The Inner Tension of a Highly Sensitive Person

There’s so much stigma around the idea of being sensitive.

As a highly sensitive person, even among the people who love me, so much of the time I feel like I cannot fully be myself because I’m afraid I will not be accepted if they know:

  • Just how sensitive I am
  • How much I overthink things
  • How deeply I feel certain things
  • And how hard it is to let some things go

I deeply appreciate them and my time with them …

But I sometimes wish I could just have some time to myself and go on a retreat or hole up in a monastery somewhere and not emerge until I feel like I have found the part of myself that I want to be.

And then I feel guilty and selfish for wanting these things (and even feeling like I need them) but I also feel frustrated that I never get them.

Never get, it feels like, sometimes even a moment to think deeply and reflect and process.

I wonder how much I am missing.

Missing out on the person I could be because I am instead so engulfed and consumed by what is going on around me.

And then, at times, missing out on what is going on around me by disappearing into my dream world, the world of the imagination or of story … just to get a few minutes of release or peace.

I’m feeling guilty by this constant tension that is going on inside me and wearied by it. So tired, so much of the time.

I come from a large family and a mother who was anything but highly sensitive.

She reminisces about how she went years in motherhood without a single day off, and it’s true. She did.

For so long I felt so guilty wondering how she did it and why I couldn’t function at that same level.

It’s taken me a long time to realize and accept (and sometimes I still don’t accept) that I’m just a different person.

That I am a highly sensitive person.

And that that’s okay.

Sensitivity and Self-Acceptance

Acceptance of ourselves is so important, especially as highly sensitive people, but it’s one of the things that we find the hardest to do:

To accept ourselves for who we are and embrace that and choose to belong …

… whether we necessarily feel like we belong or not.

This is the task before me, and if it is the task before you as a highly sensitive person, I hope that you will also find the strength to embrace it.

I hope you will find strength to accept yourself as the complex and deep and sometimes shadowed and sometimes bright whole of the person that you are.

Because that person is beautiful.


How to Celebrate an HSP’s Birthday

Last week, I wrote about three things not to do for a highly sensitive person on their birthday.

I promised to follow it up with a post about things that you can do for an HSP’s birthday …

Before we jump in, though …

Thank you!

Thank you for being concerned enough about your HSP friend or loved one to want to learn how best to celebrate them!

Small story as to why I’m so grateful:

When I was a teenager, I lived with foster parents in a group home.

One birthday I remember vividly (because it was one of the worst birthdays ever), each time I entered a room with others, they began singing the happy birthday song to me.

After I had suffered through it about a dozen times, I went and tried to find safety in the room that I shared with four other girls.

Somehow, the foster dad found out that I was being “anti-social” and sought me out.

He told me in no uncertain terms that birthdays were for other people, not the birthday person, and that I should get off my high horse and let them have fun by singing to me.

I got no cake that year.

No gifts.

But a lot of unwanted “happy birthday to you” songs.

So, for a long time, I thought that I, as a highly sensitive person, had to suffer through whatever other people wanted to do on my birthday …

Like the surprise birthday party I mentioned in my last post.

And it was only recently that I began to realize that, no, my birthday is my day. And I should be allowed to enjoy myself on that day.

The highly sensitive person in your life deserves to enjoy their special day and not feel obliged to throw a party (or accept a party on their behalf).

So, thank you for being interested and wanting to know how best to celebrate the HSP in your life on their special day.

Here we go …

Ask them what they want to do.

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I know, it sounds almost too easy, doesn’t it?

It’s surprising, then, that so few people do this.

Lots of people just assume that whatever they like to do is the same thing that their HSP loved one would like to do.

“I like going out to eat, so I’ll take them out to eat on their birthday.”

“I enjoy big parties, so I’ll throw a big party for this HSP.”

Even if there are things that your HSP spouse or family member has enjoyed doing on their birthday in the past, it doesn’t mean that they necessarily want to do it again.

