Mindfulness is your best friend. I think that more of us, as human beings, fall closer to being and experiencing what HSPs might. So, stop and assess what’s going on with you daily. You can do this in the morning, in the evening, or even multiple times per day. Assess your physical, mental, and emotional states in a non-judgmental manner, then distract yourself with a mindful activity. Do the dishes (not most people’s first choice, I’m sure) or take a walk and really observe what is going on in your environment. You can also distract yourself with textures. Feel the ridges and grooves in the seat in which you’re sitting. After you’ve thoroughly distracted yourself, go back into your present situation or environment. You will now be in a much better place to give a response versus simply reacting, which is key. If you are susceptible to engaging in HSP behaviors, a great way to gauge how much and how often is to remain mindful. It’s like you’re giving it out in doses instead of being completely open, all the time.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP, Chief Clinical Officer of Foundations Wellness Center.
Born in Trinidad, Justin Baksh brings an international viewpoint to the practice of mental health counseling in the United States, offering a fresh, unique perspective on the problems we face here. His desire to help others who are struggling with mental health and addiction issues led him to pursue a career in counseling after completing his service in the United States Marine Corps. Today, Baksh has over a decade of successful experience as a counselor, both in private practice and as the head of clinical operations at Foundations Wellness Center. His experience working with a wide variety of mental health conditions on a daily basis has developed his no-holds-barred-yet-empathetic style, and he offers down-to-earth advice about living in the real world, always based on evidence-based therapies and treatments. His expertise has been called upon for numerous speaking engagements as well as frequent quotes in the media, including prestigious sites such as Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Bustle, Rewire and Healthline. Baksh holds a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling, is a licensed mental health counselor and a certified Master’s level addiction professional. He is also the author of the Foundations’ blog. Baksh lives with his beautiful wife and daughter on the Treasure Coast in eastern central Florida and makes frequent visits to the Philippines, his wife’s native country.
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 have over a decade of experience as a licensed mental health counselor, both in private practice and, currently, as the Chief Clinical Officer at Foundations Wellness Center. Over this time, I’ve successfully worked with a wide variety of individuals and conditions, including substance use disorder, anxiety, depression, trauma, PTSD, ADHD, OCD and more. After serving in the United States Marine Corps, I decided to pursue counseling because of my desire to be of service to people who are struggling with addiction and mental health issues. In addition to my mental health counseling license, I hold a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling and have attained the Certified Master’s Level Addiction Professional credential. I was born in Trinidad and my wife is from the Philippines, where we visit as much as possible each year. Living and spending time outside of the United States has given me the ability to recognize the cultural norms and biases that people who’ve lived here all of their lives might not even be aware of, which, in turn, allows me to help others gain a fresh perspective on their own circumstances and situations.
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?
What comes to mind when you hear the words “Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?” Do you attach a positive or negative connotation to that term? Correspondingly, that is how you will (consciously or subconsciously) interact with the person whom you deem to be highly sensitive. In other words, you’ve already made a predetermined judgment on how you are going to treat them, without even knowing it. Therefore, the definition of what it means to be an HSP can be very subjective, originating from our own perception of sensitive people and what that has meant to us in life. On one hand, it can represent someone who is easily offended, easily hurt or overly conscious of their feelings. It also can be someone who easily melts when their feelings are not considered or attended to (sometimes dubbed a “snowflake” in today’s terms). On the other hand, sometimes people label those with a high EQ as highly sensitive as well. Also called empaths, these are people who seem “Zen,” or at one with the energy of the universe. These folks are able to just vibe in any situation. They have a calming effect; you are reassured when they are around. Contrast this with the negative view of the HSP, where you sometimes feel as though you are walking on eggshells trying not to “break” their feelings. These are the positive and negative views of what people imagine HSPs to be. In a way, it’s all true. HSPs are more open to their environments — to the comments, opinions, and emotions of others — than the average person. However, the spin on whether this is a good thing or bad comes from our own minds.
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?
Yes,a highly sensitive person (HSP) can have a higher degree of empathy toward others. Take Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for example. The hierarchy is represented by a pyramid, where, when each need is met, our focus turns to fulfilling the next level of needs. At the bottom, the widest part of the pyramid, is sleep, water, food, excretion, oxygen, and sex (procreation not recreation). The next level addresses security; the next, relationships; the next, self; and then finally comes self-actualization. When all an individual’s needs are met, they can be more attuned to the needs of others. Maslow did not specifically mention the term HSP, but can you imagine that, if all your needs (not wants) were met, you could be more open to others? The answer is yes. If you can imagine this, you can imagine what it is like to be an HSP. By being more in tune with other’s feelings and vibes, an HSP is more impacted by the actions and statements of others. If those actions and statements are taken at face value, without considering the context, it can be extremely detrimental to the HSP. I can tell you that, as a therapist, if I took every client’s actions or decisions to heart, I would have had a nervous breakdown years ago. People are rarely the decisions, attitudes, or behaviors they display.
