Learn to Say “No.” It’s easy to lose count of the social occasions you suffer through, either enduring a bout of anxiety or just attending so as not to offend anybody. Over time you realize that these events are quickly forgotten about afterwards. Save your emotional resources for the things you actually want to do.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Taylor. A long-time advocate for awareness around mental health, Taylor is learning slowly but steadily how to take better care of his own mind. A solopreneur since 2004, Taylor is the Founder of HomeWorkingClub.com, a portal for aspiring freelancers keen to live life on their own terms. He lives on England’s south coast with his wife and two young sons.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Hi! I’m Ben, and I’m the Founder of HomeWorkingClub.com, an advice portal for freelancers and remote workers.
I’ve worked for myself for over 15 years, in a career that’s spanned IT consultancy, freelance writing and online marketing. HomeWorkingClub is where my working life and my desire to “make a difference” finally managed to intersect!
I suffer from anxiety and OCD. I’m a Highly Sensitive Person and an INFJ, for those who buy into Myers-Briggs classifications. My main aim in life is not to be defined by my mental health afflictions, especially when it comes to being a good father to my two wonderful young sons.
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?
It doesn’t really mean that at all! You can be a Highly Sensitive Person and be “thick-skinned” or not be an HSP and be “thin-skinned.”
It’s more about how we process sensory input. HSPs are often sensitive to noise and other stimuli, and that — to a point — applies to me. However, in my case it’s much more about being sensitive to the emotions and feelings of others, often to an exhausting degree.
I think it’s also fair to say that HSPs feel everything very deeply — both sadness and joy.
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?
HSPs definitely have a lot of empathy and a lot of intuition. If we’re present whenever somebody else is experiencing a strong emotion, we can feel it, almost on an animalistic level. This is why social events can be hugely draining for HSPs. Every undercurrent, hidden resentment and nuance is…detectable.
I don’t think this necessarily means that we’re offended by hurtful remarks made to others, at least not always. But on reflection, I can think of occasions when I’ve been more incensed when witnessing bullying, racism and homophobia than the person on the receiving end!
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?
I have read that some HSPs struggle with certain movie genres or violence on TV. To be honest that doesn’t really apply to me. The one thing I can’t watch is horror, but that’s more about the jump scares! Real-life injustice or lack of empathy is more of a problem for me than fictional violence.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
Where do I start?!
I think I’m only just, at the age of 42, beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin. Being male and being sensitive is starting to get easier, but that “man up” mentality is still alive and well, and was certainly front and center as I grew up. I’ve hidden my true nature behind various “fronts” over the years and that can…unravel.
I specifically remember being told I was “too sensitive” when I did a short stint working in the cut-throat world of IT recruitment about 20 years ago. I ended up quitting the job, primarily because I was unwilling to tolerate a particular client who took great pleasure in routinely humiliating people and dressing them down.
With hindsight I think perhaps I took it more personally than my colleagues did. Maybe they were surprised…Looking back, I landed the job based on the person I was pretending to be rather than the person I was!
Socially, being an HSP is a double-edged sword. I often know exactly what people are thinking. That’s had some wonderful outcomes, especially when spotting people are depressed or need a shoulder to cry on. In other circumstances people see it more as if you’ve spotted a “chink in the armor” and it makes them uncomfortable and on the attack.
Over the years I’ve steadily started to learn to keep my mouth shut more of the time! I still get it wrong, but I’ve broadly learned that just because you can detect an atmosphere or know somebody’s upset, you don’t have to vocalize it.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
I certainly remember hearing “too sensitive” as far back as my teenage years. I remember once wondering if everybody cried hysterically at the end of holidays or whether it was just me!
I do remember one particular incident whilst walking back to work in London during a lunch break, I think around 2000 or 2001. A man thought it would be funny to jump out in front of me and shout “boo” in my ear. I jumped out of my skin to the point it must have looked rather dramatic to passers-by! It got me thinking about how I’d always startled easily.
Very shortly afterwards I was perusing books in the “mind, body and spirit” section (something I’ve always done in my never-ending mission to understand myself). I found Elaine Aron’s “The Highly Sensitive Person,” which was fairly new at the time, and — well — let’s just say it resonated!
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
A lot of the time we know what people are thinking — not just generally, but from second to second. This can be very useful in interview situations! It feels like getting instant feedback on which things are going down well and which are not.
However, given that this applies to almost all conversations, it shows why socializing can be so exhausting for HSPs. It can lead to endless analysis of why a certain thing you said caused offence — offence that most people wouldn’t even have been aware they’d caused.
A huge advantage for me is that it’s not just about being sensitive to fear, worry or anger. I’m hugely sensitive to joy too. I might cry at the end of good holidays but I feel I enjoy the happy moments as much as anybody possibly could, and with a total absence of cynicism. At its best, when I’m absorbing joy from my young family, sensitivity feels like a gift.
