Peter has written extensively about high sensitivity since 1997 when he learned he was an HSP.
Life... when you're a Highly Sensitive Person
This article is part of an ongoing series about the joys and challenges of life as a Highly Sensitive Person-- or HSP. If you're not entirely sure what it means to be "highly sensitive," or whether you are even an HSP, I'd like to recommend reading my introductory article about HSPs. You might also find it helpful to visit Dr. Elaine Aron's web site and take her brief (free!) self-assessment for sensitivity.
I am currently working on two different series of articles about HSPs, all of which will be posted to this web site. The "HSP Topics" articles identify and address some of the major challenges or issues highly sensitive people generally face. The "HSP Living" series are oriented towards offering more practical advice about specific parts of daily life that fairly universally seem to be sources of stress and overstimulation for HSPs.
'Tis the Season to be Jolly... or IS it? The HSP experience...
Most people-- whether highly sensitive, or not-- tend to carry around a somewhat idealistic and romanticized idea of how the holiday season "should" be.
Regardless of whether these inner images have much basis in the reality of our personal histories, they tend to be widely reinforced by the greater messages of society, through an endless parade of images of joy, happy families, cheerful gatherings, love and generosity centered around the holidays, along with a myriad advertisements offering us the products that will-- allegedly-- create those perfect holidays.
If we are to believe what we see, the world is filled with happy families getting together in joyful celebrations where everyone loves everyone else. In addition, there seems to be an overwhelmingly endless stream of "activities" we're all expected to be part of.
The TRUE Experience of Holidays, for many HSPs
In stark contrast to these meta-messages, the sad reality is that the holiday season is typically the most stressful part of the year, especially for HSPs. Why is this?
Let's face it, a significant portion of the "good cheer" we feel pressured to express is rather forced. In a large number of families, the idea of "everyone getting along" amounts to little more than a form of "faking it." For HSPs-- who typically place a very high value on living authentically-- putting on an act of artificial happiness can feel particularly jarring and offputting.
Aside from this, we may be experiencing a "double whammy," because the season is forcing us to "act cheerful" around a group of people who perhaps do not accept our sensitivities-- or maybe even made us feel marginalized because of them, when we were children. And so, spending time with families can dredge up old unpleasant memories of feeling bullied, or overlooked, or ignored.
Last, but not least, the constant focus on more things, more activities, more cheer, more socializing and pretty much "more" of everything can feel very overwhelming, if not outright offputting.
It would be a challenge for anyone-- let alone an HSP-- to not feel stressed out, under such circumstances.
A Helpful Book for HSPs dealing with stressful situations
All That Holiday Social Hoopla!
The holidays are a time with abnormally many gatherings and parties. Many HSPs feel uncomfortable in groups and loud parties, with their noise, smells and throngs of people... yet we can't always just say "no thanks" to the invitations.
Often there are office parties that require our participation as a show of company spirit. Odds are we'll be invited to many neighborhood and friends' parties, as well-- and we're faced with either turning them down and feeling like we get judged as "antisocial..." or attending and suffering with overstimulation.
HSPs tend to be more "socially and environmentally conscious" than most people... and a significant portion of the HSP population feels uncomfortable-- and even outright put off-- by the pervasive commercialism and consumerism that's marketed around the holidays. Not a moment goes by when we're not assaulted with one more message to "consume, consume, consume," making us realize just how much the true messages of the season have been lost and replaced by messages suggesting that we measure our self-worth in terms of how much we spend on flashy and trendy gifts.
On a more personal comfort level, there's the issue of shopping at crowded malls and shops, where we not only have to deal with large crowds of people, but also an onslaught of noise, lights, smells and music ostensibly there to make us feel the mood of the season, but for a highly Sensitive Person, more likely to make us want to run and hide.
It's not surprising that more than a few HSPs have developed a bit of a "Bah! Humbug!" attitude towards the holidays.
A Positive Book about "Going Solo"
Table for One: HSPs and Spending the Holidays Alone
A growing number of HSPs have chosen to turn their back on the "Holiday Circus" and instead spend the season alone, or just with their partner. Many swear that their most peaceful and stress-free holidays have been those spent alone.
