Emotional Intelligence — A highly sensitive person is deeply in touch with their emotions, and the emotions of others. Use your heightened emotional intelligence as a way to not only understand yourself, but also those around you. If you feel your emotions taking over, take a deep breath, and tap into the emotions of those around you to help you feel more balanced. This gives you a clearer perspective of the situation that you’re facing.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adina Mahalli (MCT). An advocate of holistic health and well-being, Adina is a certified mental health expert with a masters in crisis and trauma therapy. Although her focus lies in social work, she’s also a hair and skincare authority at Maple Holistics. She’s passionate about positive social media use and employing it as a tool to encourage those around her to be their best selves. She believes that living your most authentic life means connecting with yourself and those around you on an emotional and spiritual level, and she wants to help people achieve this goal.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Currently, I’m a full-time mom, who’s making the most of spending every precious moment with my beautiful daughter. I have to say that this journey does come with its challenges which is why I’m also working on building my online presence. Becoming a new mother has led me to embrace the beauty of online support groups and creating opportunities for sharing positive experiences through social media. I’m passionate about positive social media use. I believe that mindful posting is a powerful tool to create meaningful connections and I hope that as my online presence grows, I’ll be able to share more of that with more people. My desire is to create and encourage a holistic approach to mental health in whichever platform I’m able to do so — whether it be in-person or virtually.
When I’m not fulfilling my mom-duties, I’m also a mental health practitioner who works with families and individuals to better understand themselves and how to live their best lives. As part of my work, I help people re-establish strong family bonds, cope with PTSD, and develop a mindful approach towards body positivity.
Can you help define for our readers what is meant by a Highly Sensitive Person? Does it simply mean that feelings are easily hurt or offended?
Being a highly sensitive person is about much more than just getting easily hurt or offended. It means that you feel things more deeply than the average person. This could be in relation to yourself or to others. Sometimes this means that you come across as ‘touchy’ and other times it causes you to be overly invested in others’ struggles. Due to our ‘I don’t care’ society, this is often perceived as a negative trait, but the truth is that there are many advantages to being a highly sensitive person.
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have a higher degree of empathy towards others? Is a Highly Sensitive Person offended by hurtful remarks made about other people?
An HSP is certainly empathetic to a higher degree than most, but this doesn’t make them an empath in their own right. If you consider empathy on a spectrum, an empath would be at the upper end and a highly sensitive person would be somewhere in the middle. That being said, this varies between individuals. A highly sensitive person feels their emotions more intensely than others, which means that hurtful remarks cut them more deeply. The important thing to realize is that they’re not just “being dramatic”, their level of emotion is set to a higher volume so to speak.
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have greater difficulty with certain parts of popular culture, entertainment or news, that depict emotional or physical pain? Can you explain or give a story?
With the steady rise in multi-modal mental imagery, it’s no surprise that an HSP would struggle with the bombardment of media available on a daily, even hourly, basis. Multi-modal mental imagery is the experience of multi-sensory perception. Essentially, when you see something you can also ‘feel it’ with other senses. For example, if you’re watching coffee being made on a screen you might feel like you can also taste and smell it. For an HSP, this is how nearly all their experiences are felt — including the sad and painful moments depicted online.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
One of the biggest ways in which a highly sensitive nature can create problems in the workplace is through feedback. Feedback is a necessary component of excelling at your job. If you want to do well, you need to be able to handle criticism. The problem is that a highly sensitive person reads too much into the best of conversations, which means that feedback, no matter how objectively constructive, can send them into a tailspin.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
We all get offended or take things a little too personally every now and then, which can make it quite difficult to distinguish yourself as an HSP. If you’re easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, other people’s moods affect you, or you find it difficult to deal with too many situations at once, your level of sensitivity might be above the societal norm. Most of us can handle some over-stimulation without it affecting our internal world to the point where we can’t function, but this isn’t the case with an HSP. At the end of the day, it’s hard to gauge what the ‘social norm’ is in terms of sensitivity, but there’s no denying that highly sensitive people are categorically different.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Positive Emotions — If you feel things particularly extensively, there’s a tendency to focus on the deeply felt negative emotions. That being said, it’s important not to forget about the positive ones too! Intense feelings work both ways, which means that just as a criticism can tear you down, a positive word can just as easily make your day.
