Social Habits And Sensitive People: The Four Tendencies

Once in a while, we come across concepts that are game changers for us as HSPs. This month, I would like to share something that has helped me in my own journey as an artistic HSP and might help you too. It comes from the work of New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, The Four Tendencies, one of several books she has written on happiness and habits.

Have you ever felt that you are hyper-aware of others’ expectations as an HSP and that it is easy for you to fulfill these outer expectations but somehow very difficult to fulfill your own inner expectations? While this can stem from many different and complex reasons (such as people pleasing), those reasons are not the whole story. It turns out that people have an innate, hardwired tendency that determines how they respond to different kinds of expectations. Learning about these can help us answer that frustrating question: Why am I so good at meeting other people’s expectations but not so good at fulfilling my own?

The Four Tendencies

In her latest book The Four Tendencies, Rubin talks about how different people respond differently to expectations. The seed of the book came in a conversation that Gretchen Rubin had with a friend. Rubin says:

“As I bit into my cheeseburger and my friend picked at her salad, she made a comment that would occupy my mind for years. In an offhand way, she mentioned, “I want to get myself in the habit of running, but I can’t, and it really bothers me.” Then she added, in a crucial observation, “When I was on the high school track team, I never missed track practice, so why can’t I go running now?”

“Why?” I echoed.

“Well, you know, it’s so hard to make time for ourselves.”

“Hmmm,” I said.”

Rubin and her friend then started talking about other things, but even after they’d said goodbye, she couldn’t stop thinking about their exchange. Why was it that it had been easy for her friend to go running in the past but that wasn’t the case anymore? Was it her age, her motivation, her family situation or something else?

Explorations About Social Habits

Although her friend had assumed that everyone had “trouble making time for themselves,” that wasn’t true for Rubin. She did not have any trouble making time for herself. So, what was the difference between them? Rubin would spend the next few years trying to answer this question.

This search led to Rubin asking some preliminary questions to readers of her website. She found, weirdly enough, that groups of people answered the same question in 4 identical ways, almost down to the words they were using. To the simple question of “How do you feel about New Year resolution?” a subset of people gave this almost identical answer: “I’ll keep a resolution if it’s useful, but I won’t start on New Year’s Day, because January 1 is an arbitrary date.” Rubin was intrigued by the use of this specific word because the arbitrariness of the January 1 date had never bothered her. But so many people gave the same answer; what did they have in common?

In a similar way, another group answered: “I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore because I never manage to keep them—I never make time for myself.”

Another group said: “I never make resolutions because I don’t like to bind myself.”

It was after a lot of this give and take on her blog and people naturally dividing themselves up into 4 distinct groups that Rubin had her eureka moment. She had found the key! The underlying question was: “How do you respond to expectations?” Answering this question led to her book, The Four Tendencies.

Expectations And The Four Tendencies

In fact, we all face two kinds of expectations: inner and outer. An inner expectation is something we place on ourselves, like a New Year’s resolution, while an outer expectation is something like a work deadline. Depending on how you respond to these expectations, Rubin found that people fell into one of these four types or four tendencies:

  1. Upholders respond to both outer expectations and inner expectations.
  2. Questioners question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect, they respond only to inner expectations
  3. Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.
  4. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

Guess where I fell on this framework? I was an Obliger. If something was imposed from the outside, like a work deadline, I usually met it. But for years, I could not figure out why I wasn’t able to do enough on the side (like some people I knew were able to do), to switch careers or work on my writing. It turns out that Obligers need outer accountability. So, if you have an inner expectation, you have to, in a sense, turn it into an outer expectation and then, you will likely complete it.

Looking back, I saw that I had only written consistently and been most productive when I had been part of writing workshops. Here, I was expected to write, and I did. But left on my own, time would trickle down and I wouldn’t get to doing something that I, personally, wanted to do. Instead, I was getting caught up in other people’s agendas and running around helping (or unhealthily rescuing) first this person and then another.

It was after I let myself practice this concept (instead of thinking that I “should” be able to motivate myself on my own (something that Upholders, for example, find easy to do), that I finally got a writing coach. This turned out to be one of the best decisions that I have made in a long time. I have written more, more consistently than I have ever before in my life. I have applied for a writing grant that took months of work. For the first time in my life, I have felt that I am finally on my path.

What it took was re-framing something basic about me. This is similar to the kind of re-framing we often have to do as HSPs. An Obliger wrote something to Gretchen Rubin that I resonate with:

“As a TV writer, I’ve struggled miserably with my inability to stick to any kind of personal deadline, yet I’ve always been a dutiful employee who submits scripts on time to my boss. I’ve given this tendency many names: laziness, being irresponsible, being a child in grown-up clothes, and many terms that wouldn’t get past your spam filter. By giving me a new name—Obliger—you’ve given me a way to accept myself. I can put the self-loathing aside and concentrate on devising clever ways to trick myself into doing stuff. It’s already made me more productive, but more importantly, it’s made me much happier.”  

Are You An Obliger?

Of course, as an HSP, you might not fall into the Obliger category. But considering that it is the largest category (Rubin’s study found that 41% of the sample were Obligers), I think there are many HSPs who are also Obligers. Maybe you, like me, have gone for years meeting other people’s expectations, and then suddenly, everything becomes all too much and you say a big No. Obligers are often prone to burnout and at certain points in their lives, to what Rubin calls Obliger rebellion. Suddenly, or so it seems to other people, we have had enough and we won’t take anymore. Then, we walk out, literally or metaphorically. So, learning about how we are wired and how to make that work for us can be crucial in keeping our resentment stores down.