Still, there are a few minor points to keep in mind, to help keep everything on an even keel.
Avoid the media, to whatever degree you can. The pervasive messages we get from TV and other places are SO heavily focused on "family" and "parties with friends" that it's easy to go from a place of feeling comfortable with one's solitude to feeling sad and lonely.
Focus on your holiday, and your choice, not on what others are saying or implying you "should" be doing or liking. Don't get entrenched in making long explanations and rationalizations to well-meaning friends who are convinced something must be "wrong." Keep it simple-- explain that this is what you've chosen this year, and that you're very happy with your choice. Period.
If you do want the company of people, stick with supportive friends, and preferably with those who are also unattached, or don't have families locally. For several years, I was part of a friend's "homeless holiday" gatherings-- for people who were unattached during the holidays. She'd provide a turkey, and everyone else would bring ONE side dish. We always had a really nice time... and there was never a feeling of "obligation" in the air.
Otherwise, consider volunteering your time to a place that serves free holiday dinners to those who have no other place to turn, as a means to get human contact. You'll feel better, and the people you're helping will feel grateful.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating the holidays in your own way; creating your own traditions as you go. I someone chooses to "label" you as "strange" or "antisocial," keep in mind that they are having the issue... not you.
How does YOUR typical Holiday Season go by?
Understanding Family Dynamics at the Holidays
HSPs and Family Dynamics-- at the Holidays
The holidays, traditionally, revolve around family and often involve gatherings of family members who only see each other this one time of the year.
Many HSPs find dealing with their families (aside from our spouses and children) during the holidays to be highly stressful. As outlined previously, the holidays can often "force us" together with people who might have been sources of emotional pain for us, when we were children, and even during adulthood. And because "it's the holidays," there's a lot of pressure for everyone to act like "one big happy family" regardless of whether or not those present actually get along. So there we are, pretending to be "happy" to see Uncle Robert who always called us a cry-baby, or our brother who tormented us relentlessly because he thought it was "funny" that he could make us cry.
Aside from spending time with family members we may not like (stressful), HSPs also tend to be tuned in to the moods of others... and so we face the additional layer of emotional stress associated with being aware of the unfolding family dynamics-- including those between other family members who can't stand each other's company; we feel their anger, irritation, frustration and even loathing... as a cloud on top of our own discomfort.
Even if we do get along pretty well with our families, the holidays tend to be all about families "being social" with each other, which means fewer opportunities for periods of quiet "alone time," which is very important for an HSP's sense of balance and overall well being.
Here are a few things that have helped me a bit, during holiday family gatherings:
- Take walks. If your family has a dog, offer to take the dog for a walk. If people want to go with you (aside from someone you like!), say that you're feeling a bit "fuzzy headed" and would prefer to spend a little time alone, to clear your head.
- Volunteer for tasks that afford you some alone time, or at least gets you out of the crowd. This can be anything from fetching firewood, to going to pick up Uncle John at the train station, to going to the store to pick up something forgotten.
- Try to focus on spending most of your time with a family member you really like.
- Dump your expectations! If you have a difficult time with certain family members, don't expect them to "magically" have changed their attitudes and suddenly be nice to you. People-- especially in family situations-- tend to be very set in their ways.
In any event, keep in mind that the situation is only temporary, and you will soon be back in your familiar surroundings.
Another useful guide for HSPs
It's a party, it's a party, it's a party! Managing the HSP social calendar
During late November and December, there's a good chance we'll get invited to more than a few holiday parties and functions. A little prudent "time management" can help HSPs make it through the seasonal festivities without too much overstimulation.
"Just say no" isn't always an option-- besides, there may be events we really want to attend. There may also be office parties we simply can't turn down, for "political" reasons. That said, it's important to be discerning! If you receive a number of invitations, don't just say "yes" to all of them, in an attempt to "be nice" to the people inviting you. Choose a few of particular interest, and decline the rest.
Many HSPs are not comfortable saying no... but please keep in mind that "no thank you" IS a complete sentence. You do not need to come up with a list of reasons and justifications for why you aren't going to "that awful Betty Smith down the street's" noisy Christmas party. Also, because there are so many parties during the holidays, it's a more natural thing that people can't go to all of them... and will have to turn some down.
