Maximalism Isn’t for Me as a Highly Sensitive Person — Here’s Why
When I was a baby, my mother had to massage my socks into place because I cried when I felt the seams on the tips of my toes. Fast forward to the present, and you might see me turning off all the overhead lights when I feel stressed, dashing home to change my sweater because I discovered it was slightly itchy, or scheduling alone time after a busy week so I can recenter.
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My name is Abigail, and I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). Not in an emotional sense, but in a sensory one. That’s why, when I look at maximalist interiors, my entire body says “no.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with maximalism, of course; it’s a popular aesthetic for a reason. But it messes with my brain and, according to some experts, my status as an HSP may explain why.
What Is an HSP?
The term “HSP” was coined by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.” According to Dr. Aron, an HSP is someone who “has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in [their] surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.”
High sensitivity is a personality trait — not a disorder, and there’s currently no official HSP diagnosis. Dr. Aron states that approximately 15 to 20 percent of people are HSPs, and it’s been identified in over 100 species. (If you think you might be an HSP, you can also take Dr. Aron’s self-test to find out.)
High sensitivity can manifest itself in different ways, but most HSPs share common experiences. “I have a high awareness of energy and external sensory information, and I’ve had to learn to adapt to my needs,” says Devin VonderHaar, a professional home organizer and founder of The Modern Minimalist, a home organizing and design company based in Portland, Oregon. “I need more time in quiet places to recharge than the average human and get overwhelmed by large groups of people, lots of social interaction time, and anything chaotic.”
If being an HSP sounds exhausting, trust me, it can be. But “The Highly Sensitive Person” states that HSPs also tend to be incredibly observant, creative, insightful, passionate, and caring. Sachiko Kiyooka, a professional organizer, Feng Shui consultant, and founder of Montreal, Canada’s Soulful Simplicity, previously thought something was “wrong” with her until she learned about HSPs. “Now I see the gift in this kind of sensitivity,” she says. “It’s what makes me good at what I do, and it allows me to experience so much nuance and richness in life. Very little things can make me so happy!”
What Is Maximalism, and Why Is It Potentially Ill-Suited to HSPs?
The first time I heard the term “maximalism,” I thought, “So that’s what that’s called.” According to VonderHaar, “Maximalism is visual abundance,” especially in terms of “colors, textures, and patterns — lots of visual input.”
While the style feels inspiring for many people, it can be daunting for some HSPs. That’s “because of the level of visual stimulation,” Kiyooka explains. “An HSP can still enjoy a maximalist environment in limited doses, but probably won’t feel good being there all the time.”
Some of the most maximalist spaces I’ve encountered are antique shops and grocery stores. Don’t get me wrong: I love hunting for vintage wares and planning out my meals. But I struggle with clutter, tight spaces, crowds, the energy objects carry, rows upon rows of information-dense labels, and fluorescent lights. That doesn’t mean I can’t go to or even enjoy being in those places. It just means that I fare better when I make a list, go during off-peak times, and take a pair of headphones with me to drown out some of the noise — literally.
When it comes to my own home (pictured below), I’m arguably not a true minimalist. When I’m surrounded by too many objects, prints, and other things, though, I do get overwhelmed and distracted by the need to constantly adjust things. Since learning to get rid of items I don’t love and streamlining my decor choices, however, I’ve experienced more peace and comfort than I could have imagined.
How to Tailor Your Home to Your Needs as an HSP
If you identify as an HSP, you don’t need to learn to love maximalism (or any other aesthetic, for that matter). Instead, you can make other decorating and lifestyle choices to address your needs. Here are a few approaches for curating a more restful home environment.
Minimalism is an HSP’s not-so-secret weapon. In this context, the minimalist label means limiting the number of not only the items in your space, but also the amount of decorative colors, patterns, and textures. “Minimalism is more visually pared-back; it doesn’t necessarily mean someone has a certain color palette or a specific design style,” Kiyooka notes. “It’s more in terms of the quantity of stimulation in the environment, whereas a maximalist environment just has more things in it, so there are more bits of data in the visual field for someone’s brain to process.”
VonderHaar concurs, noting that minimalism can create a feeling of visual calmness. “You can focus on your work more easily when your environment isn’t distracting, and this extends to being organized as well,” she says.
Organization can also help HSPs feel more grounded and serene, as the practice of organizing allows you to store certain items out of view — like in closets, drawers, and cabinets — to make any room feel less visually overwhelming. Of course, organization and maximalism aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. You can even be an “organized maximalist.” The more you have in your space, though, the harder it can sometimes be to keep things orderly.
Use gentle lighting.
I’ve already mentioned lights because bright, harsh lighting can be particularly challenging for HSPs. “Be thoughtful about lighting, so it’s not unfriendly or overpowering,” Kiyooka suggests. For me, this means using strategically placed floor lamps, string lights, rock salt lamps, and even candles in lieu of overhead lights whenever possible.
Renters may be able to use different types of light bulbs in their homes to soften the glare, while homeowners can also install a dimmer switch or replace any harsh overhead lighting entirely. Try battery-operated, remote-control LED lighting if you want to dim a given fixture without the hardware of a dimmer.
Stick with neutrals if possible.
Minimalism doesn’t necessarily dictate a particular color palette, as Kiyooka noted. Whether you identify as a minimalist or not, though, neutrals can have incredibly soothing effects, especially for HSPs. “Colors have vibrations, and they influence how we feel,” Kiyooka says. “People who are environmentally sensitive tend to feel better in environments that don’t have tons and tons of color.”
Practice Feng Shui.
Feng Shui doubles as another incredibly helpful tool for HSPs. “Feng Shui is about understanding the power of our surroundings and how we are affected by our environment,” Kiyooka explains. “Looking at a space through a Feng Shui lens, we can identify how to create a feeling and experience of harmony — HSPs thrive when they are in an environment that is energetically balanced.”
You can balance your space by doing the following:
- Reducing clutter.
- Honoring both yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) energies through your decor choices.
- Bringing in natural materials — Kiyooka says this includes plants and flowers, as well as images of nature and textiles.
- Incorporating different elements such as earth, water, and fire.
Embracing High Sensitivity and Creating a Sanctuary
Your home goes beyond just providing you with shelter and warmth — it can also offer respite from the outside world, while bringing you joy and reflecting your personality. When you start to become aware of the fact that you or your loved ones may be more sensitive to stimuli than the average person, you can discover what styles work best for your home and avoid anything that doesn’t, regardless of how trendy or popular it may seem in the moment.