Be congruent in face, body language, tone, and words. Once I was working with a highly sensitive daughter who brought mom in for a talk. We were videotaping for their later usage when I noticed that mom was saying “I love you” with a tone of voice and expression that meant the opposite. Granted, her exasperation was a remnant from the earlier discussion. But her behavior was making things much worse. I explained what was happening and showed her the tape. We spent several sessions practicing being congruent and this helped her daughter see the truth of her mother’s commitment as well as the assumption in her own sensitivity.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lynette Louise (aka The Brain Broad).
Dr. Louise is an International Brain Change and Behavior expert. She is a speaker, award-winning author and filmmaker, performer, recognized humanitarian, neurofeedback & autism expert, and creator/host/therapist for the international docu-series series FIX IT IN FIVE with LYNETTE LOUISE aka THE BRAIN BROAD, airing on The Autism Channel. Her one-woman show about mental health and abuse, Crazy to Sane, invites laughter, learning, and toe-tapping fun, and is offered free every year in April (Autism Awareness Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month). She is also the single mother of eight now grown children; six were adopted and four were on the autism spectrum. Only one of her sons retains his label and remains dependent. Lynette’s passion for believing in everyone — particularly outliers — began as a child and grew bigger as a mom, solidifying into global effective action as an expert.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
My professional career is an ever evolving canvas that always includes optimizing brain function regardless of genetic predisposition, disease prognosis, and traumatic impediment to accurate function or environmental influence. I am a hands-on international brain therapist that has moved from taking new patients to speaking and publishing. I specialize in autism, addiction, and ADHD. However, I work with all disorders and whole families. I produce, direct, and host internet shows on the subject and hope to reduce drug dependence in our world while raising the bar of belief in self-healing.
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?
A highly sensitive person is more than just thin-skinned. People with this challenge also suffer sensory sensitivities that can make everything from their clothes to the smell of a room painful. The HSP individual experiences in an exaggerated fashion the energy shifts in a person’s mood. They feel deeply and are often very uncomfortable in groups. Additionally, this type of issue does not get adequate respect from people in most cultures so they are often treated as “drama queens and kings” who just need to “get over it” and stop making everything about them.
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?
Actually, in some ways being highly sensitive reduces empathy because the highly sensitive individual often feels the other’s emotions to such a degree that they then make it their own and build on it. The definition of empathy is to share an emotion. But when that becomes too big the individual amplifying the emotion has ceased to share empathy. It is true, however, that since a HSP feels the energy, emotional, and behavioral shifts of others, they are true empaths who often have difficulty handling this special skill.
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?
Yes. A nice example would be watching a movie wherein the main character is about to embarrass themselves. Most people can identify but do not need to stop watching the film. A highly sensitive person may need to stop because it hurts too much. A HSP may not be able to complete the film and may leave the theater to avoid this discomfort. They might also experience hyper identification of an overall character type and then go into a depression over the misery they feel they are about to endure. Because of this sensitivity, movies, series shows, games, etc. can be really challenging. Social media is also a minefield for the HSP individual’s emotional health.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
Jane (we will call her) was at a small gathering wherein the group was focused on discussing a local problem. When Jane offered her opinion, the woman next to her seemed bothered. The woman’s face was dark with worry and she avoided eye contact. Jane left the meeting and almost quit her position on the board rather than reach out and attempt to understand. Fortunately for Jane, the woman called to ask her advice and explained that she had received a text from someone during the meeting that held bad news. In the ensuing conversation it became obvious that Jane had assumed the mood change was her fault when in fact, it wasn’t related to her at all. This also left Jane in a sad place, but this time it was also an eye opening moment that she used in order to help herself grow.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
Social norms are culturally driven so this is a complex question. Basically, if the feelings of others are felt so deeply you develop social avoidance or get ill, or need to recuperate for long periods of time after being with people, then you are “too sensitive”.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
As with anyone who has honed the skill of detecting emotional shifts there are advantages to be had. Following these instincts can lead to acute awareness and an ability to circumvent problems. Even something as simple as theater acting can be assisted by the ability to feel the audience and other cast members. A well balanced HSP can almost appear magical in their responding to the needs of others as they feel it before others even become aware of the problem.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
There was a strange man standing at the foot of my bed in a hotel room. He had let himself in with the master key. I awoke to find him there, never having seen him before. I was otherwise alone. I could feel his indecision. So since he was undecided I was able to “act as if” he had come in to check on me and make sure I was okay. My words and energy all remained congruent with this concept as I walked him to the door, all the while thanking him for such kind service. Had I not been sensitive enough to feel his indecision my reaction would likely have ended up encouraging him to harm me. Additionally, my work with autism has been strongly helped by my ability to feel emotions. People with autism are also highly sensitive, so using this to my advantage has helped me teach them to do the same.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
I referred to this earlier when I explained that extreme empathy stops being empathy and becomes about the person taking on the feeling. Hence, being highly sensitive puts a person at high risk of taking on the feeling for themselves rather than empathizing with others.
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?
The greatest advantage to social media is the pace of interaction. It can be slowed down and analyzed. For example, if the HSP is prone to worrying too much about how they say things, or the hidden meanings in what others say, they can read and reread, write and rewrite, until they understand and explain their thoughts with clarity. This action helps to distance the person a little and effectively diminishes the extremeness of the sensitivity. One of the biggest down sides to social media is the ease with which people make cruel comments or bully others. Social media is not reality any more than reality TV is, so to help the HSP it is important to help them understand that the same person who wrote those awful words is also probably the same person who is too intimidated to speak easily in front of others. Most people feel the other person’s pain less when they text comment than when they talk in person. This can be used to the detriment or benefit of any one especially a HSP.