Also, understanding the different categories can help us understand the people around us. For example: Although Upholders and Obligers both want to meet outer expectations, Obligers are much more prone to burnout because Upholders also hold themselves to their inner expectations. Upholders might also be dismissive of other tendencies who need different things than they do. Rebels (only 17% in the sample, with the fewest members) resist expectations and can get into all kinds of tussles with people who expect them to comply with outer expectations (like Upholders). A Questioner child who has to be given a reason to do every little thing might be trying for a parent who is an Upholder or Obliger. But getting a whole picture and seeing the strengths and weaknesses of each type might help us relate better to different people. It can also give us a perspective on how different social contexts might work or not work for a particular type. Rubin gives an example of how a Questioner might be highly valued in a place like Silicon Valley but get into trouble in a place like North Korea. A Rebel, if they become a rebel without a cause, might just be highly annoying. But rebels are also the ones who question existing systems and can help bring about change. As always, the context as well as the other qualities of that person matter.

Like me, you might have several “ahas”  if you read The Four Tendencies and come to see that we often see the people around us as very similar to ourselves. Sometimes, we think that they should be motivated by the same things as ourselves. We think that what works for us is what works for them. But that’s not true. Like Rubin tells us in this and other books, often diametrically different things are the keys to different people’s happiness and success. The question is: What specifically works for you as an individual? What is your own nature?

This is, of course, a bare-bones portrait of Rubin’s four tendencies. But like me, maybe figuring out your own tendency might provide as an essential missing piece for you as an HSP and help you in your own journey.   

Digital Detox For Highly Sensitive People

So here I was again, crying on the floor of my tiny rented studio from an unbearable migraine and fatigue, weak and desperate after a day in the office. I seemed to have finally landed in a decent digital marketing role I’ve always wanted – a great brand, professional and ambitious colleagues, a decent salary – and yet I was at the edge of a severe depression. I was looking forward to getting to the office on Monday morning, but by the second half of Tuesday I was already feeling tired, and from Wednesday onwards would end up in tears every evening. I didn’t feel like talking to my colleagues, nor like going out anywhere. The weekend was just enough to recover. What’s wrong with me?

The Beginning Of My Digital Detox Journey

It wasn’t the first time this was happening. In my previous job, also in digital marketing, I resigned a couple of months after I started. I was feeling so unwell physically after an 8 hour daily in an open space office, where each person had at least two gigantic monitors that I could barely sleep. I could feel how my physical state was deteriorating because of the number of computers in the office. I left my job although I was risking losing my visa and being sent out of the country. A previous employer luckily allowed me to work part-time from home but the reduced salary did not pay enough. After a few months of recovery and occasional consulting work, I ended up in the job that I thought I’ve always wanted. I became a digital marketing manager of an exciting startup, launching the product in a new big market from the scratch.

However, the job turned out to be not exactly what I thought. I spent most of my days seated in front of the computer, manipulating spreadsheets, juggling journalist enquiries, doing cold sales calls, replying to customer support emails and apologizing for what I had no control over, chasing tech support so that they would finally fix bugs on the website, writing blogs and promoting the company on social media, sending email campaigns, managing external agencies and doing one hundred other things that the only person responsible for covering the whole market is expected to do. The job was far less creative than I thought and somewhat repetitive.

We all were sharing the same room, and everyone would always be on the phone making sales calls. Opening windows wasn’t encouraged as it was noisy outside, and the air conditioner made the room too cold, so the room felt stuffy most of the time. We were expected to work overtime, especially checking our emails over the weekend as a demonstration of our dedication to work. Working from home wasn’t seen as something healthy, as the company management was looking to build a “family-like” environment where everyone was learning from each other. Most colleagues had lunch at their desks in front of the laptop and preferred to talk to each other via messengers, albeit sitting within a hand distance from each other.

A Need For Digital Detox

It’s only now that I know that I’m an HSP I realize that basically everything that was happening in this company was a “red flag” for a highly sensitive person – information overload, being in a closed room with a lot of tech devices, the lack of boundaries between work and private life, a lack of natural light, air, movement and live human interaction. But at that time I wasn’t aware of my trait and couldn’t understand why I was the only who was so disturbed with all of the above, whereas everyone else was doing just fine. Leaving yet another company was not an option, so it was the time to think what I could do to support myself. Without reading anything about it, I intuitively set up a digital detox program for myself.

The first change was to stop switching on the computer from the moment I came into the office, as I knew there were hundreds of emails waiting for me. Instead, I would take 10-15 minutes every morning to prepare a tea and then sit down with a piece of paper and put together my thoughts of what I needed to do for the day. I tried not to stay in my seat all the time and spend as much time as I could in the meeting room, where I could be by myself, using sales calls as an excuse. In other times, I chose to sit on a couch in the corner, which was less exposed to radiation from the devices around. I signed up for the gym nearby, taking a lunch break to do some exercise and/or swim – I discovered that water had a tremendously regenerating effect on me after spending hours in front of the laptop, or would just go for a long walk no matter what the weather was like. I started wearing the glasses that absorb computer blinks and a protective apron to protect from too much radiation, to which I seemed to be so sensitive. When I finally negotiated one day in the middle of the week to work from home, it made a huge difference as it gave me some breathing space. Most importantly, I adjusted how I worked on my computer. I switched off all notifications and only occasionally opened my mailbox, as well as Skype, which we used for internal communications.

Now that I run a digital detox company, I know that after reading an incoming email it takes our brain 64 seconds to return to what we were doing,  so keeping notifications enabled is a guaranteed way to make you unproductive. I stopped reading any comments about my articles and my company on social media because when they made me anxious and sometimes weren’t kind, it took me long to recover from them. Although I was still expected to read my emails over the weekend, instead of thinking about them all the time, I did them in the evening. I made an effort to stand up and stretch every hour.

Deepening My Digital Detox

It wasn’t perfect, but at least it became bearable. When the contract finished, and we mutually agreed not to extend, I didn’t need to recover as long as after the first job. When I was offered the next job, a very senior role with a top global internet company, I negotiated my terms straight away – flexible working hours, ability to work from home and a 4-day a week contract. In return, I knew I could provide a strong expertise and results – if I had the flexibility to manage my digital workload. Funny enough, I ended up working for them many more hours than in the previous job, but felt less tired and was more productive – because I was able to follow my own cycles.

