Let go of others’ perception of you. Your feelings are valid. You don’t have to explain yourself and you don’t even need others to validate your feelings. Yes it feels great to have someone understand you, but you don’t need everyone to.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Prairie Conlon. Prairie is a licensed mental health therapist who utilizes animal assisted interventions in all walks of her mental health practice. She has a master’s degree in professional counseling and a postgraduate degree in military behavioral health counseling. She is certified as an equine assisted psychotherapist and has presented at national conferences on her techniques for providing equine therapy for military members and their families, with special emphasis on transitioning from the military back to civilian life. Prairie is a certified Accelerated Resolution Therapist and helps train future trauma therapists in this modality. She consults for several non-profits for veteran and first-responder trauma work to include the Lone Survivor Foundation and Horses that Heal.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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 HSP is not a disorder, but more of a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity. They have increased sensitivity and reactions to both internal and external stimuli. Thought that may include getting their feelings hurt, this is simply a reaction to the overwhelming sensory input they are experiencing, not a key trait of someone who is a HSP.
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?
There is a degree of overlap when defining HSPs and empaths, and they can also be present simultaneously. They difference is that an empath takes on the emotions and sensitivities of others, while the HSP is dealing with their own reactions to their surroundings.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
Being an HSP can create issues for people in certain situations, such as work or school. I have seen clients struggle immensely in large classes in college to the point of almost failing out. When it was noticed that the individual may be a HSP, I often suggest trying to find smaller classes, or transferring to a smaller university. Many of these individuals found great success in changing their approach to school after reducing the amount of stimuli around them.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
Studies claim that about 15–20% of people are HSPs. I would look at it as more of a spectrum than checking off the boxes. I don’t think it is a hard “yes” or “no”. I don’t think there is a definite answer to this because you also have to take into account the environment and the culture you are surrounded by. Sensitivity is valued differently in each culture. Depending on where you are, a HSP may be considered the norm and the standard of achievement, while in other cultures it may be looked at as weak.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
HSP are observers and are always gathering information. Many HSPs are very emotionally intelligent because they have spent a lifetime scanning people and reading their reactions, so they usually pick up very well on social cues and the environment they are in.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
-As a therapist, I have met many professionals who have gone into the field due to the personality traits already instilled in them. They are natural counselors and helpers by nature. Going through graduate school, you realize this isn’t something that can be taught, and in the initial years, you see people leave the program because you need more than just book smarts to be a successful therapist.
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?
Social media has a way of creeping into self-view regardless of if you are a HSP or not. With social media, I would caution anyone to take it with a grain of salt as things aren’t always as they seem through the phone camera lens.
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?
I would instruct them how I would instruct any person whose feelings are not recognized or validated. Other people cannot tell you how you feel or what you feel. How you feel is how you feel. You can’t control that. What you can control is how you react to people. If someone tells you that you are being petty or they try to undermine your feelings, walk away. You don’t need to deal with that kind of negativity. If they are genuine and trying to understand, then you can make the choice to try and explain to them what you are going through.
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?
I like to work on finding healthy distractions for a client to pull their focus from the irritant. For some individuals, this can be utilizing bi-lateral stimulation. Squeezing their right hand and releasing, then squeezing their left hand and releasing, and repeating this movement back and forth. This can help to calm overactive brain waves and induce a feeling of calm. Another great option, if you are at home near your pet, is sitting and petting your animal. Multiple studies have shown that blood pressure drops drastically and quickly when sitting and petting your dog or cat. There have also been numerous studies that show an increase in dopamine and oxytocin from this activity.
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?
In general, mental health and opposing perceptions need to be respected and addressed. We get caught up thinking we can define how people should feel and what they should be doing when we forget that perception plays into everything. We are all unique individuals with unique life experiences. We need to stop generalizing emotions and defining what normal is. Normal is relative to everyone’s individual situation.
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.
- Let go of others’ perception of you. Your feelings are valid. You don’t have to explain yourself and you don’t even need others to validate your feelings. Yes it feels great to have someone understand you, but you don’t need everyone to.
- Be aware of your relationships. If you find yourself around someone who constantly points out how sensitive you are and has petty remarks, then you most likely aren’t a good fit and need to walk away from that situation. Don’t change yourself, find someone who appreciates you for who you are.
- Being an HSP can be a gift. Start treating it that way. HSPs often have high emotional intelligence from a lifetime of scanning people and reading the environment. There has been an uptick in the recognition that emotional intelligence is just as powerful book smarts, if not more. It is so powerful that in fact, a number of Fortune 500 companies hire speakers to speak specifically about this topic to their employees. You have that naturally. Unleash that power.
- Learn how to put up a shield (metaphorically, of course). But the simple act of learning to put up emotional boundaries can be all the difference in the world. You can practice expanding your emotional boundaries through meditation exercises. A simple one is to literally picture putting up a shield when you encounter these situations that can trigger you. Whether it be a person, or bright lights, or irritating repetitive noises, with practice, you can learn to go to your place of serenity. Taking 5 minutes to meditate daily and practice this exercise can make a big difference.
- Enjoy the gift you were given. Some might say you see the grass a little greener, the water tastes a little sweeter. And yes, those who experience higher highs may also be more vulnerable to the lower lows, but feeling things deeply doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Being a HSP can be rewarding. Re-framing it as a gift, and approaching it with awareness and appreciation can help you take on a whole new worldview.
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.
The mental health stigma is still something many are dealing with. It shames many into silence and prevents a number more from seeking the help they need. Suicide rates are rising in every single demographic. It is astonishing that we are seeing adolescents falling victim to this horrible tragedy. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in teenagers age 12–19. We need to have an open dialogue about emotions and what we are going through and ditch the old school mentality that says we should sweep it all under the rug and forget about it. We need to create an open, loving, kind environment where we address mental health and feel free to have a platform to say what is going on in our lives. It could literally be the difference between life and death.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.