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Jaimie Eckert: “The Power of “I Don’t Know””

Become a digital minimalist. One of my best coping strategies is digital minimalism. As a Highly Sensitive Person, it’s important to recognize that many of the techniques used in digital technology and the entertainment industry are specifically engineered to grab our attention. I feel that I already have enough to process without feeding myself more […]


Become a digital minimalist. One of my best coping strategies is digital minimalism. As a Highly Sensitive Person, it’s important to recognize that many of the techniques used in digital technology and the entertainment industry are specifically engineered to grab our attention. I feel that I already have enough to process without feeding myself more artificial bling and dazzle.
Digital minimalism might look different for everyone, but on a practical level what it means for me is that I prioritize face-to-face relationships over social media, and I prioritize activities that ground me in the present rather than escaping into cinematic productions. For example, I don’t have social media accounts except a dormant Facebook account, and I watched less than 20 full-length movies in 2019.
It’s common for HSP’s to feel revulsion and emotional pain when seeing violence on-screen, and some may feel overwhelmed from social media. However, they continue to engage these technologies — perhaps out of fear of being socially irrelevant or not being aware that another lifestyle exists. I can tell you that I’ve been a digital minimalist for the last ten years, and I’m definitely not a cave-woman living in the boondocks. It is possible to embrace a lifestyle that turns off the things that bother or overwhelm us without dropping off the edge of society.


As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jaimie Eckert. Jaimie was born in Honolulu and grew up on Florida’s balmy east coast. Disappointingly, she doesn’t like to swim and can’t surf, though she blames it on a near-drowning accident she had as a child. As an adult, she now lives in another warm, sunny place — the Middle East — where her professional goals involve meaningful causes rather than financial bonuses. Her greatest and geekiest passion is writing, which she uses to help people pursue their best and most meaningful life. One of her unique features is that she loves being a Highly Sensitive Person.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?

In 2013, I was just graduating and starting a career in education when my husband was offered his dream job in the Middle East. I wanted to support him in his professional goals and travel dreams, so we moved abroad, even though I knew as a woman I would need to be more creative to establish a career for myself in this part of the world. Since 2013, I have written extensively for nonprofit causes, learned Arabic, worked with relief programs for Syrian refugees, and am currently pursuing my PhD in Religion with an emphasis in Intercultural Studies.

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?

Some people have the impression that being “highly sensitive” is a blanket term for people who are easily offended. However, a “Highly Sensitive Person” is a title used to designate individuals who score high in Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), a genetic trait that causes us to perceive stimuli up to ten times more intensely than others. It is not a disorder. Rather, studies suggest that 15–25% of the population has Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

Scoring high in SPS does mean that we are easily hurt, but at the same time, we are easily pleased, easily thrown into ecstasy, easily moved by the pain of others, and easily urged to action for the good of humankind. Because the word “sensitive” can have negative connotations, having high SPS has also been termed “reactivity” rather than sensitivity. I personally favor this term, because it suggests that we are highly reactive to both positive and negative stimuli.

I believe the way we talk about high sensitivity is important, because the terminology we use can either cause prejudice or foster healthy curiosity. When I first started learning about the data behind the Highly Sensitive Person, my husband listened to my explanations at the breakfast table and started describing me as “hypersensitive.” I had to go back and clarify that he shouldn’t use this term, because it’s not a disorder (like hyperactivity or hyperthyroidism). Now, we’ve both come to view my SPS as a valuable part of who I am — but many people who are suffering with the more difficult aspects of it may be resistant to the idea simply because they don’t want to be labeled as “sensitive.”

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?

Research is very clear that Highly Sensitive People have more empathy and a different kind of empathy for others. In one study utilizing functional MRI brain scans, Highly Sensitive subjects were shown images of people’s faces registering various emotions. The higher their score in Sensory Processing Sensitivity (the underlying trait that identifies a Highly Sensitive Person) the more their brains lit up in areas associated with empathy, awareness, integration of sensory information, and action planning. This suggests that the Highly Sensitive person is not only more empathetic, but also that they are hard-wired to take action in response to the emotions of others rather than empathize passively.

As a Highly Sensitive Person, I can definitely resonate with the research. I went to a private boarding academy during my high school years, and I often found myself operating as the emotional police in our small school setting. My schoolmates knew better than to tell racist jokes or bully anyone when I was around. Some people resented it and called me a goody two-shoes, but others appreciated the fact that I would stick up for them. I simply couldn’t help myself; I’d cringe inside whenever I saw injustices. It was as if the taunting and bullying was happening to me, and I almost always spoke up or did something.

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?

