Katie Kimball: “Highly sensitive”

Start your morning off on YOUR agenda. Highly sensitive people are even more affected by media input than others, but research shows that in general, the first hour of your morning is key to setting the tone (and the neural pathways) for the day. If you start with email, you’ll feel more reactive. Social media […]

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Start your morning off on YOUR agenda. Highly sensitive people are even more affected by media input than others, but research shows that in general, the first hour of your morning is key to setting the tone (and the neural pathways) for the day. If you start with email, you’ll feel more reactive. Social media might make you feel passive or overcome with comparisonitis. And the news is dangerous for a highly sensitive person, who will see all that’s wrong in the world and feel like life is completely negative. This perspective will dominate your day!
Instead, I have found that I’m a happier person, more attentive mom, and more productive entrepreneur when I leave my phone on airplane mode until after my kids go to school. I can choose my input and my attitude instead of answering to someone else’s agenda.

As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Kimball.

Katie Kimball is a mom of four from Michigan who became interested in healthy food and natural living and sharing what she learned. Her blog, Kitchen Stewardship, was born out of that passion for research and helping make healthy cooking easier for busy families. Upon the realization that her generation had largely been skipped when it came to passing on life skills like cooking, and her children’s generation was doubly-affected, she designed the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse, now the #1 best-selling online kids cooking course and has taught kitchen skills to over 11,000 families and counting. Katie has been featured on media outlets like ABC, NBC, and First for Women Magazine, and contributes regularly on the FOX Network. The author of 8 real food cookbooks, she is pursuing her goal of redefining what makes a meal “happy” and getting every child in the country back in the kitchen to reclaim those important life skills.

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 mom of four kids and a chronic Type A overachiever. I’ve been blogging professionally since 2009, teaching people how to stay healthy without going crazy. But I wasn’t taking excellent care of my own health. I kept it together in the kitchen with an extremely high standard for nutrition, but I didn’t sleep enough nor did I get rest for my brain during the day.

Last year, I decided to become certified as a Stress Mastery educator both to provide vital information about mastering stress for my audience (since we know that stress causes 80% of doctor visits these days in the U.S.), but also to learn new habits for myself. If I’m going to save my own life from some sort of stress related chronic disease, I needed to focus and be intentional about finding real balance for my mental health. As part of that training, I learned what a highly sensitive person is and immediately began to identify people in my life whom I was sure deserve that label. Then my professor made it clear that I was a highly sensitive person.

Initially I was quite offended! The term “highly sensitive” sounds weak and a little unstable — terms I never want to be used on myself. However, as I do more research about what being highly sensitive really means, I’ve come to embrace the personality trait, and I truly believe that highly sensitive people are not only valuable to society but vital sentinels when it comes to the fight for our collective cultural health.

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?

Being a highly sensitive person doesn’t just mean that I cry a lot or have sensitive feelings. High sensitivity has to do with the way I process the input from the world coming at my brain. People can be highly sensitive in any of the five senses. It may include an over-processing of sound, light, taste, or touch. But talking about visual sensitivity is where we really get into what it means to value being a highly sensitive person. Humans are all designed to have a certain level of threat sensitivity, and our brain, by necessity, must notice things like movement.

If I were a hunter-gatherer, for example, movement in the forest might mean an animal coming to try to kill me. So it’s pretty important that I notice that. In fact, the base of the brain has one single solitary job — to determine if I am safe. The rest of my brain can’t really be accessed or used well until the base of the brain, often called the lizard brain because it is more primitive, is satisfied with safety.

Highly sensitive people often have a higher threat sensitivity, which means that if I see something moving or even something out of place, I’m going to notice it and react to it more quickly and more strongly than someone who’s not highly sensitive. That’s a good thing if we’re walking in the woods; I live and you die.

The problem comes in our modern world, when we have a constant ticker tape of 24-hour news running across the bottom of our screens, video ads and pop ups in our face all day long, notifications making both sound and visual interruptions to our brain, and plenty of other opportunities to see motion that is not actually a threat. But when one’s threat sensitivity is high, the brain feels like it’s on constant alert. Therefore, highly sensitive people often seem a little bit more stressed out or a little bit more on edge. It’s because we’re trying to stay alive in the most primitive sense — in a world that is anything but!

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?

You asked about feelings — highly sensitive people do often feel things more deeply. The tragedies on the morning news can bring us down for the whole day because we want to solve them all, and we can’t.

