“We fall in love harder and fear it more because we are drawn to the depth and complexity of the emotions we are going to unleash, but we also know that the consequences of such deep love are unforeseeable, a situation we never relish.”—Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You
Being in a loving relationship, of the romantic persuasion, can seem evanescent or near impossible for HSPs (a Highly Sensitive Person). In episode #44 of this podcast (one of the most downloaded episodes of the show), I detail the many gifts of being an HSP (of which I self-identify). Sharing 26 awesome benefits of identifying as HSP after reading Dr. Elaine Aron’s first book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You ushered in a breath of not only fresh air, but relief as I felt that finally I understood what for my entire life existed, but I could not understand or explain, let alone receive understanding from others who just didn’t ‘get me’.
Enter into the world of trying to be one part of a healthy, loving, respectful, equally fulfilling romantic relationship, and my confusion did not dissipate however because even though I tried my best to communicate what I now better understood about myself, I was missing a better understanding of how to first meet people more likely to mesh well with me. I was looking in the wrong places, misreading the indicators of my own feelings I had relied on my default in my pre-HSP-aware years.
Introduced to Elaine Aron’s second book The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, I found a valuable resource that translated the once foreign language of my own self and feelings and also gave me tools to successfully and more confidently move forward.
In today’s episode I am going to share 10 aha moments I found while reading the book, but there are FAR more than 10. Consider this a taste of what you will find in the book which is now a highly annotated book in my library and one I am thankful to be able to return to as my life journey unfolds.
1.Your partner does not need to be HSP as well (but it helps if they fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of sensitivity)
With 15-20 percent of humans “born with a nervous system genetically designed to be more sensitive to subtleties, more prone to deep reflection on inner experience and therefore inevitably more easily overwhelmed by outer events”, it can at first seem (if you identify as HSP), that you are alone, different, odd and something must be wrong with you. First, let me state emphatically – nothing is wrong with you. As shared above in the introduction, you have awesome gifts and now that you know you are HSP you can begin tapping into them. It is also important to know there is a spectrum of HSP, and Aron provides a HSP Self-Test to help you find where you and your partner might fall on it as a way to provide further insight into ourselves and our partner.
As well, it is important to know, one gender does not have a tendency to be more likely HSP or not HSP. “Just as many men as women are born highly sensitive, even though women are stereotyped as being sensitive to subtitles and men being tough and not noticing much.” Not only is the stereotyping wrong and limiting, it is hurtful, yes to women, but especially to men as they are essentially bullied into hiding their true gifts if they are HSP.
Aron begins her book by talking about her own marriage with her husband who is not HSP; however, he has many sensitivities and awareness and appreciation for the world around him that enabled them to have many shared experiences which they both enjoyed. As you will find in the following points, a desire to understand one another and for each partner to be able to communicate and know who they are is key as well as desiring to be part of the partnership in a constructive way without losing one’s core needs to thrive.
2. One of the biggest overlooked areas in relationship ‘self-help’ is the dismissal of one’s degree of sensitivity and inherited temperament
Aron does temper the truth that for far too long relationship problems dismissed the awareness of each individual’s degree of sensitivity and inherited temperament by saying that “relationship problems are still social, not genetic”. She goes on to say, “The heritability of divorce only means that something about people’s genetics is influencing divorce—I believe it’s not our inherited temperaments that are causing trouble, but that we deal with some temperaments poorly.”
Something we’ve distinguished in the past, but bears repeating – temperament is something you are born with, your personality is nurtured as you are socially conditioned – what is applauded, what is teased, etc..
And while we may not feel we can change our temperament, we first need to be aware of what it actually is, and often our personality is such a strong façade we have presented for so long, it is hard to know what our true temperament is. With all of that said, Aron underscores that “50 percent of your risk of divorcing has something to do with your genes. This makes inherited temperament a very important and neglected fact in relationship harmony.”
3. Understanding your optimal level of arousal is crucial
“All organisms like an optimal level of arousal, and all day we humans make adjustments to stay there—we put on the radio to increase arousal, take a nap to decrease it, call a friend to increase it, turn off the TV to decrease it, and so forth. We do this over longer intervals too—change jobs to increase it, avoid divorce to decrease it, travel overseas to increase it, move to the country to decrease it.”
Whether or not we identify as HSP, as Aron states in the quote above, each of us throughout our days and our lives are trying to maintain the optimal arousal level. What must be understood about HSPs is that “we get overaroused a little sooner than others” and that is perfectly fine, even if others may try to make you feel as though something is wrong and you should push through and just deal with it – discomfort or not. Don’t buy into their ignorance or dismissal because it’s more than discomfort, it is disrespecting your true nature and if you chronically dismiss what you need, your relationships suffer because you cannot be fully yourself or at peace.
