…Take in way more pleasure: The best part of being a HSP is the amount of pleasure you are able to experience. Find your pleasure zones and engage in them often in order to teach your nervous system that sensitivity can also be a good thing. Personally I buy fresh flowers to smell often, make nature a priority because of the multi-sensory enjoyment, listen to beautiful music to experience “ear-gasms” and indulge in self-care rituals (like staying in a quiet hotel alone) often to enjoy these simple pleasures.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Katie T. Larson, PhD.
Dr. Katie T. Larson, Ph.D. is a Growth & Transformation Specialist who works exclusively with Highly Sensitive People, Empaths and Intuitives. She is a researcher, author, and founder of GrowthQuests. She has helped initiate lifelong, personal Growth in thousands of individuals for over 20 years using proven, holistic techniques. She is well known for creating “Quests” — inner journeys — that bring deeper perspectives, more purpose, meaning and joy into the lives of her clients.
Dr. Larson’s jet-setting ways brought her all over the world as a scientist, educator and consultant for international schools, NGOS and private institutions. She has led groups of all sizes on nearly every continent through embodied, reflective practices designed to foster leadership development, creative problem solving, and personal transformation. Her PhD in Leadership and Change focused on the topic of Transformative Learning, which she weaves into all her work at GrowthQuests.
Along with a Creative Depth Coaching certification, Dr. Larson’s lifetime of spiritual encounters have inspired her to currently pursue a Spiritual Emergence Coaching certification. In fact, it is because of her broad understanding of both scientific and spiritual phenomena that she feels called now more than ever to share holistic perspectives on how to embrace the change that is occurring on personal and planetary levels.
As a Highly Sensitive Person herself, she is known to chase her “Peak Arousal”! She is an acclaimed performance storyteller, published author of a best-selling children’s book, TEDx Speaker, and workshop facilitator for international conferences, retreats and festivals. She and her work have been featured in international radio, podcasts, newspapers, and television. She’s currently writing the book, “The Sensitive Journey”, which details the stages of Growth HSPs embody as they discover their Sensitivity. On her days off, you can find Dr. Larson chasing her toddler through the forests or cuddling her therapy dog, Annie.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
It’s my pleasure, I am Dr. Katie T. Larson, PhD, a Growth and Transformation coach who works exclusively with Highly Sensitive People, Empaths, and Intuitives. I am the founder of GrowthQuests.com and authoring a book “The Sensitive Journey”, which chronicles the stages of development adults go through once they discover they are Highly Sensitive.
I consider myself an expert on Highly Sensitive People because of my studies and research, but primarily because I am one myself! I can feel a significant difference between my life before and after I discovered I was Highly Sensitive, which is why I find it is important to be an ambassador for others to understand what High Sensitivity is and how to use it to their advantage more than have it be a daily challenge.
I am a mother of a 3 year old toddler Dottie (who is also Highly Sensitive), and soon a newborn boy, wife to an Empathic husband, and I think even my therapy dog, Annie is one of the 20% of dogs who are Highly Sensitive! 🙂 Raised in Chicago, IL, I have actually been living outside of the United States for the past ten years, but I’ve just repatriated back to the USA in Dallas, TX and facing all the ups and downs of reentry!
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?
One in five of humans (and animals!) are considered “Highly Sensitive”. Before you start picturing your aunt who cries at the drop of the hat, I want you to imagine a few animals first: the duck at the park that doesn’t eat your bread immediately but scans the situation first to make sure you are safe, the worm under the log that escapes the light more quickly than the others, or the friendly therapy dog that seems to just “know” when you are sad or depressed. These animals are likely part of the 20% of their species that are Highly Sensitive.
So humans too have this disposition and it manifests as a collection of traits that collectively benefit our species enough that it remains in one in five of us, but individually these characteristics can be challenging for some.
The reason Highly Sensitive People are more sensitive is because we have a more active and attentive nervous system, so we are more aware of and affected by our surroundings, senses, and emotions than the other 80% of the population. You might recognize HSPs as those who get their feelings hurt more easily, but the mechanisms for why this happens are actually quite fascinating from a neurological perspective! (Read on!)
The same neurological pathways that give HSPs more sensitive emotions also give them four distinct traits that at first glance seem disconnected (which is why it takes HSPs so long to figure they are Highly Sensitive!), but are the clusters of traits that researchers use to identify High Sensitivity (thanks to the pioneer in this field, Dr. Elaine Aron).
Dr. Aron uses the acronym “DOES” to summarize these: D for Deep Processing, O for Overstimulated Easily, E for Empathic and Emotionally Responsive, and S for Sensitive to Subtleties.
