Understand, people have different levels of sensitivity and perception, and it is understandable and acceptable. Two years ago, a close family member was very insensitive about my health condition when I was admitted to the hospital. It affected me deeply and made me feel sad for weeks. On reflection, that person’s sensitivity to illness and suffering was very different from mine. Although challenging, I had to understand their perception and level of sensitivity might never change and I have to ensure not to allow the way they perceive or see my illness affect me. At times you have to maintain a distance or choose people carefully who you let into your inner circle.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Menaca Pothalingam.
Dr Pothalingam is an entrepreneur, multi-award-winning international speaker, #1 International bestselling author of ‘Resilience Learned’, Transform with Resilience Expert, Corporate Resilience Trainer, Ambassador for Women Empowerment (AWE) and Advocate of Mental Health. Menaca successfully exited her Healthcare practice after decades in the industry as a dentist and a practice owner. She moved into coaching, putting her personal and professional experiences into practice. Menaca has overcome adversity including escaping the Sri Lankan Civil War, battling stress-related illness and succeeding as a migrant Asian woman in business alongside being a single mother. With qualifications in NLP, hypnosis, coaching, leadership and education, Menaca is helping others +to take control of their lives, break free from a victim mentality. She helps turn their dreams into reality, enabling them to become the director of their destinies.
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 single mother of a beautiful teenage daughter. I migrated twice from Sri Lanka to India after walking through the jungle for 10 days and witnessing death within afoot. Without fluency in English and as the oldest student in the class, I felt inadequate and developed low self-esteem, which I only recognized years later. I then migrated to the UK after qualifying as a dentist and teaching undergraduate dental students in India for 10 years. I continued to practice dentistry, successfully transformed my business with 5X turnover and trained other dentists.
To the outside world, I was strong and successful, but behind the scenes, I had failed relationships, ill health and felt overwhelmed. On the inside, I was struggling. I thought I wasn’t good enough that my English was weak and that I wasn’t in good shape. I was diagnosed with burnout and stress-related illness and signed off from work for months after more than two decades in healthcare. I exited dentistry and came into the world of personal development as a coach, trainer, speaker and author.
I’m passionate about women empowerment and Mental health and believe every individual deserves to be happy, healthy and be the director of their destiny. I’m an enabler and want to inspire others to tap into their powers to transform their life to become their best version.
I am a Transform with Resilience coach, Corporate Resilience Trainer, speaker and author of ‘Resilience Learned’.
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 was enlightening to realize, it’s a normal trait and not so uncommon. According to research and psychologists, 15–20 % of the population is highly sensitive. Of course, it’s a given the spectrum will vary and each person is sensitive at a different level. Though I recognize myself as an HSP, I believe and am told I’m more an empath which shares similarities and had differences from being an HSP.
A highly sensitive person for me means… someone who experiences and responds to what they see, hear, know and feel around them. You over involve with experiences and feelings, and over process information which can overload yourself information and emotions alike. As a sensitive person, you not only respond to people, places and experiences around you more intensely you also respond to your inner thoughts, feelings, and beliefs many folds.
For me as an HSP it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and also of your personal thought patterns, belief systems and feelings and keep track of how you respond and navigate through them You can then manage how we can learn to deal with these physical, mental, emotional and psychological stimuli inside and around us better and be your best self under different circumstances.
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?
For me, as a highly sensitive person, you are connected to others around you at a deeper level, and you can understand other people’s perspectives and emotions better. It’s a strength to be an empath, but on the flip side, you are wearing your heart on your sleeves and more prone to get hurt or offended easily.
As a child and a young adult, I was sensitive to what others said about my friends and family. On the hind side, it was part of being sensitive about how others perceived my loved ones. Now, I realize everyone is entitled to their opinion and others’ opinion doesn’t reflect how anyone is.
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?
As a highly sensitive person HSP and an empath, you are continually putting yourself in other people’s lives, situations, and experiences which affects you as if those circumstances are your own.
As a war victim, two-time migrant and a person who recovered from mental illness, I feel deeply about these matters.
When I was financially defrauded more than a decade ago, I felt sad for the children of the person involved as a parent and because I knew them well. Being sensitive prevented me from taking action and reclaiming the monies, which were rightfully mine. Moreover, as I didn’t take action, it could encourage me to repeat the deception to someone else.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
Being highly sensitive, I can blame myself for things that are not my fault and overextend myself to help a colleague. On the other hand, I can also take comments made too personally and let it affect me more than it should.
