Being in touch with your emotions is normal, and having a safe outlet to express them is wonderful. I am always singing to my favorite songs. Sometimes I smile and sometimes I cry. The rest of the time, I’m just singing, but feeling whatever the songs bring to me. The same with movies. An emotionally poignant scene will bring me to tears, and I’m grateful to have the emotional capacity to feel what comes up for me. I’m self-assured in knowing that even if no one else is taken by what affected me, it’s okay. It’s the same if I find something humorous that no one else does. I consider myself lucky. Even with work, when someone I’m working with is very open to sharing something intimate about their experience or results, I restrain myself as best as possible. But, when the meeting is finished, I am known to head to the car and sit there and cry tears of joy for someone else’s satisfaction. It pays dividends far beyond getting paid.
As a part of our series about How to Survive and Thrive as A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joseph Rosenfeld, a fashion and personal stylist, and native Chicagoan. As early as preschool, he experienced teachers feminizing him. Then, neighborhood kids and schoolmates subjected him to psychological and physical bullying. Eventually, in sophomore year of high school, he beat back his most vicious physical attacker. But, his dad had a massive heart attack and died suddenly. At the lowest point of his life, Joseph was desperate to change the way people perceived him. He had an epiphany about his image, thinking that creating a personal style could shift the way people saw him. It worked. Finally, he felt free. Growing up as a very sensitive person helped him to find a pathway to thrive, and find his calling. Now, he works with top and emerging leaders to express their inner strengths, talents, and gifts with authentic personal style.
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 attempted college after high school, but found it a struggle not worth fighting. After the childhood I’d endured, it just felt like I ought to do something that came easier to me. My mom supported my decision to exit college and to get a job. She had one piece of advice, and that was to find something that made me happy. She knew that I had suffered a hard childhood, even without knowing all that I endured.
So, the job that I thought would make me happy was a sales position at Neiman Marcus in Chicago. And that was a tough struggle, too. But, I was tenacious, and would not give up on my dream to show people how they could look fashionable and confident at the same time. Although my practice has evolved tremendously over time, I’ve been at this continuously for over 30 years. And I’m only 50!
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 is so much more than that. In fact, I’ve come to realize that being a highly sensitive person is actually a gift. You see, when I do something, I like to do it right. So, I think long and hard about the way something ought to be done. And once I have a system in place, I get that project done with precision and quickly. Along the way, I notice every detail. I hear every piece of feedback, see things that others never see. Sometimes my attention to detail drives me to exhaustion. But, it’s just the way I am. I can’t or wouldn’t ignore what I feel, see, hear, or experience. It makes me feel like I have richer experiences, actually. And in my work, I leverage my high degree of sensitivity to give my clients the very best I can deliver.
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?
I know that people close to me, whether family, friends, or clients are close to me because they care about me. And I care about them. So much. Keeping in mind our connection, I am clear that no one close to me is out to hurt me. But, sometimes, the way I process feedback results in rattling my emotions. Critical feedback does trigger me, and I have to recognize it when it happens, and then have a conversation with myself that I’m really okay. And then I try to look at the rationale of the feedback. It’s a process, that’s for sure!
The other part of this is that my being an HSP does give me the gift of empathy. And I really do think this is a gift. When I am talking or working with others, and I have an opinion to offer, or a point to make, I am very careful with my words and language. I have a certain cadence with my voice and use my vocal tone to be gentle, even if what I’m saying is strong. I want people to know at all times that I care so much about them because I’d never want them to think otherwise. I love having the capacity to hold space for others in that way. It allows me the opportunity to more deeply know someone, to feel for their experiences, and to help them grow, if I can.
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?
Well, I can only speak for myself. But, I refuse to watch anything violent. It’s just too much for me. I turn away at violence as shown on the news. In movies, during violent scenes, I recoil and close my eyes. I also have little to no interest in superficiality, which is also kind of ironic because people know me in my professional capacity as a guru kind of personal stylist — supposedly all about the surface or superficiality. But, nothing could be further from the truth.
