Welcome to the final post in this series about the early days of highly sensitive and introverted parents. I’ll write more in the future but want to include some posts for people without children and teens in the meantime.
In order to thrive with the SPS trait, you need to nurture your unique personality. Things will definitely look different than you presumed. Here’s an example from my baby’s first few months:
As an HSP who struggles with transitions, I have such a hard time switching gears that I decided to go to bed at the same time as my baby. Rather than help her fall asleep, hope she stayed asleep, start a new activity, then transition back to being with her multiple times to resettle her, I could just relax knowing I was settled for the next few hours. This decision means that I eat an unnaturally early dinner and miss out on many “Mom’s Night Out” activities and interesting social opportunities. But I also sleep better and enjoyed the early relaxation I feel during the bedtime process. It took a while for me to adjust, but I would so much rather have enough rest than push myself to engage with other people in a zombie-like state. My approach would not work for everyone, but it makes my waking hours so much more pleasant.
Here are some other general ideas that helped me adjust to those intense days of early parenthood:
- Allow yourself as much time as possible to process changes. Whenever possible, plan extra time to move from one activity to the next.
- Give yourself permission to feel “not ok.” People who don’t currently have young children either don’t know at all or forgot about the challenging parts; They unknowingly pressure new parents to express pure joy or “enjoy every moment.” Even the happiest parents do not feel great 100% of the time. We are human, after all. If you expect yourself to feel happy 24/7, you will frequently feel let down.
- In her book “Becoming Mum,” Dr. Koa Whittingham uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help new moms manage difficult times. I highly recommend learning more about and using ACT to:
- Define your personal values
- Change your relationship to unpleasant thoughts/feelings/sensations
- Live your life according to your most important desires.
- Find a few short, easy-to-remember sayings to repeat to yourself in stressful times. Pair with a physical cue, such as placing your hand on your heart, and you develop a crisis-attenuating self-care regimen. Make sure it really resonates with you or it won’t work. My favorites include:
- “Right now, it’s like this.”
- “Perfection is the enemy of the good.”
- “I love you. Keep going.”
- “Everything will work out.”
- “This is only a ‘blip on the radar,’ one tiny moment in my entire life.”
Adults who don’t understand SPS often tell HSP’s something is wrong with them from the very early stages of life. Caregivers perceive us as “difficult” children at times, due to our highly responsive nature. As you learn more about the trait and meet others in your shoes, you’ll realize just how many other adults and children you actually understand and vice versa. Once you identify as HSP, you can embrace the abundant gifts and lovely aspects the trait provides. And remember that because SPS is a genetic trait, your child is likely to be HSP as well, which means their chance of inheriting the trait will be greater than the general 15-20% of humans.
Luckily many resources now exist for highly sensitive parents and highly sensitive children. Put your feelers out there and dive into this info! Try an audiobook or podcast if sitting down to read doesn’t work with your baby’s nap schedule (or lack thereof).
Cultural stigma toward sensitive individuals contributes to adult stress when a baby doesn’t “fit in” to general statistics or recommendations. Remember: Mainstream advice is based on averages and only for the non-HSP’s who make up 80-85% of the general population. Even then, this advice usually tries to unreasonably control or predict baby behavior. If you ever tried to control your baby, you probably rapidly discovered the futility of these efforts. Don’t be afraid to question authority and discover your family’s unique needs. You spend more time with your baby than anyone else, day and night. You are your own expert!
Avoid joining other parents in a culture of commiseration. Sharing experiences with an understanding group of peers can be so healing, but beware a sense of, “You’re miserable? Great! Me, too.” Do you feel better after hearing that others are terribly unhappy? Probably not. According to Abigail Wong and Elle Kwan of the Hand in Hand Parenting Podcast, joining in each others’ misery actually detracts from daily presence with your child and tampers with joy. Find your village, be open and honest while you share, and ask about the positives, too.
Babies’ lessons are so pertinent to the HSP experience. You could say adult HSP’s are similar to babies because both groups are intensely responsive, experience strong emotions, benefit from rhythmic routines, need extra downtime, and require a different lifestyle to thrive. The undeniable requirements of slowing down, redefining our identities as the extra sensitive and introverted minority of parents, and the gift of watching a baby’s development encourage tremendous growth.
I use ACT, existential inquiry, and a variety of mindfulness- and compassion-based therapies to help new families with postpartum mood and anxiety disorders, highly sensitive people, and LGBTQ+ community members. I also offer attachment-science-informed infant and toddler wellness consultations with a specialty in babies under 9 months old. For California residents seeking more information, learn more on my website at https://www.pleasantonpsychologist.com. Elizabeth Fox Butler, PsyD holds the copyright to this document (2019).
If you’re still not sure whether you or your child have the SPS trait, you can take Elaine Aron, Ph.D.’s evidence-based self-tests on her website, https://hsperson.com/test/. Please let me know if you have specific requests regarding future blog topics.