I would call it the ”DOING ME” movement. A huge part of our human mind is still set in the tribal consciousness which fears rejection from others. Back in the day, it made sense as humans had to focus primarily on safety and being expelled from the tribe meant danger or even death. These days we do not have to be afraid of death if someone doesn’t like us or doesn’t agree with us, yet the fear or rejection or criticism is usually immense
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Agnieszka Burban.
Agnieszka is a psychotherapist trained at the prestigious Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in London. She specialises in relationships and is known as the “Lasting Love Expert’ for women and an author. She created her first happy relationship in her early 40´s, a story she described in her recently released book, “Wild Wise Women” which received 40+ straight 5-star reviews and became #1 bestseller in multiple categories on Amazon.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
With pleasure! As you know from my intro, I am a Relationship Expert for women. I live in Sweden but I have only arrived here 4 years ago (from London), so half my heart, and half my friends are still in London!
If I were to describe myself, I would say I have always been an ambitious and determined one. I have done extremely well academically, ended up with 3 degrees, and have had a thriving career in London.
I can be dogged…. If I really, really want something, I get it. This is how I ended up studying at the most prestigious psychology and psychotherapy training centre in Europe. They only have a handful of places on their post-graduate training every year, and you are considered very lucky if you get one!
And I did get one.
I ended up there because I worked hard and I do not give up easily. My determination and hard work meant I have been able to work in my dream jobs. I´ve also travelled the world and, since I am extremely sociable and bubbly, I have a wide network of friends everywhere I go. I am usually someone in the middle of the loudest laughing group at a party. Yet, despite all the “external” success, and I guess not the worst looks, the approach of “work hard and get results” has never worked in my romantic life. I tried hard to make my relationships work, but I always ended up feeling anxious, and … very, very lonely.
All of my relationships would start with a big spark, and end up with me crying on the kitchen floor, feeling hopeless and abandoned. I used to dream about the simplest things: to come back home and feel safe knowing that my man is there and is happy to see me again. I wanted to have “movie nights in” with him and share meals talking about our days. I wanted to have someone who would be my…rock, my cheerleader, my biggest supporter.
My reality? I was walking on eggshells in my own home. Every time I would go through a challenge in my life — say, low mood, or a stressful time at work, my partners would pull away from me. I recall a period of time whilst living in London when I was very unwell. I could not walk up and down the street as my energy levels were that low. I was tied to the sofa during the day, and to my bed at night. I had to cancel our holiday. His response? Devastation. He turned to alcohol for comfort. I was … spoiling his time off. This became a recurring pattern not only in this relationship, but ones to come.
At 40, I found a man who seemed just perfect! After one year of flying between London and Sweden, I eventually left the UK and moved in with him. Here, I hit a crossroads. My heart was broken, when my “soulmate” broke up with me right after New Year’s Eve, 8 months after my move to Sweden. I ended up being practically job-less, in a foreign country with hardly any social support network. I was depressed and had trauma symptoms after the break-up.
A few months into this post-breakup stage, I attended a live event in London hosted by the famous relationship guru Katherine Woodward Thomas. Shortly afterwards, I signed up to become trained as a relationship expert with her and her team. Across time, I could see my life shifting — changing from inside out. My intention back then was to meet “the one” by the 30th December. I was so anxious, I didn’t sign up on a dating app until the 28th! I still remember sitting in a café holding my phone in my shaking hands and uploading my profile on Tinder. The “one” crossed my path exactly 6 weeks from that day, and we have been together ever since. One thing I know for sure is that it wasn´t a “coincidence” or “chance” or “luck”. I attracted a loving and conscious man for whom I am a priority, as he was a direct reflection of the internal changes within me. This is a long introduction, but I will share with you soon how me being a Highly Sensitive Person has always played a huge role in my love life, as well as other areas of my life!
Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I understand how hard this is. 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?
No, it is more than that. A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is someone who; has a low threshold for sensory stimulation, sensitivity to sound, light and smell, the need to spend a lot of time by themselves and is averse to large groups of people. An HSP is usually an introvert and it takes them longer to unwind after a busy day or a party (it takes us longer to transition from high stimulation to being quiet).
For example, if I finish work late, or if I come back from a party, it takes me a minimum of two hours of unwinding to be able to sleep. As for being sensitive to light, smell and sound, it is not just a sensitivity. It´s hypersensitivity! I am not able to travel by car with someone wearing perfume, for example. I would literally become sick and get a migraine. As for skin care, I only tolerate natural products. I can smell chemicals and additives in products instantly and they make me nauseous. Also, my sound sensitivity is acute, far beyond an “average” person. I need special conditions at home with the ability to always withdraw to a room where there is no background sound at all. If I hear people talking in the background, or the sound of radio, TV, etc., I become anxious and stressed. If the exposure to the sound continues, my stress eventually turns into depression. In terms of light sensitivity, I cannot work in a place with bright, overhead lighting which is usually used in offices. To my brain, it feels as if someone was flashing a torch right into my eyes.