The anonymous people on social media do hurt us more. Not because we are weak, but because we feel those feelings in a deeper way than someone who’s not highly sensitive. Personally, I avoid the news like it’s the plague, because it does have a plaguing effect on my mental state and my general attitude.

Over the years I have learned to filter what people say about me through some sort of less sensitive process; however, I have a feeling that I am still less able “to let things roll off my back” than other people. I also have a few children who are highly sensitive, and they definitely feel all the feels in bigger and deeper ways than their cohort groups. This means school and mean kids there can be really tough to handle, but it also means they have very sensitive hearts which are incredibly generous and giving when it comes to charity work and having empathy for others who are sick, sad, lonely, or down on their luck.

We highly sensitive people have a spectacular ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and feel their feelings. And while that can be detrimental to our own mental health, it also makes us the best teachers, psychologists, doctors, charity fundraisers, aid workers…the list goes on and on. As long as a highly sensitive person can learn how to separate others from themselves, they can make a real difference in the world.

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?

It was actually the news that caused my professor to “diagnose” me as a highly sensitive person. I anonymously asked a question about watching the news, something about how I just couldn’t even watch the news anymore because it was too depressing and it would wreck my whole day. She waved the Post-it in the air, knowing it was me (but no one else did) and said, “This is definitely a highly sensitive person.”

That experience has caused me to walk around diagnosing many people in my life as highly sensitive people!

Anytime someone says they can’t even watch the news, or they get really into a movie, or, “Oh, I can’t even watch a graphic rated-R movie,” or, “I feel like the whole world is out to get us,” I’m immediately thinking Hmm, I wonder if they are highly sensitive. If they pair that with any sort of sound or smell sensitivity or picky eating, they are an HSP in my book.

I think because HSPs feel so deeply and empathize so well, when I see a story on the news of someone who’s had some awful trouble, I feel like I am compelled to solve their problem, to help them. And since I can’t, I simply feel their pain with no exit path. As we know, today’s news doesn’t really share a lot of positives to temper all of that oppressive feeling of the world being out to get us. I had to tell my friends and family that if a tornado is heading toward my house or anything else that matters, they’d better call or text because I will have no idea. It’s safer for me if I keep my head in the sand.

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

I own my own business teaching kids to cook online (https://www.kidscookrealfood.com) so I don’t have as many interpersonal issues as someone who works in a traditional office setting might have. I will admit that I have probably overreacted to some of my contractors’ constructive feedback on my managing, but in general, distraction is the biggest problem in my work with a self-directed day.

I can get really distracted if I do catch a news story because I just want to know everything. I think over-researching is part of keeping me safe. If I know everything about a bad situation, maybe I can be better equipped to stop it from happening to my family. I still have an inch-thick folder of newspaper clippings from the Columbine tragedy, which happened when I was in college, as well as when Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died when I was in high school. I felt compelled to read everything and spent hours doing just that.

Being a highly sensitive child is definitely challenging socially. I was always the one who overreacted when kids picked on me, so that made them pick on me more. And I spent a lot of time crying in my bedroom in middle school. (I don’t think that’s uncommon, though, as middle school is tumultuous for many.) Now, as an adult, I’ve learned to choose my friends more wisely. I think my highly sensitive nature actually makes me a more loving, generous, and loyal friend. The only time it may cause problems is if people don’t want my advice when I try to solve their problems as if they are my own.

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

Ha! I still don’t see myself as too sensitive. Honestly, even when I first read the definition of a highly sensitive person, I was certain that it would not apply to me. I thought that everyone experienced the world like I did, and I’m still processing the fact that other people don’t smell and hear and understand and feel things like I do.

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

Part of the reason I don’t think about myself as too sensitive is because I do see this high sensitivity as an incredible advantage, (although it comes with its crosses to bear).

Number One: Non-toxic living

Because my senses process what’s coming at me at a higher level, just walking down the detergent aisle in a grocery store is overwhelming to me. That’s great because synthetic fragrances are full of hormone disruptors and carcinogenic substances, so the fact that I can’t tolerate them makes it much easier for me to live a less toxic life. And of course, the fact that I overthink everything and empathize with others means that I want to share everything I’ve learned about non-toxic living. That’s definitely a way in which highly sensitive people have a positive impact on the world.