Information overload was still a huge challenge for me because I receive 500 emails daily in addition to video conferences. So I decided to cut back on it at least in my private life. I gave up my smartphone and exchanged it to a very basic Nokia with no internet. Not having my phone constantly with me suddenly made me aware of how anxious I had been before, and how I was allowing many distractions to dominate my life. It felt as if I had been surrounded by 10 noisy needy kids, who were all pulling me in different directions and trying to grab my attention – and all of a sudden, they disappeared after I gave up the smartphone. I started sleeping better and having more interest in people around me, not to mention being more productive. This was when I seriously thought that I can help other people not to get into the same loop I’ve been it, and started looking into what neuroscience says about the impact of technology on our health and well-being. My research meant that I founded my digital detox business, a coaching and training company called Consciously Digital.

Top Digital Detox Lessons For HSPs

There are clearly some things that HSPs need to be aware of about using digital media more than other people:

  1. Sensitivity comes in many forms, and if you think you are sensitive to computer/TV radiation, you are not crazy – this is probably true, trust your body. If you can’t avoid it altogether, try looking for a place in your office where you have less exposure to the technology.
  2. As an HSP, you MUST unplug throughout the day. Your brain processes more information and gets overwhelmed faster than the brain of a non-sensitive person. One hour on social media for you is an equivalent of 5 hours on social media for a normal person. You need a digital diet.
  3. Don’t read your emails or news in the morning – as an HSP, you are so influenced by the moods or energies of others that you’ll get charged for the whole day. Instead, you can start with something inspirational, like watching a TED talk. Or just walk to work.
  4. Ban notifications – messengers, email alerts etc. They aren’t helping anyone, but for you, they are really much more harmful than for a regular person, because they interrupt your processing and add one more item on your agenda.
  5. Today’s connected world is always about the others, as you can be reached at any time. So you need to put artificial boundaries in place when you are and are not available – you can choose to use your devices at a specific time of the day, or in a specific place, and avoid using that on other occasions (for example, keep them shut and away from sight during dinner with friends or choosing not to use them in your bedroom).

You can be effective in our interconnected world and still respect your needs as a highly sensitive person, you can avoid the hazards that will require a digital detox.

7 Steps To Access Intuitive Feelings For Balanced Living

There were nine of us sitting in a circle on the floor of the bookstore that day as I began my intuition workshop. Whenever I teach people about intuitive feelings, our journey together always begins the same question:

“Tell me something”, I asked them, “how many of you feel your too sensitive and that this sensitivity hinders your life?”. Every hand in the room raised up, a few more tentatively than others.  I could see flashes of emotion cross their faces as the internal struggle between what our society defines as weakness and what their hearts were telling them began; it was that age old struggle between the head and the heart, one that highly sensitive people know all too well.

“So what you are telling me, is that my dog’s ability to hear sounds at a great distance or smell something I’m cooking in the kitchen while they are outside of the house is a weakness? “

Intuitive Feelings And Spirituality

Pushing further, I posed another question; “How many of you feel a strong urge to work with the spiritual aspects of your life, perhaps through a desire to help others but aren’t quite sure how to accomplish this in a way which is personally meaningful? Remember, that on some level we seek guidance through our spirituality; what happens if we can’t manifest that spiritual guidance with our daily actions? In other words, does your life reflect the core beliefs of your spirituality?”

I wasn’t referencing religion here; instead, y goal was to increase awareness of their spiritual values because our deepest values always originate from the heart. A trait I notice in highly sensitive people is a deep connection with their spirituality; a connection with the divine which speaks to the heart rather than the mind.

With a one last question, I pushed my point deeper; “Is your heart telling you of an imbalance between the aspects of your daily life and spiritual life? Not necessarily in words, but in a gut feeling, perhaps one felt in a dream or in moments of quiet? Maybe, you are here, sitting in this workshop, because it is time to blur the boundary between the two.” The room had gotten very quiet as my questions were contemplated. People’s moods have a tendency drop a bit whenever I ask these questions during a workshop. There’s a certain sadness felt when an imbalance between the head and the heart is illuminated.

Giving them a few minutes to be alone with their thoughts, I thought back to a time some years ago when I met a dear friend for coffee. I had spent the entire conversation lamenting the conflict between my head and my heart. My heart was calling me to work with people while my head was asking me what qualifications I had to do so. Being that I had no college degree or any sort of formal training, I could not see myself in any kind of position to teach.

Intuitive Feelings And Knowledge

Returning to the present, I continued on; “Remember that sensitivity I asked you about a few minutes ago? What if I told you sensitivity was a gift that could be used to achieve balance in your life? If you think about it, from a young age we are always taught to look to people more knowledgeable than ourselves for answers. In doing so, we stop listening to the intuitive feelings of our heart. Seeking knowledge from others who are farther down the path of life isn’t necessarily a mistake, however for highly sensitive people the mistake is made in only seeking knowledge through that path.

What your heart has been trying to tell you all these years is that there is another path; one that is internal and one that is aligned with your sensitivity. What you may consider a weakness is actually your greatest strength because sensitivity will lead you to intuitive feelings.  And intuition, will lead you to balance.”

For highly sensitive people, sensitivity is often felt through emotion which can distract us if we get wrapped up in it. Intuitive feelings on the other hand, are much more subtle. Briefly felt in the gut, speaking in a quiet voice, it defines what is meaningful in our lives; a way of knowing without knowing how we know. That day in the coffee shop, my friend  who also was a highly sensitive person, challenged my viewpoint regarding my lack of formal education by pointing out sensitivity was something which could not be taught and was key to working with people. Without it she said, we were simply going through the motions.

In learning to listen to, and work with your intuition, you need to view everything in your life as energy. Highly sensitive people already have a natural gift for feeling the energy of the environment and emotions of the people around them. By taking it one step further and using your intuition to gauge how this energy is affects you, allows you to make better decisions in the areas of mind, body and spirit. The easiest way to access intuition is by “checking in” and seeing what your gut is telling you. Concentrate on the area just behind your belly button for any physical reactions which may be followed by a quick non-judgmental thought or image in your mind.

