Be you — fearlessly and fully. I spent the greater part of my life thinking that there was something wrong with me. I thought that I needed to change, to distance and detach myself from emotions, and be more ‘rational’ and ‘level-headed.’ But honestly, the opposite was true. Rather than pulling away from who I was as a person, I needed to lean into my identity and embrace it. And that’s my lesson for anyone who identifies or feels the same: recognize that who you are is honestly unique and as much as it may be ‘weird’ or ‘against the norm’ to be who you are — be you — fearlessly and fully.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marisa Donnelly, a writer/editor, teacher, CEO of Be A Light Collective (creative marketplace, online community, and collection of services and resources), host of the VulnerABILITY Podcast, and founder of Momish Moments (a platform and resource base dedicated to empowering nontraditional parenting journeys).
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 multi-passionate person who dabbles in many areas and industries. My primary business is dedicated to helping people find their voice and vision through coaching and content creation services. I’m also a teacher and launched a full-time homeschool during the pandemic. Outside of work, I’m a bonus mom to an amazing twelve-year-old. ☺
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?
A highly sensitive person is someone who feels deeply. For as long as I can remember, I’ve branded myself as a ‘big-hearted’ woman. In fact, in my early stages of my career, I wrote a thinkpiece about being fiercely independent but also ridiculously emotional, and it went viral!
A highly sensitive person is someone who experiences the world differently. It’s not necessarily that you cry easier or are ‘weaker’ because of your emotions (actually it’s the opposite!) but instead, you resonate with the feelings of others more naturally. You’re the type of person who sees what people are really thinking/feeling and you go out of your way to connect with them on a personal level.
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?
Being highly sensitive means that you’re capable of deeper feelings — with loved ones and strangers alike. You can have empathy for situations outside of your own and even for experiences you’ve never had personally.
This does come with drawbacks, though. When you feel things deeply, you also tend to get hurt quicker. Sometimes there is this imbalance between what you give and get and that leaves you feeling empty or abandoned.
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?
When you’re highly empathetic or sensitive, everything hits you differently. Unlike what feels like the ‘rest of the world’ you can’t just see something painful and move on. You’re deeply impacted and can’t quite feel the same after witnessing, experiencing, or even reading or watching something heavy on the screen. You tend to ruminate on things longer than others, or struggle to grasp the reality of a situation because you get wrapped up in feelings around it.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
Honestly, my sensitivity is a delicate balance. At times, I feel that being sensitive can give me an edge because I’m able to understand what people are going through and create solutions or offer advice that truly helps/reshapes their perspectives. Other times, due to the nature of the world we live in, I think that some people see my sensitivity as weakness and thus distrust or think that I have less crediblitiy or expertise based on the way I am guided by both my heart and head.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
Honestly, I think I’ve always known that my sensitivity was higher than others. Even as young as five or six, I was trying to make peace, lessen conflict, and be a middle man between my friends and their fights. As I grew up, I realized that the way I loved was different, too, and I often found myself giving and pouring myself out to the people I loved in ways that others would say was ‘way beyond my years.’
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Being highly sensitive, I think, has a bad reputation. Honestly, though, I’ve learned to love this part of who I am because it’s helped me be successful in my business and personal life. Here are the benefits of being highly sensitive:
- You are able to self-reflect more deeply and create space between your emotions and your reactions.
- You have a greater understanding of others and can provide actionable solutions for problems that others don’t often think about or recognize because they’re focused more on their own benefit than the group.
- You can move through painful situations with grace and retain your composure, perspective, and heart even when it’s hard.
- You love more deeply and have the capacity to forgive, let others in, and grow through even the most painful situations and circumstances.
- You have the capacity to forgive when you are hurt and truly start over — giving both yourself and others the space to reinvent and begin again.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
Contrary to popular perspective, I truly think that my emotion and sensitivity has made me who I am and given me an advantage in SO many situations. I created my entire business around sensitivity with both the concept of my business ‘be a light’ as well as focusing on relationship-based, individualized services rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. This has helped me to have an edge in the industry, and it’s also given me the opportunity to work with people more intentionally and purposefully.