Creativity — Having a heightened sense of emotions means that there’s also a greater need to express those emotions in some way. This is why often, an advantage of being an HSP is creativity. They see the world around them through a unique lens, and when they’re able to express that in whatever way they choose, they can tell a unique story that nobody else can tell.
Relationships — Being a highly sensitive person can have advantages in relationships. Having more empathetic tendencies means that an HSP is naturally more attuned to other people’s feelings. This means that they tend to be much kinder and responsive towards their partner, and their emotions.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
Although HSPs experience many difficulties in their everyday lives, there are instances in which they have a leg up on their less sensitive counterparts. I had a client who worked in HR for a company and was always brought in during the interview process for new recruits. They had an acute sense of when potential employees were lying, deviating from their resume, or even exaggerating details. She would first study the resume and then carefully watch and listen to the interview and chime in every time she believed the recruit was not being completely honest. There was even an instance in which she called out a recruit for lying about why they left their previous job. They soon found out that she was fired for stealing company data and immediately ended the interview. It goes to show that HSPs can hone their abilities and use them strategically.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Although it might sound counter intuitive, there can be many downsides to being overly empathetic. If you’re empathetic to the point where you so deeply absorb other people’s emotions that you can’t function or you need to ‘fix’ their situation, it can be severely debilitating to your own life. Nonetheless, the line between being empathetic and being highly sensitive is certainly a thin one — at times there is even overlap. Being an empath means that you’re in tune with other people’s emotions while an HSP is in tune with every emotion and stimulus. Any sort of over stimulation can be intensely overwhelming for a highly sensitive person.
Social Media can often be casually callous. How does Social Media affect a Highly Sensitive Person? How can a Highly Sensitive Person utilize the benefits of social media without being pulled down by it?
When you consider the concept of multi-modal mental imagery, social media already provides somewhat of a sensory overload for an HSP. That’s before they even read the comments, glance at captions, or look at someone’s story. Social media is a place to create connections, but unfortunately, it has also become a place to tear others down. Baseless hatred or arguments are often witnessed on social platforms, and for highly sensitive people this can be traumatic and distressing. Another person might be affected by such comments but just shrug it off. This just isn’t possible for a highly sensitive person.
How would you advise your patient to respond if something they hear or see bothers or affects them, but others comment that that are being petty or that it is minor?
One of the most important things to remind an HSP is that dealing with the condition is their responsibility. It might sound harsh, but living an unobstructed life means taking the power back into your own hands. At the end of the day, you know your triggers best, which means that you should be taking the necessary precautions to put coping mechanisms into place and question your reactions.
What strategies do you recommend to your patients to overcome the challenges that come with being overly sensitive without changing their caring and empathetic nature?
Preparation — Being prepared means that you’re able to put what you know about your triggers into practice. Confrontational conversations can be difficult for an HSP but sometimes unavoidable, which means that you should be prepared for conversations that you think might be hard. Whether that’s through writing a list of the points of discussion before the fact so that you can foresee as much of the conversation as possible, or forewarn the person that you’re nervous so that they themselves know to tread carefully, put prep in place to help you through triggering situations.
Know Triggers — You can’t prepare unless you know what you’re preparing for. Sometimes the only way to learn your triggers is unfortunately through being triggered. That being said, some triggers are bigger than others. Identifying small triggers and understanding their root before having to face bigger ones unprepared, can be invaluable for an HSP.
Grounding Techniques — A highly sensitive person has a lot of overlap with someone who suffers from anxiety in terms of intense emotions and a tendency to overthink. With this in mind, deep breathing techniques can bring you back to reality when your mind is going into a tailspin, much like someone who is suffering from anxiety. If you feel like your high sensitivity is overwhelming you, practice grounding exercises such as box breathing to regain control of the situation.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
Dramatic — Human connections are founded on validation. We want to connect with others, and part of that comes from feeling understood by those around us. With this in mind, it can be extremely harmful to assume that an HSP is simply “being dramatic”. This is a widely believed myth about HSPs and is one that needs dispelling. Not only is it not the case (they really are feeling things on a deeper level than the rest of us), but the lack of validation creates a disconnection that only intensifies their sensitivity.