An HSP can also be easily offended by other’s remarks. They can also take on too much of other people’s battles, taking an unfair ownership or responsibility that is not their burden to bear. If an individual has an intense reaction to a statement, it resonates with them because they have experienced something like it before. We identify with our values and beliefs so much that, when someone says something that runs counter to those values or beliefs, we can feel personally attacked. So the more offended we get — the more it resonates and hurts us — is a measure of how deeply we identify with what we subconsciously feel is under siege from the offense.
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 a hot topic nowadays! I had a client that was in a total panic when Donald Trump was elected to office. This client had mixed Middle Eastern and Puerto Rican ancestry, and it was apparent that he had be subjected to racial slurs throughout his upbringing. He came into session the day after the election results were in and reported to me that there was rioting going on, he was fearful that his girlfriend and family may be targeted, and that he was going to be unsafe moving forward. Now, mind you, I had just driven across the same town he did to get to my office. I started to get worried that I had missed so much chaos and free-for-all happening around town. Instead, there was nothing to the level that he described, and his fears were driving his reaction. He was feeding into the hype of the situation. I’m not downplaying or invalidating how he was feeling, but his reaction was not proportionate to the situation.
Pop culture, entertainment and news do very much impact the way people think because it hits on how we feel. We are emotional creatures, and when something resonates with us, we can buy into it, even when faced with facts supporting a contrary truth. This is the essence of how wars have been fought and won, the “edge” in business, and the sixth sense mothers have. This ability of HSPs to be impacted by their experiences is very real and very protected.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
HSPs tend to miss out on a lot. For example, I work with an individual who is very caring and compassionate. They are always willing to help and jump in whenever needed. Due to their highly sensitive nature, they are also very self-conscious about what others think about them. This has led to avoidance of company functions, birthday get-togethers, and other social functions. Not only is the team robbed of bonding with this individual, but this individual is robbed of bonding with the team. I knew that this would be a risky move, but at the company Christmas party when we were giving out superlatives, we gave him the “Wound Up the Tightest” award. Not only was it received well, but he knew that he needed to work on not being so sensitive. It actually benefitted him, as he made it a goal over the next year to not be so sensitive and to connect more with others. On the other hand, there is also an empath employed for us. She gives so much and invests so much with the clients and staff that I have to occasionally remind her of self-care. You can see this cycle she places herself in play out again and again. She means no ill will, but she does incur consequences from trying to get involved with everything.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
Based on the Bell Curve, there are always 64% within the “norm,” 27.2% outside of the norm, and the remaining 4.6% making up the outliers. If you aren’t familiar with the Bell Curve, imagine that the middle is where most people lie. If you move outward in either direction, then you experience outside of the norm, with the very ends being the outliers. Therefore, it’s not one-sided. And since it’s not one-sided, then neither can this argument be. There is taking on too much or not enough; engaging in too much empathy, where you are incurring consequences for yourself, or living in apathy. In my work, we dub the taking on of too much “codependency.” With codependency, the external person or event dictates how you feel on the inside. You can imagine that, if you take on too much, then you are fraught with anxiety or are neglecting yourself to benefit this external thing. Being apathetic is no picnic, either. Remember, we are built to experience emotion, so denying ourselves can lead to an unfulfilled life.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
You can get the edge if you can stay on the outside, which is what an HSP tends to do in an attempt to protect their feelings. This can actually benefit someone in reading a situation; it happens all the time in sales or negotiations. If you are dealing with someone and you can determine how emotionally invested they are in something, then you can also finagle a better deal; maybe for yourself, maybe for them. You can also help others navigate circumstances when you pick up on things and they don’t. You might intervene with your friend and deter them from saying something that can get them in hot water for misreading a situation. In this way, if it is used correctly, being highly sensitive can help the person read a situation for some sort of advantage.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
Daily counseling sessions are filled with these stories. My former trades, having been in the military and not knowing my path when I was younger, led me to many jobs that were mechanical in nature. Then, when I got into counseling, not only did I have to get over the “male right brain,” but I also had to get over the stereotypical, solution-focused mindset I had. While learning the basic counselor tools, such as unconditional positive regard, active listening, reflective listening, and many others, I thought to myself that these would never work. Therefore, I was taken aback when low and behold, I used them, and not only did I have highly effective results as a clinician, but my clients were able to tap into their emotions a lot quicker. It’s amazing to see how being sensitive can impact others, causing them to feel and think the same way. I had to move from concrete, operational thinking to just intuition and empathy. It was quite the adjustment, but it was extremely effective.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
There is a ton of give-and-take in the way this question is phrased. Perception is in the eye of the beholder. So, yes, on the surface level it seems that being overly empathetic carries no consequences, but in the words of Captain Morgan, everything should be done in moderation. If you get overly involved with being too empathetic, then you are possibly setting poor boundaries and, consequently, not being fully able to attend to your own needs. Whereas, if you are overly emotional, then you could be, once again, taking on too much that does not belong to you. This also incurs consequences and results in not being a whole and happy you. If you learn how to balance both emotions and empathy, you have a better chance of using and gaining benefits from both. Thus, I would say is it a matter of balancing your giving and your taking, and that is how you can possibly differentiate between the two.
