To thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person, I teach people that their sensitivity is much like having very fair skin. Those with very pale skin need a great deal of sunblock when they go out into the sun; it’s not good or bad, it’s just a fact of life. Those with darker skin often don’t need any sunblock when they are in the sun. In relationships, insensitivity is like HOT midday sun for the Highly Sensitive Person. Sunblock is the protective self-awareness that a Highly Sensitive Person needs when exposed to insensitive people. The Highly Sensitive Person will get burned easily when exposed to Highly Insensitive People whereas Highly Insensitive People don’t burn easily. And, so, when the Highly Sensitive Person is in the shade of like-minded people who are kind, thoughtful, and sensitive, little or no sunscreen (protection) is generally required. Yet, when the Highly Sensitive Person is going to be around the burning heat of Insensitive People, it’s important to slather on a healthy dose of sunscreen. And, the sunscreen (aware, wise self-protection) can take many forms such as having very short interactions, not responding to unkind comments and self-care strategies such as breathing exercises and wearing calming essential oils.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Carla Marie Manly a clinical psychologist and wellness expert, who makes her home in California. Dr. Manly specializes in the treatment of relationship issues, anxiety, depression, and trauma. With a holistic focus on creating balance and wellness from the inside out, she brings passion and depth to the self-improvement realm. Dr. Manly’s recently released books, Joy from Fear and Aging Joyfully help others create the life of their dreams
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
I am a practicing clinical psychologist, speaker, and author. I am deeply passionate about helping others create greater self-awareness and balance in life. Relationships, as a key element in life, are a core area of focus in my work.
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?
In general, a Highly Sensitive Person is an individual who FEELS deeply and easily. This sensitivity has a positive side that allows them to be compassionate, empathic and tender with others; the downside is that the highly sensitive person also can be easily offended and wounded by the careless comments or behaviors of others. It’s a double-edged sword!
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have a higher degree of empathy towards others?
Although a Highly Sensitive Person has the capacity to show more empathy (as well as love, kindness, tenderness, compassion, etc.) to others, trauma and inner wounds can create a defensive attitude that reduces the availability or balance of the person’s sensitive side.
Is a Highly Sensitive Person offended by hurtful remarks made about other people?
A Highly Sensitive Person can certainly be more offended by hurtful or thoughtless remarks made by and about other people. As the highly sensitive person constantly has “feelers” out for both negative and positive “energy,” the Highly Sensitive Person will pick up on words and behaviors that may pass by others. As well, if a Highly Sensitive Person experienced a great deal of criticism or trauma as a child (and/or as an adult), there can be a strong tendency to be chronically on alert for criticism or other harm.
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?
Absolutely! The Highly Sensitive Person can feel quite raw when exposed to certain elements of popular culture that depict physical or psychological pain. As the Highly Sensitive Person FEELS at a very high level, many commonplace elements of today’s more abrasive culture can be absolutely horrific for a person whose sensitivity runs high. A Highly Sensitive Person may actually FEEL the pain of an injured person on a visceral level. It is common for the Highly Sensitive Person to FEEL the grief and deep loss experienced by the actor who has lost a loved one. As another example, an “average” person may be able to watch the nightly news filled with words and images of murder, hatred, and political divisiveness with a sense of indifference. They can then go to sleep feeling “just fine.” However, the Highly Sensitive Person will be unable to tolerate this type of exposure to harshness and negativity very well; their sleep, overall sense of safety, and positivity will all be impacted negatively. In my own world, as a Highly Sensitive Person, I am very careful about my exposure to the elements of popular culture that feel destructive and harmful to me. While I do want to stay abreast of current news and trends, I take great care to monitor how and when I expose myself to entertainment and news. As I note in my lectures and work with clients, “The ‘sea’ we swim in, be it negative or positive, does affect us more than we consciously know. And, the more sensitive we are, the more important it is to make sure that our ‘seawater’ is as calm, clear, and uplifting as possible.”
