Don’t make major decisions when you’re feeling extremely sensitive. In my experience as a HSP, the worst time to make decisions or respond to things that are causing us distress, is when we are in the middle of those intense feelings. Instead, try to leave it 24 hours, or at least until you have calmed down and can make a rational decision that is free from heightened emotion.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jas Rawlinson. Jas is an Australian memoir writing coach, mental health speaker, and best-selling author with a passion for content that inspires and changes lives. Growing up in a small country town, Jas first fell in love with the power of literature as a young girl, and would often disappear into the world of writing to escape from the family violence in her home. It was here that she made a promise to one day find a way to support other survivors and victims of domestic violence; a promise she never forgot. These days, through her work as a writing mentor for domestic violence survivors and social change-makers, she enjoys combining her lived-experience and professional skills to spread hope and empowerment around the globe. On weekends you’ll find her scouring local cafes for the best loose-leaf chai lattes and acacia bowls, winding down with a suspense novel, or relaxing at the beach with family.
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’m a writing coach and author, based in Australia. I’m really passionate about working with ambitious women and survivors of trauma, and empowering them to re-write their life journeys into powerful memoirs of hope. I’m also blessed to spread hope to people around the world through my work as a mental health speaker.
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?
A highly sensitive person is someone who experiences sensory sensitivities, which means — to put it simply — that we are often hypersensitive to particular situations, environments, and people. Generally, we tend to be introverts who enjoy spending time by ourselves, and we can also become easily overwhelmed by highly-stimulating environments. This is why many of us who are HSPs also have trouble winding down after a big day.
For me personally, my experience of being quite a sensitive person has meant that I tend to analyse situations and people very deeply. As a result, I often experience hurt or take offense more easily than others. Like many other sensitive people, I also find it hard to ‘switch-off’ from negative comments about myself or my work, regardless of whether it’s a troll or someone I know. Although I’ve worked hard to develop various techniques that help with my emotional health, I’m definitely the kind of person who is more susceptible to being easily offended or hurt.
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?
Like empaths, HSP peeps often feel a high degree of empathy toward others. Sometimes, this can leave us feeling like we’ve experienced a strong emotional wound simply from seeing hurtful remarks directed towards someone else online — even if it’s a stranger.
Over the years I’ve been able to ‘switch off’ a little from becoming too emotionally involved in strangers’ comments, although I do find myself at times wanting to automatically ‘protect’ or stand up for someone who is being bullied online.
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?
Absolutely. In my work as a mental health speaker and social issues writer, I’ve had to view a lot of very distressing content over the past decade, particularly in my work around issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, and human trafficking. Watching the news and hearing regularly about injustices like these being carried out against people in my country or community is emotionally difficult, and means that I often don’t read as widely as I used to. One memory that sticks out for me, is when I was writing an article about child abuse and came across a story of a child who had been subjected to unimaginable torture. I spent that night sobbing my heart out. That particular story just broke me.
Since becoming a parent, I feel my sensitive nature has only increased when it comes to issues such as these, however, because I care so deeply about turning adversity into power, I make a conscious decision to use this pain as my fuel to raise awareness and create change. This is probably one of the key reasons why so many of my writing clients are child abuse survivors themselves — as they know that they are safe to share their stories and that I’ll ensure everything we do together is handled with sensitivity.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
It’s only more recently that I’ve come to understand how my highly sensitive nature has impacted me in social situations — particularly, the workplace. I was always ‘that’ staff member who would cry if yelled at over the phone, or if a manager was speaking down to me. Prior to starting my own business, I worked in a number of construction industry jobs, one of which resulted in me working with a female manager who was emotionally manipulative and abusive. Being a highly sensitive person, she would often degrade and patronise me, knowing I was an easy target who was too worried about offending others to stand up for myself. Eventually, when I did confront her after many months of abuse and a steady decline to my mental/physical health, I burst into tears while simply trying to stand up for myself. I’ve always found it difficult to be around people who like to scream or swear at others.