4. Understand the culture you live in and what it values, and then don’t be bullied to change
“HSPs growing up in cultures in which they are not respected have to be affected by this lack of respect.”
Looking at the same study which took place in China and Canada “comparing elementary school children [it was] found that sensitive, quiet children in China were among the most respected by their peers, and in Canada they were among the least respected.”
Aron shares insightful examples of how even science and its findings are influenced by what the culture values (see p. 32 in her book). I share this insight of Aron’s to help HSPs become aware of the media, culture, voices and leaders that surround them and to listen and examine what you hear, see and witness being praised with a critical mind. If the predominant behavior in men that is applauded is loud, dismissive, unfeeling, more men will gravitate toward such behavior (unconsciously or consciously, likely the former) because of social acceptance. The same for women, if the behavior is to be the harried mother who just deals with it and is applauded for being exhausted, but still she is put up on a pedestal for burning the candle at both ends, instead of fighting the culture (they are exhausted after all), they go along because at least they are being praised.
Those are two general, and in some ways extreme examples, but all of it is to say, if we become aware first of our own true temperament and then of the culture that surrounds us, we can then live in alignment to our true selves and if the culture we live in doesn’t applaud our natural tendencies to find peace, we can find our own peace and those who no doubt also exist in our culture and simply wish to find strength in others who understand.
5. Establishing good boundaries is essential
First, reflect upon your own life at the moment. If you feel overworked, are constantly saying yes, but as Aron describes “resent it later”, you are likely not setting good boundaries. You may even occasionally put down boundaries, but they are severe and shut out everything and everyone. Again, these are not good boundaries, even if they are boundaries.
Another important truth to know about the harm of not establishing good boundaries is when we haven’t put them in place we allow others to tell us hurtful false truths about ourselves – “you are weak, nonassertive, insensitive, rigid, etc.”.
6. You can “fall in love” and not even be in a relationship with the person
I have put ‘fall in love’ in quotes because, “research shows that the longer you contemplate an object in an emotional way, the more intense the emotions toward that object will become”. I will just admit, in my early twenties I held on to a hope for someone that while maybe it kept me out of some not-great relationships, it also kept me out of living and being present with others. All of this is to say, we need to simply spend time with the person, take our time getting to know them but also being ourselves around them and not over-processing what is revealed, but rather let it unfold as it will. Why? Because when we expend more emotion and ‘more processing’ we fall in love more intensely, and sometimes we fall too quickly.
7. Know where to meet a fellow HSP and How to Meet Non-HSPs Well
As an HSP, you likely enjoy your own company and find peace in hours of solitary activities. Knowing this also tells you that you will need to go out alone in order to have conversations with other HSPs. Aron suggests going where fellow HSPs might go (if it’s somewhere you’d enjoy going as well). From seminars, lectures, art exhibits, heading out into nature, etc..
As I mentioned in #1, being in a healthy, loving relationship as an HSP doesn’t mean you have to be with a fellow HSP, but you do need to know how to hold yourself in a respectful way so both in the relationship are understood. If you are amongst a group of non-HSPs, Aron suggests moving out of the group in some way, and find a way to talk in a more one-on-one manner. Listen and ask questions but remember to bring your emphatic dialogue skills which is what we will talk about in #8.
8. Practice Empathetic Listening and Emphatic Dialogue
Studies have shown that when one person in a relationship holds the majority of the power and influence – what they want to do, what they believe is the default – neither partner is happy long term. And while it may seem emotionally easier to just go along with what your partner wants to keep the relationship steady, calm and void of upheaval or disagreement, it is actually the best thing you can do to speak “plainly, honestly, without blaming . . . but without flinching, your authentic truth”. Thus the definition of Emphatic Dialogue.
Empathetic Listening involves more than just paying attention to the words that are being spoken. “The listener attends to the feelings as well as the content and does not interrupt, interpret, advise or even offer his or her own experience or ask questions.” I am putting this definition in bold because so often, we heard the advice – which comes from a good place – to simply listen. But we aren’t often told or shown how to do so well. I find Aron’s definition to be incredibly clear and something I still practice as I make mistakes, but awareness of how to listen well is the key, and with practice we become more proficient and thus better partners in a healthy relationship.
9. Refrain from jumping to the wrong conclusions (i.e don’t make blanket assumptions)
“Both self-love and other-love increases when we don’t make too many personality attributions about ourselves and others, when we recognize that people cannot be completely explained with a label such as shy, rude or even highly sensitive, and that situations are complex, rich, often unpredictable and infinitely interesting.”