Stay only as long as you feel comfortable! Most of us have developed a pretty good sense of how much it takes before we get overstimulated by a noisy crowd of people. Have a plan for how long you will stay and then make your excuses and leave, before you get overwound. Stick to your plans-- if you know you can handle about 90 minutes, leave after about 80 minutes.
To the degree possible, always use your own transportation! Relying on someone else for a ride may be nice, but also means that you end up being dependent on when they want to leave the event. If you don't drive and need to take a taxi home, make sure you have a cab company phone number written down ahead of time (or programmed into your cellphone), so you can unobtrusively make the call for your pick-up without fuss. Being able to say "I have to go, my ride is here" also offers a pretty compelling reason to take leave.
Balance out your time! If the holidays require you to attend more social events, find ways to cut back on other parts of your life schedule. HSPs only have so much bandwidth, and taking on too much tends to lead to overstimulation.
Make sure you take time for "alone time" during the holidays! When you have a lot on your plate, it becomes even more important to take time alone to recharge your batteries. If you find that you're "running too much" and never seem to have time to sit and rest, you may need to actually schedule blocks of time in your calendar for "me time." Maybe that sounds a bit excessive... but do consider it!
Dealing with Travel Stress during the Holidays
For some of us, the Holidays mean we have to travel somewhere for a family gathering. Much of the time we undertake such trips unconsciously and without thinking, because it is "expected" of us, and we feel like we have "no choice."
Whether we're travelling across the country by plane or bus, or just to the next town by car, there are a number of things we can do for ourselves to make the travel experience less stressful-- especially if we're making an overnight (or several day) trip.
- Plan ahead! Not only do you have more travel choices, but fares tend to be lower when you reserve and buy tickets several months in advance. Also, with your tickets already purchased, you have a certain amount of "leverage" in situations where someone tries to constantly change plans. That said, do consider spending the extra $8 for cancellation insurance!
- If you're going far, consider combining the family gathering trip with something else you want to do; maybe just a couple of quiet days visiting exhibits or natural monuments. Arriving a day early allows you to recover from your travel stress before going to the actual family gathering.
- If you don't get along so well with your family, consider staying at a B&B or small hotel, rather than couch surfing in a crowded noisy house. You'll really appreciate being able to just leave and have some quiet time. Does it cost extra? Yes, but again... you can save by booking early, and don't forget that there is also a "value" to keeping your (relative) sanity!
- If you have room, bring your own favorite pillow; otherwise bring a pillowslip from home. Or something else that gives you comfort, on a daily basis. Having something familiar can soothe your nerves at the end of a long day of family togetherness.
- Noise cancelling head phones! If you don't own a pair, they are well worth the cost-- go for the quality kind with ear pieces that completely enclose the ear, Being able to "tune" out and listen to your favorite music or meditation CD-- while everything in the background is tuned out-- can offer a small oasis in the chaos. I've written a mini-review of my favorite ones, below.
Even when we-- as HSPs-- are hosting a family gathering (and it does happen), we still get to deal with some of the travel stress that accompanies the holidays... except, how it is other people's stress.
If we are hosting people who are staying at our house, it adds a layer of stimulation to our systems. Not only do we have someone "unfamiliar" in our house, we may be dealing with them arriving on a delayed flight and being grumpy and tired at the end of a long flight.
If you're hosting overnight visitors, remember to keep a balance in your efforts. HSPs tend to be excellent hosts-- but in the business of making others feel comfortable, we can easily overlook our own needs and become stressed out and grumpy. Remember to take a few moments to be alone and relax-- even if all you can take is 20 minutes at a time.
Essentials for HSPs who travel: Noise canceling headphones
As an HSP, I don't like "sales pitches," but I'm going to offer up a gentle and HSP-friendly one here... simply because noise is overstimulating, and there IS a solution.
If you are an HSP who travels at all-- or spends time on the road, or visiting friends, or just are forced to spend time in noisy environments-- I cannot overstate the value of a good pair of noise canceling head phones. Noisy airports, airplanes, waiting in any noisy location, daily commute on a train or bus or vanpool, spending time at your noisy cousins' house... it's a way for a noise-sensitive HSP to bring along a "little oasis of quiet."