I also struggle to be in environments with strong lighting or a lot of loud noise, and can’t work past 9pm, otherwise my brain becomes too stimulated and I suffer from insomnia.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
Like many teens, my high school years were filled with drama and high levels of emotion — neither of which were particularly unusual. For this reason, I had no idea that being a ‘highly sensitive person’ was in fact a legitimate personality trait. I don’t think it was until my late teens/early twenties, when I went out into the workforce, that I realised how sensitive I was to negative feedback, rude customers, loud/raised voices, and stimulating environments such as fluorescent lights (which would give me a headache and leave me feeling drained). I couldn’t understand why my co-workers would barely bat an eyelid when dealing with rude or overbearing managers/customers, yet I would dissolve into tears.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
In recent years, I’ve come to understand that being a HSP is actually a gift in many ways! We are able to understand ourselves and others far more deeply than many people can (or care to), and because of our high levels of self-awareness, are more likely to practice quality self-care. HSPs also tend to be highly creative and deeply passionate about helping others and creating social change.
Being a sensitive person isn’t a bad thing. It’s just about learning to manage your personality and the things that make you ‘YOU’ in the healthiest way possible. Ask yourself: ‘How could I use my sensitive nature to benefit my loved ones or community? How could it make me a stronger business owner?’
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
One of the things I love most about being who I am, is that my sensitivity and empathy has become one of my greatest blessings. It’s interesting, because growing up I always felt my sensitive nature was a burden or character flaw. All I wanted was to be tougher! But in actual fact, being a highly sensitive person has brought so many incredible people and opportunities into my life — particularly through my work as a writing coach and freelance journalist. I’ve lost count of how many people have approached me at events to share secrets they’ve never told another soul, or how many men and women have chosen to work with me specifically because of my lived-experience with trauma, and my commitment to sharing stories with care and confidence. I find that a real blessing.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Just like sensitivity, empathy is a beautiful thing. They’re both attributes that are so needed in our world. . That said, there is definitely a line between the two, particularly when that empathy spills over and becomes so overwhelming that it begins to impact on the person’s ability to function or thrive.
I think a good example is a situation I recently went through. It was a few months ago, just after the tragic New Zealand volcano eruptions. On the day the news came out, I received a call from someone to say that a girl who had gone to our school was amongst the victims on the island. This beautiful young woman was on the holiday of a lifetime with her partner, when both of them were caught up in the explosions. Coming from a tight-knit school, many of us felt so deeply for what her family must be going through — even though we weren’t necessarily close friends. As I heard the news reports for the next few days leading up to the confirmation of her death, I couldn’t help but feel sick. My stomach was full of knots, my energy was low, and I found myself on the verge of tears every time I thought of her family. Someone online mocked me for feeling so sad for a young woman who I was not close to, however, my feelings remained the same. I think a lot of people heard that news and felt sad, but it was only my highly-sensitive friends who — like me — felt physically impacted. We felt so distressed and heartbroken for this family that we found it hard to feel ‘happy’ for many days during/afterwards.
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?
This is a struggle I relate to so much!
Everyone who uses the internet knows that it can be both a kind and cruel world, but for those of us who are highly sensitive, it’s not as easy as simply saying: “Well it’s the internet, what do you expect? Of course people are going to be abusive. Deal with it.” I would say one of the hardest things for HSPs, is that we are — emotionally — very easily hurt. We also ‘see’ and ‘feel’ hurt far more often than others — whether it be via witnessing cyber-bullying, reading negative feedback, or seeing another human who is in mental pain and can’t find their worth.
These days I would say I have a healthier relationship with social media than I did in the past, but I’ve had to work hard at it. Particularly, given that I experience higher levels of anxiety and also hyper-stress response, when I’m online. Most of us are unable to give up on social media (either for business or personal reasons), but in my experience, the best advice I can give is to try and use it sparingly, hide news pages (particularly if you are highly sensitive to distressing content), and enjoy periods of digital detox.