Two: Solving the world’s problems

My heightened threat sensitivity makes it so that I see problems where other people are just floating through life. That propensity HSPs have to research and dig in and be really intellectual about things and look at all angles, processing before forming opinions, makes it so that highly sensitive people are uniquely situated to not only determine insufficiencies in our culture, but also think about perhaps the best ways to solve those problems and help everyone live in a healthier physical and mental state.

Three: The best caregivers

As I mentioned, a highly sensitive person’s empathy causes them to be more caring, gentle, and understanding when it comes to other people’s pain. Any caregiver role is well suited for a highly sensitive person, as long as they can protect their own mental health and be sure not to take the other person’s woes completely upon themselves such that they are dragged down. I would say that most highly sensitive people also have additional patience beyond societal norms, but unfortunately, I don’t seem to have inherited that particular quality.

Four: Deeper enjoyment of creativity

That ability to put ourselves into the role of others means that highly sensitive people might be more likely to cry over a movie or a book, becoming one with the fictional characters. My husband often looks at me after I deconstruct a show we’ve just watched, applying everything the characters have experienced to real life and talking about them as if they are real. In a slightly dismayed voice, he’ll say, “But Katie, remember, they’re not real.”

I do think I enjoy fictional works more than most people, however. And I also have a feeling that highly sensitive people are probably more able to be the creative agents of those works: the writers, the artists, the musicians. Because we experience emotions on a deeper level than the rest of the world, we are able to emote them back through art, music and story with more complexity than most people even feel them in the first place.

Five: The best food and wine

I’m convinced that the best chefs and sommeliers on the planet are highly sensitive people; their palates can process the layers of flavor better than anyone else. So when you enjoy a great meal or a fine wine, you probably have a highly sensitive person to thank.

I do think there are more advantages than disadvantages to being a highly sensitive person, especially when it comes to society. If society were only made up of people taking action without giving it much thought, we wouldn’t have solved very many problems. It takes a combination of the highly sensitive person processing, researching, being intuitive in designing a plan; and then their opposite, the man of action, taking charge and getting things done. Someone I grew up with is both highly sensitive and an extrovert which is quite rare in the population. He definitely feels that all the world’s ills are on his shoulders, and if he doesn’t solve them, no one will. And as a member of the military forces, he really is saving the world and keeping us all safe.

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

My propensity for deep research leads me to evaluate everything I’m told and taught. I don’t just accept the norm and stand in line. I will always be a skeptic, questioning what I’m told. Often this comes out in my favor.

My oldest child is nearly 15 and back when he was young, antibiotics were prescribed as the norm for an ear infection. Something didn’t quite feel right to me and although he did have antibiotics occasionally, I also have a small stack of prescriptions that we never filled. I learned other ways to treat and manage his ear infections, and my other three children have never had antibiotics in their life.

In the last 15 years, research and standard of care has changed. We know more now about antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We understand that not all illnesses are even caused by bacteria, but many are viruses. And we know the great harm that antibiotics can wreak on a person’s gut health. Antibiotics are no longer prescribed with such nonchalance.

Looking back, I’m grateful that I was so cognizant and intentional, and I believe that’s a manifestation of my high sensitivity. I protected my kids from something that was a normal part of other kids’ childhoods, just like my mom used Dimetapp sparingly with me and my brother. Later research came out that it can cause problems in the ear canal and with mucus flow. This is what I mean when I say that highly sensitive people are vital sentinels who see problems when other people don’t even know something is wrong.

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

Keep in mind that high sensitivity is not just about feelings. It’s about our overall threat sensitivity and how we process many stimuli from the external world. So someone who’s not really highly sensitive can certainly learn to put themselves in another’s shoes. Empathy may even come naturally to someone who’s not highly sensitive. But the highly sensitive person often goes deeper and feels with even more transparency than someone who is not.

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 definitely a dangerous place for an HSP. I know plenty of people who have had to remove social media apps from their phones or from their lives because it’s just too much for them. If a highly sensitive person is to use social media positively, they need to set boundaries and know when to pull out of conversations that are beginning to consume their lives or their mental energy.

Social media can also be a great venue for getting encouragement, being uplifted, finding humor, and being able to share what we learn as highly sensitive people about how to solve problems. It takes a great maturity for any human being, quite honestly, to be able to manage social media well. Highly sensitive people just need an awareness of when their emotions are being too drawn in. I will admit to continuing conversations on social media longer than I should, so it’s a skill I’m still working on…

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?

