Cultivate a mindfulness practice because it will change your life! Learning how to approach thoughts and emotional experiences with greater objectivity and non judgment will create a more equanimous state of mind, allowing you to feel others deeply without carrying the burden of their emotional pain on a day-to-day basis. Mindfulness and meditation allow you to observe your inner experience, which changes your relationship to thoughts and emotions. You remain sensitive and attuned, but are less reactive to and overwhelmed by stress and suffering.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Krimer MA LCSW.
Katie is a therapist and coach in NYC, and she is passionate about inspiring others to cultivate a life of vulnerability, authenticity, and self-growth. Born in Russia and residing in Brooklyn, Katie founded Growspace, which is a wellness and growth coaching platform, combining all the things that she loves to do when working with others. She is a mindfulness practitioner and loves to help people learn about and cultivate their own practice. In her free time, Katie enjoys nature, traveling, and adding denim items to her growing collection.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Of course! My name is Katie Krimer and I was born in Russia and now hang out in Brooklyn, getting as much reprieve from the tall, steel buildings and noise of the city. I have degrees in clinical psychology and clinical social work, and I work as a therapist for a thriving mental health practice, called Union Square Practice. As a therapist, I have worked with teenagers and adults who struggle with a wide variety of life challenges including depression, anxiety, trauma, and self-worth/esteem. I work with an incredible team of humans each of whom are compassionate, warm, and incredibly talented at what they do. I also founded Growspace, where I work as a coach with clients who want to live more fulfilling and authentic lives.
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’ is a catch-all term to describe a human who exhibits a uniquely attuned sensitivity to humans, environment, and/or any stimuli. It is not as simple as having their feelings easily hurt — highly sensitive people have a remarkable ability to perceive subtleties around them, whether in the behaviour of others, or their surroundings. They process information deeply and tend to exhibit qualities of immense insightfulness, creativity, empathy, intuitiveness, etc. However, the flip-side of feeling deeply and being acutely attuned to everything around them is that they may often struggle with being overwhelmed in stressful situations, situations that involve change, busy and bustling environments, or emotionally difficult scenarios. HSPs’ nervous system is more sensitive to stimuli in general. All of our brains have ‘mirror neurons,’ which fire when we observe someone feeling or behaving, and they ‘mirror’ what we see or feel, as if the feelings and actions were our own. Highly sensitive people have been observed to have extremely active mirror neurons, meaning that their brain is acutely attuned to what other humans are thinking, feeling, and doing. As we continue to talk more about highly sensitive individuals, I’d like to highlight two very important things: HSPs don’t have to meet every single criteria to be classified as such, and in my work with and personal experience as an HSP, I have found certain, more challenging attributes of being highly sensitive can be changed with a lot of self-inquiry, self-awareness, and mindfulness practice.
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?
A higher degree of empathy is more or less implied if someone is ‘Highly Sensitive.’ Not only do they have really high levels of empathy toward others, but they are likely to feel this way about animals and the planet. Some might even feel actual physical pain at the thought of something hurting our Earth or the living things on it, unable to bear the idea of it. Due to highly active mirror neurons and a keen attunement to others’ suffering, they can often take on the burden of someone else’s experience. As a therapist and highly sensitive person, I have had to develop an ego strength and ability to compartmentalize so that I am not as impacted by people’s stories of suffering. Although I remain highly attuned and can acutely feel someone’s pain, I am also able to separate from that experience to take a more objective and less attached stance, which has taken years of practice. HSPs can indeed be offended by hurtful remarks made about other people as their brain can interpret it almost as if it were being said about them. Although a lot of empathy is better than low empathy, being overly empathic in can unhelpful to the receiver and intolerable for the feeler.
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?