One thing I have implemented, is to turn off all my notifications and ‘mute’ threads that I know are becoming distressing or highly negative. This way, if there is someone online who is harassing me, I don’t see their comments. If you do have to use social media for business, get on, post, and leave without scrolling through your feed.
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?
As a HSP, I am definitely self-aware enough to know that at times, the things which are causing me a great deal of distress, are not that big of a deal. Logically, I know that many others are able to read negative comments or get into heated debates, and they don’t feel emotionally impacted or deeply hurt. In these kinds of situations, I simply have to acknowledge that maybe they are right — maybe I am being petty or too sensitive. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I feel the way I do. In those situations, I leave the thread (if online), or end a conversation and move on.
I do think it’s important for those of us who are HSP to be proactive in becoming more emotionally resilient, while also honouring the fact that we are highly sensitive — and that this is not an inherently negative thing. I think it’s also important for those who love/are friends with HSPs to know that this is our nature, and we are wired differently to others.
I recently had an experience where someone I considered to be a friend, decided to harass me online even though they knew that their conversation and behaviour toward me was causing a lot of distress and anxiety. This person could not understand why I was upset by their behaviour, and not only continued to make light of the situation, but also refused to acknowledge/apologize for hurting me. Although I’m someone who believes deeply in having a diverse range of friends with different opinions, I made a decision in this situation to let go of this friendship. That in itself caused me to feel deeply sad, but I value my mental health too much to surround myself with people who thrive on causing drama or upsetting others.
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?
I think I simply take it as it is. Some people will see me as too emotional or sensitive, and that’s fine. Those people aren’t my tribe, so it’s not a big deal. That said, it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel upset when a close friend or family member perceives me in this way. I just do my best to focus on the things that are important to me, and continue moving forward. This is something I’ve had to consciously choose in my life, particularly in my work around suicide prevention and mental health advocacy. I know there are people who don’t understand why I’m so deeply empathetic or sensitive about these issues or why I share so openly about my own struggles — and that’s okay. At the end of the day, I choose to re-frame each moment and instead refocus on my core mission: to create social change.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
I feel that a lot of people perceive those of us who are highly sensitive, as being overly fragile, easily ‘triggered’, and too delicate to truly thrive in life. But you know what? That’s bulls**t. Yes, I’m the kind of person who can dissolve into a flood of tears because of something a stranger said on the internet to me, but I’m also the type of person who can spend 12 months of the year speaking about issues like suicide, child abuse and domestic violence, and go for long periods of time without crying or feeling upset by anything. I know my triggers and my weaknesses, and I also know my strengths. I simply work with them, and on my sensitive days, I actively minimize my exposure to situations, people, or things that I know are not going to help me thrive.
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?
You know what? I would love nothing more than to be able to ‘just stop being so sensitive’ at times. But a statement like that is much like telling someone with a broken leg to ‘just walk faster.’ It’s not possible. If you have someone in your life who is a HSP, please try to understand them much as you would a person who has a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or bipolar. They can’t just flick a switch and make the feeling go away by ‘thinking more positively’ or ‘just getting over it.’
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.
- Communication. You may have heard the saying ‘content is king,’ but in my opinion, it’s communication that rules. I truly believe this is one of the most important steps to not only surviving, but truly thriving as a highly sensitive person. You need to know how to communicate your feelings to your loved ones and those around you, not only so that you can work through your own feelings, but so your loved ones can better understand how to support you. I am very thankful to have an empathetic and supportive husband who knows what makes me tick, and how to support me when I’m feeling emotional about something. Unfortunately not everyone has this kind of partner in their lives, so the best advice I can give is to learn how to communicate with yourself first. Then learn how to communicate your own needs and struggles to others.
- Digital self-awareness. I can’t tell you how many people I see online who feel that they ‘have’ to be online all the time. They struggle with massive FOMO by not being up to speed on everything in their feed, or potentially missing out on important news. But just like alcohol or drugs, social media is addictive and can wreak havoc on our emotional and mental health — particularly for highly sensitive people. Earlier this year I did a digital detox for 5 days, and one of the most important things I learned, was this: life in the real world, is so much better than a life lived online for others.