D: Deep Processing allows HSPs to process information in novel, deeper ways thanks to more active parts of the brain (one specifically fascinating part called the insula which is known for moment-by-moment integration of new information in and out of the body). This can be extremely helpful in situations that require both quick and deep levels of processing like: flying a plane, day-trading stocks, or planning a toddler’s birthday party!
O: Overstimulation comes from the shadow side of all that quick and deep processing! Because a HSP is taking in so much stimuli naturally, they can often get overstimulated simply by living a “normal” life. Things like constant traffic noise, flashing lights, or even crowds can be too much for a HSP’s nervous system and frequent breaks are needed to prevent this.
E: Empathic and Emotionally Responsive is why HSPs are such great caregivers: we tend to know just what someone needs and how to give it to them. We are also deeply aware of our own emotions and can discern easily between complex emotions like disappointment or jealousy, or resentment. We know just how we feel, and our feelings can change as frequently as the weather!
S: Sensitive to Subtleties also derives from our active nervous system. We are able to detect less noticeable and often invisible differences in our environment and within ourselves. For example, an HSP can be a human barometer, knowing exactly when the air pressure changes, or feel the high EMF of an area, or even the “good” Feng Shui. We also tend to notice when the bus driver got a haircut, where the ketchup is at all times, and if a business has been renovated since we last visited.
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 are known to have higher levels of empathy for other people and animals. Often we can literally “feel” the emotions and or sensations of others due to more active “mirror neurons”. Due to this we often have a hard time watching violent or horror movies, but we can thoroughly enjoy a beautiful, emotional song or movie.
HSPs are not known to enjoy gossiping about others as it can feel offensive to them because they can feel the hurtful intentions. Many HSPs admit that they have a hard time in groups because they will often pick up on the emotions of each person in the group, which can be quite exhausting at the end of the day!
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?
Personally, I have never enjoyed television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” or “ER” — and don’t get me started on movies like “Saw”! The minute I see a character’s injury I feel it in the exact same area on my body and feel sick for the rest of the show! The emotional turmoil from thrillers and horror movies frays my nerves so much I won’t be able to sleep for days!
fMRI studies show that HSPs have active mirror neurons, which can make consuming graphic media feel really intense on both ends of the spectrum! In a positive way, beautiful, artistic films and novels can take us away into a rich inner world! In a negative way, violent, scary, or sad films can really affect our mood.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
It’s important to note that many people feel that Sensitivity has more problems associated with it, but that is not always the case. For this story I will share how using proactive self-care strategies for my sensitivity was seen as a weakness by my colleagues.
When I was a high school teacher over a decade ago, I would take monthly “mental health days” when I would feel myself becoming overstimulated by my demanding job (I worked with high-risk students, so it was even more intense). Sometimes these days would overlap with professional development days (because I felt these were easier to skip than instruction days!) and I began to get a reputation. I had some passive-aggressive colleagues ask me if I was “feeling better after my vacation” and how I could handle my daily job if I needed so many “mental health days”.
I actually didn’t know I was a HSP yet, but I did know what kinds of self-care I needed to recharge my frayed nervous system and I knew that having an expensive consultant tell me how to teach was not my idea of relaxation! This was not an easy thing to explain to my colleagues who seemed to wear “stress badges of honor”. But I knew that if I didn’t have enough time to reset myself, I was on a fast-track for burnout (which sadly, many of my colleagues faced frequently).
It can be difficult to communicate your needs to friends and colleagues who are less sensitive to/affected by the environment, other people, and inner deep feelings.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
Most Sensitive people can identify at least one aspect of their sensitivity that is most obvious, and for me it was my physical sensitivity: loud noises, strong smells, and flashing lights are absolutely distracting and extremely annoying to me. Sadly, this means a night out at a “hip bar/restaurant” that’s crowded, has loud music, and flashing lights would be my hell! Even trying to hold a conversation at a lazy cafe with lots of moving parts can be hard on my senses.
I began to notice my sensitivity when I left the safe, quiet upbringing of the American suburbs and moved to international cities with noisy motorbikes (Barcelona!), busy crowds, flashing neon lights, and in Hong Kong (my home of 7 years) zero personal space. I found it strange that the same cities that my friends were reveling in were exhausting me. I had to create a lot of ‘downtime’ and ‘recharging’ opportunities for my nervous system to prevent daily overstimulation.
Now, I rarely use the term “too sensitive” to describe myself and my clients, but when most people first discover they are HSP, they will also use this term (because someone could have told them this or their sensitivity can feel too sensitive!).
