Find an expressive outlet. As Highly Sensitive People, we have a lot of thoughts and feelings. We need healthy ways to express those emotions so they don’t stay trapped in our bodies and cause disease. The arts are a powerful tool to express, process, and overcome our circumstances. You do not have to become a professional artist, musician, dancer, or writer in order to enjoy the benefits of your own creativity. I don’t care if you don’t think you are “talented.” It doesn’t matter. The science shows that you can experience the health benefits of the arts no matter your skill level. The arts are the greatest tool we have to express our deepest joys and sorrows. Use them. Find an art form you connect with and dive in.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Constanza Roeder, the Founder and CEO of Hearts Need Art: Creative Support for Adults with Cancer.
Constanza is a 17-year survivor of adolescent Leukemia and spent the last decade singing for patients in hospitals. She grew up in Santa Cruz, California and moved to San Antonio, Texas in 2008 where she lives with her Navy veteran husband and dog Gabby. She uses her experience as a professional singer and cancer survivor to promote holistic well-being for patients and caregivers. She speaks around the country about the power of the arts to promote health and well-being. She also considers herself to be a Highly Sensitive Person.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Sure! For those of you that know the lingo, I am an Enneagram 4w3 and Myers Briggs INFP. I believe in finding and mining gold in people. Whether I’m singing a favorite song for one of my patients, training my team of artists, or speaking to a crowd, I try to make everyone I encounter feel fully seen and fully loved. I was super lucky to grow up in one of the most beautiful places in the world (Santa Cruz) and now live in one of the friendliest (San Antonio). I graduated from Bethany University with a degree in Music and minor in Psychology and spent the first half of my career as a musical theater actress and voice teacher. In 2008, I married Jeff, the most incredible man who cooks for me and supports my dreams. My happy places include ballet class, the hammock in our back yard, and hikes with my husband and dog Gabby.
Hearts Need Art, the nonprofit I founded was born out of my own experience with Leukemia and the role the arts played in my recovery. I now get to use the arts to create moments of joy, self-expression, and connections for patients facing life-altering health challenges like I did so many years ago.
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?
The relationship between stimulus in the environment and an HSP’s heart and spirit is more connected than the average person. Emotions are much closer to the surface. Like canaries in a coal mine, HSP are often the first to notice when something is “off.”
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?
When I hear people speak in a mean-spirited way about anyone, my eyes almost instantly well up with tears. It doesn’t feel so much as an offense but, a profound sadness. My empathy reaches out to even the most despised people. I believe we are all children of God and in need of love and belonging.
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 judiciously restrict my exposure to the news and other media. I skim through top news stories a couple of times a week in order to stay informed. But I must be disciplined with my thinking and resist binging on “trauma porn” or I will drown in sadness. I also curate the type of media I consume. I remember watching a video once of a trainer hugging his ape right before it died. My mind started imagining how I would feel if my dog, Gabby died and suddenly, I was in a full-blown panic attack. Scary movies? Uh, no. I have a vivid imagination and it doesn’t take much to send me into a puddle of emotion, anxiety, and tears. I have to close my eyes and plug my ears even if a trailer for a scary movie plays. It feels childish but, I know if I will regret it later if I expose my little heart to that kind of stimuli.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
Other people’s energy affects me greatly. When I first started volunteering to sing for cancer patients in the hospital, I cried almost every day. The emotional heaviness stuck to me like a disease. I eventually had to step away for a time because I started spiraling into depression. I worked with a counselor to learn how to stay mindful and keep myself from enmeshing emotionally with my patients.
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 was lucky in many ways to be homeschooled through 8th grade. I got to skip that time in middle school when kids obsess about highlighting your special brand of weirdness. As I moved into high school and college, I seemed to struggle more than my peers with my emotions and life in general. Eventually, a therapist pointed out that I struggled more because I was a highly sensitive person.
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 life lived in bold colors: The highs are higher, the lows are lower, and beauty is explosive. As a creative, I use the arts to express my experiences and help others connect more deeply with what gives life meaning.
- Increased attunement enabling more effective communication: When I speak to different groups of people, I can sense subtle shifts in my audience that aids in my stage presence and connection with listeners.
- More intimate relationships: Like the princess and the pea, my sensitivity can sense the true person that lies behind layers of protective mattresses. I can sense and help people discover the gold often buried in their hearts.
- Pain-point informed business intuition: Because I can sense needs and pain points, I use my entrepreneurship to innovate and solve problems that others might overlook.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
Several years ago, I first felt the call to start Hearts Need Art. But I resisted. I thought that good leaders had thick skin. Mine was paper-thin. How could I possibly succeed? Thankfully, a mentor encouraged me that the way I led did not have to look like anyone else. She said, in fact, only an HSP could lead effectively in the highly emotional space of a cancer unit.
Because I am an HSP, I can sense subtle shifts in people’s energies. When I walk into a cancer patient’s room, I can sense intuitively how to connect and meet them at their level. On the leadership side, I can sense when my artists and musicians seem off and might need a moment to decompress.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Balanced empathy leads to action. Absorbing too much pain through my sensitivity leads to discouragement and inaction. Highly Sensitive People need to be careful about how much we open ourselves up to the pain of others. I have a great capacity for empathy but, if I absorb all the stories of pain from around the world, it leaves me overwhelmed and useless. If I stay laser-focused on my area of calling, then the pain I experience drives positive action.
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?
Negativity on social media is strangely addicting. It can suck you in and make it hard to break away. I try to notice when I start sliding down that dark path and recognize that, while entertaining at the moment, the negativity will stick with me and adversely impact the rest of my day. By keeping good boundaries around my social media use and unfollowing negative people, I can enjoy connecting with others while avoiding the negativity.