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?
Yes, there is a difference in this regard between a sensitive, empathic person and an HSP. Also, answering this question, I would like to introduce another important category, which is “an empath”. In fact, I belong to this very category; I am both a Highly Sensitive Person and an Empath. Empaths share all the traits of HSPs, including their love of nature and a quiet environment, their rich inner life and the desire to help others. However, empaths are even further on the sensitivity or empathy spectrum than HSPs.
We can sense subtle energies which we absorb in our bodies, and which we then internalise and experience in a deep way. HSPs do not usually have this ability. Everything is made of energy, including emotions and physical sensations. When empaths have around them someone who is, for example, very anxious, they will absorb their energy and feel anxious themselves. We can also absorb physical sensations. Some empaths also have profound intuitive and spiritual experiences, which are not usually experienced by HSPs.
Going back to your question, the fact that many HSPs are empaths too, you can probably see why they might have “more empathy” than other people. They simply “feel” and experience other people and the environment around them more deeply. It´s almost as if we were born with multiple, invisible antennae that quickly pick up and absorb the signals from others.
An example from my life would be what I can only compare to emotional pain when my partner sometimes tells off his little son. The vibration of the “scolding” energy is unbearable to my system. I usually run downstairs and try to put a stop to it immediately.
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?
Yes, absolutely. This is one the main reasons why I do not watch or read the news and have trouble watching anything with violence. The news tends to be focused on sensational and negative stories usually coupled with negative images of crime, suffering, etc. They get “into my system” and affect my mood and my sleep pattern. The same applies to any scenes with violence. For example, when me and my partner watch a James Bond movie, I usually close my eyes and put both my hands on my ears when there is a scene with fighting, shooting, or any type of bloodshed. I have noticed that my partner and his 12-year old son watch those scenes as if they were watching a cartoon. They laugh when a “bad character” gets killed, whereas for me, a movie is never “just a movie”. I feel almost as if I was there, in the movie, watching the fights or shootings happen right in front of me eyes! They sometimes laugh when I shout or scream suddenly at an unexpected violent scene, but for me, my inner experiences and emotions are real.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
Until I set up my own business and became my own boss I used to work in various offices across London, but the standard work pattern never worked for me. In fact, it was affecting my physical and mental health in profound ways. Most offices had bright, cold, white lighting on at all times, regardless of whether we had a sunny or a cloudy day. I perceive this type of light as aggressive to my senses and overstimulating. It makes me feel restless, unsettled, and distracts my concentration. And, of course, most offices were buzzing, open-plan ones where you constantly get to hear other people talk! This is distracting to most people, but for an HSP or an empath, sound affects us much more. I used to come back exhausted after a day´s work in the office! These working conditions coupled with endless train and tube journeys with the London working crowd put such a strain on my system that when I moved to Sweden, it took me four months to unwind from stress. I also finally started to put on weight and arrived at a healthy weight level as my body and mind stopped being exposed to all the stressors that were part of my work life in London.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
My sensitivity was there from the very beginning, but I did not realise it had a name, or that there were other people perceiving the world in a similar way. My mum always reminds me that even when I was a baby, I was crying and seemed unsettled if I was left to sleep in a room filled with light. She had to draw all the curtains and put me in a quiet room so I could have my daytime naps. As an adult, I think my sound sensitivity played a huge role in my life (including my love life!). I would move from one place to another, usually sharing the living space with other people, but I quickly noticed that what bothered me, did not affect the others. I needed complete silence in my bedroom when I was home. This is how I recharge and relax. When I heard other people in the house talk in the background or listen to the radio, etc., I would make requests to switch the radio off or move it where I could not hear it. And then I would hear: “But it´s a normal sound level!”, or, “We´re not doing anything out of the ordinary”!
