Choose how you react to your emotions. There is wisdom in your feelings but there are also biases, survival fears, and limiting beliefs mixed in there. So know that you can’t choose your feelings but you can choose how you act on them. Pausing and reflecting before you act on your feelings will save you from a lot of heartache. Sometimes for instance, choosing to hold off on sharing your deeper feelings with a boss, colleague, or family member can be a really skillful choice. Of course, you may choose to engage with them on the details of the situation at another point in time — but knowing its best to wait and reflect first, can be a genius move. Or perhaps you’re feeling some fear or worry about an event coming up — you can choose to cancel or stay home or you can choose to find a way to ease your fears (bring a friend, have a plan for ‘small talk,’ only stay an hour) and still go. You have all kinds of choices for how you act on your emotions.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewingMarijke Kemble. A born ‘achiever,’ Marijke hustled for over a decade as a financial services executive and then as the president of a sales & marketing firm. Finding traditional successes less satisfying than she expected, she became determined to transform life and work so that excellence could live side by side with soulful play. As a coach, Marijke now dedicates herself to helping people come fully alive in all that they do, because the world needs more people who have truly come alive.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Thank you for featuring this great topic. My name is Marijke Ocean Joy Kemble — the middle names are a gift from my hippie parents. I loved the names as a kid and then felt like I had to hide them while I was building my (first) career in banking. After about 15 years working in the corporate world I felt like I was hiding more than just my middle names — I didn’t feel I was living authentically any more. I had two young daughters and I longed to be modeling a life that was worthy of their imitation. Now I work as an executive & life coach. I decided to build a career where it was actually a gift to be a little bit hippie and little bit business. I work with people who want to find a full expression of themselves in their life and work.
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?
I like the way that Dr. Elaine Aron defines it, using the acronym DOES. D is for deeply processing information around them and inside them. O is for being easily overstimulated. E is for giving emphasis to their own and others emotions, so also this means having strong empathy. S is for being sensitive to the subtleties around us.
An HSP will likely experience some of all of these qualities but of course there are variations — for example, not every HSP is overstimulated by the same thing.
I don’t think of it as being more easily hurt or offended at all — but instead it’s about being more attuned to the environment. This deeper awareness means there is more information to process and make sense of. An HSP’s life experiences, and their strategies for working with those life experiences, will determine whether they’re easily hurt and offended, or something more positive — like extra perceptive and resilient.
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, it is accurate to say that HSPs have greater empathy. Studies show that HSPs have greater activation of the areas in the brain that help us know how others feel. What’s super cool about HSPs though is that they also have greater engagement in the area of the brain that leads to action when someone is suffering — so these folks are called to help.
When someone makes a hurtful remark — it hurts! That’s true for all of us! Some people may have developed coping mechanisms to ignore the hurt or even dismiss the other person (by judging them, for example). But these strategies aren’t necessarily healthier.
Feeling hurt isn’t so much the issue — it’s what we do next, how we respond, that determines our health and happiness. And HSPs aren’t predestined to be better or worse at the reaction to being hurt. In fact, studies are showing that HSPs collect, store and categorize memories in a such a way that they have some advantages when it comes to learning how to cope with difficult emotions.
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?
Because an HSP is more attuned to the suffering of others, and they can find someone in need every second in the media, it can be overwhelming. How do I help? Where do I help? Will it ever be enough?
HSPs do really well when they are engaged around an issue or problem AND they can see their contribution making a difference. So sometimes that means engaging around issues closer to home. Or, engaging with charities that are good at telling how your involvement makes a difference.
There’s an old story about a village on a river that noticed one day a person in the river calling for help. They all got together and fished the person out — and then another person came down the river needing help, and another. More and more people were coming down the river in distress. The villagers developed all kinds of contraptions and systems and schedules of help to get people out of the river. Until finally they decided to look up stream — why are these people getting dumped in the river? Can we stop that?
HSPs are likely to want to look up river and try and solve root causes. This is a really beautiful inclination.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
I think HSPs have a super power. But, like any super power, if it’s not well understood by the owner, it can cause problems. Here’s one example for HSPs: All of our brains use the details we capture in past negative experiences to avoid the same negative situation in the future. HSPs deeply observe a situation and notice a lot more detail and nuances. As a result, they may flag a situation as “similar to a past negative experience” more often. This can help them stay out of trouble but it can also lead an HSP to avoid social situations, new experiences, or appropriate risk taking — at work or in play. Appropriate risk taking is a big way we learn new things and deepen relationships so it’s important not to eliminate risk all together.
People at work might say that HSPs are overly cautious or that they overanalyze details. If you’ve ever heard about “analysis paralysis” — this is certainly a potential problem for an HSP.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
This is a tricky question because social norms for emotional sensitivity vary greatly even within the context of our larger society. If your social group is mostly bankers and accountants, your sensitivity may feel out of place. But if you are hanging around with artists or social workers, perhaps you feel right at home.
