The holidays are often a meaningful time for highly sensitive people (HSPs). But they also can be tough. For starters, there’s the overstimulation, according to marriage and family therapist Joy Malek: “overcrowded shopping, dazzling displays, and aggressive commercial advertising. HSPs take in more detail about their environments than most people, and while this can be overwhelming at any time, the crowded atmosphere of the holidays can be particularly fatiguing.”
The world also moves quicker during the holidays, Malek said. There’s more traffic, and people are more impatient. There are more tasks, more errands, more shopping trips. “We are in a constant state of nervous system arousal, running on adrenaline. Since HSPs have more responsive nervous systems than the general population, we feel this stress more acutely.”
“Symbolism is often important to an HSP, who may be eager to create a celebration imbued with meaning,” said Jean Fitzpatrick, a therapist in private practice in New York City. We’re also idealistic, and want the holiday season to be beautiful and memorable—which can lead to disappointment.
Because of our aesthetic sensitivities, we yearn to create stunning surroundings and amazing meals, Malek said. We might “have an ambitious vision for crafting and experiencing the holidays.” We might become perfectionistic and hyper-focused on the details. This can lead us to go overboard and run ourselves ragged.
Being a houseguest or having houseguests can be hard, too. As a guest, you have limited control over the structure of your day, Fitzpatrick said. As a host, your regular routine gets disrupted and you don’t have your usual downtime.
The holidays also can bring up painful memories and emotions. Maybe it’s missing a loved one who passed away. Maybe it’s a reminder of your difficult childhood. Maybe it’s a sharp awareness of how lonely you sincerely feel. According to Malek, “Since HSPs feel more deeply than the rest of the population, these memories and emotions can impact us profoundly.”
Below, Malek and Fitzpatrick, who both specialize in working with HSPs, shared how we can navigate these potential challenges.
Have realistic expectations. HSPs might feel deeply hurt if someone doesn’t like their gift or if younger family members roll their eyes at a specific tradition, Fitzpatrick said. They might think they’ve failed to create a meaningful holiday, she said.
“But a holiday is not something you stage.” Remind yourself that you can’t control disagreements between family members (and you’re not responsible for them), Fitzpatrick said. Remind yourself that the holidays have different meanings for everyone—“and even if people are arguing about politics or their dessert recipe, it’s an opportunity for connection.”
The same goes for rituals that you worked hard to create but didn’t turn out the way you wanted. The weirdness that happened might actually turn into a new holiday tradition, Fitzpatrick added.
Focus on a few traditions. Malek suggested picking two or three holiday traditions that are most important to you—and not stressing out about the rest. “Focus on the meaning of the traditions you choose, rather than accomplishing them perfectly.” For instance, instead of feeling pressure to make every single holiday dish from scratch, simplify or delegate so you can create more space for savoring connection, she said.
Rethink your shopping. To avoid overstimulation—crowds, traffic, noise—do your shopping online, Malek said. Also, “make peace with ‘good enough’ gifts, rather than striving for perfection.” Instead refocus on your relationships and on quality time with those who matter most to you.
Incorporate self-care into travel. Think about the ways you can reduce your stress and nourish yourself while traveling. Fitzpatrick shared these suggestions: If you live in a big city, when possible, avoid take offs and landings during rush hour. Arrive a day early so you can relax, instead of sprinting from a busy workday to a family dinner. Be very selective with your schedule. Take walks. Plan in alone time. If you don’t have a private space to sleep, consider staying in a hotel. Share your own holiday traditions with extended family.
Be picky about all activities. “Weigh the feeling of missing out against the reward of a slower pace, and more time to enjoy the activities you do participate in,” Malek said. In other words, be deliberate with everything you do. Reflect in advance about what’s important—and what isn’t. Avoid doing things simply because that’s what you’ve always done.
Feel all your feelings. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you’re feeling. Sometimes, the holidays spark sadness or anger or other emotions we think we shouldn’t feel. Malek encouraged readers to make space for these feelings, to feel them without judging or criticizing ourselves. Also, give yourself permission to “opt out of observing the holidays if doing so just accentuates the pain.”
Reach out and reconnect. We can feel especially disconnected and lonely during the holidays, and our automatic response might be to isolate. Which can make us feel worse. “Even if you are missing a loved one, or longing for a partner or family, be sure to reach out to those who are presently in your life,” Malek said.
Ultimately, the key in navigating the hustle and bustle as an HSP is to honor and respect your traits and tendencies. And remember that there’s a lot of meaning and beauty in the mess, too.