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?
Wow! It’s so easy to be inundated with what you draw in on social media. There’s a school of thought about cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are negative patterns of thought that we are usually unaware of, but that affects us nonetheless. They lead to many more negative thoughts — usually all self-defeating. I can easily see how an HSP can feel influenced and bombarded by their experiences on social media. My advice is to take it in small doses. We simply can’t sit and digest multiple stories that impact us negatively or evoke anger or guilt or sorrow. Take a break and, if you MUST, resume later. Also, you should always question the source. That’s the one lasting lesson I learned from taking statistics: Always ask, “What’s the source and what’s the sample size?” Also, you should ask yourself if what you are seeing is really reflective of you and your beliefs and, most importantly, is it true? Reflective questioning and openness to different perspectives is key. You can’t simply react to the opposite viewpoint or content; you have to remain unbiased in order to keep your emotions in check and respond appropriately.
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?
What’s true for me might not be true for you. You need to learn to support yourself through advocating for yourself, without fear of judgment or repercussion. This is much easier said than done, of course. You have to imagine what is easier to deal with: Asserting and advocating for yourself and being okay with the peanut gallery comments, or not saying anything and stewing in thoughts of “should’ve, would’ve, or could’ve.” We often regret when we don’t allow ourselves to be authentic and real. So, let the other person know how you are feeling. Tell them, “This might not be important to you, but it’s very important to me.” In some cases, an explanation might not even be needed. Whatever you are okay with is what is most important.
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’s an old saying in therapy: It’s only a problem if the client sees it as a problem. Although there might be a problem and the client does not see it yet; hence, why they might have come into therapy. You may not realize you have a problem, but you are experiencing consequences, and that’s usually the gauge for all decisions about change. Meaning that, if there aren’t any consequences, and a client is only experiencing rewards, then why do they need to change? It’s the consequences and whether you perceive them to be good or bad that will guide you to decisions that need to be made. If you realize, for example, that you are available, giving, and engaged, but the effort is not received well or reciprocated, then you might want to evaluate what just happened and change your behavior accordingly. For example, you bring a card and a small cake for your co-worker’s birthdays. Nice gesture, but suddenly you are the go-to person and have just been nominated as the spirit squad of one — not to mention your employer is not reimbursing you monthly for the cards and cakes. You might want to step back and evaluate if this is something you need to continue doing. If not, it’s okay to stop.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t think it’s fair to pin every aspect of an HSP’s personality to one end of the spectrum or the other. One common myth is that HSPs can’t take any feedback. Instead, this is the essence of what makes this type of person great — their ability to see and perceive others is what makes them skilled. There might also be the myth that HSP are poor decisionmakers, constantly dwelling on their feelings or experiencing impacts from them, resulting in no (or poor) decisions being made. I don’t feel that this is the case with every HSP. Yes, an HSP can take on so much of others’ “stuff” that they neglect themselves, and, in extreme cases, if a person is an HSP and they minimally understand the nature of that, they can possibly present as being depressed, or actually be depressed. Again, taking on the emotional baggage of others can lead to the HSP becoming exhausted and drained, leaving nothing for themselves; but, again, not all HSPs necessarily do this all the time.
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?