One of the prominent features of the Highly Sensitive Person relates to mirror neurons. These are special cells in the brain that “mirror” what they see or hear so that we vicariously experience the scene in our own brains. When we watch a football player running on TV, our own motor cortex responds. When we hear the story of a woman losing her lover, the parts of the brain responsible for empathy light up. These automatic responses are triggered by mirror neurons. Research suggests that HSP’s don’t necessarily have more mirror neurons, but the ones they have are more active than most people. This is probably why many HSP’s have a difficult time watching disturbing news media, horror films, or anything depicting blood and gore.

As a child, I grew up in a home with two veterans. My grandfather flew a bomber during WWII and my father served on a submarine during the Cold War. As such, they loved watching war movies. I have a distinct memory — I must have been only seven or eight years old — of watching a war movie with my family. At one point, the crew’s machine gunner started firing at an enemy plane and suddenly blood splattered on the outside of the plane’s windshield. At that moment, I felt like my stomach would turn inside out. I went to bed with a horrible feeling that I couldn’t shake, as if I had killed someone. I tossed and turned for hours, unable to get rid of that image of the blood on the windshield. I promised to my little-girl self that I would never watch a war movie ever again.

As an adult, I’ve kept that promise. I’ve been a digital minimalist for the last ten years, which in part means that I only watch a few hours of programming per week (mostly documentaries). But even if it’s just a documentary, my husband will reach over and cover my eyes if there’s any blood, dead bodies, disturbingly emaciated children, or other painful sights. I’m thankful that he understands. A few words of explanation from him while he covers my eyes is enough for me to “feel” the scene as deeply as those who see it in all its graphic details.

Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?

I think society has this false perception of Highly Sensitive People as emotional time bombs. This is certainly not the case with all HSP’s. I have always had excellent relationships with my colleagues, and I have a small group of close and very meaningful friends. Most of the burden of Sensory Processing Sensitivity is on me, not on my social or professional network. HSP’s tend to be highly conscientious and unwilling to burden or bother other people. To portray Highly Sensitive People as chronically unable to cope with our trait in a professional setting would be incorrect. There are those of us who score very high on the sensitivity scale but are also high achievers with meaningful social relationships, those of us who keep our struggles almost entirely private.

When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?

As far back as I can remember, I always felt a nagging sense that I was different from others. I didn’t know how to label or explain my experience, only that I was much more emotional than others and could easily get stuck overthinking. As a teenager, I thought I was just “melancholy.” In early adulthood, I tried natural hormone supplementation, self-help books about emotional intelligence, and I even saw a therapist who specializes in OCD. I thought my intense emotions and inability to shut off my internal processing were signs of neurosis. But none of these possible diagnoses could fully explain my reality. I felt like something inside of me was strange, different, broken…but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

When I stumbled across the Highly Sensitive Person concept, I took the self-test and scored a full 27 out of 27. As I read further, I suddenly felt like Christopher Columbus discovering the New World. Here was the shoe that fit. Here were scientific studies that explained me in a way that even I hadn’t been able to articulate, and these studies told me that my sensitivity is not a brokenness, but a superpower. I have since learned to realize that although I’m VERY sensitive, I’m not TOO sensitive. Now, my sensitivity is something I like very much about myself, because I’ve come to see its immense benefits.

I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?

The advantages of the Highly Sensitive Person are so profound that I recently shocked a friend by saying that I hope to have a Highly Sensitive child. Because sensitivity is usually seen as a weakness, she couldn’t understand why. But the benefits of having this genetic trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity are so profound that I definitely hope to pass it on to my child.

One of my favorite studies that illustrates the benefits of high sensitivity was an intervention program for 11-year old girls who were at risk of developing depression. Before starting, each girl was tested to see how she ranked on the HSP scale. After a year of intervention, only the one-third most highly sensitive girlsshowed signs of depression reduction. Low-scoring or non-HSP girls were not helped at all. Dr. Elaine Aron believes that this study illustrates how the HSP’s depth of processing makes us more “helpable” by positive interventions.

I have taken particular encouragement from this study. At one difficult point in my life, I suffered from clinical depression. I went through an amazing depression recovery program that included multiple angles of intervention. As you would expect from a Highly Sensitive Person, I processed everything meticulously and put intense effort into getting better. And I did. Now, when tough times hit, I no longer return to that place of confusion and despair. The interventions and strategies that I learned are with me for the long-term.