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
When a highly sensitive person is not aware of how to handle their sensitivity in an empowered way, ongoing problems can result. Here’s a story (with details changed to protect the individual’s privacy). Sarah has a highly sensitive nature due to a difficult childhood in a family with an avoidant mother and an alcoholic father. Sarah was deeply attuned to the feelings of others and felt as if she “walked on eggshells” throughout life. When Sarah began therapy, she noted that she avoided contact with others because she was constantly being judged, criticized, and hurt. In her relationships at work, with friends, or romantic partners, Sarah often felt as if she were being treated unfairly and rejected. Comments and behaviors were generally interpreted as being negative and intended to create harm. Sarah left many jobs and relationships due to her belief that people were insensitive and “out to get her.” In her therapy journey, Sarah began to increase her ability to distinguish between truly harmful people, behaviors, and situations and those that were innocuous but that she was interpreting as harmful and destructive. As Sarah worked through some of her past issues, she became more adept at distinguishing between her past and her present situation. And, in this process, Sarah learned how to use her sensitivity in ways that empowered her rather than left her feeling anxious, depressed, rejected, and alone. (This type of story is not uncommon; it is a theme that I see often in my work with both men and women. The journey into learning to embrace one’s high level of sensitivity and utilizing the sensitivity in powerful, positive ways is an ongoing process for those who embrace self-evolution of this nature.)
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
This is a great question and one that depends on the culture itself. In highly insensitive environments, an individual with even moderate sensitivity can be seen as “too sensitive.” At the opposite end of the pole, in a highly sensitive environment — one in which feelings and sensitivity are honored — a highly sensitive person would feel safe and at home. On average, our society is trending toward becoming increasingly insensitive; as a result, those who feel abraded by the level of insensitivity will often feel worse whereas those who enjoy the “privileges” of insensitivity will feel more comfortable.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Highly sensitive people who have worked on embracing and using their sensitivity in empowered ways have certain advantages. These advantages include a strong ability to be empathic and deeply caring. As well, this type of person can become an incredible healer for others in venues such as leadership, psychotherapy, writing, wellness, and other venues. A Highly Sensitive Person who is in balance and empowered makes a most wonderful parent, romantic partner, boss, co-worker, mentor, and friend.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I have found that great sensitivity can be a most wonderful advantagewhen acknowledged, understood, and embraced. Here’s a story. In my pro bono work with veterans, I came to know a young man who had TBI (traumatic brain injury). At first, he was unable to talk and express himself in any genuine, feeling way. It was often as if he were a robot; he would describe his devastating traumas in a detached, lifeless way. Someone might mistake this giant of a man for an insensitive killer. Yet, I saw the pain hidden beneath the layers of detached behavior. I saw the wounded warrior behind the shield of false indifference. There were times when he shared stories with me in a cold, monotonous tone that tears unconsciously ran down my cheeks. He noticed my tears, and I did not try to stop their quiet flow; I would just meet his gaze softly. In my own tears — in my willingness to use my own sensitivity to be a witness to that which he could not bear to feel — he touched a bit of his own pain. It took time, but this young man learned how to feel. He began to feel anger. He began to feel sadness. He began to feel rage. He began to feel his own deep sensitivity. In time, he also began to touch his own joy — a feeling he had long ago abandoned. He learned that he was a Highly Sensitive Person who had done what he needed to do to go into battle for his country. What he saw, what he did, and what he felt were more than his deeply sensitive being could bear. And, so, he had learned to shut down and shut off. In our work together, he found himself again. He learned to find a balance that allowed his Highly Sensitive Self to safely live in a world that is often rife with insensitivity. At the end (and this story is true), he wed a wonderful, sensitive woman, and he became a sensitive, loving father. And, when I hear from him now and again, I know that he’s continuing his journey in a most intentional way.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Being overly empathic can create problems if strong self-care boundaries are not in place. For example, an overly empathic person who does not have healthy boundaries can sink into a space of caring (and doing) for others at their own expense. This scenario often arises when an empathic person unwittingly becomes a “doormat” for others. The Highly Sensitive Person can learn to use empathy as a way to connect and care for others while also maintaining a strong sense of self through the awareness and maintenance of healthy boundaries. There is an art to being empathic and highly sensitive that involves a great deal of conscious awareness surrounding the healthy use of one’s gifts as 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?
Although social media content ranges from sensitive, insensitive, and somewhere in between, the general social media climate is often geared toward the pole of being harsh, callous, and even highly insensitive. As such, a Highly Sensitive Person often finds the realm of social media fairly toxic. Depending on the Highly Sensitive Person’s overall personality and coping skills, social media can be extremely distressing and stress-inducing. In fact, research shows that increased rates of depression and anxiety are correlated with greater use of social media. If a Highly Sensitive person wishes to use the benefits of social media in a healthy way, it’s important to become a savvy consumer of social media. In essence, the Highly Sensitive Person can learn to use social media in very intentional ways, taking care to engage in use that feels good and uplifting and learning to turn away from interactions that feel toxic or negative. Some people find that they even need to delete certain accounts or use of particular sites due to feeling triggered and anxious as a result of interactions and content. This is wise!