In #4 we talked about how a culture will favor one temperament over another. If you live in a culture that values the temperament you do not align with and you have not had a support system to strengthen your confidence in your awesomeness that you are, you may have a low self-esteem (which can be strengthened, but awareness as to why is helpful to reverse the lack). Because of our low self-esteem or negative past experiences in relationships, when a person we are interested in, perhaps have gone on a date or two, hasn’t called back, we can jump to negative assumptions – about them and about ourselves. Don’t go there. Instead, do the following:
Self-reflect and be honest with yourself about your own reactions. Aron suggests that maybe you actually are not as interested as you think you should be, but you are trying to make it be something it is not. In other words, take a breath, practice patience and go on about your life. If you wanted to call them, do so. Be your true self, express your interest, but keep your healthy boundaries. This will take practice, there will be rejection, by them but also by you, but there will also be peace because you have honored who you are, communicated your feelings and strengthened your muscle of mastering your overarousal.
10. How to prevent overarousal
During times of conflict, overarousal can often occur if we are not aware of the signs we are nearing such a state. Again, self-awareness is key. It is also important to note that when we reach a state of overarousal, especially in a situation of conflict, any contribution we attempt or any new information shared is not being processed, which means all engagement is pretty much wasted energy. All of this is to say, knowing how to prevent being overaroused is important.
First, if you have spoken out of a state of overarousal – name called, etc. – Aron states, with the support of research, “83 percent of marriages last if the partners show [the] repair skill” of “saying right away ‘I shouldn’t have said that—I’m sorry’.” Apologizing is not a weakness. In fact, it can strengthen relationships and build trust if the same mistake is not made again and again.
Aron lists more than a few specific tools to avoid overarousal, and they begin with self-awareness. Are you stressed already? Are you tired? Once you know yourself, how you are feeling in a particular moment due to other circumstances – work, previous conversations, the news, etc. – you can best decide if you should enter into a conversation that you know will increase your arousal and whether you have the strength at that moment to remain in a helpful state of conversation and engagement.
In a healthy relationship, compromise does occur, BUT it is important to hold yourself in your awareness here most especially. “Look for every place where you can compromise or give in without feeling you have violated your own needs”. And one of the most important approaches, and without it can actually cause more stress on an HSP, is to “agree about when you will resume your discussion and don’t put it off too long”.
11. Take a breath and take time
“HSPs in particular need time to decide about others—you need time, and if the other is an HSP, that person does too. You need time together and you need time between to think it over . . . if you persist, love may grow, or it may die. But time is on your side, in that the more you know each other, the more it will be that whatever happens will be for the best.”
The willingness to let the relationship evolve naturally, at a pace both are comfortable with can be hard in that sometimes we don’t realize we are rushing due to cultural pressure or pulling back out of unexamined fear from past hurts or confusion about our feelings. Again, this is where self-awareness and a confidence in exploring our feelings and then expressing them calmly, yet with strength as to clarify healthy boundaries, moves the relationship forward if both parties continue to be interested. We learn about each other as we spend time together in shared experiences and when we force desired experiences, we sometimes lose the potential of what could be. This is not to say, if we don’t force and if we are patient that the relationship will work out as we had hoped. We cannot know how it will turn out, but being ourselves, taking the relationship at the pace it goes while partaking (not sitting back and letting the other person call the shots or not call them and thus letting it dwindle away) is the only way to know what the next right step is.
12. The truth of loving is especially hard for HSPs, love anyway
“HSPs especially tend not to want anything to change or die, so this message is important: In long-term relationships you must be ready to endure the nice-friendship aspect of your relationships being betrayed, perhaps through a terrible fight, in order for the passion of the Self, through essential spirit, to be reborn.”
I wanted to share this last, additional point. Part of the reason I know I have avoid relationships in the past is because it hurts so incredibly much when that person is no longer in my life. Whether in a romantic relationships or friendships and family, our beloved pets. However, part of the reason it hurts is because we loved deeply, and as HSPs, we really do love incredibly deeply. The tools I did not have however in those past relationships are shared in Elaine Aron’s book, and I am gradually and consciously trying to use them to build better relationships with more awareness which ultimately deepens my appreciation, holds me in the present moment and reduces the the chance of any regret when the end of the relationship occurs whether by separation or death.
I hope today’s episode has shared insights you too can use in your own life to strengthen the love you experience and bring ease as you better come to understand and celebrate your self and the gifts of being HSP.
SIMILAR POSTS/EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY:
—The Gardener (2018), documentary
~learn more about why I chose the film here and watch the trailer.