They absolutely do. Although not across the board, a highly sensitive person really struggles to observe or interact with news or media that conveys pain, chaos, and any kinds of suffering. Many of the patients whom I would describe as highly sensitive can’t even get through one minute of news reporting that involves violence or stressful situation (aka all news). They will report feeling physically ill or extremely vicariously fearful. For another vivid example, I have several patients who despite engaging in more environmentally friendly behaviours in their life, struggle with reading any articles about climate change because their worry becomes unbearable.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
I have a client whose highly sensitive nature developed more strongly as they grew up, and began preventing them from participating in most social situations. Although they are an extremely affable and gregarious person, and one would describe them as having an ease with others, their high sensitivity made them extremely overwhelmed when they were around others. Not only did they have an influx of thoughts about what others might think of them in social settings, they would also simultaneously feel every person’s experience in the room and this created an intolerable level of exhaustion and discomfort. They also wanted to make sure that everyone was comfortable in the setting, and as this was often something they couldn’t control, they essentially spent the entirety of their time ruminating and feeling, instead of being present in the situation.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
We have to be thoughtful in not confusing a “highly sensitive person” with someone who is “too sensitive.” We also have to be thoughtful about using the language when it concerns a population that has often been dismissed and invalidated. The spectrum of sensitivity is wide, and someone can be extremely sensitive to criticism, but not ‘highly sensitive’ in any other way. Their sensitivity could imply a level of egocentrism, narcissism, or poor ego strength that doesn’t allow them to receive feedback without activating defense mechanisms. This doesn’t imply that they are also highly empathic and acutely attuned to other aspects of their environment. If we are talking about a highly sensitive person and defining ‘above the societal norm’ and ‘too sensitive’ as ways of implying a level of sensitivity that may be harmful to the individual, then we could say that if the pervasive levels of sensitivity significantly and negatively impact their daily functioning, then it might be time to address more seriously. This might mean that a person has trouble getting through their day interacting with others or feeling such an overload of information, that they develop anxiety, depression, interpersonal difficulties and/or other mental health issues.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Highly sensitive individuals often have a lot of awesome qualities that allow them to lead a meaningful and purposeful life. They tend to have a rich and imaginative inner experience and can find meaning in most things around them. They can be quite good at cultivating intimate and close friendships, and pursue creative endeavors that bring them a lot of fulfillment. They are often terrific listeners, have a great deal of empathy and compassion, and are naturally skilled at picking up on others’ emotional and mental experiences. HSPs are typically deeply moved by beauty, whether it be in nature or art and have a unique ability to understand the environment down to what can be done with lighting and interiors to make the experience better for others. I could go on, but I wouldn’t want to boast…haha!
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I have many! I have several patients who are pursuing social work and therapy — their acute attunement to others is exactly what makes them special in their work with others. In session, we work together on reducing the sensitivity or changing the relationship to sensitivity where it becomes unhelpful. However, there are certain skills, such as active listening and insight ability, that come naturally to them and are a huge benefit in interpersonal interaction — it can make HSPs great romantic partners and terrific friends. As another example, I have a patient who is a mom of two, and she’s a truly remarkable mom — she is so attuned to her children in a way that allows her to offer them a level of compassion and understanding that isn’t always seen in parenting.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
It isn’t so much that there is direct harm to being overly empathetic — however, those who are constantly in a state of identifying with how others are feeling, are certainly at risk of burnout, losing the boundary between where one person’s emotions end and their own emotional experience begins. When we burn out, we are less able to be helpful to others in the way we want to, and there is a lot of research to show that ‘compassion fatigue’ should really be called ‘empathy fatigue.’ While a high degree of empathy is an incredibly prosocial skill, a highly sensitive person’s brain takes empathy to Olympic levels — this can also mean that they forgo their own interests in order to be there for others, which isn’t healthy or sustainable in the long run. Their mirror neurons are constantly reacting, and their desire to alleviate others’ suffering can also be seen as a subconscious desire to alleviate their own vicarious suffering. If hearing the painful emotional experiences of others is exhausting or causing you immense stress and suffering, it might be time to lay off the empathy just a bit!
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?
Even though social media exists inside a screen, it is essentially access to millions of humans in the palm of a highly sensitive person’s hand. There is so much information constantly coming at them — and it isn’t just the negative content that impact an HSP. If they are anxious about what others might think about them, they may spend an excessive amount of time worrying about or curating their own profile. They may also spend a lot of time playing the comparison game, going down a rabbit hole of observations of other people’s lives — sometimes accurate, but often forgetting about the deceptive nature of social media. To utilize the benefits of social media without being overwhelmed, I encourage people to set limits on how long they spend on their phones and computers and unfollowing accounts that foster negative thoughts or anxiety. I also teach people how to be mindful about the information they are consuming as well as how they can be an observer without getting over-identified with the subjects of the photos and stories. I suggest spending more energy on using social media to fulfill their passions for creativity and purpose — whether that means engaging with accounts that uplift or inspire them, or creating their own content that brings them joy and calm.