If you know you’re a naturally sensitive person, and you find that social media exacerbates these qualities and is stopping you from thriving, then you need to take control of how much of your life you are giving to this online world. The best tip I can give you is to listen to your inner thoughts and become more self-aware of the impact that digital media is playing on you. It doesn’t mean throwing away your phone and living in a log cabin with a bearded bear hunter. It can be as simple as swapping your morning routine of scrolling through social media when you wake up, for listening to an inspiring and uplifting podcast.
- Combat sensitivity with imagination. Have you ever found yourself looking through text messages or emails, and wondering why your friend hasn’t replied to any of your texts for the past month? Or maybe you reached out to a magazine editor or business contact who seemed really interested in what you were doing, but then you got totally ghosted?
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that — as a HSP — I often jump to conclusions when this happens. ‘Maybe my pitch was boring and it totally tanked.’ ‘Maybe I read that person wrong, and they don’t actually want to be friends.’ ‘What if I’ve done something to offend them unknowingly?’ It may sound silly, but these are all thoughts that I’ve had (and sometimes still do)! One technique that helps prevent me from getting swept away by my feelings, is to force myself to be realistic and ponder alternatives to why I haven’t heard from someone. For example, maybe they’re dealing with sickness or they’ve been hit with a really stressful situation. Maybe my email simply got lost?
If this doesn’t help, I like to get super creative with my thinking and imagine the most ridiculous scenario possible. ‘Maybe this person just ate a super bad curry and is now suffering from an awful bout of gastro?’ I mean, it could happen, right?!
- Practice ‘experimentation without expectation. Being a highly sensitive person isn’t just about getting offended or hurt by things people say or do. It’s also about feeling hurt when we don’t live up to our own expectations, or something we truly longed for doesn’t go as planned. One thing I struggle a lot with, is honouring my achievements and not beating myself up emotionally when I don’t get the outcome I want.
At the end of 2019 I sat down and looked at my year, and if I’m honest, I had been a bit of a jerk to myself. I’d achieved so much, but honoured myself for so little. Instead of patting myself on the back for going after things that hadn’t worked out, I looked at myself through a constant lens of ‘failure.’
As a result, I decided to take a new approach for 2020 and developed a strategy I like to call ‘experimentation without expectation.’ Whether I’m working on something personal, or a business endeavour, I try to remain as curious about the whole process as possible. For example, instead of looking through my social feed and feeling hurt or inadequate by the lack of engagement on particular posts, I ask myself, ‘Okay, so what could I try differently?’ Likewise, if something in my business isn’t bringing in as many clients as I’d hoped, I push myself to think creatively about what I could experiment with instead.
It’s something that you can apply to anything in your life, whether it be a particular exercise method that isn’t shedding pounds like you’d hoped, or a media pitch that isn’t landing you interviews.I find that it’s a much kinder way of goal-setting, and as a HSP, it’s been working really well for me. Interestingly, since adopting this approach just a few weeks ago, I’ve not only felt calmer, but I’ve also been overwhelmed by incredible new clients and opportunities!
- Don’t make major decisions when you’re feeling extremely sensitive. In my experience as a HSP, the worst time to make decisions or respond to things that are causing us distress, is when we are in the middle of those intense feelings. Instead, try to leave it 24 hours, or at least until you have calmed down and can make a rational decision that is free from heightened emotion.
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 ultimate goal in life is to continue empowering people to look deep inside themselves, find the courage to speak out when they’re struggling, to own their stories, and to keep striving forward ‘one more day, every day.’ I truly believe that everyone has a story with the power to change lives, and we all have a greater purpose waiting to be discovered.
If I could share one message, it would be this: please don’t let your trauma define you. Instead, use it to redefine and reframe your life. You may not yet know what your purpose in this world is, but I promise you, you are meant to be here.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can join my tribe at jasrawlinson.com, or follow me via IG: @jas_rawlinson / Twitter: @jas_rawlinson / FB: @reasons to live one more day every day
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.