As I mentioned, many HSPs are also empaths. Empaths have the ability to absorb other people’s emotions and feel them as if they are their own. HSPs are more responsive to environmental stimuli—information coming to them from their environment and perceived by the five senses—while empaths are more responsive to energetic stimuli. An HSP can usually pinpoint exactly what’s triggering their response while an empath may be vaguer, citing that they just "know" or "have a feeling."
As an HSP and an empath, I’ve found plenty of information about managing my responsiveness, sorting through what is mine versus what belongs to others, and what I call "pulling back to center," or grounding, after interaction with others. However, if you happen to be in a relationship with an HSP or an empath, then you're dealing with a unique kind of person, and you may be wondering what you can do to be a better friend, lover, and support system for them.
Here are a few pointers:
1. We need you to choose honesty.
Here’s the thing with HSPs and empaths; if we ask you what’s up it’s because we already know something’s up. We respect your privacy and understand that you may not be ready to share or talk about something we’ve noticed or sensed, but it’s better for you to say that instead of pretending that there’s nothing going on.
2. We need you to support our cleansing and grounding routine.
Both HSPs and empaths know their limits, and most of us have learned what helps us reset our energy. That may be yoga, music, alone time, a break from talking, a particular art or craft, or time outdoors, etc. It helps for our friends or partner to take notice and support us by giving us space to reset, or joining us. It means a lot for a loved one to change speed, come to yoga class, or just walk in silence with us. We appreciate that and will repay you as soon as we move back into the emotional space to do so. That brings me to my next point.
3. We need you to take no for an answer.
When an empath or HSP is already vibing low (needing to reset or clear energy), it can be massively draining for a friend or loved one to "force" us to go out. We’re not depressed; we’re recharging. We’re not boring; we enjoy a different kind of adventure. So if you’ve asked an empath or HSP to go to the club or to a public event with you, and they’ve said no, simply leave the offer on the table, and let it be.
4. We need you to make sure things don't get one-sided.
Empaths understand and care about your feelings and well-being; often we will compromise or move things around in advance for the sake of those around us. For this reason, our relationships can get one-sided rather quickly. We make amazing sounding boards and support systems, but don’t forget that we need that in return, especially from those who are closest to us.
Want more insight on whether your relationship is healthy and the reasons it might not be? Check out these seven signs you’ve found the one and learn how to rewire your brain to have a more secure attachment style.
Bri Jackson is a New York–based personal trainer, registered yoga instructor (E-RYT), and mama of three who has maintained a 100-pound weight loss for over five years. She has a bachelor’s in communication from Arizona State University, and is passionate about sharing fitness, wellness, and silver linings with men and women who are ready to take back their health one meal, one movement, and one meditation at a time. She lives to bring simple clean-eating ideas, fitness tips, and inspiration to others.