(Maybe they were just being accomodating last time they said yes to the birthday activity.)

So, a few weeks before their birthday, ask them what they would like to do.

Why a few weeks before their birthday? Because they might need a bit of time to think about and process the options before they come up with an answer.

And listen to their answer.

Highly sensitive people tend to be gentle.

This means they can be easily intimidated by people with stronger personalities.

So, don’t ask them what they want to do on their birthday if you don’t plan to truly listen to their answer.

One of the worst things you could do is have them respond, and then give a “suggestion” of something “better.”

“A candlelit dinner at home sounds nice, but don’t you want to check out that new restaurant uptown?”

A highly sensitive person tends to second guess himself and will often defer to your suggestions…

Even if it’s not what he really wants to do.

Offer something that fits their love language.

You’ve likely heard about love languages, made popular by author Gary Chapman in his book The Five Love Languages.

The five main love languages outlined in the book are:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Acts of Service
  • Physical Touch
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Quality Time

There are online quizzes by which you can figure out your love language, and just as importantly, the love language of your highly sensitive friend or partner.

If they like words of affirmation, maybe try writing them a poem …

Or give them a card that says all the right things.

If they like quality time, set aside time in your schedule to do something special together … something that they would want to do.

If receiving gifts is their love language, get them a gift …

But keep this next point in mind:

Buy a gift according to their interests.

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For years, my partner gave me jewelry or perfume on my birthday …

Although I rarely wear either.

I would try to wear the necklace for a few days, but it was for his sake and usually I’d take it off before a shower, forget about it, and never put it on again.

Then one year, he got me an Ansel Adams print.

I nearly cried when I opened it

… not just because I love photography and Ansel Adams is a photographer I absolutely worship …

… but because that gift showed me that my partner knew who I was.

He understood me by recognizing my passions and giving me something in accordance with my interests.

Sometimes it’s difficult. I understand.

You might know a highly sensitive person who has few interests, or whom you don’t know well enough to know what they like.

If that’s the case, though, return to the first point:

Ask them.

Just knowing that you care enough to ask will be meaningful to them, even if you don’t get it completely right.

Closing Thoughts

Maybe you’re a highly sensitive person reading this post.

And if so, you might be thinking to yourself, “I wish my friend/spouse/family member would read something like this.”

Send it to them (or give them a printout).

Or offer them suggestions, even if they don’t ask.

If your sister loves taking you out every birthday for a night on the town (but in reality, you hate it), before your next birthday, say something like this:

“Hey, I love that you like to celebrate my birthday with me and make it special. This year, what I really want to do is spend a few hours checking out used bookstores. You are more than welcome to come along.”

Whether HSP or non-HSP, I think we all mean well, and are trying to do the best we can for each other.

Sometimes, though, it’s almost like we’re speaking different languages, and it takes time to learn to understand one another.

I hope this post offers a step in understanding …

And in helping you create a more accepting and sensitive world.

Three Ways to Never Celebrate an HSP’s Birthday

If you have a highly sensitive person in your life, there is a question that will come up often (once every year at least).

What to do for the HSP’s birthday.

Now you might think that what you, as a non-highly-sensitive person, enjoy will be perfect for the highly sensitive person.

Don’t think that!

It will invariably wind up causing difficulties and maybe even serious misunderstandings down the line.

The thing is, you probably even won’t know or realize it because a highly sensitive person will empathize with you.

They will understand the time and effort that you put into anything you do for them and will be hesitant to say anything negative about it.

They know how hard you worked for it.

So consider this post (and this inside information) a favor …

… not just for highly sensitive people but for those who love them.

Here are three things you should never do for a highly sensitive person’s birthday.

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1: Throwing a Surprise Party for an HSP

I’m speaking from experience and can tell you that this is one of the worst things you could do for an HSP on their birthday.

Not only will it leave them in a very uncomfortable situation on the day itself, but it will also make them think you really don’t understand them (if you assume that a big, surprise birthday party is something they would actually enjoy).