I might be the one who cries the most at weddings (including my own!) but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
There have been several occasions where I’ve reached out to people who were clearly struggling with their mental health but not telling anybody. Because of my own struggles I’ve felt able to do so in a sensitive(!) way, just with a small comment that made it clear I understood.
I could give very specific examples, but with other people involved I’d rather not.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Well, both can be exhausting, and I don’t think there’s a fixed cut-off point between the two. It’s important to remember that you can be empathetic without being sensitive AND without being kind. I have met people who have a similar ability to hone in on how people are feeling who’ve used it to belittle or manipulate.
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?
This is a very pertinent question for me right now because I’ve almost totally withdrawn from social media over the past few months. It’s improved my life immeasurably.
I think social media is pretty tiring for everybody, but it’s even worse if you’re picking up all the hidden nuances. I remember conversations with my wife along the lines of “well, of course he only said that because he knows she will do X and then Y will happen.”
Why put yourself through it when 99% of the time it doesn’t matter? Life’s complicated enough when you’re anxious and re-read every message and status update you post a dozen times!
In terms of not being pulled down by it, I think it’s all about being honest about how it’s really making you feel. There’s nothing to stop you having a bare-bones Facebook account, with just your family and closest friends, and access to a few groups that inspire and motivate you.
My current social media “detox” has been one of THE best things I’ve done for my mental health. Although it was intended as a temporary thing, I suspect it will stick.
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?
I think I get better at this as I get older. I spoke earlier about being more offended by racism and homophobia than people on the receiving end. I can think of a couple of specific examples of that, when people have ended up telling me they don’t need me to fight their battles for them. In one case I was only about 19, so it was long before I identified as an HSP.
Similarly, as my online business has grown I’ve had occasional run-ins with trolls and troublemakers. I used to tie myself in knots and waste a huge amount of time trying to get my point across and be understood. Sometimes it probably came across more as having to win or have the last word. I find it much easier to let things go nowadays.
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?
My strategy is quite the opposite! I don’t mind being the sensitive one. I think it comes with age anyway, but I do care less about other people’s perception these days. I’ve spent far too much of my life pretending and playing parts.
I’m quite comfortable to be the first one to cry at a wedding or a children’s nativity play. If that means I lose friends who can’t cope with somebody like that, it leaves me with more love to give to those who can.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
Being sensitive doesn’t mean you’re a pushover. It doesn’t mean you easily take offence. And it doesn’t mean you’re weak.
Some of the most “man up” people I know would be terrified by the thought of going to therapy and properly working on themselves. Strength comes in lots of different forms.
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?
Things are already moving in the right direction in that regard. Mental health awareness, including MALE mental health awareness is improving.
But I think people individually opening up is really important. I openly admit to anybody that I see a counsellor. I talk about panic attacks, I talk about anxiety. I KNOW that makes some people uncomfortable, but I see that as their problem and not mine.
I won’t deny, however, that there’s still some stigma. If I did still run a personal Facebook account I’d be torn as to whether to share this interview with all of my friends. The Highly Sensitive Person thing is a categorization I know many won’t have heard of and I suspect several would sneer at. Oddly, however, I have no issue sharing it with business connections and hundreds of thousands of people who read my website!
This paradox proves that I still have some work to do — as well as society in general!
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.
- Learn to Say “No.” It’s easy to lose count of the social occasions you suffer through, either enduring a bout of anxiety or just attending so as not to offend anybody. Over time you realize that these events are quickly forgotten about afterwards. Save your emotional resources for the things you actually want to do.
- Be Open. People won’t always completely understand, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask them to. For example, if you have people staying at your home for a prolonged period, openly tell them that after a couple of days of meals and parties you’ll need some quiet recuperation time. They may not get it, but they’ve been told!
- Be Selective About Friends. If you feel like you’re constantly banging up against misunderstandings, you may be trying to be friends with the wrong people. If you’ve hidden your sensitivity and “played a part” for a long time they may be friends that only the previous version of you needed to have.
- Keep Learning About Yourself. Every book, every blog post, every podcast and every therapy session has the potential to take you a step closer to understanding yourself more.
- Understand that you are Not Alone and that Sensitivity is a Gift. Around 10–15% of people are HSPs. If you are one of them, you can probably work out who many of the other ones are. Seek these people out. Make friends with people who understand you and accept you for who you are. In some ways being Highly Sensitive is a superpower. It’s very draining, so make sure you enjoy the good parts too. The chances are that you are just as sensitive to joy as you are to sadness — and that’s something to be thankful for.
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’m not sure I have the influence to inspire a movement! But I’d love there to be a way for businesses to sign up to a code of conduct around mental health. Even quite recently I’ve seen some bosses take a disparaging attitude to staff with mental health issues.
We really should be aiming for a world where it’s as easy to discuss a bout of anxiety as a bout of sciatica. But I fear we have some way to go yet.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.