You need to know that sometimes, what you’re feeling isn’t actually your feeling. Often, other people are unaware of their own emotions and can project them onto you. HSPs tend to be like sponges, absorbing that energy. Having said that, once you are feeling it, it becomes yours to deal with. So you also need to know ways to let that emotion pass through you as quickly as possible, rather than ruminating and trapping it in your own system. Shaking it off sounds simplistic, but it’s a great way to get it moving.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Blackwood. Catherine lives by the coast in the South-East of England with her husband, two free-range children and a large, sleepy cat. She qualified as a Clinical Hypnotherapist in 2001, and brings elements of energy psychology and mindfulness to her work as an Integrative Therapist. The beach is a five-minute walk from their home, and Catherine often conducts client sessions there or in nearby woodland and nature reserves. Her passion is helping highly sensitive women build confidence in themselves and their relationships with others. In her spare time, Catherine reads avidly from an ever-growing stack of books and has a regular yoga and meditation practice.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Since my school days, I’ve been obsessed with studying psychology. My closest friends have all become therapists over the years, although we met at different stages of our lives. So we enjoy many a discussion about personal growth over cups of tea, and we’re all HSP! My main focus of work these days is helping highly sensitive women to feel empowered in their lives and their relationships, especially with their family of origin. I offer various one to one therapies both online and in person, but my favourite is to be outside in nature, which is ideal for grounding ourselves.
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?
I’ve found the best way to define a highly sensitive person is firstly to state that it is an inborn trait. So just as people are born with a certain eye colour, approximately 15–20% of the population has the “sensitivity gene”. Unfortunately, society often links sensitivity to connotations of emotional frailty, but in fact it is a sensory processing sensitivity. The stimuli that travel through their nervous system is amplified, and they process things more carefully and deeply, with effects ranging from overstimulation to greater empathy and experience of emotions. A sensitive person could become offended if they detect injustice or an undertone of attack, but equally they might show understanding of the other person’s perspective and allow for their present emotional state.
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?
According to Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, we HSPs have particularly active mirror neurons, which help us to know other people’s intentions and how they are feeling, as well as feeling some of it ourselves. So yes, more empathy towards others is a common feature. One could take offence to a comment about other people — I think that is down to individual personality and past experiences — but mainly they would be more aware of how hurtful that comment would be if the subject were to hear it.
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?
Many highly sensitive people would agree that much of the news and entertainment in popular culture can be difficult to digest. There is a lot of suffering in the world, and our ability to bear witness to scenes of devastation or violence via the internet can lead to personal feelings of pain that take a while to dissipate. Where the entertainment industry makes fun of people’s misfortunes, this can feel uncomfortable to a sensitive person. After 9/11, I became acutely aware of the jokes that began circulating. I realise that humour is an important coping strategy in times of tragedy, but an HSP feels the painful truth and may also agonise over having laughed involuntarily.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
A colleague and friend of mine, previously working in a stressful I.T. department, witnessed ongoing bullying and belittling behaviour from the CEO. She became acutely aware of the suffering of her team members, which pulled her attention away from her role, and felt unable to continue working there without blowing the whistle. It took great courage, but the alternative was to walk away from the job, knowing the situation would continue. Many highly sensitive people become scapegoats for those with a lack of self-awareness around their own emotional state.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
It’s important to note that we all operate somewhere on a continuum from highly insensitive through “average” to highly sensitive. To determine the point at which someone is too sensitive would be a subjective thing. Even society’s norm might not equate to the inner experiences of the people, especially where projected shame leads to covering up one’s sensitivity. I personally don’t think of anyone as too sensitive. People remark about having to “tread on eggshells” around someone, but that’s really just an admission of their own discomfort. They don’t want to be held responsible for saying or doing something insensitive. Which is understandable, because to a degree, they lack the same perception of an HSP to see how their actions could be harmful. Equally, being highly sensitive (or too sensitive) is a personal responsibility and needs careful management.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Yes, they have the advantage of making more connections between different pieces of information, so they tend to spot patterns more easily. And by reading another person’s feelings accurately, they may be able to avoid conflict or find mutually agreeable solutions to problems. They are often drawn to creative pursuits and have a deep appreciation for arts and are moved by beauty. They have a rich inner world.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I’m reminded of someone who quickly discovered her partner had begun an affair. I’ll call her Charlotte. An acquaintance had spoken about an infidelity in her own relationship, which Charlotte mentioned in passing to her husband that evening. She detected that his verbal response didn’t match his face — his expression dropped — but she shrugged it off. When she later asked her husband where he’d purchased his new brand of toiletries, his response seemed mildly awkward. She then felt something was deeply wrong, checked his phone and discovered the truth. The good news is that her empathic side allowed for an open discussion about their marriage and what was really bothering her partner, and they were able to heal together.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
One can be empathetic without being highly sensitive, and some highly sensitive people suffering acute or prolonged stress may disregard other people’s feelings. I don’t think there is a line you cross from being empathetic to highly sensitive, as it’s simply a genetic trait. Hyper-sensitivity, however, is an exaggerated response to a trigger because of a pre-sensitised state (such as complex or developmental trauma). Many HSPs have experienced trauma in their past, some without even realising it, and this can lead to hypervigilance and difficulty with relationships and trust. This is not the case for all, though. With a nurturing caregiver from birth onwards, or with the right therapy later in life, many thrive in their sensitivity.
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?