Other people´s reactions to my requests made me think that there must be something “wrong” with me. I saw myself as a …”weirdo”. And so I kept moulding into other people´s expectations of what is “normal” or “standard”. The culmination occurred when I moved out of London into my ex partner´s little house in Sweden and the sound problems began yet again! It was an open-plan house and his two children were often around too. It was a torture to my system as I could never unwind. I became stressed, anxious and eventually had a complete mental breakdown. My ex-partner perceived my sensitivity as a burden and split up with me a few months after I had moved in. This experience, shocking as it was a the time, was the most sobering one too. After a deep dive into how I actually “work”, and a thorough journey “inside”, I came to realise that I had never considered my sensitivities as an integral part of who I was. I never treated my need for a quiet environment as my basic need! To me, it is as basic a need as water, food, sleep and fresh air. Essentially, up until my last disappointment in love, I never acknowledged and respected my own needs and feelings as important.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Absolutely! Being a Highly Sensitive Person or, in my case, an empath is actually a treasure. It is as if a fairy gifted you a special gem as you came into this world. The only thing is that you need to be aware that you are in possession of this gem, and take care of it accordingly, so it shines a bright light in your life. Empaths receive information about the world from outside of what is visible to the naked eye. We know things without doing the research or having “proof”. When I meet someone, for example, I pick up a lot from their energy. I know things about them from a very short conversation. I constantly use it at work speaking to my clients or potential clients. After a short, initial conversation with someone new to me, I know exactly what the problem is and what the person needs. This is not based just on what they told me, but on what they conveyed to me energetically. I pick up on nuances. The way someone says something, for example, is not just the choice of words. You can say the exact same words, but the energy on which you said them will be different. Empaths can tune into this information quickly.
There are multiple examples I could provide here, but just to share one more interesting advantage from my own life: I am a food empath as well. My body is equipped in an inner guiding system which knows which food (or even which skin product) is good for me. If I take a small sample of a given food, my body will know immediately if it´s right for me or not. I also intuitively know what I need to eat on a given day.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
My intuition (or the inner knowing system) is highly evolved. Before I met my wonderful partner, I was dating a man who I tried to assess based on “facts” only. He was the first man I dated after my “big breakup” and I wanted to know as early as possible if he would be the right man for me. I remember scribbling one page after another in my diary wondering if he was the potential “one”. Back then, I did not trust my inner guidance enough to guide me. I remember that in the first few weeks of knowing that man I was sitting on my bed thinking about him and suddenly I heard a loud voice inside my mind shouting a deep, loud “Nooo! Noooo! Noooooo”. Many weeks later, I knew that voice was right!
The man turned out to be a typical “avoidant” type — he would always distance himself when we became emotionally close and want my attention when I was withdrawing. It was the exact cycle that was making me feel anxious all my life with men, and I felt a relief when I closed the door on that dating episode. In fact, another dating example springs to mind; I was dating another man who seemed very kind and sweet-natured, but when I came home after the first date, I felt so drained, that I collapsed in tears in the armchair and cried from exhaustion! Later on, I realised that despite seeming pleasant, he was self-obsessed and never showed any curiosity about me and my life. He was also completely overwhelming to my system, which I now understand is part of my system´s “knowing without knowing”.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Being higly sensitive in the way an HSP or an empath is, is different from simply empathising with others. When we empathise with other people, our hearts go out to others — we understand how they feel and can see the world from the perspective of their feelings. Empaths will take empathy further and often “internalise” or absorb how others feel. If they are in pain, so are we. If they are happy, we feel it in our bodies too (despite what is commonly believed about feelings, our feelings are stored in our bodies, hence me reference to the body). This often puts empaths in the “rescuing” or “saving” mode. We want to immediately stop the pain or injustice happening to someone. Without setting appropriate, self-protective, healthy boundaries, this tendency can be very harmful to a highly sensitive person or an empath. Wanting to free others from pain we often forget about our own needs. I don´t have to look far for examples. It was only yesterday when I received a text message from a woman I got to know a few years ago expressing her emotional pain. She became close with a man who communicated to her he wanted to be “just friends” after a period of closeness. She requested to speak to me. I could sense the urgency and her need to be comforted and soothed. My first instinct was to instantly help her; call her, spend an hour on the phone with her, explain part of my teaching to her. Then I stopped myself realising that this is actually not good for either of us. I was very busy at the time and had to stay focused on my tasks, and spending one hour with her trying to “explain” why she felt the way she felt, wouldn´t have solved the problem either as I very well know that this woman´s relationship problems will require a longer, structured process where she can heal from the old patterns, rather than a “quick fix” conversation.
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?
I believe social media affects us far more than we realise. The constant checking of news, messages, likes and comments is highly addictive and often serves as a quick “reward system” to our psyche. I have noticed that if I start my day from checking messages and comments on social media, I end up feeling confused, discouraged and lacking motivation for the day. I have a very poor sense of detachment from what I´m reading on social media, especially if I tend to know the people I engage with; I easily get involved in debates and comments, and before I know it, an hour or two of my precious time is lost. This of course also means that I discriminate the “energetics” of the information less and let into my system lower level energies, or simply an excessive amount of information which creates an overwhelm.
Now I know that if I need to concentrate on a piece of work, I need to make sure that I am logged off all of my social media platforms. Also, of course it is important to discriminate what types of information we are letting into our system in the first place. Negative or toxic people are toxic to our system.
Social media is, overall, great, but I only benefit from it if I introduce these principles:
- Awareness how social media affects me
- Setting up healthy boundaries
- Discriminating what information I am letting “in”
How would you respond if something you hear or see bothers or affects you, but others comment that you are being petty or that it is minor?