But again, it’s important to reset the expectation that the other 80% of the world is the “right kind” of sensitive. When you have 20% (or more!) of us who are experiencing more and stronger stimuli, it’s important to note that there is a spectrum of sensitivity, with a normal bell-curve of distribution in the population.
For many Highly Sensitive People, their sensitivity is the “right” kind of sensitivity in their careers as artists, military professionals, nurses, teachers, and so on… so it is unfair to call them “too sensitive”.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
I am of the opinion that High Sensitivity actually has more advantages than disadvantages, especially in the right contexts. I think it is important to note that the depth of humanity that a HSP feels naturally is what many less Sensitive people spend thousands of dollars, hours, and drugs to find via other means.
Here are my top five advantages to being HSP:
- We have a rich “inner world”: Our active imagination is why many HSPs become creatives in all industries: animators, directors, designers, authors, and the list goes on. We have the ability to create worlds in our minds that when shared with others, actually create the entire entertainment industry.
- We know everyone’s needs (and how to provide for them): Now, this can have its downfalls when HSPs become too entangled with pleasing others, but this gift is why HSPs tend to be in the caregiving professions: health and wellness, education, service industries, etc. Using our active mirror neurons, we can intuitively sense what needs you have and provide it seamlessly.
- Our self-awareness is impeccable: “Know Thyself” is not a challenge for a HSP. We not only recognize how we come across to others, but we are acutely aware of our physical body’s needs, our emotional state, and even our energetic “vibe”. We recognize who we “vibe” well with, and who drains our energies, which sadly can be many “Less Sensitive” people who make up the rest of the 80%!
- We have strong relationships with non-verbal beings: Plants, animals, babies, disabled people — HSPs tend to connect with those who cannot speak. We are picking up on non-verbal cues and energies that less Sensitive people miss, so we make great parents, gardeners, veterinarians, animal rights activists, etc.
- We feel pleasure more strongly: Because of our active nervous system, we will feel pleasurable sensations more so than less Sensitive people. We are moved to tears by beauty, can easily taste subtleties in foods/wines, and even have better orgasms!
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I have more than I recount! (Which is why I believe Sensitivity is a gift when viewed this way…)
Here are a few snippets:
As a parent:
HSPs have active mirror neurons, so we are able to “feel” our kids’ sensations, which can take a lot of guesswork out of parenting. When I was a new mom, my newborn daughter had a lot of screaming fits that seemed to come out of nowhere. Going through the obvious checklists (fed, diapered, napped), it was only when I could tune into my instincts and feel my own stomach pain (as a result of mirror neurons) that I realized she was gassy and then could act accordingly. Since then, it’s been helpful to tune in to the good vibes as well as the challenges my children face.
As a traveler:
Because HSPs feel so much stimulation, we tend to either chase a lot of stimuli (and easily get overwhelmed when we overdo it!), or avoid stimuli to remain calm. I am the former, I love to chase the feeling of being alive!
I have an insatiable desire to consume as much of the world as I can because it makes me feel human, (albeit, sometimes this definitely exhausts me!). But thanks to this trait, I have been able to experience some remarkable feats: tracking crocodiles through Borneo rivers, summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, hang-gliding off mountains in New Zealand, and biking through the Andes mountains to name a few.
As a coach:
My approach to coaching is directly linked to my strong ability to Empathize and feel my client’s energy when we speak. This can be a bit tricky sometimes because what a client says versus what their energy shows can differ, but with a few probing questions, sometimes they are able to recognize how their thoughts and energy are mismatched!
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Perhaps the main difference between an Empath (someone who is highly empathetic) and a HSP is the other traits we discussed (Depth of Processing, Overstimulation, and Sensitive to Subtleties). In other words, a HSP can be an Empath, but not all Empaths are Highly Sensitive.
The combination of traits that make an Empath also Highly Sensitive can be an advantage (e.g. they take their empathetic nature into a lucrative career helping others) or it can feel like a disadvantage if they are not able to use their trait effectively.
It’s important to note that both Empaths and Highly Sensitive People need to create healthy boundaries between themselves and the energies they are picking up on, as well as establish routines that can conserve their energy and re-energize them when they lose it (this is where coaches come in handy!)
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?
Perhaps the number one complaint my Highly Sensitive Clients have about social media is that they FEEL others’ posts too much. Highly Sensitive People have a narrow “peak arousal”, which means, we actually get easily aroused, so we chase arousal more, but once we have it, we “peak” quickly and get overstimulated! (It’s important to learn how that overstimulation feels for you, because it is different for everyone!)
