…One thing is incredibly important. If you can’t understand why your Highly Sensitive significant other is so upset by something, once tempers and feelings cool, work to get to fear below the anger or sadness. This is something I work with my clients on all the time. Perfect example. I had a client who was furious with his wife because he felt like she never picked up after herself. When we worked through those feelings, it came down to feeling like, if she didn’t pick up after herself and expected him to do it, it meant she didn’t respect him. And if she didn’t respect him, it meant their bond wasn’t as strong as he thought or wanted it to be, When he addressed this fear with her, she understood why he was so upset and made changes. But, she also asked him to give her the benefit of the doubt in that situation and address those issues with her instead of burying the hurt deep down. Having those honest conversations can make all the difference.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jay Shifman.Jay is a Mental Health and Addiction Speaker, Writer, Advocate and Coach. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jay now lives with his wife, Lauren and their dog, Nell, on Daniel Island outside Charleston, SC. Ten years in recovery from a debilitating prescription pill addiction, these topics are very personal to him. His dream is to see a day where no stigma remains and those in need receive the help they deserve.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Jay! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Thanks for having me to talk about something that I believe is incredibly important. I am an Addiction and Mental Health writer, speaker, advocate and coach and I’m a highly sensitive person, so this is article is touching on a lot of points for me.
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?
While that’s often true, it’s sort of a backwards way to look at it. Those are symptoms at one end of the spectrum. This may sound hokey, but I like to look at Highly Sensitive people as having a sort of super power! We, humans, all have strengths and weaknesses. For example, I have a strong nose but terrible eyesight. Highly Sensitive people are simply stronger in the sense of empathy. There’s no iron clad definition that fits every person, and many people mistakenly use Highly Sensitive person when they mean Empath or the other way around. Which is ok. People are rarely one thing or another. We’re all points on a spectrum. Highly Sensitive people are simply farther down on the spectrum toward a classification built around Empathy than their peers. Which is both a wonderful and, at times, challenging distinction.
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?
Simple answer, yes. Although, again, I’m hesitant to say something is always true. There are many characteristics associated with Highly Sensitive people and not every one needs to fit the person like a glove for them to be a Highly Sensitive person. That’s why I prefer the tests that identify someone, again, along a spectrum. But as a general rule, yes, Highly Sensitive people are more in tune with other peoples’ feelings which leads to us feeling offended for others. This can often be labeled a negative by people who believe we’re simply always fighting back. The new buzzword is ‘Social Justice Warrior’, which some use as a negative. Like there’s anything wrong with wanting to see justice and truth in the world! But there’s a lot of injustice in the world and sometimes it can be overwhelming.
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?
This is another one of those stereotypes but often it’s true. It depends on the person but for me at least, well-acted scenes of true despair or suicide, I feel it deeply in my soul and can be hard to bounce back from. But it has to be well acted.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
I think we see this all the time. I don’t want to go into extreme specifics, in order to protect identity, but I can think of a few examples. All of them revolve around emails. Us Highly Sensitive people, we read into things too often. And people are curt in emails. 99 times out of 100 they don’t mean anything by their curtness. It’s an email! But it’s easy to read something into it and then that little nothing begins to grow into hurt feelings. It’s something I work on with my clients. We need to dig down past the surface level feeling to get to the truth of the matter. Often, it’s fear. Fear is an incredibly motivating emotion. So that annoyance over someone sounding short in an email, let’s dig past that. Maybe the person is afraid that if that coworker is short with them it means that they don’t respect them or think they’re not good at their job. And what if they tell that to their supervisor and the person gets fired? In reality, that may be the case, but I doubt it. Probably, the person who wrote the email was simply pressed for time and you, being a Highly Sensitive person who wouldn’t write a curt email, you’re reading into it. If we dig deeper, we can usually dispel a little bit of that anxiety.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
I have trouble with this question. Let’s get rid of this idea. There’s no such thing as too sensitive. We need to normalize all levels of sensitivity. If I do nothing else in this interview I want it to be that. Let’s normalize ALL levels of sensitivity.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
What a great question! I want to return to the analogy of someone who has a strong sense of smell. Maybe you can smell the amazing aromas of your grandmother’s cooking the minute you enter her house, but you have that cousin who, the minute they turn on to her street, gets excited because grandma is making her pasta sauce or her collards. That’s a highly sensitive person. What you feel, magnify that. Empathy is a wonderful emotion. It’s truly missing, at the grand scale, in our society today. High sensitive people, we feel it deep in us. Feelings are simply stronger. If we’re sitting in a restaurant and a couple in the back of the room is having an argument, we can feel it. Our heart hurts for everyone suffering and it can be a bit exhausting but it can also be a wonderful feeling truly connected.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I had a client tell me this story, which I love. He and a friend were texting one morning about the NBA. During a lull in the conversation my client checked Instagram and saw his friend had posted a story about his car being broken into. Without another thought my client venmo’d his friend 5 dollars and told him to go buy his morning coffee on him. My client said the friend then posted a screen shot of the venmo on Instagram announcing to his followers that my client had made his day. It’s that sort of empathy that comes naturally to Highly Sensitive people. See, it’s a super power!