Exercises For Accessing Intuition

As the workshop continued I outlined an easy way to work with our intuition on a daily basis by outlining what I call the “Seven Steps to Intuition” which allows us to use intuition on a daily basis, one for each day:

  • Monday – Making decisions; check in each time you are faced with a decision. In which direction are your gut feelings steering you?
  • Tuesday – Relationships; check in and see how your body is reacting to the energy of the people around you. Do they energize or drain you?
  • Wednesday- Health and Well Being; check in and see how your body is reacting to the choices you have made for optimal health.
  • Thursday – Diet; wait half an hour after you eat and then check in. How is your body and mind reacting to the foods you ate? Food has the potential to affect us as strongly as the medicines we take.
  • Friday – Quieting the Voice of Opinion; sit quietly for 5 minutes and observe your thoughts. Are they constantly passing judgment on the world around you? That judgment is the voice of ego or the strict parent in our lives. Check in and ask your intuition if these judgments are necessary in your life.
  • Saturday – The Art of Listening; as you converse with someone, check in and see what your intuition is telling you. Is the person being truthful or trying to manipulate you? This can be a very effective tool during business meetings with new clients or vendors.
  • Sunday – Listening to the Voice of Your Dreams; as you wake up in the morning, check in and see what your emotions are telling you. Often in our dreams, feelings from our subconscious come to light. While you may not remember a dream from the previous night, the feelings you wake up with are good indicator of what your subconscious was chewing on while you slept.

As you repeat the process throughout the week, you will find listening to your intuitive feelings becomes second nature. Over time, you will start “checking in” with your environment on a regular basis without having to consciously think about it. Remember that working with intuitive feelings is a process backwards from traditional learning; you don’t need to read the book first.

It’s been many years since that workshop at the bookstore. But in moments of quiet, I often think back to that conversation in the coffee shop. My friend had been right; it wasn’t a framed diploma or workshop certificate hanging on the wall which qualified me to teach people. Instead, it was the gift of my sensitivity guided by the quiet voice of intuition. These days, I teach through shared experience and in looking back, I realize nothing has really changed; I’m still as sensitive as I ever was. Instead, it is simply a matter of perception which creates the balance of my journey.

Why HSPs Need To Reclaim The Creative Process


Most people think the creative process is just about coming up with ideas. Our culture separates ideas from making things, but treats even the process of generating ideas as something to be manufactured. As a result, our relationship to our creativity is affected by our cultural model.

Manufacturing is not a natural HSP energy and can cause a feeling of disconnection in highly sensitive people who are more creative and holistic. One way highly sensitive people can embrace their natural energies and creativity is by reclaiming the creative process.

How Culture Can Affect The Creative Process

The Industrial Age brought with it a huge change in how things are made. Machines became the go-to resource for making the things we use in our lives.

At the time it was a great idea, because machines were able to produce in large quantities and therefore meet large unmet needs of the human population. The Industrial Age, through the combination of carbon energy sources and new engineering skills, was a dream come true as a way to make life finally livable.

There was a cost, however. We started delegating the making of things, and we humans became administrators, strategists and accumulators. We stopped making as individuals and lost the skills that go with that.

When we changed we also began to see creativity differently. Manufacturing became the dominant activity for us and we translated the manufacturing process into every aspect of human life. We manufactured goods, lifestyles, identities, legacies, memes and cultural myths, and, of course, ideas.

Ideas and the making of what an idea proposed became distinct realms governed by different people, systems  and authorities.

Creativity And The Creative Process Suffers

Creativity never dies – it is a natural and fundamental part of life. However, it has suffered under materialism. Conformity to materialistic ideals was an expectation of the age. How else do you pay for all those factories, buildings and other products?

Although our standard of living improved, to get there, creativity was discouraged in schools and elsewhere. It left creative people feeling starved for a place in the world. Art and art making were relegated to the sidelines and creative people treated as flakes. Serious people were materialistic achievers, not creatives.

Nothing and no one escape the age they live in and art was as affected by the materialistic age as were all other spheres of life. Art adapted in some ways. Art making became art production. Art adopted the language of the age and some artists even achieved stardom.

The Split

Nowadays we think of creativity as the manufacture of ideas. Creativity is just something else we produce like widgets. It is an activity when it needs to be a way of being.

When you learn about Ayurveda, the holistic health system, you discover that all aspects of nature are intelligent. Therefore, all aspects of nature are part of the ongoing creation we call life.

In the materialistic age, we have been dominated by the idea that the mind and brain are where intelligence resides. The rest of us is just plumbing. The reason this is important is because the “mind over matter” idea objectifies everything. There really is no creativity. There is only the manipulation of what exists.

Materialism, however, is not an accurate picture of the world. Whether your point of view is spiritual, creative or holistic healing, life and creativity are not just about what we see. The world is not divided into material and not material, mind, and matter, responsible people and creatives.

Why HSPs Need To Reclaim The Whole Creative Process

The current age has made life difficult for highly sensitive people for many reasons. One of those reasons is living with and trying to survive in a culture whose energy is inimical to them. The cultural model is a compartmentalized one, and HSPs are holistic people.

Embracing all aspects of the creative process: the idea, the process of making the idea real and releasing it to the world, means that you now have a way of engaging that your nature can support. You are no longer at odds with yourself in order to survive.

That is a great place for HSPs to be, because so often our being different is a barrier to our development and progress. Embracing the creative process puts your life back under your control.

It may feel strange but eventually it will feel great.

HSP Toolbox: Daily Journaling

Highly sensitive people tend to be empathic by nature, but focusing on the wants and needs of others can sometimes result in self-neglect. Unexpressed thoughts or feelings can lead to stress, anxiety, and poor health. However, expressing yourself does not mean you have to confide in another person. The simple act of writing on paper gives you an outlet for your inner life and protects you from reactions or criticisms that a person might have. Journaling might seem like a daunting task, but if you keep your expectations low, you can create a safe place for honesty.