I think we live in a world of great acceptance, so it’s becoming a lot easier to have any sort of trait that is in the minority. I really don’t hang around with people who would say that I am being petty, so I haven’t had to deal with this problem. It’s easy enough to share a story like the one about antibiotics as proof that sometimes looking a little deeper into an issue can be a good thing.

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’m afraid that since I only understood and embraced my high sensitivity in my late 30s, I have probably reduced my ability to be deeply caring and empathetic because it was too difficult for me. I had to learn to wear masks as an adolescent and put up walls to protect my own emotions as an adult. But I have children who are highly sensitive, and anytime they are really affected by something, I compliment them. I tell them that they have big hearts and that big hearts can love well, but it also means they might get hurt more. I encourage them to always keep their hearts open to other people, and to never be afraid to feel deeply and then I hold them while they cry.

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 know if enough people understand what a highly sensitive person is to even have myths around that term. However, there are plenty of myths surrounding sensitive people in general.

We should understand that there are no picky eaters, weak constitutions, wimps, or crybabies. And people definitely need to understand that being highly sensitive is a trait, not a disorder. When 15–20% of the population has a certain quality, it can’t be an outlier. And in fact, if you look at the increase in “picky eating” and all of the clothing on the market without seams or tags, marketed as supersoft, I have a hunch that for whatever the cause, the trait of high sensitivity is increasing in America today. I think the percentage is going to become closer and closer to half the population.

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?

This problem really has two sides. First, someone assuming that another is simply being too sensitive needs education in the advantages of being a highly sensitive person. Second, both parties need to dig deeper into the potential disadvantages. Most of the time, disadvantages of highly sensitive people affect themselves: overtaxing their own emotions, getting too stressed out, feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders. Unfortunately, this does often manifest itself in our relationships with other people, but understanding how we process the stimuli from the world and taking simple actions like removing the news from our lives, reducing sounds and smells, and creating a calm environment can go a long way toward keeping those interpersonal relationships a lot more smooth.

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. Reduce sensory input to save your sanity. If you can reduce or eliminate strong fragrances, loud sounds, and frenetic visual input from your home, you’ll have a greater capacity to deal with the rest of life since your brain won’t feel so drained trying to keep you safe. Natural, unscented laundry detergents, turning off the TV, and removing non essential notifications (and sounds) from your phone will all help.
  2. Start your morning off on YOUR agenda. Highly sensitive people are even more affected by media input than others, but research shows that in general, the first hour of your morning is key to setting the tone (and the neural pathways) for the day. If you start with email, you’ll feel more reactive. Social media might make you feel passive or overcome with comparisonitis. And the news is dangerous for a highly sensitive person, who will see all that’s wrong in the world and feel like life is completely negative. This perspective will dominate your day!
    Instead, I have found that I’m a happier person, more attentive mom, and more productive entrepreneur when I leave my phone on airplane mode until after my kids go to school. I can choose my input and my attitude instead of answering to someone else’s agenda.
  3. Partner with a person of action who’s willing to listen to your perspective. Because highly sensitive people solve so many problems as a result of their detailed observations and deep thinking, they do well to have someone in their life (spouse, dear friend, business partner) who is a little less slow-to-respond to stimuli. If an HSP can see a solution and explain it to the more reactive partner, that person can take action and actually make a difference in the world instead of just contemplating it.
  4. Set social media limits. All HSPs are different of course, but I recommend evaluating how social media affects you and taking measures not to let it impact your life. Intentionally seek out humor and encouragement and don’t hesitate to unfollow, remove notifications or apps, or get off a platform entirely if it’s dragging you down.
  5. Embrace your deep emotions. Being a highly sensitive person is a gift! Like I tell my kids, having a big heart means you can love deeply, but you might get hurt more. That’s really OK.
    Try to use your empathy for good, and if you’re a caregiver, set limits so your empathy doesn’t rule your life if something goes wrong with the other person.

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 want to redefine the family dinner, to take it back from fast food and convenience food, to ditch the screens, to encourage real conversation and especially to see families connect around healthy food in the kitchen. This helps HSPs be grounded firmly in a web of people who love them, expand their palates and prevent picky eating, and reduce stress from constant cultural stimuli. And it helps everyone else be better nourished physically and more balanced emotionally too!

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

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