It is without any shame that I tell you I am in therapy.  With the negative stigma surrounding depression, anxiety and mental illness, when I started seeking help years ago I made a vow that I would never proliferate that shame by not being open about it.  It’s just so sad to me there are people who need help and avoid it because they feel it just isn’t okay to ask for it.  If you are suffering in any way, don’t hide, get the help you need in any way you feel compelled to do it, be it a therapist, counselor, coach, spiritual advisor, whatever.

During a recent therapy session my therapist spoke about highly sensitive people, also knowns as HSP’s.   I had never heard of this before and it’s likely because when I thought of highly sensitive people I envisioned people unlike myself, who got offended at the drop of a hat and who needed to be handled with kid gloves because they are so fragile, over-emotional and delicate.  Yet, as I came to understand what highly sensitive people actually are, and that I am one of them, it was like my world cracked open and suddenly everything about myself made sense.

What is an HSP or highly sensitive person

HSP is an innate trait that is genetic (not learned) and occurs in about 15-20% of the population.  The scientific term for it is Sensory Processing Sensitivity (or SPS.)   Research indicates that being highly sensitive actually has to do with brain chemistry, specifically increased blood flow that process emotion, awareness and empathy.  It should also be pointed out that HSP is not a disorder.  HPS’s were born with a nervous system that is extra sensitive.  Originally researched by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., in the early 1990s, highly sensitive people can get easily overwhelmed, feel things much more deeply, often need alone time to recharge, are incredibly attuned to the emotions of others, sometimes to the point of it being a detriment.  HSP’s need solitude, prefer to do things alone, even if they are extroverts.  Interesting fact, 30% of extroverts are HSP’s.  If you are curious if you are a highly sensitive person, you can take a self-test here.  If you score above 14 you might be an HSP.  I scored 24 and my husband scored 22. You can also get the book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Dr. Elaine Aron.

For me, finding out I was an HSP, my world started to make so much more sense.  I began to understand why I crave solitude, especially after a lot of stimulation, why buffets, large sales racks, thrift stores and situations where there are too many choices overwhelm me, and why I connect so strongly with my clients through my ability to empathize and relate to others.  When my sensitivity goes unchecked, I can be moody, short, get easily irritated and I need to retreat.  What also may surprise a lot of you is that I am profoundly shy.  I’m not one craves the spotlight, in fact I often turn away from situations where it’s about me.   My desire to be public has more to do with a desire to share ideas than it has to do with having all the attention on me.  Through learning I am an HSP I also started to understand why I always needed to work for myself so I can make my own hours, go at my own pace and be creative.  I crave deep, meaningful relationships, get stymied by small talk and have heard, “I have never told a soul this before…” more times than I can count.

Qualities of an HSP also include:

  • An empathic nature makes HSP’s a master of emotional intelligence and relating to others.
  • A vibrant inner life. For an HSP, being alone is nourishing, not lonely.
  • HSP’s are not spontaneous. This means they excel at strategy and planning  if they can move past second-guessing themselves and perfectionism-induced procrastination.
  • Trustworthy and reliable. But if caught off-guard they can get easily overstimulated and may shy away.
  • Are able to sense conflict and mitigate it before it becomes a problem.  HSPS’s will see the problem before others. This is one reason HSPs are great problem solvers and team players.
  • Have a low annoyance threshold. It’s particularly hard for an HSP to work in noisy environments, overly bright, or abrasive environments.
  • Sensitivity to fragrances or coarse fabrics.
  • A love of connecting with people, but at a big gathering, HSP’s are most likely to be found in a quiet corner chatting with a few people, getting into deep conversations.
  • Are deeply moved by art, literature, or music and often unexplainably affected after witnessing the pain or suffering of other human beings.
  • Cry more easily, both from sadness and happiness.

Given my new understanding of Highly Sensitive People and myself, I  wanted to relate this back to shopping and personal style, two places that even someone with mild sensitivity can be overwhelmed by.  Between the abundance of merchandise, bright lights, annoying music, crowds, and more, a clothing store can get intense.

The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Shopping and Style

If you are an HSP or just someone looking to have a more joyous shopping experience and less stressful closet, here are some tips for that will add some ease.

Shop during slower store times

HSPs can become extremely overstimulated by the sheer amount of information they may be asked to process.  Shopping when the stores are crowded can be challenging for even the highly unaware, but for a highly sensitive person it’s a nightmare.  HSP’s get twitchy in crowds.  And adding it to the overstimulation of other features of most stores, like endless racks, bright colors, loud noise, hot temperatures, and more, it’s brutal.

You may not be able to avoid all the stimulation found in a store, but shopping at off hours can help.  If I have to shop on the weekends with clients I try to make the appointments as early as possible before the midday rush arrives.  Consider smaller boutiques or larger stores that keep their merchandise well organized and easy to navigate.

Keep your wardrobe small and easy to manage

Less is more to the highly sensitive person.  Too many choices can be paralyzing.  While the typical thought is more options will give a person more flexibility when deciding what to wear, for the person who gets overstimulated easily this can be a distraction. An HSP can benefit from having fewer options that they wear more often and in different ways.

Speaking for myself, it’s why I often buy one thing and consider the need checked off my list until it needs to be replaced.  I just can’t be burdened by another thing I need to buy roaming around in my head.