Daily Journaling

You do not have to be a great writer or have nice penmanship to benefit from this activity. You just need to be honest with and compassionate toward yourself.

  1. Necessary tools: a notebook and a pen. I encourage you to write, not to type. You could do this activity with a word processor on your computer, but the act of writing by hand discourages self-criticism and impulsive editing.
  2. Write two pages in long hand, front and back. The ominous tick of a timer can interrupt the flow of your thoughts onto the page. By setting a goal to write until you’ve filled up two pages, you’re free to take as much or as little time as you need.
  3. Do not censor or editYour inner critic will want to scratch out a poorly worded sentence. Your mind is not subject to readership.
  4. Be honest. Your inner empath will refrain from saying what you really feel (i.e. “My neighbor is so rude for blasting the music at 2 AM.”). No one will see these pages but you. You can’t afford to lie to yourself.
  5. Keep writing. Even if you have nothing to write about, then write: “I have nothing to write about.” Keep the physical act of writing going no matter how pointless it seems.
  6. Do it daily. Committing to daily journaling is for your wellbeing. You do it daily because you deserve to be honest with yourself daily. You deserve to say exactly what’s on your heart and mind. You deserve to put yourself first for two pages a day.
  7. Be mindful. Over time, you will notice subtle changes in your self-awareness and mood. Take note of the themes in your writing and how your issues resolve through pen and paper.

You can combine this activity with a breathing meditation to create a healthy ritual to start or end your day.

HSP Toolbox: Breathing Meditation

In the article How You Breathe Matters, Maria Hill discussed the importance of breath and oxygen to the body, especially for highly sensitive people. She explains that when we are stressed, our body runs on emergency stores of oxygen as our breath becomes quick and shallow. In a stimulating and extraverted world, highly sensitive people need to begin the habit of stopping and tuning into the breath to make sure they are nourishing themselves with stress-relieving oxygen.

Breathing Meditation

This exercise is great for meditators of every level and easy to do in any environment.

  1. Direct your attention to your breath. Listen to it. Feel it. Take note of the way it sounds and how it feels passing through your nostrils and down your throat.
  2. Don’t worry about changing your breath, but you might naturally breathe deeper just because you’re paying attention.
  3. Make room for your breath by adjusting your posture; try to sit up straight with shoulders back and hands in your lap or by your sides. Imagine the crown of your head floating toward the sky.
  4. Fix your eyes on one spot in front of you or on the floor. You can also close your eyes if you’d like.
  5. The most important part: smile. Just a small lift of the corners of your lips will do. (You can try doing this meditation without smiling. Note the difference.)
  6. Count through eight (8) cycles of breath. That means one inhale and one exhale equals one cycle.
  7. When you’re done, you can choose to keep going or go about your business.


  • Redirects awareness away from external stimuli and stressful circumstances.
  • Increases oxygen intake.
  • Resets breathing pattern.
  • Enhances mood, especially if you smile!
  • Discrete and non-disruptive.
  • Can be done anywhere at anytime.
  • Cultivates mindfulness.

Building the Habit

Breathing meditation has no prerequisites. You can do it in the morning or before bed. You can do it on your commute or in the shower. You don’t need a meditation cushion or special posture. This exercise is meant to be a natural part of your everyday life. After a few sessions and experiencing the benefits, you might find yourself weaving it into your daily regimen. Just keep it in your self-care toolbox and use it whenever you need to refocus.

HSP Toolbox: Mindful Walking


As highly sensitive people, it’s easy for us to get stuck in our heads. Sometimes we’re unable to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations, which influence us to replay situations over and over in our heads. “Did I say the wrong thing?” “Is she angry with me?” These and other familiar scripts rob us of time and energy. How do we break the cycle and rejuvenate?

Mindful Walking

Mindful walking is taking a stroll in nature and gently coaching your mind to stay focused on the present moment and your current surroundings. If possible, make this a part of your daily ritual or self-care routine.

  1. Choose your path. Whether it’s the local park, the beach, or just a few blocks in your neighborhood, choose a path that’s accessible. You can also practice mindful walking in a mall or store, but nothing beats fresh air and sunshine.
  2. Wear comfortable clothing. Avoid flip flops or shoes with little support. Walking shoes are ideal, and barefoot in the sand can be soothing. Dress appropriately for the weather.
  3. Give yourself time. You can set aside any amount of time to practice this exercise, but thirty minutes allows you to really enjoy the experience. Wander for fifteen minutes and use the last fifteen to get yourself back.
  4. Unplug. If you can, put your phone on silent or leave it behind. Sending text messages or checking your social media takes away from the mindfulness practice!
  5. Go for it! Just start walking. Every time you notice your mind wandering to something that doesn’t involve your immediate surroundings, gently redirect your awareness.
  6. Let your senses be your guide. Breathe in fresh air. Notice the colors of the leaves, the sky, the grass, and the flowers. Listen to the sound of your feet hitting the ground. Feel the breeze brush against your cheeks. Tie your mind to your senses so you can stay present.
  7. Don’t give up. Sometimes you’ll notice that you’ve been worrying about something or replaying a conversation in your head. That’s okay! Be compassionate with yourself and kindly bring your mind back to the present moment.

According to the American Heart Association, making a brisk 30-minute walk part of your daily routine can improve blood pressure, reduce risk for conditions such as heart disease, and enhance mental well-being. As for mindfulness practice, the American Psychological Association indicates that it can reduce rumination, emotional reactivity, and stress while improving memory, focus, and cognitive flexibility. You can combine this practice with a breathing meditation and daily journaling to create a self-care ritual to start or end your day.

Those Energy Thieves: How Overstimulation Hurts HSPs

Being a highly sensitive person can feel like you are living in a world that is too loud all of the time.

What do you do about raw nerves and nervous exhaustion?