When others said to me, I had done well for myself in a short period as a dentist when I bought my practice or became a trainer; I felt I needed to step up and prove myself. I became a course junkie and put enormous pressure on myself. On reflection, it was my inner self-confidence and being overly sensitive, which I had to address rather than what or how people said something. I’m still a work in progress but have learned to reflect and adapt my mindset when I feel sensitive about something.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
Perhaps because I grew up in a war-torn country witnessing death, loss, and suffering, I felt the need to help others and be supportive.
I am sensitive to noise and (avoid) firecrackers or loud noise and though I love socializing and used to be surrounded by people I also need my solitude to rest, recover and re-energize. I initially thought my hypersensitivity to noise came through my experiences of noise in Sri Lanka. On reading about sensitive personality and in the recent years, I have realized it’s more of my make up rather than my past experiences plus in my family, I’m the only one who doesn’t enjoy the fireworks.
When I realized, it affected me more than other hostel inmates if someone fell ill and I would put everything I had to do on hold to be there for them unlike some of my friends, it made me reflect on it more. I also became aware of my being sensitive to other peoples’ words, behaviors and actions much more than people around me. I also realized words, emotions and actions around me affect me much more than some others and have learned to be aware of my surroundings and people more.
Even though it took me years after the initial hunch to understand this phenomenon fully, I have become more and more conscious of it in the past few years gradually. As they say, knowledge is power, understanding what my make-up is, how I respond and how things affect me has been very beneficial as a person who has experiences stress and overwhelms in the past.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
As a person who is receptive to the feelings of others, you understand, accept and connect with others well. This helps you to have close friendships, have deeper relationships and become part of a community quickly. This quality also helped maintain decades of friendships and be there for people I love when they need me. As a changemaker and transformational coach and trainer, understanding others for who they are, how they feel and what motivates them beneath the surface is a gift to possess. Being sensitive and being an empath definitely equips me well for that role.
As a coach and trainer, this characteristic helps me to build a good connection and understand my clients who I work with better and be empathetic to their struggles and weaknesses. Being intuitive, empathetic and creative make my coaching and training more productive and have better results long-term.
This trait also helps me understand my audience better as a speaker and connect with them.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
As a sensitive person, I feel easier to understand when someone is in distress and I offer help readily.
Recently, as I worked with someone who has suffered from mental health, I felt the need to help, and I was on the phone late at night being a sounding board, sharing tips and tools and encouraging them to shift their mindset. It gives me deep gratification to be able to be there for someone, to be able to support someone in that situation.
In particular, when you suffer from burnout and stress-related illness, you often neither see nor believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes all you have to do is to tell, show and be an example of it and demonstrate you can come through on the other side. This individual felt better the next day and on the road to recovery. It doesn’t mean they will never feel that way again, but they are more likely to believe they can recover the next time around.
As an HSP, you are also creative and perhaps it helps me as an author and speaker and even as I design courses as a coach and trainer.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Though I’m not a trained professional, I have a keen interest in the topic being an empath myself. My understanding of the difference between being empathetic and highly sensitive are perhaps in the personality and the extent to which one can relate to the feelings or experiences of someone else. While being empathetic helps you feel the pain of someone and being able to experience what they are going through to such an extent as if it affects you, being highly sensitive means you get affected by what happens around you though it doesn’t feel as if it’s happening to you.
As time passes, I realize I’m more in the spectrum of an empathetic than a highly sensitive person, though I’m much more sensitive than the average 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?
In my opinion, like many things, social media affects you as much as you allow it to affect you. Because of the fear of missing out, we are using social media too much, and beyond a limit, it starts affecting you. As Jim Rohn says “You are the average of five people you surround yourself with”. Even though we are in a virtual world, it’s vital to choose connections carefully and understand what others think, say, or how they behave is a representation of them and not you.
As an HSP, in the past, it used to affect me more and took a long time to distance myself from the effect of the posts, comments and even how people behave.
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?
For example, hearing about Caroline Flack yesterday bothered me… another precious life lost.
My answer to them would be we are made up differently, experience different things and feel and react differently to experiences around us. So, we need to accept people for who they are and be aware that things affect people in a completely different way.
My take on this is that we need to respect each other’s views and let other opinions of us not affect us too much.
“Someone’s’ perception of you is not your reality, let it remain theirs” — Menaca Pothalingam.
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?
I believe we all live in our world and see life with our tinted glasses. For example, after an identical event, the experience of two people could be very different with totally different opinions of it. It’s the same with people.
I will rather be more sensitive than the other way around as I’m a sensitive person at the core of my being.
Research suggests, people who care for and help others are happier generally, so being empathetic is not only beneficial to others around you, it is equally good for you.
I use five strategies:
- I try to be aware of myself, understand and accept myself for who I am and advocate the same for others.
- I try to understand others for who they are, understand their world view and accept them as they are.