As far as my personal life, I’ve learned that leading with my heart above anything else — especially in my parenting journey — has helped me to focus on what I can control, build stronger relationships with my son, and love with a fierceness that isn’t worried about others or their negative perspectives. Although being sensitive does mean that I am often hurt more deply by people or circumstances, I feel blessed to feel deeply because it has helped me be a better business owner, writer/editor, teacher, mom, and human.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
I think sensitivity has this perception, especially in today’s world, of being weak or fragile. I’ve explored this idea on my personal blog because I’m really passionate about explaining the difference. Sensitivity is not fragility. You are not weak or breakable because you feel. I think the sooner people see sensitivity as strength the sooner this perspective will shift.
Caring about people, feeling things deeply, loving without limits — those are POWERFUL things, not weaknesses or traits you should ever be ashamed of.
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?
I have built my entire business on social media and sharing my heart through my writing, so even though I know the negatives of online verticals, I value them for their ability to connect people and share what really matters.
I use social media as a tool to help create authenticity (alongside my podcast) but I also remember that social media only shows parts of the truth. There is far more to a person beyond what’s shared on their page. And this is why I intentionally strive to not only create truthful and heartfelt posts (that share the behind-the-scenes and not just the polished pictures) but I also try to create space between social media and the often mentally-draining act of scrolling by regularly ‘unplugging’ and being present.
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?
This is a great question and I think the answer to it really stems from figuring out your own identity and embracing it (instead of apologizing for it).
I spent so much of my life apologizing or feeling ashamed of my big heart. It wasn’t until my mid to late twenties that I realized my empathy is admirable. Now I’m proud of how I feel deeply, how I love, and how I show up for others. If I’m faced with a situation where someone thinks I should feel bad about who I am or what I think, I can now brush it off or address it with my own truths: This is who I am and I’m not ashamed.
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’ve built spaces where I can be my most transparent, authentic self. Online, this is on my social media channels and websites. In-person, this is with my family, in my home, and around people who accept and admire me for who I am.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
I’ve said this a thousand times before but I’ll say it again. Sensitivity is not weakness. In fact, being sensitive and having care and grace for others is truly one of the most powerful things you can do/be. When you see the world from the eyes of others, you can be a catalyst for change.
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?
Here’s the thing: you can’t change the world’s perception of you or what someone thinks is the ‘right’ way to be. You must simply decide to own your identity and focus on surrounding yourself with people who value you and don’t ask you to change.
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.
- You are different than other people (and that’s okay). I’ll never forget being a fifteen-year-old and recognizing that how I loved (and the fierceness in which I loved) was vastly different than the other teens around me. I didn’t just see relationships as fun — they were real — and this perspective, although unique at the time and age (and honestly still unique for me as an adult!), has truly become my greatest strength.
- You will lose people, and this is not because you didn’t do enough. One of the challenges that empathetic people have is the willingness to naturally (and often unconsciously) carry people’s problems and burdens as their own. It becomes difficult, then, to separate the truth from the emotion sometimes. And when someone leaves, walks away, or changes, it’s hard to realize that you are not the problem or to blame. Just because someone creates distance from you, it doesn’t mean that you didn’t do enough or that you aren’t enough.
- Use your emotions as a catalyst for change. People don’t understand the value of sensitivity, especially if this doesn’t come naturally to them. Because it comes naturally to you, use it to your advantage. Use your sensitivity to relate to others, to problem-solve, to provide solutions, to help people to see different perspectives, to be an advocate for those who have lost their voice, to celebrate differences and promote diversity, and to be an active agent for change.
- Make sure that you fill your cup in order to continue to pour into others. This is a lesson that I’m honestly still learning, especially in this season with a global pandemic and major life changes. In order for me to be the best version of myself — as a business owner, teacher, coach, mother, and human — I have to learn to give myself space, prioritize my self-care, and ask for help when needed. Just because you are highly sensitive doesn’t mean that you always have to carry everything yourself.
- Be you — fearlessly and fully. I spent the greater part of my life thinking that there was something wrong with me. I thought that I needed to change, to distance and detach myself from emotions, and be more ‘rational’ and ‘level-headed.’ But honestly, the opposite was true. Rather than pulling away from who I was as a person, I needed to lean into my identity and embrace it. And that’s my lesson for anyone who identifies or feels the same: recognize that who you are is honestly unique and as much as it may be ‘weird’ or ‘against the norm’ to be who you are — be you — fearlessly and fully.
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 started my own little movement with my business, Be A Light Collective. The vision behind it is all about ‘being a light’ — which means inspiring and encouraging others to walk in their truth, find their own voice, and bring positivity to an often dark world. Beyond the mission, my business aims to provide services that are individualized and dedicated to building real connections with people — on and off of the screen.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.