How to Manage Guilt as a Highly Sensitive Person
guest post written by April Snow, AMFT
How many times have you felt guilty when you were not able to offer support to someone in need or say yes to a request? Situations like being asked to socialize with coworkers after an overstimulating work day or drive a family member to the airport at 4am when you work late the night before. Perhaps that feeling of obligation that comes with guilt has led you to say “yes” even when your inner voice was screaming “no” from being exhausted, overwhelmed, stressed out or just not interested.
There are so many things that get in the way of taking care of ourselves and setting boundaries such as social obligation or discomfort with the conflict of saying “no”. For the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) the biggest barrier to self-care seems to be that dreaded feeling of guilt! Disappointing others or the risk of hurting someone’s feelings can be unbearable, so we sacrifice our own needs in order to take care of someone else.
Why is Guilt so Pervasive for Sensitive People?
Due to our high capacity for empathy and ability to feel emotions deeply, our guilt dial seems to go much higher than the 80% of the population that are not Highly Sensitive. When someone else is struggling, disappointed or angry, we feel it very intensely. Even if our own tank is on empty and we have nothing to give, we will attempt to help in order to prevent another’s suffering or to avoid feeling the guilt of prioritizing our own needs. As people pleasers, it is often easier for HSPs to oblige a request than manage the feelings of someone else’s discomfort or the frustration of our own energetic limitations.
The feeling of guilt is complex, bringing with it anxiety, regret, sadness, self-doubt and more. It makes sense that we want to avoid this uncomfortable feeling of guilt at all costs, but this is only a short-term solution. Continually sacrificing our own needs, which differ from the non-HSP majority, leads to long-term implications such as resentment, anger, anxiety, and depression. Essentially, we become bitter and lose connection with ourselves when we repeatedly bypass our own needs in service of others.
How Do We Manage Guilt?
Although it is unlikely that we will eradicate guilt altogether, it can be minimized and slowly transformed into self-acceptance. The key is learning to listen to our inner voice and have a willingness to prioritize our needs instead of sacrificing ourselves to uplift others. The tips below can help you start to contain the guilt so that you can take better care of yourself.
- Check your resources before offering support to someone else. Do you have enough “fuel” for the journey or do you need to rest first? It is absolutely okay to prioritize yourself.
- Get clear on what your needs are before tending to someone else’s. Ask yourself what YOU want to do instead of what does someone else want you to do. What need are you sacrificing when you lower your boundaries to take care of someone else? Acting from your own self-interest isn’t selfish and will prevent resentment and disconnection.
- Say “Yes” on Your Own Terms. If you want to help or say “yes” to a request, take time to think about when you will have the energy and interest to engage.
- Practice self-compassion and direct your empathy back inwards to help you move away from perfectionism and obligation. My favorite mantra is “I am doing the best I can with what I have.” Or to borrow from Kristin Neff’s self-compassion exercises, “May I be kind to myself. May I accept myself as I am.”
- Remember that these feelings of guilt are directly correlated with your Sensitive Strengths as an HSP to be empathetic and kind, the same qualities that make you a valuable partner, friend, parent and loved one. Your tendency to feel guilty just means you are compassionate towards others and care about their well-being. That’s not a bad quality, just something that needs to be managed with healthy boundaries and self-care.
Due to our capacity to feel deeply and have empathy for others, we easily feel guilty when we are not able to say “yes” or offer support. A short-term solution may be to sacrifice our own needs in order to shield ourselves from that guilt, but this is not sustainable and will inevitably lead to feelings of resentment, anger, anxiety, and depression. Prioritizing our own needs and practicing self-compassion helps transform guilt into self-acceptance, allowing us to be our best selves and connect authentically.
April Snow is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist in downtown San Francisco, helping her Highly Sensitive Clients manage overwhelm and have more fulfilling relationships. Her belief is that being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) doesn’t have to stop you from living a fully engaged life, it’s just a matter of knowing yourself and making adjustments to care for your unique temperament. Get her free guide “Self-Care Tricks to Reduce Overwhelm”. Therapists: If exhaustion and overwhelm are getting in the way of accessing your therapeutic gifts, this “Sustainable Practice Checklist” can help you begin to thrive again.
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