This means, limiting your social media consumption to certain parts of the day (to prepare your nervous system!), with time-caps on your scrolling (sometimes I give myself only 10 min!). My advice to my clients is also to find the ONE (two max) media platforms that you can handle the best, and stick with it. For example, I do better with Reddit because it is anonymous and I can feel people’s energy LESS than on Instagram. And I do better with Instagram than Facebook because it is less incendiary and opinionated!
Also, if you are a “sharer” versus a “lurker”, be prepared to limit the comments on your post, or only share to friends versus the public. Criticism is felt more strongly in HSPs, so knowing that comments are not always meant to be “personal” is easier in theory than practice, but good to remember.
How would you respond if something you hear or see bothers or effects you, but others comment that you are being petty or that it is minor?
Dr. Elaine Aron, the premier researcher for Highly Sensitive People has a great comment:, “What about my sensitivity is bothering you?”
Interestingly, often people will claim that your discomfort is uncomfortable for them (understandably), but it is a common ground to try and describe “My discomfort with this situation is as real as your discomfort with me right now”.
Personally, I have had to describe my physical sensitivities to smells, sights, sounds etc. to less sensitive friends and family members like this, “Imagine the difference between a box of 8 crayons and a box of 64 crayons. My nervous system is able to process all 64 crayon colors, so if you are not seeing the problem, you might be working with less crayons than me. It doesn’t mean that the issue isn’t there, you are just less aware of it”.
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?
High Sensitivity is not easily understandable if you are less Sensitive. A large part of self-acceptance for HSPs is that not everyone WILL ‘get you’. Going back to the crayon box analogy, how do you describe “turquoise” to someone with only the 8 main colors? It’s not easy to do, and they are only able to partly understand you based on their own experiences.
The advantage to being Sensitive is that we can often overlook someone’s inability to understand due to our ability to pick up on their energy as a whole. I have a family member that rolls their eyes every time I mention my Sensitive nose, but I also know that this person can’t distinguish the difference between a BBQ steak and a skunk, so how can you be mad? 🙂
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
Perhaps the biggest myth to dispel is that High Sensitivity is a disorder and/or something to “fix”. Many Highly Sensitive People are actually Highly Successful People that benefit society in more ways than you can imagine: pilots, military professionals, nurses, teachers, psychologists, you name it, we are represented in every career!
For many HSPs, their Sensitivity can feel like the most challenging aspect of their lives, so it is understandable why it can feel like a disorder, but when seen equally as a gift, there can be remarkable shifts in perspective that continue to benefit them and society as a whole!
I think the best way to recognize High Sensitivity as a gift is to remember the other terms we have used to describe HSPs throughout history:
We are the “Healers”, “Caretakers”, “Storytellers”, “Creatives”, “Priests”, “Designers”, “Innovators”, “Visionaries” and so much more.
These are historical terms we have used to describe the archetypes who feel the world deeply, and we need them at every stage in human history: during peacetime to entertain and inspire us, during crisis time to heal the wounded and empathize with those affected by chaos, and during reconstruction to envision a better future that includes all types of people.
The myth that High Sensitivity is a burden to ourselves and our society must go. Sensitives are needed now more than ever, especially as we face current and future global transformations. We need people who are more aware of human emotional complexities in leadership positions because they will be choosing policies that influence all of us. We need visionaries to rebuild society in a more health-focused way after this pandemic. We need the “canaries in the coal mine” to continue to warn us about how we are polluting the very home we live in: and Sensitives are all these things. We are credible, needed, and valuable.
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?
Every single HSP has heard this phrase in their lives (often more than once!). The source of this phrase is rarely another Sensitive person, but instead usually someone who feels the world less deeply.
As I mentioned, it is important to note that High Sensitivity is not a disorder or even that rare in the population for that matter. If only 1–5% of the world was Highly Sensitive, perhaps it would be more troubling, but 1 in 5 of us (20% or more!) are more Sensitive than the rest — meaning nearly every single family you know has the “Sensitive” one (!).
Some of the responsibility to better educate others about High Sensitivity falls on Sensitive people themselves, which is why self-awareness/discovery is so important — in order to help communicate better about who we are and why our needs are different. (My favorite phrase to use is, “I need x because it helps me y” so that someone can understand why your needs are helpful to you and not overly dramatic). But some of the responsibility falls on culture in general… how can we create a more accommodating environment for diverse needs in general?