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?
In general, it’s wise to refrain from commenting on any topic or in any forum that doesn’t feel safe and accepting. If other respondents make devaluing or minimizing comments, it’s generally a sign that the forum is not very healthy and accepting. In such cases, it can be wise simply NOT to make comments and to practice disengaging. In general, I work with clients to learn to discern when their comments are being safely heard and valued and when they are not. It’s important for every person to learn which environments feel safe and supportive — allowing for various points of views and differences — and which environments are intolerant and destructive. This is an especially important for task for those who are highly sensitive.
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?
I’m laughing as I type this! The question uses a phrase (“overly sensitive”) that, while said without any negative intent, is often extremely triggering for those who are highly sensitive. The reason this phrase is triggering is that the word “overly” often feels judgmental to the Highly Sensitive Person. And, in fact, a favorite offering to clients is this, “When someone tells you that you are ‘overly’ sensitive’ just smile. If it feels right, you can let the person know that it’s not that you are ‘overly’ sensitive’; it’s just that they might not be sensitive enough!”
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
The key myths that I’d like to dispel are the myths that a Highly Sensitive Person is “too sensitive” or “overly sensitive.” A Highly Sensitive Person may be quite sensitive, but this isn’t necessarily negative. A Highly Sensitive Person who is emotionally intelligent, balanced, and self-aware can be an incredible asset in personal and professional relationships. A Highly Sensitive person who is not very emotionally mature may, indeed, struggle quite a bit; but, those who are Highly Insensitive People also struggle in many ways. Our society simply is more tolerant of Highly Insensitive People (e.g., aggressive individuals, bullies, etc.) and even goes so far as to praise and applaud insensitive aggressors who steamroll others to get their needs met; these individuals are often seen as “powerfully strong” and “deeply goal-oriented.” It’s truly important to contextualize issues and look for the trend of what is healthy and what is unhealthy within the general relationship dynamics. In my mind, the world certainly could use more kindness and sensitivity and less aggression and insensitivity. And so, if I have to skew to one pole or the other, I would most assuredly turn more toward the side being more sensitive.
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 such a great question. When a Highly Sensitive Person is asked, “Why can’t you just stop being so sensitive?” the question is felt as a deep insult and invalidation of the person’s core being. The Highly Sensitive Person feels deeply and fully and simply cannot “stop” feeling just as a person cannot “stop” breathing. Feeling and breathing are both essential to being a complete, alive individual. More insensitive people may not understand this at all, for their full range of feelings have often been compartmentalized and marginalized since childhood. The Insensitive Person marginalizes the Highly Sensitive People in order to feel BETTER about being an Insensitive Person. In short, the Insensitive Person generally deflects and blames the Highly Sensitive Person rather than taking responsibility for being Highly Insensitive. It’s an unfortunate and often confusing dynamic that can be easy to misunderstand. In truth, the Highly Sensitive Person embraces and values feelings as an important aspect of being human; they cannot cut off their feelings any more than they can cut off their own breath or their own limbs. The Insensitive Person CAN, however, learn to value the feelings of others as well as their own feelings; the benefits of doing this — of learning more fully about the inordinately invaluable realm of feelings — are immense.
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.
- Thriving as a Highly Sensitive Person requires a dose of humor and quite a lot of self-awareness. A story about sunscreen: To thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person, I teach people that their sensitivity is much like having very fair skin. Those with very pale skin need a great deal of sunblock when they go out into the sun; it’s not good or bad, it’s just a fact of life. Those with darker skin often don’t need any sunblock when they are in the sun. In relationships, insensitivity is like HOT midday sun for the Highly Sensitive Person. Sunblock is the protective self-awareness that a Highly Sensitive Person needs when exposed to insensitive people. The Highly Sensitive Person will get burned easily when exposed to Highly Insensitive People whereas Highly Insensitive People don’t burn easily. And, so, when the Highly Sensitive Person is in the shade of like-minded people who are kind, thoughtful, and sensitive, little or no sunscreen (protection) is generally required. Yet, when the Highly Sensitive Person is going to be around the burning heat of Insensitive People, it’s important to slather on a healthy dose of sunscreen. And, the sunscreen (aware, wise self-protection) can take many forms such as having very short interactions, not responding to unkind comments and self-care strategies such as breathing exercises and wearing calming essential oils.