I was in my mid-20s when a couple of roommates/work acquaintances decided to throw me a surprise birthday party.

Although my partner was not directly involved in the planning, he was aware of it and the two of us arrived home after an outing on my birthday to a house full of people.

I was immediately overwhelmed and ready to turn around and run the other way.

I quickly forged through all the people into my room and pretended to be on the phone with a work call (on a Saturday evening) just to give myself time to adjust to the overwhelming circumstances that I was suddenly surrounded by.

I had imagined a quiet evening and suddenly there were about 30 people in the house, half of whom I had never even met.

I tried to say something to my partner but his stance was that my “friends” had put so much time and effort into it that I should appreciate what they’d done and “just go out there and have fun.”

I really did try.

At least, I did go out there, but I did not have fun.

The whole evening was torturous. It stands among my top worst birthdays ever.

Even worse is that, afterwards, my housemates thought I had a great time and expected to be thanked when in reality the evening was miserable.

I was hurt that they misunderstood me so much that they thought I would actually enjoy a surprise birthday party, crowds of people, and loud music rather than what I had been expecting: a quiet evening at home with my partner.

Keep this on the top on your mental list of what not to do on a highly sensitive person’s birthday.

Stay away from surprise birthday parties.

2. Inviting Friends (Even If It’s Not a Surprise)

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By now you are convinced it would not be a good idea to throw a surprise birthday party for your HSP loved one.

But here is another thing you don’t want to do:

You don’t want to invite a big group of people over to your HSP friend’s or loved one’s house (even if they know about it).

For years, it has been a thing where my partner throws a birthday party for me and does the cooking so it seems like a decent trade-off …

But in all honesty, it’s not.

I’m invariably the one who needs to clean up the house in advance and make it “guest ready” as well as clean up the cooking mess …

And, of course, clean up after everyone leaves, too.

This does not equate to a peaceful and relaxing HSP birthday.

Because as a highly sensitive person, I’m so attuned to other people’s desires and wishes, I have always gone along with the plan.

When my partner says, “Hey let’s invite these friends over for your birthday and I’ll pick up the cake and make some food,” I usually say yes.

At the end of my birthday, I’m always so exhausted and feel like it just hasn’t been my day, but I’ve always been hesitant to say anything about it.

Last year, however, we weren’t able to invite anyone over for my birthday because … guess what … COVID.

It was a quiet day at home and my partner did make the food and pick up a cake but there was not a lot of clean up required in advance and not a lot of entertaining of guests.

None, in fact, and I didn’t have to clean up afterwards.

It was a great day.

I’ve decided that this is the way I want to do it from now on.

This year, I will kindly yet firmly till my partner, “Thanks but no thanks,” when he suggests having guests over for my birthday.

I’ll tell him he can invite the guests for his birthday not mine.

3. Tickets to a Crowded Public Event

Now, this is not going to be the case for every highly sensitive person.

In fact, only 70% of HSPs are introverts so some highly sensitive people might appreciate something like this.

However, even if they are extroverts, they are still highly sensitive …

And this means they are easily overwhelmed by strong stimuli such as crowded environments and loud noises.

This is why it’s generally not a good idea to present a highly sensitive person with birthday tickets to a ball game or a rock concert.

Even if it’s a band they like or a sports team they love, make sure you know in advance whether or not they actually want to go see that event live.

When I was in my mid to late 20s, I went to a few concerts.

Invariably, the next day I was exhausted and had a bad headache and it took me several days to recover.

Because I wasn’t familiar with what a highly sensitive person is, I didn’t know what was wrong with me.

I have never been to a ball game and never would want to go …

But over the last few years when I had the opportunity to do go to a concert, I declined.

Movie theaters are about as loud and crowded of an outing as I will willingly go to.

Last Thoughts

So the question you have now might be this:

What can you do for your HSP loved one if you want to treat them on their birthday?

What can you do that they will actually appreciate and enjoy?

That will be the subject of our next blog post.