There’s been increasing interest of late, by those who consider themselves highly sensitive, for tools and tactics to combat stress, conquer burnout, and transcend reactionary living. This is a point of self-awareness and self-ownership that can dramatically improve one’s sense of self-control and general well being.
It can also, unfortunately, be somewhat limiting, as those who identify as (or are tested as) highly sensitive people begin to think they’re fated for overwhelm. They’re not. Before we get into the highly sensitive person’s survival guide, let’s quickly define HSP’s:
WTF Are Highly Sensitive People?
HSP isn’t a clinical term… yet, but one used in psychology and self-help to identify those with sensory processing sensitivity. Basically, they sense / feel more of their experience than the rest of us. This isn’t a disorder, but is a ‘personality trait’ presumably possessed by 15-20% of the population.
If you suspect you’re an HSP but aren’t quite sure, take our short 10 question Somatic Personality Quiz to learn your dominant mind-body archetype - grit, cerebral, fluid, sensate. It’ll help you orient around the remainder of this letter (and life beyond).
OK, I’m An HSP… What Do I Do About It?
There's a lot of nuance in how the Weightlessness process assesses one's liabilities / inhibitions, and plots a course to integration and peak performance. Learning one’s default somatic archetype is a starting point. But then we must move to objective mind-body assessments that measure capacity in each of these personality traits.
Why does this matter, you might wonder?
“I know myself…" you say. "I’m very sensitive. I know I need to distance myself from that which triggers me, and learn to shield.”
Ok… Maybe. Maybe not.
That’s what assessments should reveal.
You could have two highly sensitive people, for example, where both are at a low level of capacity in Sensate (their dominant archetype). This doesn’t mean they’re insensitive, it just means they lack control over it. One can be Sensate dominant, yet have a low level of capacity in it. High levels of sensitivity don’t get developed without a corresponding capacity in concentration, which naturally armors. But let’s assume one of those highly sensitive people is low in Grit, while the other is low in Cerebral.
Grit reflects the capacity and skill of an individual to generate tension and integrate their structure against external forces. It’s the somatic equivalent of saying “NO.” Grit, and this is important, is not just a mindset. It's woven into the fabric of your physical structure, posture, and the tensional forces of soft tissue in the body.
Cerebral, on the other hand, is the antithesis of Sensate, and reflects one’s capacity and ability to narrow and focus their attention (whereas Sensate is the capacity and / or skill of awareness - distributed, inclusive attention).
Mind-body assessment would flesh this out, and allow us to hone in on where that deficit in capacity lies... correction and improvement in those archetypes (Grit & Cerebral) would lead to natural resilience and armoring, respectively.
Cerebral and Sensate are on the same spectrum - each of them speaking to a mode of attention. Attention, at extremes is either exclusive and focused (Cerebral), or inclusive and dispersed (Sensate). Consider attention a dial that we can rotate, focusing frequency to a single line, or to distributed wave form. In terms of brain wave frequency, this spectrum floats between Alpha (concentration) and Theta (awareness). No-one is exclusively in one state or the other, but floats between them thousands of times per day.
We might also say in these cases that energy (or attention) is placed above the neck (concentration) or below the neck (awareness) in each case.
So any practice that, by design, reduces the deluge of data you're receiving, and focuses attention, is building the capacity / skill of armoring. This is overlooked in most systems of meditation and energy work, relegating it to psychological perspective rather than conscious control over the direction and quality of attention. When we make this simple pivot, it empowers us to measure and methodically develop both heightened sensitivity, and also heightened concentration, which leads to armoring.
The correlation here should seem obvious, but I’ll spell it out for those new to mind-body practices:
If your attention is distributed, as it is in early stage mindful awareness practice, relaxation practice, and a meandering conversation, then information (or triggers) from your environment carries both surprise and impact, because you’re not ready for them, and you’re also open and receptive to them.
When your attention is narrow, or focused, as it might be in chess, high-stakes sports, and engrossed in a suspenseful film, a gorilla could literally walk by and you wouldn’t notice. This also means it’s presence wouldn’t trigger you, because you’re not as open and receptive.
If you haven’t seen the hilarious psychology study where participants were asked to count the number of times a basketball was passed between players, and halfway through the test a man in a gorilla suit walked right through the middle of the players, yet it isn’t noticed by most observers, then you must. Google it. It’s a perfect case in point of dialed up concentration destroying present awareness.
Now, concentration (Cerebral) is the antithesis (and compliment) of sensitivity (Sensate), and when developed, will counteract the liabilities and risks of being a highly sensitive person, without reducing the virtues of it. After all, sensitivity is life - it connects us to the present, fully, allows us to adapt to changes in environment, and is the birthplace of compassion, but…
…Without elevation in Grit, developing concentration is not easy. Concentration in matters of passion or interest is great, but it’s of little value beyond those interests. The skill of concentration is one that is subject-neutral, and should reflect control over state of mind, applied in any direction deemed valuable.
As you can imagine, concentration in matters of disinterest - within confronting conversations, solving complex problems, playing against stronger opponents, and learning new skills - is uncomfortable. There is typically internal resistance that aims to steel you away from that discomfort, and direct your attention to that which feels more enjoyable. Instagram anyone?
And that capacity - the ability to remain steadfast standing in the eye of the hurricane - Grit, is what paves the way for enduring, focused states of attention - Concentration. It's also a trademark of all peak performers.
