Highly sensitive people (HSPs) truly benefit from having a solid support system. We can be so good and helpful at taking care of and being there for others and not so good at taking care of ourselves. While part of our personal work may be learning to prioritize self-care, it also helps tremendously if we have people in our lives who understand our sensitive nature, check-in with us about how we’re doing, and give us both space and support as we need.
For some HSPs, this support may come from a loving partner, an understanding parent, a close sibling, a kind aunt. For others, family may not be what they need. Some families ask too much, judge too much, focus only on themselves, demand the HSP take care of everyone else’s needs, or even ignore the language of emotions altogether. This latter type of family relationship can be so painful for the sensitive soul to navigate. As a therapist, I see this struggle often in my work. HSPs care deeply and want to have connection and true intimacy with their family members yet sometimes that’s not possible due to the behaviors of those family members. Then, HSPs anguish over how much to give and whether it’s okay to draw lines and when and how to step back. If and when they do set boundaries, sensitive folks may then feel loads of guilt about doing so. It’s rough-going!
If you have a family, or even a family member, that’s helpful and supportive, that’s wonderful, and I’m so glad you have that support in your life. But, if you don’t, please don’t fret, dear HSP. That’s okay too, and you can still create a strong support system for yourself.
Here are some guidelines I’ve developed for navigating tough family dynamics WHILE taking care of your sensitive soul:
Know your limits. Figure out ahead of time where you draw the line and what is too much for you. Some family members (and some people in general) will take as much as you give them in terms of time, emotional energy and support, or even financial assistance. It helps to know how much you’re willing to give ahead of time so you know when it’s time to stop. Time to plan a visit? Perhaps make dinner plans knowing that you’ll eat, spend a couple hours together, and then can gracefully leave. Have someone who is always texting or calling because they’re upset and want your compassionate ear? Kindly let them know you’re busy and can only talk on ____ day. Or, opt not to respond to every message, or wait a while before responding. You’re not your loved one’s on-call therapist. THIS DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BAD PERSON. In fact, this helps you be a better person because you’re taking care of yourself so that you can be there sometimes for others.
Consider your own values. Is it important to you to maintain regular contact with family members? If so, is that a weekly phone call, a monthly visit, or the occasional text or email? Do you value healthy relationships and determine that if people do not respect your boundaries it is okay to stop interacting with them? Decide how much feels good to you to give and what aligns with your values. Then, practice NOT giving any more than that. It will be a practice, and that’s okay. Please don’t beat yourself up as you try to figure out what the right amount is for you. It takes time and experience.
Take breaks as needed. This may mean heading to the bathroom for a few minutes during a visit to take some deep breaths and have a quiet moment. This could mean skipping the weekly phone call if you’re feeling too drained. This may even mean not interacting with a person for a while as you focus on your needs. Contrary to what most of us are taught, all of these are okay. You have the right to take care of yourself, even if someone else is upset or disappointed. AGAIN, THIS DOES NOT MAKE YOU AN UNKIND PERSON.
Be curious and learn about your own patterns and reactions. Recognize your triggers. If you find a particular family member stressful and get anxious before you see them, allow for this. You can even say to yourself, “It’s okay. I know talking to ______ is overwhelming for me.” Then, use a coping skill that works well for you to soothe your nerves beforehand. Maybe go for a walk, do a guided meditation, listen to your favorite music. Give yourself down time before the interaction and “recovery” time afterwards.
Know you don’t have to have all the answers. Sometimes I see HSPs put a lot of pressure on themselves to “figure things out” and know how to be in their relationships all the time. Please know that it is okay to focus on one moment at a time. This is especially true in family relationships. These people will be related to you forever. You don’t have to sort out how to respond to them both now and in 10 years. Allow for some ebb and flow in how you navigate your family dynamics. You may experience times when you need or want to NOT interact with family members very much, and you may go through times when you have more energy or desire for contact. It’s healthy to be flexible and make changes as you change and as life shifts around you.
Don’t invest all your precious energy in relationships that don’t give back to you. Protect and safeguard some energy to put into people who care about, support, and appreciate you for you. This is so, so, so important for sensitive folks. I cannot emphasize this enough. We have a finite amount of energy. We cannot give to everyone and help everyone, or we will utterly burn ourselves out and wear our bodies down. So, make sure you save energy to put into the relationships that satisfy your soul, whether these are family or friends. These are the people you know you can turn to if you’re having a tough time and need support. These people will be there for you just as much as you’re there for them. Invest in these relationships that fill your cup too.
For many HSPs, navigating family relationships can be tricky (as can any relationship). We care, but we may struggle to know how to care for ourselves as well. Please remember that we really cannot be our best selves in any relationship unless we are taking good care of ourselves, and it’s no one’s job to do that but our own. We owe it to those we love. And, we owe it to ourselves.
Ivy Griffin, LMFT # 51714, Director
Thrive Therapy & Counseling
1614 X St., Suite A
Sacramento, CA 95818
Stay in touch with Tips from a Highly Sensitive Therapist delivered to your inbox!
PS--Do you need some more support? We're just an email away!