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 always remind patients that their experience is valid, simply by virtue of it being their experience. I ask them to remind themselves of that fact. I also explain to them that many people are not as in touch with their own vulnerability, and therefore the vulnerability of others makes their defenses go up, resulting in more critical responses. There is a great quote that reflects the notion that anything someone says about you, they are really saying about themselves — as it is a reflection of their own inner experience. I help patients work on cultivating a greater self-awareness and mindfulness practice that they are welcome to access if they are the ones who decide that their sensitivity is causing them too much stress or anxiety. If they feel a sense of agency and self-worth, they are less likely to bothered by minimizing or invalidating commentary and more likely to do whatever feels right to them regarding something that affects them.
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?
The reality is that their high sensitivity is biological wired, so they need not worry about changing that caring and empathetic nature! I teach every HSP in my care, the practices of mindfulness and meditation. I encourage patients to be unapologetic about needing time by themselves when they are recovering from socialization or emotional labour, while still meeting their needs for interaction, without over-identifying with the nuances and subtleties of others’ behaviour. It’s all much easier said than done, requiring a lot of consistent, conscious effort to pay attention to when their thoughts or feelings feel too overwhelming to bear. Most importantly, I emphasize that knowing that their brain works in a special way and learning how to meet their own needs will remind them of their ability to override the high sensitivity and enjoy a calmer and more stable state of mind.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
The main myth I’d love to dispel is that the highly sensitive person is “overly sensitive” in the colloquial sense. That is, when we think of people as highly sensitive, we picture someone who is touchy, gets their feelings hurt easily, and has a lack of resiliency to emotional experience — that is, someone we should be judgmental of. I actually find this to be highly untrue. On the contrary, highly sensitive people often seek out therapy and engage in a lot of self-inquiry and self-growth, learning over time how to build emotional resiliency, calm their nervous system, and harness their strengths.
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?
When we help others learn about why HSPs are different from them and that there are valid reasons for them being the way they are, people can become more compassionate toward the experiences of the highly sensitive person. The truth is that there are many people who are dismissive and invalidating of any quality that triggers something within their own ego system. The more that HSPs can improve their own self-worth, the more they can own all the ways in which they are sensitive, and they can feel courageous enough to teach others about the way their unique brain works! The more broad and overarching answer of “what needs to be done,” is to teach others how to cultivate more compassion toward others who are different than them.
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.
- Cultivate a mindfulness practice because it will change your life! Learning how to approach thoughts and emotional experiences with greater objectivity and non judgment will create a more equanimous state of mind, allowing you to feel others deeply without carrying the burden of their emotional pain on a day-to-day basis. Mindfulness and meditation allow you to observe your inner experience, which changes your relationship to thoughts and emotions. You remain sensitive and attuned, but are less reactive to and overwhelmed by stress and suffering.
- It is okay-–and even necessary-–to spend alone time recharging. You don’t always have to be helping or interacting with others. Take breaks throughout your day to just be with and be there for yourself-–turn on a favourite song in your headphones, get a massage, take a break from social media, or tell your partner that you’d just like some time alone on the couch to unwind. Forgive yourself for needing to recharge — embrace it instead!
- Know your strengths as a highly sensitive person. Although your mind makes life a little difficult for you at times, it also likely makes it rich and full of meaning. Write down five strengths and explore the ways in which you can harness them in your life. If you’re highly creative, see if you can add an activity to your life that allows you to engage with that part of your being.
- Being highly sensitive doesn’t mean you have to carry everyone’s emotional experience with you. You might be a great listener and every friend thinks of you as their therapist, but give yourself permission to take breaks from taking this role on. Although you feel the subtleties of suffering all around you, remind yourself that others have agency and are responsible for their own emotional experience.
- There is nothing wrong with you! There has always been a stigma and misunderstanding of high sensitivity, but it is important to validate that you experience the world in a genuinely different way than others do. It is not a fault or something that makes you broken. Remember that your high sensitivity is also your superpower.
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 really wish that I could get groups of humans together who have seemingly opposing values and belief systems, and teach them self-compassion and compassion, so that they feel more safe in being vulnerable with themselves and those around them. The more self-compassion we can practice, the more we begin to realize that we are part of a common humanity, and this is something that can break down walls of resistance, anger, and hatred. If we can be courageous enough to connect with others by being vulnerable, if we can learn to really listen without having our egos triggered, our relationships to ourselves and others will change completely.
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Readers can follow growspace_nyc on Instagram, where they can catch curated and thoughtful posts inspiring self-growth, daily quotes and wisdom, and a host of other topics within psychology and wellness!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
You got it!