Sharpen your communication skills and be prepared to walk away from conversations that become too emotional — but make sure you honor yourself and come back to them later. I learned this hard way in the business world. My colleagues and staff reacted in ways I did not intend them to react based on my feedback and decisions when it was based on emotion. When I had facts and figures and clearer communication it helped them understand my feelings and points of view. When I get too emotional at home or work I give myself permission to step out and come back — I am doing anyone any favors by being upset in an interaction.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Fortunaso.
Nicole is a 2nd generation Australian of Dutch and Italian descent. Always being curious about learning and looking for adventure she decided to come to Canada for a new experience in the tech and marketing sector. Little did she know that her 15 years of adventures in the business world would lead her on a personal journey to discover herself and unleash her passion for esoteric practices. Not only did she find harmony and tranquility for herself but it inspired her to be of service to others. Now she is focused on helping individuals find ways to stay tranquil, grounded and gain clarity with holistic and intuitive life coaching, using Reiki, crystal therapy, tarot and practical approaches based on her experiences. Nicole is married with a 5-year-old daughter and a 4 legged canine companion, she is a reiki master, a pro crystal healer and has two bachelor degrees one in applied sciences and another in business. She has also completed an online life coaching certification and is an avid reader of a variety of self-improvement and esoteric topics. Not only does she work with individuals to provide the opportunity for clarity and tranquility through www.justbreathein.ca, she also works with entrepreneurs coaching them with mindfully starting their business and removing their roadblocks to create success. She participates in a variety of workshops around Montreal and donates reiki sessions at the West Island Cancer Center.
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 always been a highly sensitive person, but these days I like to call myself an empath — because, just as other sensitives out there, being called a highly sensitive person (HSP) has negative connotations and labels attached to it. Specifically, for me, it is a trigger word that makes me feel like I am not smart and cannot perform, nor function. Others in the past would use that word on me when they wanted to have power over me or my situation, re-direct/discount my feelings or simply make fun of me because I felt things that they did not notice or perhaps they felt guilty/ashamed for not feeling what I felt so they would take that insecurity out on me. But based on my business track record and family life I would class myself as a success and believe me it took me a long time to feel, see and say that because my self-worth and self-esteem were low because I was an HSP.
Now, I am in a position to help people thrive with their sensitivities by helping them calm down, relax and connect with themselves — providing a safe space and allowing them to separate their feelings from those of others. I do this as a mindful life coach and Naturotherapist and I use my skills in mindfulness, (energy work, intuition) and my life experiences (as a former executive and wife/mum) to provide different tools, strategies, and visualizations to break free from the negative and overwhelming situations HSPs find themselves in. I show them a path they can take to self-empowerment and relaxation.
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?
The best way to think of a highly sensitive person is a person that notices every sensation and becomes extremely connected with each and every aspect around them, words, feelings, environment, smells, tastes, sounds, movement (external and internal) and of course other people. Not only are we aware of all of these elements but we are constantly processing more data and interpreting more meaning to that data than a non–HSP. As an analogy it is like having hundreds of television stations showing at the one time and trying to process all those shows at once — you would get overwhelmed right? And when you are overwhelmed you are not calm and not yourself so you, say, do and behave differently because you are constantly in this state of ambient stress. Think about an overwhelmed situation you have been in, maybe with work or home life where everything just happened at once and you have only a few hours to figure it out and you know it is more than a couple of hours to figure out. Naturally, you become overwhelmed. Now I want you to think about the type of person you become in this high-stress situation, not fun right! This is what an HSP has to deal with every moment of every day.
What makes this more tough for an HSP is that they often internalize everything as their own. They have a tough time distinguishing and separating between their own thoughts and feelings and those of others. This is where the real mess begins for them. For example, they think that someone’s anger is always by their hand or they feel angry and don’t know why so they run with that anger as their own and will act it out in everything they do and say (depending on how they process anger).
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?
In my opinion and based on my experience, highly sensitive people embody a wide spectrum. Some highly sensitive people are more sensitive to certain stimuli than others and based on how you were raised you will process that stimuli different from others. From my experiences, the two ends of this spectrum are the empath or the narcist. Where it is even possible to ebb and flow between the two, but from what I have experienced people tend to gravitate towards one end of the spectrum.
For me the empath is about feeling what is there, helping others see other points of view and removing their pain. When an HSP doesn’t know how to or where to direct and move this energy that is when it becomes overwhelming and things can get ugly. Self-doubt, anxiety, stress, depression and simply absorbing too much the feelings of others and taking them on as their own — it causes mental confusion and breakdowns. I find that as someone who is very sensitive and having empathic family members and clients I notice that they seem to have a lot of rules of how people should act, it is there personal code on how one should act with integrity and with values (I also think this is one of the coping mechanisms to deal with all the noise) so when these unspoken rules are broken they get deeply offended, even if that rule-breaking happens to someone else and not to them personally they internalize it. It is like the offending act actually happened to them personally.
The narcissist, on the other hand, they are best known for manipulating the empath and other HSPs. They have figured out the sensitivity game, they see sensitivity and don’t process it through the same emotional channel in which empaths do, in my opinion, they process it through the ego and the intellect. They do this in ways that benefit themselves — perhaps this is the alternate way to cope with being HSP. In my career, I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of narcissists (that I noticed also to be HSP) and they tend to be in positions of power and influence. They know how to squeeze the emotions and feelings out of others to get what they want in order to execute their vision. Power is their currency and I think it helps them feel secure and in control in the sea of overwhelming data points they receive.