Instead of worrying about normal — pay attention to whether or not you feel like your sensitivity is a problem or a burden. It’s worth paying attention to that. But not necessarily so that you can “fix” your sensitivity. Instead, it’s an invitation to be curious about how you can better leverage this special gift.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Well in a world where we are drawing battle lines more and more of “us” vs. “them” — being especially attuned to seeing another person’s point of view is certainly a gift. But there are many other benefits as well. HSPs generally:
- Think over options carefully and from many angles
- Have good intuition
- Are great at pattern recognition
- Have stronger mastery of learned material (memory, recall and application)
- Are more responsive than the average person to positive experiences
- Can make better predictions of the future based on past experiences.
- Better detect subtleties in others’ mood & trustworthiness
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I live in Buffalo NY where we have a national football and national hockey teams both owned by Terry & Kim Pegula. Kim Pegula is the President of the teams and while I don’t know either of them personally, I’ve seen her navigate a few crises. In the past couple of years, the Pegula’s have faced the departure of senior leaders for inappropriate behavior and also reacted to player protests for racial justice in the NFL.
Her responses in these moments of crisis demonstrated to me deep observation about the feelings and experiences of all the people involved and also a keen ability to detect the patterns and significance of those details. Her statements at those times also showed a sophisticated balance of emotional sensitivity and practical sensibility. My hunch is that she is an HSP who has found a way to use this unique quality as a strategic advantage — and it really shows in the success she is having as a leader in the community.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Empathy becomes a problem when we are getting flooded or overwhelmed by the suffering of someone else. In that situation, we aren’t able to help and we are likely to cause additional harm and distress. It’s important to have a way to not just see suffering and empathize with it but also maintain some space for ourselves to breathe, reflect and respond.
Imagine you hear about a tragic house fire and a family that has experienced a lot of loss. With empathy and compassion you can really sense the suffering of the family and the magnitude of the tragedy and then also see that you are in a position to provide support of some kind.
If in this same situation you start imagining it was your family that experienced the tragedy — you are more likely to become immobilized and overwhelmed with the loss and the trauma.
So the key with empathy and compassion is sensing the common humanity of the suffering –but also not over-identifying with it. Their suffering could be yours on another day or if the tables were turned, but it isn’t yours now.
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?
HSPs are likely to feel yanked around by all the competing storylines and content on social media. So much of our life is happening on social — its friends, work, pleasure, social, shopping — all the things; this makes it even harder for an HSP to compartmentalize the experience.
I recently saw Aaron Rose post about the importance of setting intentions about social media. I thought this was really wise. Just going onto social media with a clear intention for why you are there can improve the experience. Are you there to find new people with shared interests? To build your business? To see what your friends are up to? To get the news? This can help you make choices about what you spend time on and also how you judge the experience that you had.
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?
None of us can control the feelings that come up in the moment, so it’s so painful when someone tells us we are wrong for feeling what we feel. However, we do have lots of choices about how we respond to our feelings — this includes who we share our feelings with.
So, the first thing I would say to someone who is being labeled as petty is, consider who you are sharing your feelings with carefully. Dr. Brené Brown, who writes and speaks extensively about the critical importance of being vulnerable, emphasizes that not everyone deserves to be trusted with our most vulnerable-selves.
To figure out when to share, I like the image of a target with concentric rings. The inner most ring is our deepest fears, hopes and dreams. The outer rings are much more surface levels of vulnerability. Evaluate who fits where on that target and share accordingly.
No matter who you share with, the important thing is that you are true to yourself. We are all in situations where expressing and sharing our feelings is not wise. We run into all kinds of trouble though when we make that mean that our feelings are bad. Instead, carve out time to allow these feelings to run their course and give you wisdom (reflect on them, understand them more deeply) — either in a journal, with a close friend, therapist or coach.
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?
So building off the last question — it is really important to cultivate spaces to fully experience and process your feelings. Pushing the emotions away or stuffing them down will exhaust you.
Another important thing is learning what situations are likely to overwhelm you and creating strategies for maintaining your wellness or recharging. If you know a networking event is going to drain you — can you take a 5-minute break in the middle of it or plan a quiet activity for when the event is over?
Think of challenging situations for you — potentially overwhelming situations — as ‘in breaths.’ And restorative activities as ‘out breaths.’ Can you balance your day with in breaths and out breaths?
You likely think about things more deeply than others — so it’s a good idea to have some techniques for balancing out this gift with the need for speed. Different types of decisions will require different guidelines for this, but thinking ahead about how to know you’ve considered something ‘enough’ is a great tool for an HSP.
If you have a story in your head that being an HSP is a problem — it’s also important to re-work that narrative. How has it served you? What unique genius do you have because of this special ability?
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
Well I guess the biggest myth is that being an HSP is a liability. The dominant western society has prioritized non-emotional human potential and made emotions a problem. But, I think that is starting to change — and for good reason. Most contemplative traditions and cultures have known the importance of wisdom gained beyond textbooks.