This is one area in which "buying quality" definitely pays dividends. Yes, you can get "cheap" sets, and yes, the quality gear might set you back US $300.00-- but many years of experience has taught me this is NOT a good place to cut corners.
Whatever "promises" you may read about other makers, the Bose brand offers the state of the art. The "QuietComfort" models are lightweight, have VERY soft full over-the-ear ear cups (whatever you do, AVOID "ear bud" or "on ear" style-- they JUST DON'T WORK as well, and they are uncomfortable!), long battery life, will plug into your iPod/iPad/smartphone or an airplane seat audio jack, and the audio part is of very good quality.
What's also nice is that the noise-canceling feature works with the audio, so listening to music isn't just "drowning out the other background noise" with the volume of the music, meaning you can listen at a fairly low volume, while in a very noisy environment.
Important! The only observation I do want to share is that genuine noise-canceling equipment (as opposed to just wadding cotton wool in your ears!) depends on technology that makes it "feel" like there is a slight pressure on your eardrums when the system is active. It may seem a little alarming at first, but it is not painful, and you soon get used to it-- overall, the benefits outweigh this single drawback by a wide margin!
Last but not least, Bose has some of the best customer service in the world and truly stands behind their product.
As a side note, if "Noise Sensitivity" is something that is a generally issue for you, I'd like to also recommend my article dedicated entirely to HSPs and Noise Sensitivity.
Getting "Mauled at the Mall:" Shopping during the Holidays
Holiday shopping can be particularly stressful-- although that holds true for pretty much for all people. That said, there are some folks who seem to thrive on going gift shopping at crowded malls and find it to be great fun, but odds are few of them are HSPs. Based on talking to many other highly sensitive people, it seems fairly unanimous that the Internet and online shopping has been a godsend for more and more of us.
What are some of the best ways to minimize the "pain" of holiday gift shopping? Here are a few suggestions:
- Plan ahead! Odds are you have a pretty good idea of who you need to give gifts to, so try to do your shopping months ahead of the holidays. I've met more than a few HSPs who were done with their holiday shopping by late October. What's more, by spreading your shopping out across the year, you won't be faced with an empty bank account and unpleasant credit card bills come January!
- Shop online. The choices are almost endless, and you can find many great deals. Keep in mind that if you are concerned about the growing "shop locally" movement, many local businesses will let you make your purchase online and then let you pick up your purchases at the local store. Also remember that many online retailers offer "free shipping" specials for the holidays.
- Shop during "off" hours. Up until the last few days before Christmas, there are "dead" periods during the shopping day-- I used to have a gift store, many moons ago, and these slow period were quite noticable. 10:30 to 11:45 in the morning and during normal dinnertime on weekdays tend to be slow, as do Saturday mornings, when people tend to be "recovering" from office and other parties.
- Avoid the malls! Probably a very obvious tip-- but still worth mentioning. Many small local shops are actually easier to get to, and often have their own parking spots close to the front door. And sometimes it's well worthwhile to drive to the outskirts of town to avoid crowds, traffic and parking hassles.
- Shop second hand stores! Second hand no longer just means "junky old cast-offs," there are more and more "upscale" resale shops that take anything from designer clothing to high end gift items and home accessories on consignment,,, and you can find some real treasures there, while not supporting the rampant commercialism.
Of course many HSPs are creative and artistic by nature, so don't be afraid of handmade gifts. Some of the best gifts I've received have included hand made jams and jellies, as well as baked goods. Food is almost always appreciated, and almost never needs to be returned! In addition, the web is filled with neat and interesting artistic types offering beautiful hand made gift items.
The beauty of artistic hand made gifts-- recommendations from people I personally know-- check them out!
- Stunning Wildlife & Nature Photography on Greeting Cards by Latone Photography
Talented nature and wildlife photographer Avis Latone offers dozens of beautiful images on hand made greeting cards-- sold individually and in boxed sets. Inexpensive and memorable gifts.