- Embrace your sensitivity and work with yourself to use your sensitivity wisely. A story about Lily: Kindhearted Lily came from a fractured family where she had learned to be invisible. As Lily grew, she found that some people told her she was “too sensitive.” Lily would often run away and hide. Finally, while in college, Lily met people who were like her — they were sensitive and understood sensitivity. Lily spent a great deal of time with these people because they felt like “real family” to her. In time, Lily learned how to become strong inside so that she could feel her feelings and remain sensitive while also standing up for herself rather than running. Lily decided to use her sensitivity to help others, and she chose a career in medicine. Lily is now a tremendous nurse who values being a Highly Sensitive Person who uses her sensitivity wisely in her personal and professional life.
- Steer clear of Highly Insensitive People whenever possible; their energy is generally too harsh for the Highly Sensitive Person. The story of a highly sensitive man: Dan was taught from an early age that “real men” didn’t cry and that “real men” didn’t show any feelings except anger. Dan couldn’t shut off his feelings as much as he tried. He sometimes felt a little angry, yet more often he felt sad. When he was angry, he’d play basketball, and when he was sad, he’d go to his room to listen to music, play music on his guitar, and write music. Dan’s music became his best friend and a place where he could feel his sadness safely. Dan felt very unsafe and out of place in his home because his father was always angry, and his mother was always mad. As Dan grew, he learned to keep away from his parents and much as he could. As a young adult, Dan went to group meetings and learned that he could not change his parents but that he could only change his interactions with them and the amount of time he spent with them. Today, Dan is a Highly Sensitive Person who has a Highly Sensitive Partner. Dan continues to use music as a forum for his sensitivity, and he uses his career in music to give others a safe place to feel their feelings, too.
- Know that you are not defective or broken because you are a Highly Sensitive Person; embrace the truth that well-developed, balanced sensitivity is a great gift. The story of insensitivity and abuse: Mari’s boyfriend always told her she was too sensitive. He’d tease her mercilessly and laugh at her when he made her cry. He’d be sarcastic and critical in ways that eroded her self-esteem to a point where she felt worthless. When she asked him to stop being unkind, he’d say, “You’re such a mess. You way too sensitive. I’m only joking with you, but you can’t even take a joke. You’re lucky I put up with you.” Mari’s best friend was worried about her and helped her find a psychotherapist. The therapist helped Mari realize that she wasn’t broken or “too sensitive.” Mari learned that she was in an emotionally abusive relationship. And, within a few weeks, Mari decided to ask her boyfriend to move out. Although she knew she had a lot of work ahead of her, Mari was very glad she took a positive step forward.
- Don’t get caught in the trap of defending your sensitivity! Many Highly Sensitive People become used to defending their sensitivity as if it’s an issue that requires an apology or explanation. In truth, Highly Sensitive People are often better off dismissing Highly Insensitive People and their remarks whenever possible. A story about detaching: Sam’s older brother loved teasing and tormenting Sam since he was a kid. Sometimes Sam would cry and other times he’d walk away in anger. The older brother would laugh and call Sam a “wimp” and an “overly sensitive sissy.” As an adult, Sam would see his older brother at family gatherings. The older brother would quickly get into his pattern of needling Sam. Sam got into the habit of trying to talk to his brother about being kinder and more tolerant. Sam’s brother would use Sam’s words against him, and Sam would feel sad and frustrated. Sam’s partner noticed the dynamic and later talked with Sam gently about detaching from the unhealthy dynamic. Sam soon learned how to detach and ignore his brother’s taunting. The behavior slowly subsided when Sam’s older brother realized he wasn’t getting the reaction he wanted.
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 one movement right now, it would be to help people learn the incredible beauty and power of positive, kind communication. Given our overuse of technology and many bad habits learned throughout life (from the media, family life, etc.), many people simply never learned or have forgotten the vital importance of kind, respectful communication. I’d love to teach an online course that could reach many and change lives one kind word at a time. Kindness and kind communication matter more than many people know. While money, power, and fame are fleeting, the effects of kindness and love remain generation after generation.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.