Weakness — Being sensitive does not mean that you are weak. If anything, the fact that you’re able to handle such intense emotions reveals how strong you truly are. It’s thought that HSPs can’t handle what they’re feeling and that’s why their reactions are much more extreme than the ‘norm’. I think this is largely due to the fact that society views the expression of emotion as being ‘too much’ or ‘over the top’. It’s as if emotional expression is a sign of incompetence or ineptitude. However, this just isn’t the case. If you feel things more deeply, you are inevitably going to express them more deeply.
As you know, one of the challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person is the harmful, and dismissive sentiment of “why can’t you just stop being so sensitive?” What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that it just doesn’t work that way?
Telling an HSP to “just stop being so sensitive” is like telling someone with depression to “just be happy”. It just doesn’t work that way. Instead, it might be valuable to explain that it’s not just your emotions that are heightened, but your experience of stimuli in general. I find that a lot of the time, thoughtless comments are not said out of spite, but rather a lack of education. Once you explain to someone the experience of an HSP they’re more likely to understand that it’s not something you can just snap out of.
This doesn’t mean that an HSP shouldn’t have coping mechanisms and tools to help them manage their emotions and experiences, but it can help those around them to react appropriately to what might otherwise just seem like an over-dramatic display of emotions.
OK, here is the main question for our discussion.
Can you share with us your “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Emotional Intelligence — A highly sensitive person is deeply in touch with their emotions, and the emotions of others. Use your heightened emotional intelligence as a way to not only understand yourself, but also those around you. If you feel your emotions taking over, take a deep breath, and tap into the emotions of those around you to help you feel more balanced. This gives you a clearer perspective of the situation that you’re facing.
- Feedback — A highly sensitive person reads ‘feedback’ as ‘criticism’. Being caught off guard with crit never bodes well for an HSP. A critical comment labeled as ‘feedback’ can linger in their mind for weeks. Just an awareness of this can be a great tool to help an HSP see feedback for what it is: feedback. Be conscious of the fact that you might need more time than others to digest what you’ve been told but make a mental note not to take those comments too internally. They’re not a definition of who you are. This helps you to develop resilience to criticism as a whole, allowing you to grow as a person rather than curling into your shell when faced with potential growth.
- Alone Time — A highly sensitive person easily absorbs the energies from those around them. This means that social situations can create feelings of anxiety and tumult. It’s like your nervous system is in overload. This can mean that an HSP might need more alone time than most people. This should be communicated and not assumed though, as distancing yourself from those around you can also create feelings of disconnection.
- Be Prepared — Thriving as an HSP means having coping mechanisms in place to help you deal with overwhelming situations. For example, you will get feedback at work, your partner will upset you, and your friend might say the wrong thing. There are inevitable situations in life that for most people are just a part of daily life and relationships, but for highly sensitive people can really throw them off guard. Phrases like “thanks for that, I might need some time to digest and get back to you” or “it might just be me, but I need a little space to think that through” can be useful to help you get your footing before you get too overwhelmed.
- It’s Not You — This is invaluable for everyone but can be especially relevant for a highly sensitive person. Life is full of small unpleasant moments. There are small great moments too, but the unpleasant ones are somewhat an inevitable part of life. It can be beneficial to remind yourself that they’re not all about you. My dad would often say this to me as a child whenever I’d get upset with kids in the playground or if a teacher lashed out at me, and it really stuck. He would say “some people are just having a bad day”. One of the best ways to thrive as an HSP Is by reminding yourself that maybe, just maybe, it’s not about you. Maybe it is! But take a step back before you absorb the wrong emotions and get carried away. It will save you a whole lot of pain in the long run.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement that would bring the most good to the greatest people, I think it would have to be a pretty simple one: bring back family dinner. Our never-stopping lives are so hectic that family time is often the first thing to go out the window. The truth is that even when families are together, tech can overshadow quality time. If we can remove the distractions and really be with each other during even just one dinner a week, we bring back the beauty and necessity of interpersonal connections. It doesn’t need to be every night, but ideally it would be a consistent endeavor to build family bonds and enhance communication. The benefits of this go way beyond just your family, but to all relationships. I think that it would be a beautiful thing and is something that I hope to achieve with my own family.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’d love to connect and share my adventures so please follow @adinamahalli to stay up-to-date!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.