Noticing The Energy Thieves

I call them energy thieves – all the demands for our attention that are unnecessary, counterproductive and unimportant. Unfortunately, there are so many of them.

It can take a lot of energy to deal with all of the energy thieves on our lives. Some energy thieves are obvious – television and social drama top the list. Others are not so obvious. In this consumer age, our time and energy are some of the things being consumed. The combination of high complexity and high demands for participation can wear down anyone. Highly sensitive people, however, are just worn out, they are at risk of getting sick.

When Speed Defines Life

The volume and complexity of daily life makes it difficult to operate at a manageable pace. The result is that unfinished business of all types pressures us for our attention as does our consuming social and economic system. Something has got to give and often in the case of highly sensitive people it is them.

Essentially anything that we have not dealt with becomes an energy thief and unfinished business becomes stored in our bodies. The minute something accesses our attention, it acquires energetic significance until it is dealt with.

Unfortunately, in the case of HSPs, our nervous systems are magnets for stimulus; often we become overwhelmed and are not able to deal with it. So we store it.If we are not careful we may start to feel that we are running out of places to store everything we have not been able to deal with and that adds to our stress even more.

All energetic information has a place inside us. There is one another place we need to look for energy thieves – our minds. The mind can be an energy thief in the following ways:

  • when we spend HUGE amounts of time ruminating about all sorts of things that are unhelpful
  • anger of the past
  • worry about the future
  • self-reproach
  • keeping score

How To Eliminate Energy Thieves

There is one form of keeping score that is useful: taking stock as often as you need to to see what energy thieves are laying claim to your time and energy. You are not doing this to push yourself harder but to seeing what is laying claim to your energy that should be examined. Too much entertainment, consumption, and personal dramas need to be considered and perhaps disposed of.

Taking Care Of What Is Important

Unfortunately, not everything that you would like to have gone can be discharged easily:

  • grieving the loss of a loved one
  • healing childhood abuse
  • ill health

Somethings require our attention for a long time and that may actually be good. Our best solution is to honor the process and the need by taking time for a meditation, journal writing or whatever healing approach we would like and let it have it’s place in our life without taking over. Once you have a process that honors you, you will feel more at ease. Your mind and body will be aligned with your well being and that creates internal peace.

Other thieves require a different approach. People, activities, and places that do not honor your value need to be reevaluated and if necessary given the boot. Notice the people, situations, and things that drain you as a sign of needed change.

It is very important to be patient with yourself. Energy thieves often do not go quietly. The more you take care of yourself, the easier it is to make necessary changes. Working on your energy health will help as well. Energy techniques like reiki and meditation can make a big difference in helping you realize the life you deserve.

Highly Self-Employed


For much of my working life (and I’m in my 50s, so it’s been a while), I struggled with the demands of the “normal” 40-hour work week.

Working the way our society seemed to insist I work in order make a living made me feel like I was dying. I needed more peace, more depth, more meaning, more self-direction, and more time off than any of the jobs I found seemed to offer.

I would do my best, but over and over again, after a few weeks or months, I’d become so sick and tired that the only way I saw to choose life over death was to quit the job. I’d rest up a while, then be back at square one, frustrated by the outlook.

The Path To Becoming Self-Employed

As a way to avoid that unhealthy pattern, I began flirting with becoming self-employed, at first trying it out in addition to part-time jobs and in spite of not knowing how to do it. Whenever I achieved some success at being self-employed, even if only temporarily, I was much happier. So I took workshops and read books about self-employment and I experimented.

Over the years, I tried different self-employment activities, searching for ones that would succeed for me and my particular needs and HSP traits, ones that would give me enough money to live on and feel like making a living (vs. a dying). I tried consulting about different things. I tried making and selling art. I tried collaborations and self-employment systems others had pioneered.

A major shift occurred when I changed my perspective from asking myself, What can I do that will make me money as a self-employed person? to asking, What am I already good at that helps the people in my life? I started paying attention to what came naturally and easily. I started noticing what others valued about me and valuing myself more as who I was rather than who I should be.

When one of my housemates timidly asked me for a beginner’s lesson on the computer because “You know how to use a computer, I don’t, and I know you’ll be patient with me,” I paid attention. When friends called me weird for staying up late having fun using a bookkeeping program, I paid attention. When I eventually had a waiting list for my bookkeeping services, even though I wasn’t a trained or even a very good bookkeeper, I paid attention.

Being Nice Pays

I took a step up in self-employment when I figured out that people will gladly pay me to be nice to them as they learn. People will pay me to witness their learning process with kindness rather than judging them for their stumbles.

I took another step up when, after observing (and living with) my income struggles for years, my husband said to me one day, “You know, it’s kind of obvious that you need to focus on raising the amount of money you get per hour.”

Raising my rates became a reality when I paired my HSP-strengthened quality of attentive empathy with something I’m passionate about: writing. Gradually, I figured out ways of specializing in helping people write and became good enough at it to earn at a rate that supports me without requiring more of my time than I can healthily give. It feels infinitely fun to continue finding more ways to help people write as I also help myself thrive in my work.

Why Being Self-Employed Works For HSPs

When I wrote a blog called Highly Sensitive Power for a couple of years, I reached out to other HSPs and learned a lot about their struggles and their solutions. There are many self-employed HSPs who are happy doing what they do best: being an HSP and working with passion. They’re thriving within the constellation of being their own boss, being free to change and grow, and focusing on what they enjoy doing.

For HSPs like me and many others I know, the Internet makes it possible to work from home on my own timeline while still providing my clients and readers with the services they need. The Internet, as a tool, tipped the scale for me, making my working life increasingly joyful and profitable. So much is possible online – connections, communities, and resources that tap into the world’s population and wisdom.

If you’re struggling with income issues and your health is suffering because of it, consider the option of becoming self-employed. You deserve a working life you love. And your potential customers deserve access to your special wisdom.

