Be aware and try to understand your emotion. What emotion is it andwhy is it there? What is making it bigger or smaller? The more we explore and understand our emotions, the more likely we are to find a way to manage them effectively. For example, someone cancels plans with you and you feel upset, it makes a difference if the emotion you are feeling is sadness, anger, anxiety, disappointment, or something else. Different emotions may push you towards different actions. Labeling and understanding why an emotion is present quiets the circuitry in our brains and helps us jump-start re-regulation. Practicing mindfulness and meditation directly increases our awareness and understanding of our emotional experiences.
As a part of our series about How to Survive and Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Stephanie Samar. Dr. Samar is a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York. She is the creator of the Mood Masters® Program that teaches highly sensitive preadolescences and their families how to manage big emotions and big behaviors. She has lived and worked in Los Angeles and the greater New York City area.
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 clinical psychologist in the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York. I work with individuals and families across the lifespan and specialize in working with highly sensitive people — who I’d clinically term as having high emotional and behavioral dysregulation. I spend every day working to empower young people and their families to do the hard work of changing what is not working for them in their lives.
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?
I think of sensitivity to emotions as falling on a continuum. Most people fall in the average range — meaning that they experience emotional intensity roughly the same amount. Some people fall in the below-average range, meaning that emotional stimuli don’t impact them very intensely. Our highly sensitive people fall in the above-average range, meaning that they are more attuned to emotional information and more intensely affected than the average.
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?
The short answer is yes — highly sensitive people pick up and absorb subtle emotional cues that other people might miss and thus can seem to feel other people’s emotions or experiences. I wouldn’t say they are offended by hurtful remarks about other people, but I would say that if they appear affected by hurtful remarks it is likely because they are in essence feeling what the other person may be feeling — which can be overwhelming and distressing.
Does a highly sensitive person have greater difficulty with certain parts of popular culture, entertainment or news, that depict emotional or physical pain? Can you explain or give a story?
I don’t have an example regarding popular culture or entertainment; however, I’d imagine that these individuals think more deeply about tragedies in our world and that these thoughts stay with them longer than others. When working with highly sensitive children, I often hear how they are moved to action when they see injustice or suffering. For example, time and time again I hear that highly sensitive kids I work with can’t pass by a homeless person without giving them money or food — even when explicitly told not to by their parents — or they become visibly upset after seeing someone suffering because they want to help in some way.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
The problems encountered by the highly sensitive kids and teens I work with are typically the result of being so overwhelmed by their emotions that it is hard to think through their actions in real time. This can be outward expressions of intense emotions — yelling, fighting, insulting others — that can get in the way of relationships or their school and work functioning. This can also be inward expressions of these intense emotions that can at times result in negative thoughts about themselves or even self-harm, suicidality, and hopelessness. This is why learning how to manage intense emotions is the primary target in treatment with these individuals, so that their emotional sensitivity can be utilized as a strength rather than something that feels out of control and gets in the way of their goals.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
We tend to label someone as “too sensitive” when we believe they are acting only on their emotions and appear out of control. Ultimately, the term “too sensitive” has less to do with someone’s innate sensitivity and more to do with how they manage emotions.
I’m sure that being highly sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that highly sensitive people have?
The strengths of highly sensitive people revolve around the fact that they can pick up on very subtle emotional information in a situation or interaction. Once able to manage that surge of emotional information they can light up a room, they form strong connections with others, they are passionate and enthusiastic about their interests and can get others interested in them as well.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I have so many stories where being highly sensitive is an advantage! I truly believe that being highly sensitive is a superpower. When someone learns to control this sensitivity, they can pick up on the nuances of social situations and act in ways that increase collaboration and problem solving. This is a benefit in almost every career that involves working with others. Being highly sensitive can be fuel for creativity as well — I can imagine that many of the best artists, actors, and musicians would identify as being highly sensitive. Individuals who are highly sensitive can also be the best champions for social justice causes and campaigns. They can draw people into these causes by using their sensitivity to gauge what is important to other people to get them on board.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being highly sensitive?
To be empathetic is to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, but not necessarily to take on that emotion. Someone who is highly sensitive takes empathy to the next level — not only do they cognitively understand someone else’s experience, they begin to feel that experience in their own bodies.
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?
Time and time again we see a correlation between time on social media and anxiety and depressive symptoms. Being a highly sensitive person at baseline may make someone more susceptible to this effect, meaning that it takes less time on social media to become impacted negatively. Being aware of your own limits around social media is important to help balance the benefits with the challenges.
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?
When individuals are told not to trust their own experience, that their emotions or thoughts on a situation are wrong, they experience what we term as invalidation. It is vital that these individuals learn that, regardless of other people’s opinions or experiences, their emotions are valid and should not be judged. It is what I do with the emotion — feed it, act opposite to it, distract from it, or something else — that is important.
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?
Learning how to harness this sensitivity is vital. This starts with awareness, building coping skills, and practicing implementing them in our daily lives. Attempts at avoiding the emotion only leads to more problems over time so taking the time.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a highly sensitive person? Can you explain what you mean?
When someone’s highly sensitive nature disrupts the lives of others, I often hear the complaint that they are “manipulative.” I don’t see this as the case. These individuals are doing the best the can, with limited skills to manage powerful feelings. They need to learn new skills in order to be better — and may need help to do that. Approaching them with this belief is much more constructive than assuming they are doing things “on purpose” or in a manipulative way.
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?
We don’t choose the emotions we experience, which means we cannot choose to “stop being so sensitive.” That said, we can learn ways to modify how we express or act on our emotions.
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.
- Your emotions are valid. If you feel it in your body, it is true, it is real, and it is there. Wishing it away will not change it, nor will someone telling you to “get over it.” The first step in changing an emotion is accepting it.
- Be aware and try to understand your emotion. What emotion is it andwhy is it there? What is making it bigger or smaller? The more we explore and understand our emotions, the more likely we are to find a way to manage them effectively. For example, someone cancels plans with you and you feel upset, it makes a difference if the emotion you are feeling is sadness, anger, anxiety, disappointment, or something else. Different emotions may push you towards different actions. Labeling and understanding why an emotion is present quiets the circuitry in our brains and helps us jump-start re-regulation. Practicing mindfulness and meditation directly increases our awareness and understanding of our emotional experiences.
- Just because your emotions are valid, does not mean you need to act on every emotion. If you feel it in your body, it is true, it is real, it is there, but you don’t need to do what the emotion is trying to get you to do. The only thing we truly have control over is our behavior. Thinking about or feeling the urge to break a law is not illegal; it’s the act of breaking a law that gets people into trouble. No matter how big an emotion is, that does not justify actions we choose to take.
- Find some go-to skills to manage big emotions. To help us gain control over our emotions and our behaviors, it is helpful to have a few strategies that you know work for you. Spend some time identifying your own strategies, to increase the likelihood that you will use them in a tough situation. Some people find jogging or taking a bath as a way to manage strong emotions. I always suggest attending to and slowing down your breath as a go-to strategy. Getting oxygen into your body helps settle your brain and sends signals to your body that you are safe. This can counteract your fight, flight, or freeze response.
- Protect against vulnerabilities. Prioritizing self-care is not a luxury, it is imperative when managing strong emotions. If we are sick, tired, hungry or under the influence of substances, we are less resilient to life stressors. When we are vulnerable, we are more likely to become overwhelmed by emotion and act in ways that make situations worse, and often cause more stress. Eat regular and healthy meals, increase effective sleep, and tend to health issues and see how more capable you are at managing tough moments.
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 believe children and teens should be taught about emotions and coping skills in school. Understanding our emotional world is just as important to our lives as math and reading!
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.