Even Einstein said, “I believe in intuitions and inspirations…I sometimes FEEL that I am right. I do not KNOW that I am.”
HSPs can be our leaders in this — they sense the unique joys and sorrows of human life better than most. They also see the interconnection of all life on the planet more deeply and intrinsically — so they calculate solutions in a unique way.
The world needs more people who care and sense deeply in this way. In dominant western culture, I would say we are generally malnourished of the gifts and talents that HSPs have.
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?
I think whenever we are being sent the message that something is wrong with us it’s easy to believe that story line — even a little bit — and then how we respond becomes complicated. If you knew that you were fundamentally good and OK — that your feelings and your unique gifts were perfect the way that they are — how would you react to the message, “just stop being sensitive”?
Each situation calls for a different answer. Sometimes staying quiet and not arguing with someone who is in that judging and blaming frame of mind is a wise choice. It might preserve physical or emotional safety. On the other hand, sometimes a combination of vulnerability and education helps. For instance, saying “you know I do have greater sensitivity than the average person but let me explain how that can serve us well in this situation.”
Whatever your reaction, it is best to ground it in clarity and faith about your own worth. That clarity helps others see you in a new way.
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.
- Being an HSP is a gift. It’s common to get caught up in the problems created by our unique traits, but it’s important to notice the ways that being an HSP is a gift. Dr. Elaine Aron has studied HSP traits for decades and estimates that 15–30% of the population are HSPs. This frequency indicates that there are some significant benefits to having a highly sensitive brain — so what is your special flavor of these benefits? Do friends appreciate your emotional insights or listening abilities? Do you have a strong memory for details? Do positive experiences thrill and delight you more than others? These are just some of the ways that an HSP is likely to standout.
- Have a safe place to feel your feelings. All of us, but HSPs especially, need a place to feel our feelings without added layers of judgement or criticism.Unfortunately, not everyone will relate to your unique perspective on the world or know how to benefit from these gifts right out of the gate. So, cultivating a place or person(s) where you can really experience the wisdom of your emotional reactions is critical. A journal, a specific contemplative practice for emotions, a friend, therapist or coach — may all be helpful to you. It’s important to feel the feelings first so that you can…
- Choose how you react to your emotions. There is wisdom in your feelings but there are also biases, survival fears, and limiting beliefs mixed in there. So know that you can’t choose your feelings but you can choose how you act on them. Pausing and reflecting before you act on your feelings will save you from a lot of heartache. Sometimes for instance, choosing to hold off on sharing your deeper feelings with a boss, colleague, or family member can be a really skillful choice. Of course, you may choose to engage with them on the details of the situation at another point in time — but knowing its best to wait and reflect first, can be a genius move. Or perhaps you’re feeling some fear or worry about an event coming up — you can choose to cancel or stay home or you can choose to find a way to ease your fears (bring a friend, have a plan for ‘small talk,’ only stay an hour) and still go. You have all kinds of choices for how you act on your emotions.
- Set intentions & have strategies to support your intentions. You will be faced with all kinds of situations. Some of them will naturally bebetterbecause you are an HSP. But it is true that you will find certain situations more challenging and intentions can help. Perhaps at work, transitioning from analysis to action gets you into some difficulty. HSPs see so many details, analysis can last forever. So before you start your analysis decide what your intention is. For example, “I want to do a ‘good enough’ analysis of the risks.” Or, “I’m going to spend no more than X amount of time on the analysis portion of this project.” The same idea applies to other difficult situations — like spending time on social media or going to a noisy, crowded event. Your intention might be, “I want to connect with some old friends” or “I’d like to meet 2 new people with experience in my field.” You can make this even more powerful if you spend a few minutes thinking about HOW you can support your intention. Maybe, choosing to message an old friend or comment on a post rather than a simple like and scroll. Or, perhaps you make a note on your name tag that says, ‘looking for digital marketing peeps.’
- Know how you best refuel and recover. You are going to be out in the world, doing your HSP thing, and need to recharge. So become familiar with the things that are effective and the things that pose as effective but actually don’t help! Hint: An episode of a show might help you recover, binge watching may not. As for things that work well — if you feel stumped, think about these larger categories and which might resonate for you.
- Something physical, moving your body.
- Creativity — yours or others.
- Being in nature.
- Silence/’do nothing’ time.
- Connection — being with others (including animals!) where you have an easy relationship.
If you cultivate an awareness and loving attention to these 5 areas, you’ll be able to thrive as an HSP! However, this doesn’t mean every day and every interaction will be easy. There will continue to be ups and downs, but with these techniques you’ll be better able to ride the waves!
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 believe that every single person has a wellspring of wisdom and kindness inside of them. But we have all lost connection to it in varying degrees. Social norms and expectations, greed, shame, blame, and confusion cloud our access to the truths that set us free and also free the world. I would love to inspire a movement where developing a connection to our souls — the wisdom and kindness inside of us — was a top priority. Because when we heal the connection to that inner wisdom we can heal not just ourselves, we can heal the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.