In Weightlessness, Grit is an essential foundation for the cultivation of all the other archetypes. One could, in theory, improve their concentration in the purest sense through flexing that unilateral muscle - staring at a candle, counting backwards, reading hard texts, etc - but if their sensory processing ability is overwhelmed by volume or intensity of experience, then they’ll revert to reactionary behavior, regardless.
Grit allows you to weather that volume / intensity through neural and cellular conditioning, as well as control over physical structure and somatic state, not merely mental toughness.
Concentration won't help you process the flood of stress hormones or elevated pulse that occur when triggered. Grit will. Concentration, at high enough levels, may prevent the triggering, as you learn to armor - reducing noise and honing in on signal.
They play different roles here. And knowing where one's deficits lie is critical in programming a path from highly sensitive to highly in-control.
With all that in mind, lets get to your survival guide.
Survival Guide for HSP’s, empaths, and intuitive healers:
Embrace Stress (Cultivate Grit) - There are no two ways about it, if you want to be impacted less by negative environmental forces or emotions, you’ve got to be stronger. Avoiding positive stress, or eustress, will not only have negative health implications over the long haul, it’ll also ensure emotional fragility. The mindset that avoids discomfort is ill equipped to experience fully without emotional overwhelm.
The simplest way to do this is through strength training, focusing on big, compound movements - push, pull, squat, press, and twist, with three to five sets of 3 to 5 reps.
Notice I’m not saying “work out.”
No, test yourself against your environment with improving structural alignment, and methodically increase the load, and therefore the resistance, you’re working against. This will generate all the internal adaptations needed to make you more resilient to negative environmental forces, as well as faster at processing stress-triggers. The stress hormones released during max effort deadlifts are the same as those released when receiving bad news at work. Training helps you process and clear that elevated physiological state faster, and eventually, with conscious control.
Pay Attention (Improve Concentration) - This can, and will, be improved though high intensity / high tension strength training, like that just mentioned. It takes a lot of concentration to lift in a heavy range where 3 to 5 reps is your absolute limit. But concentration can also be developed by testing your stamina in mundane tasks - reading challenging texts, meditating, focusing on numbers as you count backwards (a Weightlessness classic tool). Essentially, pay deep, undivided attention to your immediate experience, and work to increase the intensity and duration of those efforts.
Stop Being So Damn Sensitive (Become More Fluid) - If Grit is the somatic equivalent of saying ‘No’, then Fluid is the somatic equivalent of saying ‘whatevs’. Whether or not that manifests as indifference or empathy largely depends on how sensitive and connected one is.
If one is gritty and fluid, high levels of Fluid can manifest as detachment (not a good thing). If one is sensitive and fluid, high levels of Fluid can manifest as nonattachment - which is synonymous with compassion and love, without the need for egocentric attachment.
The best, most embodied practice of fluidity is stretching. Flexibility training should not be an act of Grit, where one forcefully pulls and stretches against stiff limbs. Rather, flexibility training should be a process of bravely testing one’s edges, and at those points of rigidity or resistance, the mind-body softens, releases, and discovers a way, like a stream navigating rocks.
This practice is so critical, that if done properly it’ll allow all of the other archetypes to manifest their highest forms.
Grit without fluidity is rigid and fragile.
Cerebral with fluidity is narrow minded and stubborn.
And Sensate without fluidity is emotionally volatile, as one holds on to emotional triggers, rather than perceiving internal resistances to them, and just like stretching, softening, releasing, and moving forward.
Anyone who reaches a decent level of flexibility can attest, stretching is NOT a physical practice. It’s one that truly tests your mental faculties to navigate resistances, both internal and external, and to yield when your best interests aren't being served by your own insistences.
Practice Weightlessness (Shameless Plug) - If you’re not sure how to translate these principles and tools into a structured prescription that provides minimal (yet adequate) doses of each element of training for your current mind-body status, well… that’s what we do. Don’t make the mistake of training these archetypes (and training pillars) in isolation… You’re a whole, unified person, and training must reflect that to unlock and accelerate deep transformation.
Align Your Arrow
Aligning your arrow in the right direction will at least get you closer to target. The field manual above is that very realignment. But for those looking for high levels of mind-body control and mastery over their archetype, targeted guidance can save years to decades of trial and effort.
How these play out in training is nuanced, and requires objective performance assessment and a prescription that elevates capacity in lagging pillars / metrics.
Perspective and somatic coaching isn't an ideal approach until capacity deficits are corrected, after which, higher levels of conscious emotional control are possible.
Here are a few more articles that can help frame the sensitivity-triggering dilemma through other archetypes for those who want to put all these pieces together:
On Grit as a solution:
On Cerebral as a solution:
Fluidity can also be a solution, but only at very high levels of development, without which, it winds up seeking ease and comfort prematurely, and reinforces the liability of Sensate. The worst thing a highly sensitive person, or sensate, can do, is go on a retreat and remove all stressors to combat overwhelm.
Enter the cycle of avoidance that is burnout-recovery.
There are somatic faults one can become acquainted with that signal these deteriorating mind-body states, and which can be corrected with minimal training doses. What happens to all of us under systemic overwhelm, and the somatic cues we need to be conscious of:
It's important to note that HSP's aren't categorically different, but different by matter of degrees. Anyone can respond to environmental triggers the way HSP's might - emotionally reactive, overwhelmed, exhausted - if the conditions of their environment exceed their processing capacity. That's why James (in prison) and Maggie (the dog) approached the processing problem from completely different angles, to the same positive outcome.
Taking up the torch of mind-body training and somatic awareness practices is a necessary step we all must take to reduce the liabilities of our dominant archetype, to round out and balance our somatic tool kit, and gain greater self control and self mastery.