- Beautiful Jewelry and Hand Painted Ceramics by PamDesign
Beautiful hand painted ceramic pieces, jewelry and more-- made by a long time friend. A nice way to give something truly unique and artistic.
- Hand Made Sea Glass Jewelry With Beach Found Sea Glass
Authentic Sea Glass Jewelry for the holidays, made by Lisl Armstrong of Out Of The Blue Sea Glass. Lisl happens to be one of my clients and does beautiful work! Everything hand made.
Help spread awareness of High Sensitivity!
If you enjoyed this article, or found it useful, please use the "social sharing" buttons that have been "floating" out at left... help spread awareness of the HSP trait! The more people who know about the existence of this trait, the better off we all are!
Thank you for reading and for your interest!
Talk back! As an HSP, do you find the holidays stressful? Do you go to family gatherings? What are your best coping tips?
GreenMind Guides from USA on January 01, 2017:
Great hub, lots of wonderful ideas and points.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 28, 2012:
Eve, thanks for reading and sharing your experience. Doing things to live up to other people's "expectations" does tend to put a damper on everything... and as you said, HSPs can end up feeling like they are having to deal with a flood of other people's "bad moods."
Learn all you can about being an HSP-- the better understanding you have of how and when your high sensitivity affects your life, the easier it gets to choose wisely where to put your energies... or not. And sometimes, that may mean we have to say "no thanks" to things we might feel like we "should" do (especially with family) in order to keep our sanity.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 28, 2012:
Maisy, thanks for reading and commenting! It does make a huge difference to realize that you're "not alone."
Eve Saldivar on November 27, 2012:
I just last week ran across the term "Highly Sensitive Person" and it fits like a glove. All these separate idiosyncrasies I have are all connected. It has made a huge difference in the way I observe my world.
The day before I took Elaine Aron's quiz I had been thinking to myself that having holidays in which people were" expected" to spend quality time with their families or be festive and whatever, was not a good thing. There are so many people out there who don't have that available to them. I do, I have a big loving family but I most enjoy the non-holiday gatherings We do an annual family camp every summer. Everyone is free to enjoy each others company and there is plenty of room if people need space. Once I had taken the quiz, which hit me like a ton of bricks, it occurred to me that part of the reason I have such a hard time during the holidays is most likely because of everyone else's holiday depression. It tends to be a little more subtle and wide spread than a co-workers simmering anger with another co-worker.
I'm am definitely read more of your writing. Thank You.
Maisy on November 27, 2012:
Great read~you always hit home! Thank you for making me feel somewhat 'normal'!
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 26, 2012:
Lisa, thanks for commenting!
Good for you for finding a place where you are staying true to yourself. Dealing with family can be very difficult at times-- and sometimes we can't make the choices we wish we could, so we are left trying to "make the most of it." I've found the guilt feelings can be reduced somewhat by reflecting on the fact that there's nothing inherently BAD about choosing NOT to be in an abusive situation...
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 26, 2012:
Bill, thanks for the kind comments-- knowing and staying true to your own needs and capabilities makes life better... sadly, a lot of people play psychological "keep up with the Joneses" during the holidays.
Lisa on November 26, 2012:
You are spot on here, as usual. The media and consumerism this time of year is offensive. In the past I tended to think I was the party pooper, but now after learning about HSP's and reading articles like this, I am owning being sensitive and feeling good about it.
What you mentioned about family is so true. Some of my family of origin are so cruel that the last thing I want to do is spend the holidays with them. But this can create a dilemma for me with feelings of guilt etc. It's a difficult time. I'm not a fan of shopping either. Thank you for the numerous helpful hints and for writing for HSP's!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2012:
Great suggestions my friend. I am one....and I have learned to take care of myself and my needs during the holidays, using many of your suggestions. Well done and I can testify that they do work wonders.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 25, 2012:
eHealer, thanks for your comment and kind words! "How to handle the holidays" is a frequently discussed topic on the many online forums for HSPs... can be a difficult time of the year for those easily overwhelmed by a lot of "commotion," even of the festive kind.
Deborah from Las Vegas on November 24, 2012:
This is a beautiful hub DenmarkGuy. The photos are stellar, and you are an excellent writer! What a great topic and you really covered it well~ Voted up and shared!!