The 3 Most Important Questions for an HSP to Ask Every Day
This article originally appeared on Highly Sensitive Refuge. It’s a 7-minute read.
Recently, I found out that two of my college friends got divorced, and it hit me surprisingly hard. I haven’t seen them for several years, and we’ve lost touch aside from liking each other’s Instagram posts once in a while. I didn’t even hear the news from them—but I just couldn’t process it.
See, our lives and marriages had paralleled for about eight years. We all met during a semester away program on Martha’s Vineyard during our junior year of college, and became so close that we were even in each other’s wedding parties.
My husband and I stayed with them in Colorado to break up our cross-country drive when we moved to Los Angeles, and were thrilled when they moved to the L.A. area a few years later.
Our journeys seemed so similar… until we got divorced a few months shy of our six-year anniversary. And for years, I wondered why.
Why were our friends able to grow and adapt and change together, and we couldn’t seem to figure that out? Why were they strong enough to navigate all the challenges you face when you get married at 23, and we weren’t? Why were they still so good together, and we clearly weren’t?
Don’t get me wrong, I was happy for them. But because our lives had paralleled in so many ways, my failed marriage stood out in such stark contrast to their healthy one.
The upside? I recently married an incredible man who has shown me what love is supposed to feel like. And I finally figured out why I was having such a hard time processing my friends’ divorce.
As a highly sensitive person, I feel and absorb things more than most. And my overstimulated brain was making it mean that, despite how different my marriage is now (vs. my first), maybe it won’t last either.
We’ve all experienced some version of this. We take a situation that has nothing to do with us, and as we view it through our unique lens, we make it about us and start spinning a story that we rarely fact-check. The worst part is, if we begin to believe this fictional story, it can start negatively impacting our lives in a myriad of ways.
It’s especially critical for HSPs to take a good look at the stories we make up since we process everything in our lives at a far deeper level than non-HSPs. By slowing down whenever we’re triggered and identifying the meaning we’re attaching to a thought or situation, we can protect ourselves from jumping to possibly irrational conclusions.
No matter what the subject matter, we HSPs should ask ourselves these three questions every single day.
The 3 Most Important Questions for an HSP to Ask Every Day
1. “Is it helpful (or useful) to feel these feelings?”
It’s not easy being a highly sensitive person. On the one hand, we have the unique ability to empathize with people who are in situations we’ve never personally experienced, using our empathy and intuition to help them feel understood and not so alone.
One of my childhood friends suffers from panic attacks, and while I’ve never had one myself, I can understand the overstimulation that causes his attacks. I just get it, especially since I’m pretty sure he’s also an HSP.
But on the other hand, we feel the emotions of others all day long—including complete strangers and friends who live in different states (whom we haven’t seen in years)—and that’s exhausting. It’s also not always useful, and that’s why it’s critical to ask ourselves this question whenever we’re empathizing with someone else:
Is it helpful (or useful) to feel these feelings?
If our empathy is helping to ease someone else’s pain—like holding space for a friend to share a difficult experience, and validating how she feels—then it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give.
But if it’s dragging us into the past or into worst-case future scenarios, as my friend’s divorce did with me, then move on to question two.
2. “What am I making this mean?”
One of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned is that someone else’s reactions have nothing to do with me and everything to do with themselves—past experiences that may be triggering them, sensitivities I don’t know about, or something as simple as a bad day.
Keeping this in mind has been particularly helpful with my husband. We all have bad days, but because I’m an HSP, it affects me whenever he gets even a little grumpy. And I’m easily hurt if he says something that I think is insensitive.
Remembering that his reactions have nothing to do with me and everything to do with him helps me quickly forgive any hurtful words.
Even more importantly, my reactions have everything to do with me and nothing to do with the person that triggers me. Yes, our feelings are always completely valid, but our triggers are personal, and can provide critical information about an area we need to work on.
That can be incredibly freeing once you really internalize it and begin looking inward when you feel those negative emotions rising, instead of taking them out on the unsuspecting person in front of you—like snapping at a coworker during a meeting shortly after your boss gave you some “constructive” feedback about the big project you’ve been pouring yourself into for weeks.
And because HSPs are constantly experiencing the pain of others, it’s essential to separate our pain from someone else’s when we’re triggered, and turn inward to ask ourselves:
What am I making this mean?
When I found out about my friend’s divorce, it triggered all the emotions I felt when I was going through mine. Since I didn’t even hear the news from them, feeling all of those feelings wasn’t useful—neither was all the overthinking I was doing—and I was making their outcome mean that my second marriage could also go down that path someday. They had seemed happy for so long, and I began to wonder if my happiness would turn out to be fleeting, too.
As I started going down that rabbit hole, a story began to form, which brings us to the third question.
3. “What is the story I’m making up?”
We attach meaning to things all day long, mostly subconsciously. In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown explains that “when something happens that triggers strong emotions, we often immediately create a story to make sense of what happened. These stories are often one-sided worst-case scenarios, and they seldom contain the full truth.”
Especially when we’re dealing with uncertainty or gaps in information, our brains naturally fill in those gaps—with information that may or may not be true—and the resulting story tends to magnify our fears, making that our focus.
For example, let’s say you reach out to a good friend to set up a time to catch up, and she doesn’t respond … for weeks. It won’t take long to start filling in those information gaps with, “I must not be a good enough friend for her to want to make the time” or “Maybe we’re not as good of friends as I thought.”
The truth may be that she’s been completely buried at work, but by the time you find that out, you could have been hurting (unnecessarily) from the story you’ve made up for weeks.
This gets even more complicated as an HSP, because we process things so deeply and spend so much time in our heads. It’s even more essential to check ourselves in this area during the pandemic, when everyone is experiencing different levels of stress and different challenges, and we may not be touching base with the most important people in our lives as often.
So, whenever you’re triggered, ask yourself:
What is the story I’m making up?
And then fact-check this story by asking:
Is this true? Can I prove that it’s true?
Using the example above, if you ask yourself “What is the story I’m making up” as soon as you start feeling hurt by your friend, it could expose the fact that you’ve assumed she’s not responding because she doesn’t value your friendship as much as you do.
If you then ask yourself if that’s true, you may say “yes” because you’ve decided to believe your story. But you can’t prove that it’s true without asking your friend, and this could cause you to reach out and then find that she’s just been overwhelmed with work.
These two questions are powerful, and part of what Byron Katie calls The Work. (I recommend checking out her website if you want to explore these concepts even further.)
The stories we make up typically aren’t true, but we can too easily believe them if we’re not careful. Getting curious can help us nip those stories in the bud before they cause bigger problems for our overly sensitive minds.
Protecting Our Energy & Our Gift
An HSP’s day is often a rollercoaster of emotions, depending on how many people you’re interacting with and what they’re experiencing. Our sensitivity truly is a gift, but it’s only ours to give when our energy isn’t completely depleted.
It’s so important for us to put boundaries around our empathy and energy. Continually asking these three questions can help you do this, allowing yourself to feel the emotions of others when that’s useful and get to the root of it quickly when you’re triggered.
Read this blog next for the strategies you need to survive this pandemic as a highly sensitive person.