One amazing deviation from my anti-violence stance on entertainment happened a number of years ago. And it’s worth sharing this story. I was in a movie theater for a viewing of the Swedish original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The main character of the movie, in a pivotal scene in the movie, Lisbeth Salander exacts revenge on a man who was her legal guardian and who raped her. Those abusive scenes were really too much to bear, but I cringed and broke out in a cold sweat watching anyhow. But, it was worth it because when she got her revenge, I lept out of my seat in the theater and yelled, “YES!” multiple times. I could relate with Lisbeth on the screen. I, too, had suffered sexual attacks as a boy, and I had incredible empathy for her. She got revenge for both of us.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
There are times when my energy sensitivity is so high that I’d rather spend time alone versus socializing. I’m definitely not shy, and it doesn’t even have anything to do with my being a social introvert. This also does not mean that I sit alone at home in a dark room. As an example, I am about to treat to myself to something exciting as a reward for having done some very intense work over the last three months. I’ve been on airplane the last 14 consecutive weeks and have given my clients total focus and access. They have had wonderful things to report back about the results, which was wonderful because I gave them all I have to give.
So, what’s my treat? I’m traveling 1500 miles to another city to enjoy my favorite artist’s work in my favorite museum. And then, I’m coming home the next day. I recognize that my highly sensitive nature means that I might do things like this alone, but I am exercising different senses to re-energize, and it all works out well. I consider that by taking care of myself like this, it makes me a better partner, friend, and expert in my field. I’m sensitive enough to know that I need replenishing before I give it all away again.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
This was a very early realization. I can even remember a situation dating back to when I was four years old and attending a Jewish nursery school. The end of the school year was upon us, and every Friday, the class sat around a big table and we would say prayers for candles, wine, and bread. Traditionally, candle lighting is performed by females, and the blessing for wine by males. The teachers selected one girl to role play the mother, and one boy as father each Friday. On this final Sabbath dinner enactment of the year, only myself and my best friend at the time had yet to be chosen as the father figure. And I still clearly recall thinking to myself that if they don’t choose me, at least it’ll be my best friend, who, ironically, was not Jewish, and this might be his only chance in life to be the father in that context. Whereas, I thought that I’d have a lifetime ahead of me to have that role. Further irony is that I have no children! Oy. Well, anyway, the teachers chose him and that was that.
But, there’s more to the story.
The teachers had gone through a complete rotation of all the girls in the class. So, everyone had a turn to role play the mother role. And the teachers looked at me and offered me the chance. I was mortified.
These gender-coded roles were so ingrained early on that I knew very well who I was. Their insistence that I play that mother role, or the other option that I play no role whatsoever, was the first moment that I knew my sensitive nature went into overload.
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 always try to look at my highly sensitive nature as a strength. It doesn’t pay to see it as a drawback. To that end, people flock to me to talk about very personal matters that they don’t feel comfortable talking about with others. This also encompasses an implicit sense of trust that I will not breach a confidence. I think that using my highly sensitive skills has allowed me the chance to heal and grow out of situations that haunted me and held me back from thriving earlier in my life. People tell me all the time how much life I have lived for someone of my age. To that extent, I do feel like my life experience has given me the gift of intuition and I absolutely sense what people around me need well before they come to know it. Sometimes, my clients or friends or family will allude to my “psychic” abilities. To which I always tell them, I’m just a very sensitive person who cares very much about them.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I believe that my great sensitivity prevented me from attempting to kill myself when I was a teenager. To be very honest, I thought about it several times a day. The bullying I experienced was fierce and I loathed my life. But, I held on to a certain amount of hope. And my great sensitivity connected to a special Stevie Nicks song that became a mantra to me. Each time I had a suicidal thought, I gave myself the gift of remembering this song and its powerful lyrics gave me great hope to keep going. No matter how others treated me, I had the advantage of great sensitivity that protected me and helped me find freedom.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Speaking for myself, it is very easy for me to have empathy for others. After all, empathy is about other people. But, my being highly sensitive is all about me. High sensitivity definitely impacts my connection with others. And yet, it has more to do with me than with another person. My mood, or energy sensitivity, or how I’m generally feeling could have an impact on how successfully I interact with others. I see my sensitivity as the variable in the equation. So, to ensure that I have the best possible interactions with others, I give myself a lot of time for self-care, whether it’s exercising, practicing mindfulness, checking in with myself, having conversations with myself. If my mood is in a slump and I know that others need me, I wear clothing that cheers me up, play music that lifts my spirits, and make sure I’m well hydrated, among other things that add to my sensitivities.
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?
I have learned to separate myself from the responses of strangers if I decide to post a comment on, let’s say, the Facebook account of a trusted news organization. My opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. But, I never even try to offend others. I’m very sensitive, of course, and don’t want to make others come after me for no reason. But, it happens all the time, and I have learned to realize that, when that happens, it’s about those people and not me.