Being Self-Emplyed Can Be Profitable

Here are some questions to help you clarify ways of moving toward healthy self-employment:

  • What do people ask you to help them with?
  • What are you passionate about (particularly in a way that’s ongoing versus fleeting)?
  • In what ways does or can the kind of help you’re asked for intersect with what you’re passionate about?
  • How can you explore and develop those intersections as self-employment possibilities, even if only in small or experimental ways for now?
  • Who do you know who’s both an HSP and self-employed? Would you be willing to ask them to share their wisdom and/or tell you their story about becoming a self-employed HSP?
  • What would your ideal work be? What specific elements of that work can you include in your explorations about self-employment?
  • If you’re interested in being self-employed but have fears, what are they?
  • What are some options for getting help with working through those fears in meaningful ways?

There’s a wealth of wonderful, useful information to be found regarding self-employment, but because there’s so much, it can be overwhelming to begin. To offer you a supportive nudge and a way in, I recommend the two resources listed below. They’ve helped me the most on my journey of creating healthy, ever-improving self-employment that really works for highly sensitive me:

  • Barbara Winter’s book Making a Living Without a Job: Winning Ways for Creating Work That You Love (there’s now a revised edition), and
  • Darren Rowse’s Problogger website and e-books, which are packed with inspiration and practical tools for creating and growing an Internet-based business.

Good luck, and make sure to spread the word within the HSP community if you become your own boss. We’re rooting for you.


Finding The Nurturing Sensitive Person Within


Five years ago, I moved from India to the United States as a trailing spouse. It was soon after that I read Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. The book felt familiar, and yet new, giving me a context for the “too sensitive” label that had followed me since childhood. Now, I was once again face to face with my sensitivity, once again in a tussle with overwhelm. In the first few years of the move, I often met people who told me that adjusting was simply a matter of a few months or a year. Maybe, they were hardier than me. Or maybe, they had just forgotten what their own shift had been like.  

This wasn’t my experience, and so in the beginning, I felt extremely isolated. As usual, it was taking me longer to make changes. As usual, there were people ahead of me. As usual, my own experience was not mirrored back.

Rediscovering The Need For Nurturing

But after five years living in the States, which has been a roller-coaster ride, sometimes feeling intensely alive, sometimes feeling as if I am going to topple over, I have come to a place where I think that I might have started off the move asking the wrong questions. Most of my life, I have tried to ask: How can I get people to understand me? How can I find someone else to look and see me?

But with this move and living in a culture very different from the one I grew up in, has nudged me towards different questions. If others might not see me, what options do I have? How can I see myself? How can I feel stable when things are shifting around? How can I become my own good mother?

This learning of self nurturing has, and continues to be, a difficult process for me. After all, self-compassion is not as easy as 1-2-3, no matter how many motivational quotes we read. For some of us, the template for a nurturing figure is missing in our own psyches. We often come up blank and feel at a disadvantage when we compare ourselves to people who seem (at least on the outside) to take great care of themselves. Even when we fall down in our attempts to take care of ourselves, we judge ourselves. Where is that nurturing voice in our own self?  

If you have had trauma or neglect in your past, you might struggle with your attempt to construct this positive care-taking nurturing figure as well. I understand your struggle. I know it feels terribly unfair. I know it can make things doubly hard.  

For me, this nurturing voice is something that is still finding its feet. It still falters and regresses. But ten years ago, or even five years back, this was a voice that was very feeble. Feeding my nurturing voice has made it stronger.

Over the past five years, I have chanced on and used some tools that have helped me become more intimate with my own nurturing self. Some of them have helped me manage the emotional intensity that is at the center of my own experience. Some have held up a mirror to my wounded parts. They have shown me ground reality. There is more work to be done. Here are some of those tools. I hope some of them might resonate with you or give you a clue that helps you on your own path:  

Here are some of those tools. I hope some of them might resonate with you or give you a clue that helps you on your own path to self nurturing.

Self Nurturing Through Dream Work 

 I have always had vivid dreams and been deeply interested in knowing about dreams. But I grew up in a rational-minded family that had left the dreams and dreamers of old India behind. My interest in dreams had seemed superficial. But when I moved to the States, my dream world intensified and beckoned to me once again. In the beginning, there were often lakes and rivers overrunning their boundaries. That meaning seemed pretty simple.

I was overwhelmed in real life, feeling as if my emotions were going to run me over. But more than a year after my wedding and the move, I was still having dreams of wedding ceremonies taking place. What did all this mean, if it meant anything at all? Who were these characters roaming on the stage at night? It was then, with my building curiosity, that I finally followed this deep interest. I started writing down my dreams before they disappeared into thin air. 

I started reading books on Dream Work. The more I read, the more I realized that some of the most intelligent minds in the field of psychology had worked seriously with dreams. Carl Jung, the great psychologist who gave us the concepts of Introvert, Extravert and Persona, thought that dreams were the bridge to the unconscious, a part of us that not just included what we had repressed but also our creative potential (in stark contrast to Freud who thought dreams were merely about things we had repressed). Working with dreams is a major part of Jungian analytical psychology.

In our dreams, we come across many different parts of our self. Many of us meet our Shadow, those parts of us that we don’t consciously identify with. In one of my Shadow dreams, I walk behind a woman who in real life is very task-focused. In the dream, I notice that there are amethysts growing on the side of the road. But I ignore them, even though my heart pulls me towards them, and I trudge obediently behind. We are afraid we will miss a train, and this woman is keeping me on task. But in the end, the train is there, and a feeling comes over me that I shouldn’t have hurried. I puzzled over this dream for long before I realized that not just the obedient woman, but the task-focused woman was me as well. I was driving myself forward, trying to control the outer world and I was missing the gifts of the move, the things that I had to pause to ingest and make mine. With dreams like this, I saw my Shadow and its different aspects.