Avoid clutter

HSP’s are incredibly sensitive to their environment and what’s around them.  Not only are they highly observant, clutter, and chaos can feel unsettling and stressful.   Highly sensitive people benefit from minimalism and calm surroundings.

Consider a personal shopper or hiring a stylist

If shopping, finding your style, or managing your wardrobe feels like a monumental task, consider enlisting the help of a personal stylist or personal shopper.  What this will do is alleviate your need to navigate the perils of the confusion that can come with shopping, the overstimulation of the stores, and someone to help you through the journey of discovering yourself and your personal style.  Using a personal stylist can also be more intimate, a quality that an HSP craves.

Outsource wardrobe tasks

When I tell people I don’t cook or clean or do laundry they assume I am some sort of princess.  I’m not a princess or spoiled, I am smart.  What I have learned about myself is that the piling of multiple tasks completely overstimulates me and by outsourcing the more mundane tasks I am able to use my limited bandwidth to focus on more meaningful things.  Living in NYC, this is easy.  The laundromat on my corner does my laundry for a reasonable fee, my apartment is super small so it doesn’t cost much for me to pay someone else to clean it and I get my meals prepared by a company that delivers fresh Paleo meals to me weekly for about the same cost of preparing my own healthy and nutritious food.

You may know how to do minor wardrobe alterations but never get around to doing them.  Send them out instead.  Do you live somewhere that laundry can be done for you?  Pay someone else to do it.  Can’t get organized, hire an organizer, even if it is a one-time consultation.  Highly sensitive people get easily overwhelmed by too many tasks and rattled by a lot to do in a short period of time and it will only benefit you to outsource what you can and focus on what you can do.  By being able to recharge your batteries by having less on your plate you will actually be able to be more productive.

If you don’t have access to the amount of outsourcing that I do or you simply can’t afford it, set your wardrobe goals lower to make them more achievable.  Don’t buy a ton of dry clean only clothing if you have a hard time getting to the dry cleaner, for example.

Keep your color palette tight

Another tip is to keep your color palette tight.  I look good in lots of colors, but when I look at my closet there is a lot of navy and grey in there.  I pop my wardrobe through the use of colorful accessories when I do wear color.  For me, it’s just easier and quicker to make decisions and get more with less because everything works together so well.  Don’t overburden yourself by with too much variety if you can’t handle so many options.

Know what you are looking for

As an HSP, in just about any shopping situation, if I am not clear on what I am looking for, I will walk around a store aimlessly.  I’m not an indecisive person but I am someone who gets overwhelmed by options.  I am also not someone who gets joy from casual browsing.  For me, doing this is just useless stimulation I don’t need.  When I am shopping for clothes it is for a very clear purpose and I know exactly what I am looking for.  When I shop for clients it is exactly the same.  Shopping without a purpose can is an energy drain.

Shop solo

My idea of a nightmare would be going shopping with a bunch of friends.  I am a total lone wolf in many things but definitely when it comes to shopping.  If you are an HSP, shopping with others can be overwhelming, annoying burdensome and unproductive.  When I shop for clients, I pre-pull before their arrival and have the room ready for them.  I much prefer this than shopping with them in tow.

Consider online shopping instead of shopping in stores

Online shopping is the way many of us shop today.  It’s so much easier than going to the physical stores.  For HSP’s shopping online can be the preferred route because it enables them to take their time, control the environment and not get overly stimulated.  As a highly sensitive person, when you do have to go to a store, consider shopping online and then picking it up in-store, or peruse the store’s website before you go to the store location so you know exactly what you are looking for and where to find it.

If shopping online is your preferred way to shop, be sure to select stores that make returns easy.  The last thing an HSP needs is to be burdened by complicated return policies.

Consider earplugs

As an HSP, I am not someone who is overly sensitive to noise.  Some HSP’s are.  If you get easily distracted or find loud noises stressful, consider shopping wearing earplugs so you can remain focused and not get overly stimulated by the noises around you.

Avoid discomfort

Many HSP’s have a heightened sense of smell and touch, making uncomfortable clothing even more challenging to deal with.  Certainly, nobody wants to be uncomfortable, but an HSP will feel it even more so.  Many HSP’s have tactile issues with their clothing.  Be particularly mindful of uncomfortable clothing when going into situations that are overly stimulating or stressful.  Additionally, HSP’s also savor fabrics that feel good to the touch and can often find these fabrics calming and relaxing.  I remember a fashion designer friend of mine, who was likely an HSP, who would often keep a swatch of gorgeous fabric in her pocket and would touch it throughout the day to calm down when things got stressful.

Choose clothing that is meaningful

HSP’s are highly visual people and are usually deeply moved by art and music. Highly sensitive people are also acutely aware of subtle differences in their environments.  HSP’s will benefit strongly by wearing clothing that makes them happy or brings them joy and will likely also feel a huge difference when wearing things that don’t make them happy or they feel indifferent about.

Even if you are not a highly sensitive person all these tips can be helpful, but if you are one, learning how to work with this trait versus against you will find your life can become richer, fuller, and easier to navigate.  It has been through understanding myself that I have learned how to thrive as a highly sensitive person.