Start socializing our kids from the moment they are born to understand that human beings are emotional creatures. Instead, we shun and berate those of us that are truly in tune with themselves and others. Think about it: When are we most upset in life? When we lose someone, when we disappoint others or ourselves, or when we have no purpose or identity. When are we the happiest? When we achieve, succeed, make lasting connections, or are able to be in our purest form with another person. Who teaches you to know or be okay with this, though? We are socialized (especially in Western culture) to be tough and to not show emotion, even to the point of being egocentric and self-absorbed. We focus on what is good for the individual over the community. We reward personal, tangible achievement and then wonder when someone shows emotions if it is a sign of weakness. That’s not a gender thing, by the way. I’ve had countless men and women over the years state the same thing: “If I cry, it’s a sign of weakness,” or “I was never able to grieve,” and “I played sports so I had to suck it up. I had to get the edge over the other person.” The list goes on and on. So the change starts with our own views on the expression of emotion and then modeling to and teaching our children that it’s okay to experience and embrace their emotions.
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.
- Know that there’s nothing wrong with you! Yes, you are more in tune with others. Yes, you can read and see between the lines. If you aren’t experiencing negative consequences, and you are happy with being available to others, then carry on. If you find, though, that you are lacking time for yourself, then stop, evaluate, and reflect on what you are doing. Or, maybe more importantly, how much you are doing and for whom.
- Mindfulness is your best friend. I think that more of us, as human beings, fall closer to being and experiencing what HSPs might. So, stop and assess what’s going on with you daily. You can do this in the morning, in the evening, or even multiple times per day. Assess your physical, mental, and emotional states in a non-judgmental manner, then distract yourself with a mindful activity. Do the dishes (not most people’s first choice, I’m sure) or take a walk and really observe what is going on in your environment. You can also distract yourself with textures. Feel the ridges and grooves in the seat in which you’re sitting. After you’ve thoroughly distracted yourself, go back into your present situation or environment. You will now be in a much better place to give a response versus simply reacting, which is key. If you are susceptible to engaging in HSP behaviors, a great way to gauge how much and how often is to remain mindful. It’s like you’re giving it out in doses instead of being completely open, all the time.
- Educate those closest to you. Oftentimes I’ve found when working with clients that our families and closest support systems know when we are on or off before we do. If you are an HSP, educate your friends and family on what that means and how you typically act on that tendency. That way, they can help you keep yourself in check if need be. If not, then they are at least aware of what you are doing and can maybe assist in talking you down from the ledge.
- Know that doing nothing, in some cases, is doing something. We don’t always have to be solution-focused. We can actually just be in the moment and not do anything for anyone. It’s just like the old analogy of the glass being half empty or half full… it is a matter of perception. What do you believe it to be? How about the glass is just simply half? Why must we attach a positive or negative connotation to everything? Because we are rewards-and-pleasure driven and we usually want the best outcome we can possibly get. In some cases, you have to just let that person or situation be, and not judge it as good or bad. This is for your own peace of mind.
- Struggle is growth! We, in most cases, are built to want to help others and be connected to them. We also like the validation and rewards we receive from doing something good for them. I’d like for you to think for a moment, though, about what your greatest accomplishments have been in your life. Most often, it’s when you’ve had to struggle and overcome what seemed at the time to be an enormous and impassable barrier. But you overcame. And you succeeded. And you cherished that more than anything else. That’s the benefit of struggle. Just because you are highly sensitive and can empathize with others doesn’t mean you have to. In fact, you may be harming others by trying to help. If you don’t let others struggle through adversity and barriers, you rob them of the rewards for doing so. As much as possible, let other people have and own their own experiences.
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.
Mindful acts of gratitude or kindness. We have all heard of acts of service or kindness; we can relate to them and have probably even engaged in some ourselves from time to time. Here’s the thing, though: Sometimes, occasionally, and inconsistently doesn’t work for us humans. Therefore, we need consistent reminders and reinforcers to keep us on track. Just as we need to be mindful to not let stressors combine into the unimaginable, we need to mindfully — on a daily and in a consistent fashion — do something kind or gracious. We can easily be influenced by social media, trends, or technology. Their secret weapon is the balance between real and ideal. We know we should, but where are the real consequences if we don’t? I think we all feel inspired and motivated when we have the issue right in front of us. We are all motivated when we see pictures of the planet dying, animals needing to be rescued, children being trafficked, and any other cause that rightfully needs championing. Our integrity wanes, though, when no one is looking except ourselves. Can we make a change? Sure! How? By being mindful each day in a kind and gracious way. Eventually, it will become second nature and then we will see improvements before we know it.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can sign up to follow the Foundations Wellness blog at https://www.foundationswellness.net/blog. They can also follow me on Twitter. My handle is @BaskhLpc.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.