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?
Nothing is minor unless it feels minor. First I begin there.
Then I help them to stabilize with breathing, neurofeedback, exercise, and role playing.
Then point out that using global terms will overwhelm them (like saying “he always hates me”) and help guide them to be specific (like saying “it felt as if he hated me”). Then I help them break apart the beliefs that are generating and sustaining the ideas that are hurting them so that they can rewrite their thinking. The neurofeedback is very useful here as it helps reduces sensory overload and hence too much sensitivity to the environment.
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?
Truly discovering why you like being sensitive and how it benefits you is the beginning of health. It is easier to shift perspective when you understand the benefits of being you. Once you feel good about your gifts you can focus them, so they aren’t also your Achilles heel. I use Socratic questions and neuroscience to help convince the person of their worth and reframe the idea that being sensitive hurts. I help them shift to believing it heals.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
That they are making it all up. (It isn’t imaginary to have sensory overload, it is a malfunctioning or tightly wound nervous and sensory system in need of help.)
That they can’t help others because it hurts them to be around folks in need. (Being sensitive makes people good at helping others as long as they learn how to use this skill to their own benefit.
They are weaklings. (No body that has to cope with challenge on a moment to moment basis should ever be viewed as weak. They may be self-focused as they cope, but they are not weak.)
They are autistic. (Though people with autism are HSPs, HSPs are not necessarily people on the spectrum.
Only women are HSP. (Women do tend to be more intuitive than men but that is very different from HSP.)
HSP is a made up diagnosis to excuse being needy. (This is the type of comment people who are the opposite of highly sensitive say. Fact is, some people are under-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?
The only way to respect difference is to respect all difference. As a society we often cry out for acceptance while committing the same crime we are fighting against. For example, (as mentioned above) I can’t be enraged by another’s lack of sensitivity if I want them to accept my extreme sensitivity. So make movies, write stories, do interviews, and always always always embrace the differences among us.
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 If You Love Or Are In A Relationship With A Highly Sensitive Person. Please give a story or an example for each.
- Be congruent in face, body language, tone, and words. Once I was working with a highly sensitive daughter who brought mom in for a talk. We were videotaping for their later usage when I noticed that mom was saying “I love you” with a tone of voice and expression that meant the opposite. Granted, her exasperation was a remnant from the earlier discussion. But her behavior was making things much worse. I explained what was happening and showed her the tape. We spent several sessions practicing being congruent and this helped her daughter see the truth of her mother’s commitment as well as the assumption in her own sensitivity.
- Use eye contact when speaking. It is an era of multitasking and many people communicate while doing other things, but when not making eye contact it is easier to misjudge a person. It is also easier to stew in the problems that this misjudgment creates. For example, my highly sensitive son entered the room to ask me something and immediately thought I was mad at him. I had been partially paying bills and worrying over the missing funds. When he saw my face in repose he assumed the expression was directed at him. However, when I broke from my thoughts to make eye contact with him I also automatically (because I love him) shifted my expression. This allowed him to hear me when I explained that I sometimes have a mad face when I am just thinking or resting.
- Don’t lie. You look shifty and will be misread. A client was planning a surprise birthday party for his highly sensitive partner. The many lies and secrets were felt by his husband and the two were near breaking-up when I slowed them down and had them go through the story. The pain of being lied to was very very real and even lingered after the truth of an imminent birthday party was shared. The party itself was already a challenge since groups mean shifting with the emotions in the room and that was exhausting for this individual. The lies were kind lies but the reveal was just another challenge, so it took a lot of counseling to get through the problem. If you are going to give a gift don’t lie about it and don’t make it a gift that is hard to love.
- Allow them to be alone and pull it together. Later, without judgement, ask why. I work with a young man who needs about two days of isolation after an extremely challenging social experience. His family received this need to pull away as a form of rejection. Their feelings were hurt which was amplified by the sensitivity of the young man and to protect himself he pulled away even further. One time the mother went in and cried and begged and complained that he was ungrateful. He felt so bad that he couldn’t handle the stress and tried to kill himself. Fortunately, his brother found him and saved his life. After this they left him alone whenever he needed to recuperate in isolation. They did this more out of fear than understanding. But it worked. Soon it was a rhythm everyone understood. After a while no one even noticed and his need to stay away remained but shifted to standing apart for a bit, rather than hiding in his room for two days.
- Don’t throw blame or names. Enjoy explaining. Use words like, “I didn’t feel that way, I (now explain) ….” Rather than, “You’re making that all up I did not. You’re such a liar.” When I was young my mother called me dramatic. She was right. Being highly sensitive is a bit like being dramatic. But when words are thrown at us as if they are venom, they poison. I tried to not feel. I tried so hard I didn’t cry for nine years. But I also didn’t smile (unless you count a nervous smile). Deadening my feelings didn’t ease the pain, it spread the pain everywhere. I ended up always feeling either anxiety ridden or dissociative. Years later I did the work needed to help myself. To turn emotions into big gifts for both me and those around me. It drove me to educate and heal others. It drove me to write books and speak on stages. It drove me to adopt and improve the lives of handicapped people around the world. Being dramatic is a good thing. After all, who doesn’t love a good story? Especially when the ending holds a miracle or two. Encourage your loved one to feel, but not to hurt themselves with the feeling they feel. Encourage them to love big, play big, and help big. Not only can it be done, it can be done BIG!
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.
My movement would be to create a world of individuals who are self-aware. Our mission statement would be: Don’t resist being seen, choose how you wish to be seen and be that. In this movement we would make decisions for the benefit of others but we would begin with ourselves.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.