Sometimes when we make changes to society that benefit one type of person, we actually benefit many more without realizing it. One example is the little ramps that are on most American curbs were actually designed for people in wheelchairs, but as a result of changing them, parents pushing strollers, people pushing carts, and kids riding bikes all benefited. Similarly, many grocery stores have recently been introducing “quiet hour” for families with members on the autism spectrum: with no music, lower lights, and less stimulation (merchandise restocking, etc.). Although originally designed for this population, many more Sensitive people, and others who benefit from less stimuli (brain injuries, PTSD, migraine sufferers, etc.) have been using this option.
My opinion is that more public and retailers would really benefit from offering options to those who are more Sensitive to stimuli because they might be surprised at how high that population really is!
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.
- Take in way more pleasure: The best part of being a HSP is the amount of pleasure you are able to experience. Find your pleasure zones and engage in them often in order to teach your nervous system that sensitivity can also be a good thing. Personally I buy fresh flowers to smell often, make nature a priority because of the multi-sensory enjoyment, listen to beautiful music to experience “ear-gasms” and indulge in self-care rituals (like staying in a quiet hotel alone) often to enjoy these simple pleasures.
- Identify your “Peak Arousal” pattern: Find out how quickly you burn-out/get overstimulated and what you need to recharge and use it proactively. I used to frequent the busiest/densest part of Hong Kong (Mong Kok) to street-shop and would absolutely love it for 30 minutes, then at minute 31 I would hit a wall and need to GET OUT! It wasn’t until I realized this was my “Peak Arousal” pattern (I take in as much as possible too quickly and then get overwhelmed) that I was able to prepare myself better. I need to have many little breaks, wear earphones, and get out after an hour in order to fully enjoy myself…and that is OK!
- Learn your own “Energy Signatures”: Perhaps THE most helpful thing for Empathic HSPs is to learn how YOUR specific emotions FEEL inside your own body. I recommend doing an activity where you can summon each feeling (happy, sad, worried, excited, etc.) and journal/draw where you feel them on your body and how. Then, when you are feeling others’ energies out in the world, you can identify “Is this mine?” much more easily. Personally, this was a game-changer for me, as once I was able to understand where I felt nervous and anxious in my body, I was no longer easily picking up on others’ emotions because I could tell they were not “mine” and could keep them at an arm’s length.
- Re-frame your childhood and early adulthood from the perspective of being HSP: Learning that many of your challenges in life were the result of High Sensitivity is the first stage in the “Sensitive Journey” (the book I am authoring). This shift in perspective is vital to removing a lot of shame and blame for being “too sensitive”, “the soft one”, or any other derogatory terms you might have had as a kid. Personally I was able to see my most traumatic memories of childhood (some more tame than others… like losing the soccer game because I couldn’t take the pressure to perform) from the perspective of “That was my sensitivity in action!” Most of my clients say this is the most cathartic/healing stage of the journey!
- Get in your body!: Because we are such deep thinkers and feelers, so many HSPs are disembodied… getting back into your body and its wisdom is vital to thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person. Everything from knowing what “Yes” and “No” feels like in your body (it never lies!), to recognizing health issues immediately will benefit you immensely. The story that illustrates this the most for me was having to stand up to several medical practitioners when my daughter was two weeks “late” being born: I knew from my body and my strong intuition that she was not “ready” yet. This was hard to back up, but I persisted and as a result avoided unnecessary induction, which was easier on the baby and mommy.
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 love questions like these! I think as a human population we are facing a collective turning point where we need to decide how to participate on “Team Human”. For me, this means doubling down on the valuation and development of what it means to be human: having emotions, feeling empathy for others, seeing complexity in problems, being sensitive to all kinds of people’s needs.
I will take a stand and say that our fascination with technology should not be mistaken for a merging with technology. Long term, our human values do not fully align with technological values: it is not in our best interest to become highly-productive, emotionless, statistically-driven human-machines. To be the most sustainable, open, and inclusive society, we need to fully embrace what machines cannot do: specifically FEEL, SENSE, IMAGINE, DREAM, WONDER, which are all part of being human.
I would like to devote the rest of my life to helping more humans embrace their human-ness through their High Sensitivity. There is a reason we were born during this great turning point, and I believe it is to bring back the humanity we are missing from our over-embrace of technology. We are to remind others of the joys of being human and being ALIVE, and I hope that my work and future book can be a little part of this movement.
How can our readers follow you online?
My Website is: https://www.growthquests.com/
My Instagram handle is: https://www.instagram.com/drkatiegrowthquests/
My Facebook Page is: https://www.facebook.com/GrowthQuests
I am currently writing a book titled “The Sensitive Journey” and I am always in need of more interviews! If you are keen to be a part of this work, email me at: [email protected]
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.