Social media is fast-moving, visually stimulating and intentionally addictive. People tend to post extreme versions of reality, not the mundane representations of daily life, so lots of drama and attention-seeking activity. Modern filters distort the images, much of which an HSP will detect and be processing. My advice would be to limit the times you engage on social media, don’t check it when you already feel anxious or out of balance, and think carefully before interacting, because you may be drawn into checking for notifications and worrying about being misunderstood. Also, you can find groups with similar interests and spend time there, making healthy connections, rather than scrolling through your feed which is littered with advertising and is not within your control. Be mindful of using screens before bed as it may disturb your sleep, and on waking, as it may distort your mood before the day has even begun.
How would you advise your patient to respond if something they hear or see bothers or affects them, but others comment that they are being petty or that it is minor?
I would reassure them their feelings are valid, regardless of whether other people consider it petty or minor. There is an added layer of judgment here, too. Emotions are just signals, though. So depending on the situation, it could be an opportunity for personal growth. If they felt triggered by something they would agree is minor, they may wish to explore the origin of this. However, if they are feeling grounded yet have witnessed an injustice, here is a chance to practice speaking up and having a voice. Self-awareness is key.
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?
Exercises that help to regulate the central nervous system are important. Gentle methods like havening and slow breathing into the belly are valuable and can be done anywhere. Also, setting healthy boundaries with yourself and others. This might look like getting to bed by 10:00 p.m. every night and stepping away from hostile interactions until everyone has calmed down, rather than trying to muddle through. Practical tips are to have headphones with soothing music to drown out noisy commutes or only wearing soft, comfortable clothing, and allowing plenty of space between appointments. Mindfulness helps in seeing the current situation as non-threatening, leaving behind the stories that we create around certain events.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
Probably the biggest myth is that sensitivity is a weakness or hardship. Yes, there are added challenges, but these are balanced by the advantages, some of which we’ve already covered. And if we think about it, given that HSPs experience things more intensely, this suggests a great strength in getting through each day, especially when 80% of the population has no idea what that must be like. It’s not a character flaw or genetic misfortune. It’s a valuable trait which has the potential to enhance the quality of the lives of everyone. HSPs tend to be the advisors and counsellors, healers and artists among us. They often spot risks early and intuit sensible ways to proceed.
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?
I believe there needs to be more careful education of the masses. We’ve seen it with autism and ADHD, and finally these people are becoming better understood and catered for. Everyone has gifts they bring, and shaming people for something they were born with is damaging. When I explain the HSP trait to people (and even many therapists have never heard of it), there is usually some surprised recognition. This makes sense, because roughly 1 in 5 people have the trait, even if they were unaware of its biological underpinning. 20 percent is still a minority, but when united, this creates a powerful force.
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 need to know that sometimes, what you’re feeling isn’t actually your feeling. Often, other people are unaware of their own emotions and can project them onto you. HSPs tend to be like sponges, absorbing that energy. Having said that, once you are feeling it, it becomes yours to deal with. So you also need to know ways to let that emotion pass through you as quickly as possible, rather than ruminating and trapping it in your own system. Shaking it off sounds simplistic, but it’s a great way to get it moving.
- Boundaries are your new best friend. Learn everything you can about setting and maintaining them. There are some wonderful visualisations that can help with this, or find a therapist. Spotting a boundary breach is the first step, so journaling about your feelings will help you see where someone may be taking advantage of your kind nature. Sometimes it’s very obvious, such as people entering your house without knocking and waiting. The door is the physical boundary, but a conversation is needed to clarify your expectations. A less tangible example is to ask people to call first instead of turning up unannounced.
- Know your triggers. Some people are extra sensitive to noise, and for others it’s smells and chemicals, for example. Someone I know had to wait outside a particular shop while her friends went in, because the handmade soaps were a riot of fragrances, the music playing was loud and frantic, and with everyone leaning over each other to reach for products, she would have become overwhelmed. Also, her skin is sensitive to many ingredients, so she knows to stick to simple products.
- To thrive as a sensitive person, begin appreciating your gifts. Take some time to visit an art gallery, perhaps, or listen to beautiful music. Pick up a paintbrush yourself, if you feel the calling. Enjoy your deep, meaningful conversations with a sensitive friend in the quietest of bookshop cafes. Nature is a great healer too, so spend time outside to replenish and be inspired by the sights and sensations we were designed to enjoy.
- Ultimately, try to tune in to your purpose. That sounds like a big task, but our purpose can shift over time, so hold it lightly. It’s worth your time to sit quietly and dream up your ideal life. Maybe there are some small steps you can take in that direction. It’s our responsibility to appreciate ourselves, to show ourselves compassion and to heal anything in our way. There are many wonderful people waiting to help you with this, so know that you are never alone. You are part of a quietly powerful tribe.
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 urge everyone to get outside into nature every day, especially at sunrise, noon and sunset. There are health reasons for this, such as balancing out the amount of blue light toxicity we’re facing, but it’s more than that. Being in nature has a calming effect on the brain and body. We can slow down, allowing our eyes to rest on soft shapes without the print and neon lights of modern civilization. We can look at the trees and see that no two are the same, yet each holds such value. The trees are simply being themselves, not trying to please or copy anyone. They flow with the seasons; never rushing nor resisting the next stage, but trusting in their evolution. The sea offers us reminders of depth and power, mystery, unity and transformation. I have taken much of my work outside to share this beauty and wisdom with others. I’d love for people to connect more deeply with our phenomenal planet.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.