As I owned it and made changes in my waking life, my dreams changed as well. In other dreams, I came across other characters. One of these is the “other” in each of our psyches. Jungians tell us that every woman has a masculine principle inside her – “the animus”, just as every man has a feminine principle, “the anima”. Sometimes, the animus is negative. In women’s dreams, we often have male figures chasing after us, holding us hostage even when we are pretty secure in everyday life. We then have to turn to see how we relate to the masculine. What does it mean to us? How has it been modeled?

Dreams provide a mirror for what we are experiencing right here, right now, even if we are not consciously acknowledging our feelings. Dreams also seem to provide a commentary, almost as if there is an objective observer/principle inside us looking at what we are doing, and giving us its opinion. For me, working with my own dreams has been the most wonderful adventure I have taken in years. If you are interested in dream work, some accessible, yet layered books are Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill by Jeremy Taylor who has facilitated Dream Workgroups in places as fascinating as the San Quentin prison and the great humanistic psychologist Erich Fromm’s book The Forgotten Language. Dreams really are a language we all share, whether we realize it or not. Like I did, maybe you will find that these books will lead you onto many more, or to people that could help you work with your dreams and relate to parts that have fallen by the wayside.      

Self Nurturing Through Colors

I think of myself as an artiste in the broadest sense. I used to perform as a classical dancer. I write. I love photography. One sense that I did not feel as connected to was my visual sense. I have always felt as if people who see in images or have pictures pop up in their head had access to a way of being that felt missing for me. That was until a few years ago, when I started writing by hand. This was a time when I had just started blogging, when I was still trying to find that elusive thing writers search for, my “voice.” As I did some playful writing exercises by hand, I had the experience of images popping up in my head. It was as if connections were being made, one note was struck and reverberated. Like much of creativity, it was a mysterious, but at the same time “normal” process. It did not feel jarring or otherworldly. In fact, it felt like “me.”

With these images and my interest in following my intuition and feelings, my interest in colors heightened. I had always loved colors. Now, I was curious about them. Like always, I read any books I could find and listened to other people’s experiences with color. I remembered how there was a time in my life where I wore a lot of yellow, a color associated with the solar plexus chakra, the chakra for personal power, at a time when I sorely needed more will and power in my life. I noticed how I often unconsciously reached for reds, at a time when I was creating a structure for my new life here in the States, a color associated with grounding. I started making art and instinctively using colors that called to me – purple and green and red and orange. One tool that I have discovered, love using and highly recommend are Inna Segal’s

One tool that I have discovered, love using and highly recommend are Inna Segal’s The Secret Language of Color Cards. These color cards come with a booklet that explains colors and their healing properties and include meditations to bring those energies into your life. My experiences with these meditations and observing what colors different people are drawn to has deepened my already deep belief and interest in colors. For example: I know people with breathing problems who use Peach intuitively, a color Inna says helps with breathing. Another instance: after I made a painting with peach as the main color and shared the image with a friend, she talked about how she was having a hard day, and seeing the painting gave her relief. She could feel herself “breathing slower and deeper.” That, I think, is the magic of colors. I think working with colors has also shown me that there is a deeper part of us that intuitively picks out what is right for us. This is important for us to remember as sensitive people, who might have gotten the message that our way of being is faulty. It’s important to realize that we don’t even have to buy a book or look at what an expert has to say (although that can be insightful). Something in us is already self nurturing, reaching out for the things it needs. 

Self Nurturing Through Art

If you are an HSP like me, whose struggles with their sensitivity are often centered around the intensity of their feelings, you have probably thought: What do I do with these intense feelings? How do I become more “normal?” These questions might have come cracking at you time and again. As I think about these questions now, I am in my mid-30s. I have spent decades trying to slay the dragon of my feelings, wondering why I am so “intense.” It is only in the last few years, in sporadic, embryonic bursts, that I have started thinking, maybe, This is my normal. Without the way I respond to the world around me, I would be less than I am. Maybe, what these feelings need is a channel, so they flow through. They are almost like raw materials, to be painted, to be written about, to be shaped into characters, to be photographed in the shimmering shadows all around me. Maybe, what we need is not to contain feelings we don’t like (which is impossible) but to re-frame our intensity and see that we are also on the verge of drawing back the curtain on the beauty a little bit. Then, we can actively search for those beautiful, succulent moments that we feel as deeply as we feel all our hurts and pain.

Right now, as I write this, I am travelling. I am in Austin, Texas. Yesterday, I went to see a sight that this city is famous for. Up to 1.5 million bats live under a bridge in downtown Austin. Every summer night, hundreds of people wait for it to get dark to see North America’s largest urban bat colony emerge.

The show, as it was, went on for more than half an hour yesterday. After sunset, the bats came out. In the backdrop was a cityscape that felt like Gotham city. The bats flew over the flowing water below, searching for insects. There were boats on the water, one with a red light, pointed towards the bridge. Some people clapped. As it became dark, after some time, all you could see were quick flashes as the bats flew. There were some precious moments when I felt connected to the magic of this world. Something opened, and the world belonged to these bats that have become an emblem for Austin.

Once upon a time, the city did not want these bats. They thought they were a menace. It was only with time and the effort of conservationists that they realized how helpful the bats were in keeping even agricultural pests down. Now they are emblematic for a city that has this as its slogan – Keep Austin Weird.

Weird is enchanting. Weird is something not so commonly seen. Weird is something living out its own kooky life.

As people who sometimes feel on the margins, who sometimes fall down the crevices in an attempt to be “normal,” weird is that something which shows you the world in a way that others don’t view it, as yet. It connects you to the bigness of this world. It helps you take flight.

Whatever it is you feel, whether it is an interest that has no decided path, a nudging curiosity about something that only you seem interested in, that irrational something is probably the call of your own path. Why wouldn’t we, just like everything else that exists, not have it inside us to find our own direction or to rise on the currents around us? Why would we have to struggle so much to find our place in the order of things? Maybe, it’s because we have been taught to look outside at others for direction, and not at our own inner world, our own promptings that tell us to first turn this way, and then that.  

If we could just listen to it, then we could take wing. Maybe, then, we could be part of the magic of this world.