When I create posts on my account or on my professional account, I want to share something personal, or I want to teach people something. Whatever it is, I want to offer my friends and followers something of myself. By taking the high ground as much as possible, I stay above whatever forces might pull me down.
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?
I just try to be a voice of reason and to be sensitive towards others while maintaining my convictions. Because I think things through so much, I have subconsciously calculated my risk of exposure, and become one of those kinds of people who will reluctantly take one “for the team” in order to stand by my convictions, values, and beliefs. I can’t worry that other people don’t get me. Those are people I could not reach anyhow.
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?
Very simple. I am committed to who I am. I accept myself exactly as I am, and refuse to be falsely or wrongly influenced by the way others perceive me. I live transparently and with inner self-assurance. Having overcome all I lived through earlier in my life was wonderful preparation for who I am and how I live now.
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?
When I’m interacting with people, I have the capability of having deep conversations, and maintain boundaries when needed. People who I spend time with — my partner, family, close friends, acquaintances, and clients — all accept me as I am. And I make it very clear that I am not judgmental of them. In my work, it is my responsibility to evaluate, but never to judge. So, this never comes up for me that I have to discuss how or why I am a highly sensitive person. People just appreciate that it is one of my strengths and gifts. Maybe I’m lucky in that way. But, I’ve made this work for me.
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.
- “Put your oxygen mask on before helping others.” — It’s not just what you need to do in case of an emergency aboard a flight. I consider self-care a right and a responsibility. Whether it’s getting enough rest, having time to recover from social and physical activities, giving yourself time to get things done, and keeping your physical appearance and your home and work environs are all ways of practicing self-care that is holistic and healthy. It’s not just surface stuff. It helps to soothe how we feel inside.
- Being in touch with your emotions is normal, and having a safe outlet to express them is wonderful. I am always singing to my favorite songs. Sometimes I smile and sometimes I cry. The rest of the time, I’m just singing, but feeling whatever the songs bring to me. The same with movies. An emotionally poignant scene will bring me to tears, and I’m grateful to have the emotional capacity to feel what comes up for me. I’m self-assured in knowing that even if no one else is taken by what affected me, it’s okay. It’s the same if I find something humorous that no one else does. I consider myself lucky. Even with work, when someone I’m working with is very open to sharing something intimate about their experience or results, I restrain myself as best as possible. But, when the meeting is finished, I am known to head to the car and sit there and cry tears of joy for someone else’s satisfaction. It pays dividends far beyond getting paid.
- My relationships with others are super important. Even though I might need to have my alone time, it’s all because I want to be fully present and sensitive to others when I am with them. I want to give my undivided attention to my partner, friends, family, and clients, whenever I am with each one or when we are grouped together. I feel good when I contribute to others’ happiness. And that means that I’m selective about the people I welcome into my life. Pretty freely, I give whatever emotional capacity I have. But, I don’t like when I’ve been duped by anyone who just takes is all from me and lacks any appreciation. Those are the people I have to either distance or disassociate from.
- Alone time. I spend a lot of time in airports, airplanes, stores, shopping centers, and always around people. In all of these spaces and places, there is a lot of noise, chatter, lots to look at, and a certain amount of needing to get somewhere on time, or finish working by a certain time. It equates to an overload of sensitivity! I love to recover by taking some time to be alone in a quiet place with low lighting.
- In the last few years, I have been doing a lot of work on a deeply personal issue. My uncle, a psychiatrist, and I have a wonderful relationship and we talk about a lot of stuff together. I had explained some stuff about my childhood and he reminded me of something that struck me as profound. He wanted me to remember that my life began at birth, and not at age 7. So, as I began to recall my earliest memories and how I conducted myself as a boy, particularly around my parents, I realized something HUGE. Even today, I am sometimes overcome by this issue that I realize has been with me since birth. I do not want to be a burden on others. It means that I might not speak up like I should. It might mean that I’m trying to please people too much.
So, lately, I am checking in with myself to make sure that I take the risk of speaking up for what I need, or what does not feel right for me. I think of myself as being super fair-minded, but I have come to know that most people don’t measure up in that way, and that sets me up for disappointment. It isn’t necessarily that I am connected with selfish and insensitive people. It’s more that I’m a very highly sensitive person, and I have to recognize that my needs are equally as important as anyone else’s. It’s a learning and growing process.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.