Should I adapt myself or change my life?

“Public transport”

For many HSPs, these words are associated with stress. That’s no wonder. These are common situations where HSPs tend to feel overwhelmed easily. Feeling overwhelmed is the complaint I hear most often in the Mindfulness for HSP-workshops I give. It’s a problem, not just because overwhelming causes a lot of stress. It’s particularly a problem as it limits many HSPs to do the things they like to do. Just some personal examples of things which are on my personal ban list; Albert Cuyp market, Leidseplein, central station, festivals, going out on a Saturday night without alcohol (to numb myself), Amsterdamse Bos (airplanes).

A question I hear frequently at workshops is ‘Should I adapt to the demands of my job/commitments/big city life or should I change my living conditions and give myself more rest and tranquility?’.

There is no clear answer to that as there are two directions to go to.

One direction is to give yourself more what you need. Nature, a quiet workspace, fresh air, time to digest are just a few examples of things which many HSPs simply need. Does your daily life give you this enough? HSPs tend to have two tendencies; a tendency to suppress their own needs and a tendency to care a lot for (presumed) needs of others. In my opinion it is very important that HSPs learn to feel their needs better and learn to express them.

Yet, choosing this direction (giving yourself more what you need) usually comes at a price. The more you need, the less free you become. Let’s take an example. If you need more silence, then you will probably like to use ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones while commuting. This doesn’t impact your freedom a lot. But if you need to wear them all day at your workplace, then it might limit your interaction opportunities with colleagues. That’s less freedom. To take it one step further, if your problems with noise are so big that you need a noise-free workspace, then it limits your choice of jobs.

The second direction is to adapt to your stressful environment(s). The open office is a notorious example. Trying to come to terms with it can pay off. We create ourselves a lot of stress and frustration when we’re fighting things we can’t change. So instead of feeling irritated by all the noise around us, we can learn to tolerate it and to have our focus on something else.

Yet, choosing this direction has an important risk. Challenging yourself to tolerate difficult situations is fine. But only given the condition that you know how to protect your boundaries. For this you need to be in good contact with your body & feelings, so you know when you’re adapting so much that you’re losing too much energy and building up too much stress. The problem is that when we are under too much stress for too long, we generally tend to close ourselves off from feeling our body and our feelings and in this way loose our capacity to acknowledge our own boundaries.

So we have two directions to go to, both with their own price and risk. What to do?

The short answer is that we need both directions simultaneously, but not just that. If you like to keep your busy life while not suppressing your own sensitivity, you need to both develop the capacity to feel your limits and needs, and to challenge yourself to confront uncomfortable situations. But most importantly, you need to develop the capacity to switch flexibly between these two poles.

This might look like a lot of work, but these are actually skills everyone can learn to master. Mindfulness training focusess on building the capacity to be aware of the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Using this capacity, you can be more aware of yourself (your needs, your limits, your stress level) and the situation you are in (what is bothering you). On top of that, you can use this capacity to observe yourself from an outsider’s perspective. In this way you can observe how you are right now dealing with a particular situation and whether this strategy gives the results you desire. This prevents you from getting stuck in one direction, and to flexibly adjust your strategy. It keeps self-care from becoming avoidance and challenging yourself from neglecting your own needs.