- I have learned to accept that others have different views and what they think, say and believe is their version of me, and doesn’t define me.
- I see being sensitive and an empath a gift and a blessing. Once you know and understand it becomes your strength, and you utilize this to connect better, help others understand better and inspire them to see this trait as a blessing. By wearing my heart on my sleeve, you love, live and laugh more.
- It helps me understand people around me better, lead with empathy and guide, coach and train with compassion, kindness, and generosity.
- I check my feelings and reactions to see if I’m being overly sensitive or overreacting and ensure my beliefs, decisions, and consequences are not misguiding because I am an HSP or an empath.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
- Being Highly sensitive is not a weakness: In my case, it has been a strength to be able to build deeper friendships, connect with my team and clients meaningfully and be able to be receptive to others feelings and needs have helped me become a better speaker, leader, and coach.
- It is not something you cannot work with or improve upon. Over the years, I’ve learned how to work with my emotions, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs better being an HSP and I can work with my sensitive nature in a better way and respond more consciously.
- Being an HSP doesn’t mean you are weak. My “superpower” is resilience, and I’m an HSP and an empath. It has helped me analyze myself better, know, understand and accept me for who I am and use Resilience in a constructive way to help others and be a changemaker.
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?
Like many things, awareness and understanding are key. Even for me, when I became aware and understood the phenomenon, it was easy for me to accept that there are two sides of the same coin. It helped me in many ways but it hindered me in other ways. When I learned about and equipped myself well to deal with it as a strength and also work with it as an area of improvement, I felt better and learned to work with the trait.
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.
My favorite quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
- To understand, people have different levels of sensitivity and perception, and it is understandable and acceptable. Two years ago, a close family member was very insensitive about my health condition when I was admitted to the hospital. It affected me deeply and made me feel sad for weeks.
On reflection, that person’s sensitivity to illness and suffering was very different from mine. Although challenging, I had to understand their perception and level of sensitivity might never change and I have to ensure not to allow the way they perceive or see my illness affect me. At times you have to maintain a distance or choose people carefully who you let into your inner circle.
- Understanding the different behavioral patterns of people around me and being objective about them. Recently, a friend left my home and was uncontactable for several hours. I was worried about this person’s safety, and it affected my sleep. I was upset when I realized they were careless and didn’t think it necessary to confirm they had got home safely.
On reflection, it wouldn’t affect them, and it wasn’t their usual practice to confirm safe arrival. The individual followed their typical pattern of behavior and got on with their life in the usual way.
For me, my close friends and family would inform me when they reach their destination, call me to say they are safe and let me know how their return journey was. This was the pattern I was used to seeing around me. How they think, behave, and their pattern would have prevented unnecessary worry for me and prevented my friend from feeling uncomfortable.
- To be aware of my feelings, thought processes, beliefs, reactions to events, behaviors and experiences and ensured I don’t overreact or my decisions are rational and responsible. I had not taken action regarding fraud in the business a decade ago, due to the fact I was emotionally close to the children of the person who committed the fraud. On reflection, the responsible action was to report the fraud and not to allow my sensitive nature and being an empath doesn’t interfere with my judgment.
Being able to analyze my thoughts, feelings, and behavior to ensure I develop a deeper understanding of how things affect me and prevent me from being too sensitive to different behaviors, actions, and experiences. I stop myself from being overly hurt, develop a complex or feel guilty.
I used to be the biggest people-pleaser around. In a way, my sensitive nature and being an empath made me feel guilty if I didn’t help someone or be there for them.
Reflection, it could have been because I had low self-confidence, I put my needs last and also because I felt their pain and suffering as my own. I now analyze the credibility of my thoughts and feelings before I commit to something. I’m still work in progress and sometimes, I catch myself people-pleasing. I’m far more aware of it now.
- In the past, when someone close to me told me I could never become a renowned speaker because of my accent, it stopped me from pursuing my passion. Reflection, that person told me that only once, but, I have then repeated this to myself many times, imbibed it, believed it and owned it as a limiting belief of mine. Years later, when one of my friends and my daughter challenged that belief and said it would be unique and it’d be a distinctive accent and can work as an advantage, I saw how being an HSP, I had let one statement impact me so much.
- The fact that any event is not the same as the outcome, and the result relies on how I respond to it helps me scrutinize the way I react and mostly helps me to be positive.
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.
Each one of you has the power to transform the lives of you and others.
‘Transform with Resilience’ into their best selves.
“First comes thought; then organization of that thought, into ideas and plans; then transformation of those plans into reality. The beginning, as you will observe, is in your imagination” -Napoleon Hill
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Email: [email protected]
Author Page amazon.com/author/menaca
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.