These days I would say if something bothers me and make it clear that even though it seems minor to someone else, it is a big deal to me and it affects me. As you know from my previous answers I used to mould my expectations and behaviours to what other people considered “normal” or “standard”. And it always ended badly for me. I would end up feeling stressed, ill, ignored, or misunderstood. These days I speak up and I am super clear and consistent with my boundaries. For example, in our house there is a rule that we do not play random videos or sounds on our mobile phones in communal areas or where I happen to be at any given time. A random sound from a mobile is like a knife cutting right through my brain. Why would I allow this to happen to me?
Yes, this is my own, subjective experience — but it doesn´t make it less. My mental health is important to me, therefore I will speak up when something is affecting it. This is the world the way I see it. And if someone cannot understand it, or dismisses my experiences just because they experience the world differently, this means they do not belong to my world.
What strategies do you use to overcome the perception that others may have of you as overly sensitive without changing your caring and empathetic nature?
This is an extremely good question! These days, I am being “selfish”, in a good way. I explain what works and what doesn´t work for me instantly. I do not wait till there is a misunderstanding. For example, when I started to treat my needs seriously, and placed them at the top of my priorities, I remember looking for a flat and speaking to a potential landlord about my sound requirements. I told him I was sound sensitive to such an extent that I would not be able to rent the place if the TV was on right above my flat or in the flat next to mine. I even came back to the flat just to carry out a “sound check” from the flat next to the one I was considering to rent. I remember the landlord´s wife saying: “But these sounds are normal, aren´t they?”. I responded that I understood that, however my needs were a bit different from “the average”. One thing I noticed is that the more you worry about what others think of you, and the more you minimise your needs for fear of how someone else responds to them, the more you actually feel unhappy, disconnected and insecure. And that´s because abandoning our needs is one of the most acute forms of self-abandonment. I care more about me than the fear of what others might think of me. And this doesn´t make me a less caring or empathetic person.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
Being sensitive means being “weak”
This is an old myth where “sensitive” is associated with weakness, being fragile, or even being a pushover. None of which is correct.
Strength of character and integrity are not rooted in suppressing our authenticity. In fact, I think people who have courage, speak out loud about their needs and feelings, and admitting our vulnerabilities is a sign of strength as it takes guts!
One of my clients has a history of depression, and social anxiety and he speaks about his experiences a lot on social media. This to me is strength and courage! His need to be authentic is more important to him than the fear of being rejected or perceived as “weak”.
Sensitive people are shy and introverted
Most HSPs and empaths are introverted but some are extroverted! I need a lot of lone time, for example, but I am extroverted and thrive in groups. The only difference is of course that I cannot have long exposure to groups of people due to sensory overload.
Sensitive people need to “toughen up”
Sensitivity as described in this interview is simply part of who HSPs or empaths are! To say to someone that they need to “toughen up” would be actually quite offensive in my view, as well as dismissive of them. It´s an equivalent of someone telling me “You need to change your skin colour!”
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?
This is an important question and I have touched on it in several answers above. A lot of HSPs and empaths will recognise that they are different but will not own their difference at first. They might even perceive it as a burden as it often means that we have special requirements to thrive and not everybody around us will be able to meet our needs. However, everything changes when we challenge our own perceptions of who we are. When I changed my beliefs such as “I´m a burden”, “I don´t deserve (love, attention, being heard, having my needs met) and “I´m not important” into; “I am a precious gem and people around me love and appreciate my sensitivites”, and “I am important, therefore my needs and feelings are important” — others started to treat me and my needs as important as well! This was in fact a turning point in my love life. My current partner fully appreciates me for who I am and recognises my deeper needs (because I recognise them!). He built an office outside of the main house for me so I can have a quiet space to work in and recently made changes in the structure of the house so the house is quiet and I can relax. But in order to have such a level of understanding from others, I needed to learn first to recognise my needs, then to speak about them and make requests.
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.
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.
I would call it the ”DOING ME” movement. A huge part of our human mind is still set in the tribal consciousness which fears rejection from others. Back in the day, it made sense as humans had to focus primarily on safety and being expelled from the tribe meant danger or even death. These days we do not have to be afraid of death if someone doesn’t like us or doesn’t agree with us, yet the fear or rejection or criticism is usually immense.
Are you talking to your friend for one hour twice a week when, in fact, you would much rather have some “me time” and rest after a long day? Or you say, “yes” to your date suggesting a dinner date in his house because you fear what he will think of you if you say, “no”? These are some common examples of how we mould our behaviours into other people’s expectations. It always backfires.
How can our readers follow you online?
I absolutely love connecting with my audience! Here is where you can find me online:
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.