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
That’s right! There’s no harm to it as long as those who are Highly Sensitive protect their Mental Health. It can be hard being Highly Sensitive in a world where many others are not and don’t really understand or cater to high levels of sympathy. And now that Empathy is disappearing at an alarming rate, it’s even more difficult. So Highly Sensitive people need to protect their Mental Health! But to answer your question, the line is drawn by tests you can take to determine if you’re a Highly Sensitive person. I like Dr. Elaine Aron’s. You can find info on her website.
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 is another issue in itself. Trying to explain that in a few sentences is tough. I hope you don’t mind that I skip this one because there are benefits, such as feeling connected to people that in the past we would have lost touch with. But there’s so much damage and harm too. There’s a lot of unnecessary negativity out there that flat-out hurts. And it outweighs the positive.
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?
Now we’re getting to the meat of this issue. This happens all the time. I usually instruct my clients to simply inform the person that they’ll have to agree to disagree on the severity of the issue and instead focus on the issue itself. No one wins when you try to argue something subjective like that. But when you actually discuss the issue itself, based in fact, you can get somewhere. If the person they’re talking to is using that deflection as a strategy to avoid talking about their transgression, that’s another issue. But in any event it doesn’t help anyone to argue what constitutes a major or minor offence.
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?
First and foremost, remember that you’re more in tune with others than they are with you. And give others the benefit of the doubt. Instead of assuming intent, ask for it. It’s ok to tell someone how they made you feel and clarify. I know this may sound strange; the stigma around talking about Mental Health is alive and kicking! But if more people open up to others, we can tear down that barrier and end the stigma.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth I want to dispel is that there’s anything wrong with being highly sensitive. Being highly sensitive can be tough sometimes. Feeling things deeply, in your soul, when someone meant nothing by their comment or action can be hard to let go of. But it’s a gift! Highly Sensitive people KNOW when people they care about are suffering. They KNOW how to make it better and there’s a strong desire to do so. Lean into that. We need more empathy in our society. If you’re reading this and you’re a Highly Sensitive person, you are and have a GIFT!
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?
It’s natural to belittle what we don’t understand. That doesn’t make it ok, but it’s understandable. In my work advocating for better care for those struggling with substance abuse issues, we run against that issue all the time. One tool I advocate is turning that question around. If someone is pushing back, ask them about something in their life, or about them, that people don’t understand. That instantly creates a bond. And when you listen, you learn. Once that door is open, you can have a more fruitful conversation.
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 If You Love Or Are In A Relationship With A Highly Sensitive Person. Please give a story or an example for each.
I don’t know about 5 things. That’s a lot. But one thing is incredibly important. If you can’t understand why your Highly Sensitive significant other is so upset by something, once tempers and feelings cool, work to get to fear below the anger or sadness. This is something I work with my clients on all the time. Perfect example. I had a client who was furious with his wife because he felt like she never picked up after herself. When we worked through those feelings, it came down to feeling like, if she didn’t pick up after herself and expected him to do it, it meant she didn’t respect him. And if she didn’t respect him, it meant their bond wasn’t as strong as he thought or wanted it to be, When he addressed this fear with her, she understood why he was so upset and made changes. But, she also asked him to give her the benefit of the doubt in that situation and address those issues with her instead of burying the hurt deep down. Having those honest conversations can make all the difference.
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.
Simple: practice empathy and be open with your own feelings. Reach out to others to show them you care and in doing so be honest with them about what’s happening in your life. When you see someone practice vulnerability, it can lead to you feeling more comfortable doing the same. When we normalize empathy and compassion, we can end the stigma around Addiction and Mental Health and increase access to care for everyone. This is how we fix what’s wrong with our country.
How can our readers follow you online?
Check out my website, JayShifman.com or find me on LinkedIn. You can also find me on Instagram at TheNextShifman.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity!