Be kind. This should be a given for any loving relationship, but it’s especially important in relationships with highly sensitive persons. They have a tendency to be hard on themselves, and feel criticism more deeply than the average person, so a little patience and tact can really pay off here. There’s no need to criticize somebody who’s already beating themselves up, so starting discussions on a positive note, even if the subject matter is difficult, maybe pretty key here.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Brown. John became a hypnotherapist after trying a number of other careers. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley and the UCLA School of Law, who spent years as an attorney and then as an entrepreneur (founder of The Los Angeles Shaving Soap Company). He realized that he wanted to help people more directly, and found that hypnotherapy offered the chance to help people make rapid positive changes to their lives. (As an attorney, he found that cases can take months if not years to resolve, and the outcomes are not always positive.) He attended the HMI College of Hypnotherapy in Tarzana, CA, the nation’s most comprehensive hypnotherapy training program. After he completed the program with honors, he became a certified hypnotherapist and a member of Hypnotherapists Union Local №472. When he is not running hypnotherapy sessions, chances are he might be wandering down Venice Beach, buying more books on hypnosis and hypnotherapy, or playing online chess (badly).
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 hypnotherapist, which means I assist people in dealing with their issues and getting past personal blocks and limitations by helping them access and use the power of the subconscious mind. Typically I work with individuals trying to break bad habits or achieve new levels of success in their lives, but I also work with people dealing with medical issues where hypnotherapy may be a helpful complementary approach. There is a growing body of peer-reviewed research showing that hypnotherapy can be effective for a variety of conditions, such as IBS, chronic pain, tinnitus habituation, and wound/post-surgery healing, among others.
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?
Highly Sensitive Persons are not just people with easily hurt feelings; they are:
believed to be easily overstimulated by external stimuli because they have a lower perceptual threshold and process stimuli cognitively deeper than most other people. In addition, they would respond more to cues in the environment by comparing them to previous experiences with similar cues. This may result in taking more time to observe and react slower whereby they seem less prone to act when confronted with a new situation and have more aversion towards risk-taking. (Aron, E. N., Aron, A., & Jagiellowicz, J. (2012). Sensory processing sensitivity: A review in light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(3), 262–282. cited in Boterberg, Sofie; Warreyn, Petra (2016), “Making sense of it all: The impact of sensory processing sensitivity on the daily functioning of children”, Personality and Individual Differences, 92: 80–86,)
It’s not a matter of being easily offended. Simply put, it means that highly sensitive persons feel things more deeply than the average person, and often need more time to process them, to avoid getting overstimulated or overwhelmed.
When discussing a Highly Sensitive Person, or a Sensory Processing Sensitivity, it is important to differentiate the issues that that condition presents from other conditions that may present similar issues, like PTSD or Sensory Processing Disorder, which can also result in people having an increased level of emotional response to environmental stimuli.
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?
The level of empathy depends on the individual, with highly sensitive people and everyone else. As Preston Ni has pointed out (link), there are at least three categories of sensitivity that a highly sensitive person can experience, namely sensitivity about oneself, sensitivity about others, or sensitivity about one’s environment. Each highly sensitive person processes information differently. Some may indeed have a higher level of empathy toward others and feel others’ pain more deeply, while others may be more focused on how things are affecting them directly. In any case, it’s probably best to work on not being hurtful, whether those around you are highly sensitive persons or not.
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?
I don’t think one needs to be a highly sensitive person to have significant difficulty with certain parts of popular culture or news, especially politics, over the last few years. I think it is important for everyone to monitor their media consumption, especially highly sensitive people, as too many of us, are finding ourselves needlessly upset because we can’t turn away from network news or social media. Developing the ability to turn off the glowing screens and spend more time building relationships with friends, family members, and acquaintances in the real world is an increasingly important project for all of us.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
It’s important for everyone, especially highly sensitive persons, to be aware of the conditions at their workplace, both in terms of the physical environment and the interpersonal behavior of one’s colleagues. Burnout is becoming an increasing factor in a wide variety of workplaces, and at least a third of Americans have thought about quitting their jobs in the last 3 months. (Link.) Thankfully, the labor market is worker friendly at the moment (allegedly), and companies like glassdoor.com have made it even easier to get a sense of what one’s future workplace might be like, and even how other people confidentially feel about their own current workplaces.
Highly sensitive persons are going to be more affected by these environmental and social issues at work, but it’s important for them to realize that they are not alone. We all face challenges in our daily lives, and if your workplace is making you unhappy on a daily basis, it’s time to make changes. This can be as simple as addressing the issues directly with your colleagues and management, or it can be a matter of accepting that things aren’t going to change where you are, and putting your resume together.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
Since being a highly sensitive person is not a disorder, the question is not so much whether a person’s level rises above the societal norm, but whether the individual is putting their sensitivity to its best use, and whether that sensitivity is causing them issues in their daily life. If so, the question is whether they need to adapt their current conditions, or whether the individual needs to find new conditions that won’t require as much adaptation. This will vary for each individual, and talking with friends, trusted colleagues, and helping professionals can assist each person in making the right decisions for themselves.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantage. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
The highly sensitive person seems to share many of the traits of what was formerly known as the “artistic temperament,” and there’s no doubt that many individuals with that temperament have produced fantastic creations over the years. The sensitivity a highly sensitive person has toward their own experiences, the experiences of others and the nature of the world around them can translate into highly moving and detailed works of art and literature since they feel and process these things at a more impactful level than the average person.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
The entire field of ergonomics is a world where being of great sensitivity to one’s environment, working to reduce unpleasant stimuli, and increasing the comfort of oneself and others, can be tremendously helpful. Also, as our economy continues its shift away from manufacturing toward the service sector, having individuals who are especially sensitive to the needs and wants of others can be an advantage to the companies that hire them (with the caveat that one may need to teach them skills for resilience or keep them off of frontline customer service if the company is in a contentious business).
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
This is not entirely accurate. As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has pointed out, being overly empathetic can lead one to make judgments on the basis of particular individual cases, rather than thinking through the full ramifications of action on society as a whole, often with unintended outcomes. (Link.) While being a kind and empathetic person is important, it is equally important to be able to contextualize your actions and those of others. Whether one is highly sensitive or overly empathetic, one must work to be able to take a step back and process information in terms of a greater perspective, so that one’s heart and one’s head can work together to produce the best overall results.
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?
A highly sensitive person can utilize the benefits of social media without being pulled down by it by being a highly selective person in terms of which formats they choose to avail themselves of. Twitter may not be the best bet if you are uncomfortable with debating the general public. Using Facebook, where you can remove comments, or using youtube with the comments turned off, maybe a better option if you want to create and offer content. Using a social media “diet” may be another approach that can be effective for many people, not just highly sensitive persons. Limiting your social media time to a couple of hours per day, or even less than an hour, maybe a good way to start. Everybody needs to make sure that they are getting the bulk of their daily interpersonal input from people they actually know and trust, rather than from electronic strangers.
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 advise my clients to exercise their own good judgment here and decide whether they were, in fact, being petty or hypersensitive, or if they were being gaslit by people more tolerant of offensive behavior. If they were being oversensitive, they might want to work on desensitizing themselves to
particular situations (or doing so with the help of a trained counselor or hypnotherapist) or learning resiliency skills. If it turns out that they’re not being petty and they have an objective reason to be affected, then it may be a matter of finding different people to be around.
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?
There are a few strategies that I would use with my clients to address the challenges that come with being a highly sensitive person, namely teaching them resiliency skills, desensitizing them to frequent stressors, and helping them gain clarity on their goals and structuring their approach to achieving them effectively.
When I say teaching resiliency skills, this is not to say that highly sensitive persons are not already resilient in dealing with the challenges of daily life, but that we can all take advantage of the recent research on resiliency and adjust accordingly. These skills include working to understand difficult situations accurately, without catastrophizing the situation, developing to move forward when the circumstances have been accurately understood and reaching out for help as needed so that there are multiple people to help handle the challenge.
Hypnotic desensitization is also a helpful technique for dealing with common stressors. In this method, the hypnotherapist places a client in hypnosis and gets them into an enjoyably relaxed and comfortable state. Then the client imagines walking through potentially stressful situations in their imagination, beginning from a safe and comfortable imagined state and only moving forward until the first sign of discomfort appears, and which point the client is brought back to the safe and comfortable state. This process is repeated until the individual can imagine handling the formerly stressful situation without discomfort in a calm and relaxed state. Then when the client later faces the situation in real life, it is far less likely to cause distress.
Another approach to handle challenges effectively is to make sure the highly sensitive person has thought through their goals and prioritized their actions accordingly. As psychiatrist Viktor Frankl pointed out:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” (Frankl, Viktor E., Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, New York:Washington Square Press, 1984.)
Once an individual has chosen their goals, thought through the steps necessary to achieving them, and started in an appropriately confident frame of mind, it’s a lot easier to deal with the challenges that arise along the way.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
Just because a person is sensitive and may take a little more time to process things does not mean that they are weaker or less useful, or constantly need to be treated with kid gloves. Just as with anyone else, highly sensitive persons need to put forth the effort to find workplaces and communities that will allow them to be their best selves. Being a highly sensitive person may make it somewhat more challenging than the average person to find those situations, but this also means that they won’t be able to tolerate unpleasant situations nearly as long as a less sensitive person might choose to. Whether one is highly sensitive or not, we should all work to find our optimum situation, and to help others to do the same.
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 a matter of communication. If someone is constantly being met with the sentiment of “why can’t you just stop being so sensitive” then clearly some adjustments need to be made? Either the highly sensitive person is presenting a valid concern that perhaps others had not yet noticed, in which case the matter can and should be promptly dealt with, or the highly sensitive person is in a situation that, despite the best efforts of all involved, just isn’t suitable for them, in which case they may need to find a better situation. In either case, handling matters openly, calmly and directly as soon as they arise, if not before, rather than waiting until anyone ends up in distress, is likely to be the most effective way to find a solution.
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. The first step to surviving and thriving as a highly sensitive person is to be kind to yourself. Highly sensitive people often have a hard time with negative self-talk, either as a result of how they feel they should have done better in a particular situation or as a result of comparing themselves with other people. In any case, life presents enough challenges, especially for highly sensitive persons, so it’s best to work on giving yourself the benefit of the doubt and engage in positive self-talk, so you can give yourself the best chance at success.
2. The second step for success as a highly sensitive person is for them to communicate their needs effectively and honestly to others from the outset, or at least as soon as the situation is comfortable enough for them to do so. When everybody’s expectations are managed from the beginning, it’s a lot easier to get buy-in and work to make sure everyone’s comfortable than it is to try to deal with things later, when people are under stress. The old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” definitely holds true in this case.
3. The third step is to work to make sure your home environment is as comfortable and calming as possible. (Like most of the advice for highly sensitive people, this is probably a good idea for everyone.) Install dimmer switches or change lighting if it’s too bright, google basic soundproofing techniques to ensure your home is as quiet as you need it to be, and make a conscious effort to make your home truly comfortable. If there are things about your place that don’t make you happy, and they are changeable, change them. A few hours of labor now can provide months of the future peace of mind.
4. Once your home is as comfortable and calming as possible, then begin to do the same thing with your work environment. This may require a little more diplomacy and group discussion than your home adjustments, but you’re not the only one that wants a comfortable and calming workplace, and nobody likes the person who insists on cooking fish or burning popcorn in the break room microwave. If you can help your office take steps to make your workplace quieter and less aromatic, you’ll probably find yourself a well-liked colleague pretty quickly.
5. Finally, give yourself time and space. Many highly sensitive persons need time to process sensory stimuli, and the space to do so by themselves. If you’re a highly sensitive person, then accepting this fact, and avoiding overstimulation and getting overwhelmed where possible, will make it a lot easier to handle things.
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?
1. Just as it is important for highly sensitive persons to give themselves time and space to process information and make decisions, it is equally important for those in a relationship with a highly sensitive person to be aware of that need and to give them the necessary time and space. Their need for time and space does not mean they don’t care about you, just that they need time to process things, and sometimes they need to do that on their own.
2. Be kind. This should be a given for any loving relationship, but it’s especially important in relationships with highly sensitive persons. They have a tendency to be hard on themselves, and feel criticism more deeply than the average person, so a little patience and tact can really pay off here. There’s no need to criticize somebody who’s already beating themselves up, so starting discussions on a positive note, even if the subject matter is difficult, may be pretty key here.
3. Make sure you’re both happy. Just because your significant other is a highly sensitive person doesn’t mean you have to live in fear of making them upset or constantly engage in self-sacrificing behavior. The essence of a healthy relationship is both parties making sure that everyone gets their needs met. One of the benefits of being in a relationship with a highly sensitive person is that they are often highly empathetic, and maybe just as concerned about your well-being as they are about theirs. With open communication and discussion, both parties should be able to get their needs met.
4. Have plans for when your highly sensitive significant other is exhausted/overwhelmed. Since highly sensitive persons feel things more deeply and more intensely than the average person, they can get exhausted or overwhelmed more easily. This is something to keep in mind when planning itineraries for outings, vacations, etc. Highly sensitive people still want to go and do exciting things and see the world, they may just need to take a time out now and again, to get away from the crowds and the overstimulation, and accounting for that ahead of time is an easy way to make sure everyone has a good time.
5. Check in. As with so many aspects of relationships of all sorts, with people who are highly sensitive or not, the easiest way to see how people are doing is by communicating effectively. Highly sensitive persons may be so used to being seen as highly sensitive that they don’t want to cause trouble for others, and as a result, may not always make people aware when they’re overstimulated or overwhelmed, so checking in with them and letting them know that it’s OK to have time for themselves and to get their needs met is a pretty good idea.
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.
At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, try to be a friend to future you. Exercising common sense and foresight with a reasonable level of consistency would do more to bring about good for more people than just about anything else I can imagine. Whether this involves developing skills for resiliency to better cope with the world as a highly sensitive person, or whether it involves changing your situation to a place where your talents and sensitivities can be put to their higher purpose, be a friend to your future self and give yourself the opportunity to succeed going forward. There are many of us who are here to help.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can learn more about my practice at https://johnbrownhypnotherapy.com
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
You’re very welcome. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.