I believe this “locked-in learning” is due to the absorptive, adaptive qualities of the Highly Sensitive Person. Some researchers believe there is a single plasticity gene related to high sensitivity that helps us adapt extensively and absorb helpful information. It’s just one of the many benefits of being a Highly Sensitive Person, but it’s one that has been a constant encouragement to me on days when I struggle with some of the more difficult aspects of being HSP.

Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?

One advantageous aspect of the Highly Sensitive trait is that we are very attuned to details. For example, I pick up on many of the things occurring in the periphery, such as who passed by my desk and borrowed the stapler, the intonation my colleague uses while talking on the phone in another language, or the different qualities of “sighing” that I hear in the office (bored, satisfied, frustrated, etc). These details have often served me well. I always know who has the stapler, and I know when I need to take a break from my work to listen to someone who is frustrated.

Also, Highly Sensitive People are easily pleased and easily made happy. I almost always cry during life insurance commercials, the national anthem, and children’s books like The Giving Tree. Another example is that my husband never has to buy expensive gifts for me because I’m pleased enough by little things. Right now, he’s on a trip, and he sent me a text message to show me that he found my favorite shampoo on sale. I was delighted that he’s always thinking about me while he travels, that he knows what shampoo I use, and that he went through the trouble to buy it. Little things, little compliments, little attentions. Highly Sensitive People are famous for being wounded by little things, but on the flip side, we can go for miles and miles on little drops of positivity and love.

There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?

When we talk about empathy, we’re talking about a characteristic or trait. When we talk about the Highly Sensitive Person, it’s a whole package of traits that are found in 15–25% of the population. Along with empathy, this “package” includes the following four characteristics, summarized by the acronym “DOES:”

  1. Depth of Processing
  2. Over-stimulation
  3. Emotional Intensity
  4. Sensory Sensitivity

A person can be highly empathetic yet not experience these four traits at all. However, what we know from the research is that there is a correlation between being a Highly Sensitive Person (i.e. having these four traits) and being more empathetic.

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’m a digital minimalist, so I don’t use social media very much. I don’t have Instagram or Twitter and I login to my Facebook account maybe a few times per year. This does not stem from being a Highly Sensitive Person, but I suppose it has served my sensitive side quite well.

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?

It really depends on the situation. Let me give an example. Where I live in the Middle East, there are a lot of foreign domestic workers from places like Ethiopia and the Philippines. Sometimes we see Middle Eastern men harassing these women or trying to get favors from them. In my opinion, even though it might be considered “normal” or something “minor” in this context, it isn’t right. I once saw a man following an Ethiopian house maid and trying to fondle her while she was clearly trying to dissuade him. I approached the man and asked for directions, pretending to be lost. This gave the woman a chance to get some distance, which she did. So, sometimes I take action even in situations considered unimportant by the general population. Another time, however, I was very disturbed by the way a man was interacting with a Filipina maid in the supermarket, but I wasn’t able to tell if she needed help or if they knew each other and were just having an argument. It bothered me to see the high emotions, but I let it go because the situation wasn’t clear.

At the end of the day, who determines what is “petty” or “minor?” I’ve never had anyone call me “petty,” but if it ever comes to that, I would probably ask them to provide evidence for who made them the arbiter of what is major and what is minor in the universe. Why is the burden of proof always on the sensitive people? It seems to me that it’s the callous and insensitive people who need to be questioned.

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?

Even though I’m highly sensitive, I don’t think I’ve ever been labeled as such, and probably a large part of that has been my ability to articulate my views passionately. When I’m bothered by something, I don’t merely cry in a corner, I try to be very articulate about why I feel the way I feel.

What this means is that I don’t apologize for being sensitive. I have often apologized for being wrong, but not for being sensitive. I’ve heard people use their sensitivity as an easy “out” for tough conversations that demand a bit of conflict. Rather than working through the disagreement, they’ll say, “I guess I’m just being too sensitive,” and that’s the end of the conversation. I don’t do that. If someone thinks I’m being too sensitive about something, I take it as a challenge to persuade them why the matter is as big of a deal as I think it is. If I can’t do that, I may change my mind, or we may part ways with differences of opinion. But I won’t apologize for who I am just to escape a difficult conversation.

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?

Highly Sensitive People definitely need to learn to argue their point of view. I believe this can happen first of all by accepting that our sensitivity is not something “broken” in us, and secondly by adopting assertive communication strategies that have been proven to work in many spheres of life.

I learned how to “argue” from my dear, German husband. I had grown up in a home where it was really important to pacify other members of the family. When I got married, I did a lot of communication “between the lines” rather than directly, because that’s what I knew. He patiently taught me that it’s ok to communicate directly with him, and he’ll always love me no matter what my opinions are. It took a while to learn, but I made progress in opening up more directly. When we had disagreements, I gradually got to the point where I could argue — a healthy, respectful kind of marital arguing where we take turns voicing our opinions and emotions. This is the power of healthy assertiveness — knowing that my viewpoints are valid and that I will be loved just the same for voicing them.