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?
Letting people know what is and is not ok for you is tough. I’ll be honest, sometimes it doesn’t feel worth it to explain my point of view. It seems easier to just ignore my own feelings. But I learned that if I allow toxic behavior then it only worsens. When I need to confront someone, I first check my initial reactions against something more concrete than my emotions. Sometimes, my initial reaction is overblown. But if I find that my assessment is correct then, I use my empathy to see the other person’s point of view. I ask myself, “How can I communicate with them in a way that edifies them and their strengths?” I try to assume good intent first. I then communicate my boundaries in a loving way. If they still dismiss my request then, it may be time to move on from that relationship.
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?
Meh, at this point I don’t try to overcome anyone’s perception of my sensitivity. I embrace the truth that the world needs people with empathy like me. Most people don’t understand the freedom they could experience from a more accepting relationship with their emotions. They often do not even recognize the pain caused by their lack of empathy and compassion. So, I turn my empathy right back on those that might think I’m too sensitive. In the space of one meaningful conversation, others will often share their deepest hurts and joys with me. Cue the tears and the healing.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
”Sensitivity is weakness.” Our road to strength might look different than others but, being Highly Sensitive is absolutely a superpower. The sensitivity that some see as an inconvenience can lead to valuable insight about subtle and unseen shifts in culture, business, and relationships. We should Listen to our HSPs rather than dismiss them as overly emotional.
”HSP can’t help but be controlled by their emotions.” HSP are NOT doomed to emotional slavery. For a long time, I did feel trapped by my own emotions. Initially, I coped by rejecting my emotions and the way I was wired. But I found that you have to fully accept yourself before any meaningful change can happen. You are the way you are for a specific purpose. But, like any raw strength, it can be destructive to you and those around you. With the right support and training, your supper power can be used for profound positive change in the world.
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?
Emotions can’t be prevented. They just are. We can learn to discipline our thinking so we are not victims of our emotions. But, an HSP can’t just decide one day to not feel all the hurt and pain in the world any more than someone can decide to be a dinosaur.
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.
- Find an expressive outlet. As Highly Sensitive People, we have a lot of thoughts and feelings. We need healthy ways to express those emotions so they don’t stay trapped in our bodies and cause disease. The arts are a powerful tool to express, process, and overcome our circumstances. You do not have to become a professional artist, musician, dancer, or writer in order to enjoy the benefits of your own creativity. I don’t care if you don’t think you are “talented.” It doesn’t matter. The science shows that you can experience the health benefits of the arts no matter your skill level. The arts are the greatest tool we have to express our deepest joys and sorrows. Use them. Find an art form you connect with and dive in.
- Embrace your superpower of vulnerability. When you take the risk to share yourself first, you give others permission to do the same. When you live into your full authentic self, it frees others to do the same. I stopped apologizing for my tears years ago. If I care deeply about something, water is gonna come out of my eyes. There is no stopping it. I found that, far from turning people off, my vulnerable show of emotion drew them in. Going first gives them permission to share their hearts as well.
- Boundaries are important. You need boundaries and discernment to distinguish between the people with whom you are and are not ok to share your emotions. As a young HSP, I was like an off-kilter water sprinkler, indiscriminately flinging emotion on everything including the hard sidewalk. I learned the hard way that not everyone has earned the right to hear my stories.
You also need emotional boundaries with the people you love. I can soak up the emotional energy of others like a sponge. I had to learn to recognize and acknowledge the emotions of others without taking them on as my own.
Finally, you need boundaries with your own emotions, and it all starts with the way you think. Our thoughts give birth to our emotions. One of the more helpful things a therapist said to me was that I have the power to choose what thoughts I feed or attenuate. The road to master my thoughts is long but, worth the effort. I am still an HSP but, I can now channel my gifts instead of allowing my emotions to cripple and sabotage my purpose.
- Be patient with non-Highly Sensitive People. The world needs all different types of people. If the whole world were filled with only HSP, we would be a mess. Not everyone experiences the world like we do and that’s ok. I used to assume people were just mean when they spoke or acted insensitively. But I realized that my judgmental attitude came from my assumption that everyone thought like I did. If I acted in that way, it WOULD be mean because I would be acting against my insight as an HSP. But not everyone has that same insight. If I instead assume the best of people, I can extend more grace and experience a much deeper appreciation for the non-HSPs out there.
- Seek out people that appreciate your sensitivity while grounding your volatility. My mom describes my marriage as “a person flying a kite.” My husband holds onto my kite string to help me fly without spinning out of control and crashing. I love this analogy because, as an HSP, I sometimes ruminate on my negative emotions to the point of depression. He helps me laugh and remember to take myself less seriously. I sometimes demand more from myself than my body can handle. He reminds me to rest. I sometimes pretend to be less affected by emotional situations than I really am. He creates a safe space for me to express what I’m really feeling.
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.
We all need to reclaim our creativity. I believe that if everyone knew how insanely loved they were, the world would be a different place. But love can only happen when we feel seen, heard, and accepted. When we sing together, create together, dance together, and share our stories we can more fully see and know each other.
Our society tells us that only talented people should be allowed to do art. But, art-making is our birthright at humans. Our first languages are singing, dancing, and art-making. We only stop once someone tells us we’re “bad.” Art creation is a deeply human act that is too important to be left to professionals.
My vision is similar to that of Hearts Need Art: the universal accessibility of arts engagement to help everyone feel seen, heard, and loved. But, we don’t have to wait for that distant point in time. You can create moments for you and others to feel fully seen and fully loved today.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow my Facebook page @ConstanzaAileenRoeder, Instagram @Constanza Roeder, and through my website ConstanzaRoeder.com.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.