Advanced communication techniques are imperative for Highly Sensitive People, because we need to be ready to explain ourselves over and over again. For example, when I’m processing details that don’t bother anyone else, my husband sometimes dismisses my concerns by saying, “don’t worry!” I don’t respond with passive aggression because he doesn’t understand my needs as an HSP. I assertively tell him that I’m not worrying, I’m being practical, and these details are important for me, so will he please give me five minutes of his time? Not everyone understands the Highly Sensitive reality. But when we learn to not suffer in silence and instead argue our point respectfully, we can make some real progress.

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.

  1. Learn how to identify overwhelm. Highly Sensitive People take in bucket-loads of information that other people routinely ignore, and our brains are constantly working hard to process all of it. This can lead to overwhelm, one of the defining features of the HSP trait. It is absolutely essential that you learn how to identify overwhelm in your unique context. What events, people, or demands give you overwhelm? What does it feel like for you — both physically and emotionally? Being aware in the moment that you are experiencing overwhelm will literally take the fear and anxiety out of the entire situation.
    To illustrate, I remember a time I found out late about a get-together at an old job. Getting the memo only a couple hours before the event, I had way too much to process: what to wear, what to cook, whether or not I had all the ingredients, how I would fit in an extra event into my busy schedule, and so on. I anxiously hemmed and hawed about whether I would even go or not, but then the empathy side of my Highly Sensitive nature kicked in. I decided I had to go so that I wouldn’t disappoint the organizer. My brain felt like it was burning up with a million neurons firing all at once. I hastily threw together a quick dish and rushed to the event — only to find an empty room, wilted decorations, and discarded napkins. I was too late. I don’t know why, but this day stands out in my memory as a particularly strong case of overwhelm during a time in my life when I didn’t yet have a word to describe it. I felt pain. I felt a dizzying sense of information overload. I felt disgusted with myself for not being able to cope with “normal life.” In reality, I was just not able to identify and honor my feelings of overwhelm.
    If I were to find myself in a similar scenario today, I now have the tools to be able to stop in the middle of overwhelm’s inner pain, breathe for a moment, and identify what’s happening. I’m able to put a name on the situation. It’s not a panic attack. I’m not losing my mind. I’m just on overload. Depending on how overwhelmed I actually am, I may or may not go to the last-minute party. We each need to know ourselves, because every HSP has a “point of no return” after which they’ll have to go through the emotional crash and burn cycle that comes from not respecting overwhelm. That’s why it’s imperative to learn how to identify it early.
  2. Crisis Management: Learn How to Detach. It would certainly be ideal for HSP’s to always have a quiet room where they can be alone when overwhelm begins to rise. However, for most of us, this is not always feasible. We often have to go right into the thick of energy-depleting, frazzling scenarios. What then? Every HSP needs a coping strategy for these times of sensory crisis. It isn’t necessary to have an emotional breakdown when things get severely overwhelming. My go-to strategy in times of mega-overload is to allow myself to enter a moment of sensory detachment, then when things are calm again, give myself time to reconnect with my sense of self.
    For example, this week I’ve been visiting an old friend in Cairo. We took a trip across the city that required an hour one way — part by minibus, part by metro, and part by walking. If you’ve ever traveled “local style” across non-touristy parts of the Middle East, you might understand how overwhelming this can be to the senses! Even my non-HSP friend felt drained by the trip. For a Highly Sensitive Person, these moments of sensory crisis can literally feel as though you will explode or fall to pieces. There is a real sense of painful inner pressure.
    My way of dealing with this– since I couldn’t physically leave the scene — was to take a few minutes, sit down on a retaining wall near a busy intersection, and let myself detach from my senses. I stared at a crack in the pavement and focused all my attention there. I let my eyes glaze and my muscles relax. The sounds bombarding me from every side started to fade as I felt my sense of self or sense of “personhood” retreat somewhere deep inside. A few minutes later, I was able to keep going the rest of the way home, where I spent a few hours by myself in nurturing, quiet activities until I felt like myself again. Detachment isn’t ideal. Strategies like depersonalization or derealization are often associated with trauma. However, sensory crisis can feel very much like trauma for a Highly Sensitive Person, and sensory detachment can be used as a short-term strategy to get you through to the other side.
  3. Become a digital minimalist. One of my best coping strategies is digital minimalism. As a Highly Sensitive Person, it’s important to recognize that many of the techniques used in digital technology and the entertainment industry are specifically engineered to grab our attention. I feel that I already have enough to process without feeding myself more artificial bling and dazzle.
    Digital minimalism might look different for everyone, but on a practical level what it means for me is that I prioritize face-to-face relationships over social media, and I prioritize activities that ground me in the present rather than escaping into cinematic productions. For example, I don’t have social media accounts except a dormant Facebook account, and I watched less than 20 full-length movies in 2019.
    It’s common for HSP’s to feel revulsion and emotional pain when seeing violence on-screen, and some may feel overwhelmed from social media. However, they continue to engage these technologies — perhaps out of fear of being socially irrelevant or not being aware that another lifestyle exists. I can tell you that I’ve been a digital minimalist for the last ten years, and I’m definitely not a cave-woman living in the boondocks. It is possible to embrace a lifestyle that turns off the things that bother or overwhelm us without dropping off the edge of society.
  4. Have a therapist, even if you’re not neurotic. During my time in the Middle East, I spent a few years working with projects for Syrian refugees. It involved hundreds of hours of visitations (I learned enough Arabic to converse) and I ended up forming bonds with many of the women that were benefited by our projects. They appreciated having someone to listen to the immense struggles they had endured, and gradually they shared my phone number with others, who shared with others. Soon I was receiving requests for help from refugees I had never met. It became overwhelming, and I suffered intensely from feelings of inadequacy. It was a classic case of compassion fatigue and overwhelm.
    I ended up with depression at that time, and unfortunately, I stopped working with refugee projects. But one of the best things that came out of that experience was meeting an amazing therapist that I really connected with. She maintained consistent faith in me that I’m not irreparably neurotic, I’m not crazy, and that I’ll be just fine. It is true that HSP’s are biologically predisposed to depression, though, and I take that data seriously. After successfully pulling out of clinical depression some years back, I’ve been careful to prioritize a lifestyle that supports brain health — regular exercise, regular sleep cycles, plenty of Omega-3 rich foods, and a low-processed diet. But something I would recommend very strongly for HSP’s is to have a therapist or coach, even if you aren’t depressed. Depression can come and go, but the HSP trait will stay with us forever, making us constantly at risk for developing the blues again.
    I’ve kept an open channel with my therapist and I still schedule a call with her a few times per year. It’s helpful to just to check in and ground myself during times of more intense overwhelm, even though I recognize I don’t need a “therapist” in the sense of dealing with depressive symptoms. But once you find someone who really understands you, stick with them. Get comfortable with the fact that you’ll probably need him/her again in the future. I can admit this freely and cheerfully to myself only because I believe the benefits of being HSP outweigh these downsides.
  5. The Power of “I Don’t Know” One of the hallmark features of a Highly Sensitive Person is their heavy, elaborate information processing. Research shows that HSP’s process information much more thoroughly and take a lot longer to do it. Basically, we overthink everything, but we learn more from it. Being a heavy processor has been immensely helpful in grad school. It has led to many pleased professors when I’ve come up with unique and creative ideas. But it doesn’t always have positive payouts. I mentioned earlier that at one point, I actually believed that I had OCD because I couldn’t stop overthinking.
    Today, I know better. I’m not OCD. I’m highly sensitive, and I just take a really long time to work through things. However, I’m glad for my foray into the world of OCD. During that time, I paid a visit to an OCD specialist in Los Angeles and learned a key strategy from him that seems to work well for both obsessives and Highly Sensitive People, both of whom are heavy processors. This strategy is the power of “I don’t know.” In psychology lingo, it’s called Acceptance-Commitment Therapy. It involves an acceptance of our human limitations in understanding or “solving” every thought that comes to mind.
    As a Highly Sensitive Person, when my mind gets ahold of some important details that need to be processed, it can often feel like a life or death matter. It can be difficult to switch to another train of thought until I’ve fully resolved it. But not everything can be resolved through mental exercises. In those moments, I give myself permission to say, “I don’t know.” I don’t know how this will work out, I don’t know whether I’m making the right decision, I don’t know what so-and-so thinks about me after my blunder. Accepting the reality of human limitations is wonderfully freeing as an HSP. When I see myself overprocessing to the point of confusing and torturing myself, I stop the cycle with three simple words: I don’t know.

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’m working on a book called The Highly Sensitive Christian. However, working overseas limits my opportunities to make connections at publishing events, so I’d love to get in touch with anyone who could help me share this concept with the world’s Christian readers.

How can our readers follow you online?

My personal blog is at jaimieeckert.com.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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