Now, this is not to say that being an empath and or narcissist is a good verse bad thing. Some empaths when they go in the deep end of overwhelming feelings and emotions can be just as destructive to people and relationships as a narcissist who has let their ego rule the show. For example, an interesting point to consider is that narcissistic individuals through their visions and determined focus have created empires and new inventions that inspire generations and often inspire others to be better themselves.
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?
For me I find it challenging to watch violent news stories, horror, or stories with children being wronged by or killed — it makes me feel upset for a while and I get emotional. I also find it extremely difficult to watch real-life war battle movies and stories. As well, if I am not in a good head space or have feelings of low self-worth I find I cannot be on social media, it can definitely worsen my feelings. So on those days, I tend to avoid social media altogether.
At home, my 5-year-old daughter gets upset if the song says the word ‘dead’ or ‘kill’ and I need to change the song. A little while ago we were traveling and at the airport — my daughter saw a picture icon of a gun (it is was a notice about weapons in America and how to travel with them). This scared my daughter tremendously and I had to calm her down because she was scared about people having guns and doing mean things with them — like killing/hurting people.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
For me, I had an interesting career start. I was the first employee for a start-up, they valued my entrepreneurial spirit, and get things done attitude. What they did not enjoy was my sensitivity, I felt a lot of things and the best way to describe my training was that this was frowned upon and discouraged — they were HSPs too. Sensitivity was not a gift to be had it was something that should go away, my feelings were something that got in the way of performance. At work, I felt like my feelings were always wrong and I had a strong need to please my employer so I was always in this tumultuous relationship of conflict and self-doubt. At work, I went from a caring person to an angry manager with a tendency to micro-manage. This management style gave me some sort of power for myself to ease my inner conflict. Being a sensitive person, I would also take on the anger of my employers and employees as my own and use it as my own anger, because I thought I was angry. This caused me to flip and flop between personas and cause confusion for the people that worked for me. It was not a fun time while I tried to figure this out for myself or the team, but it was an important part of my learning journey. It wasn’t until I got real help with a psychologist/coach and started my mindfulness practice that I was able to stop that cycle in the workplace and become a better manager. Establishing boundaries, improving my communication skills and saying no was what helped me to get back to me.
Socially, when I was younger I would hide in plain sight, I did not want people to notice me — good or bad. I did not want to feel their eyes on me. The times when I did venture out and stood out I felt very uncomfortable and felt like others were judging me and looking at me, projecting their fears and insecurities on to me. I became fearful and insecure and I started interpreting this as something is wrong with me and I am a bad person to make them feel this way. Being sensitive made me really care and focus on what other people thought of me and that in turn would cause me to act in certain ways that were inauthentic to my values and were based on beliefs and assumptions I thought to be true. As a result, I had a hard time articulating what I needed from my friends and family. So to be on the safe side I was introverted or would be passive in my communications, like say, ‘I was sick’ when I didn’t want to choose between friends or be compliant to avoid confrontation.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
I thought this is what everyone felt so I did not give this too much thought when I was younger. The thought I am too sensitive part really came when I started work and I was given that feedback to toughen up and don’t take things personally. I was told sensitivity was holding me back and for the most part that is correct. The business world does not have time for sensitivity because there is a perception that it slows down production. The business world does not want to lose time on your feelings.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Through my mindfulness practice, I have been able to harness my sensitivities. I know what is mine and what is someone else’s. More importantly, I have learned for the most part how to release and not hold onto this information that I receive. This has led me to know how to read and pinpoint the sensitivity in others and help them let it go as part of their self-healing and journey of discovery. My empathic gift is seeing the unseen feelings to help people relax and connect with themselves.
Depending on your sensitivities an empath might be better suited to certain careers like a caregiver or someone in the health field industry. While someone that is on the Narcissistic spectrum tends to be suited for the business world, that single focused energy is needed to get stuff done. But of course, you will find both types everywhere.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
My sensitivity has played a great part in helping me learn who I am and what I stand for. It has helped me in the past come up with strategies and tactics for the workplace that bring in team harmony revenues and brand recognition. In the area I am most passionate about now, which is helping others through mindful life coaching and naturotherapy it helps me with each client I work with:
- Identifying blocks within their body and life paths
- Develop strategies to move those blocks
- Provide an opportunity for others to release their burdens and pain and feel more relaxed, calm and at peace
- It helps other sensitive people realize there are choices and practices for them to gain back their personal power and resilience. At home it allows me to be a good partner and mother. I am more curious about my family members’ lives and feelings that can help them see problems before they happen or look at a current problem with a different lens. It can be a great problem-solving tool because it allows you to see things from different points of view, which has also served me well in the business realm.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
I disagree with the statement, being overly empathetic labels people as dysfunctional and then those HSPs wear that disfunction like a badge of their favorite fan club. If it is unchecked it can make you neurotic or give you mental health issues (plus no one likes when someone is dramatically sensitive all the time, as it can wear people down) or there are the empaths who turn to narcissistic behaviors to cope with the pressure of being an HSP in a pressure cooker world.
Today a lot of HSPs cope by calling themselves empaths. It is such a nicer word for sensitives to embody. No longer do we have the stigma of being hysterically sensitive, we can be an empath. A caring person, who deeply feels what you feel, gets you and just wants to help remove your suffering. We want you to see a different point of view, which in turn empowers you by giving you options.
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?
Remember how I said rules is the way HSPs can cope. You need rules to live by to be an empath. You cannot indulge your boredom or social pressures to conform otherwise you will suffer from the run-away train of being overly sensitive.
Some of your rules might be:
- Only follow uplifting people and companies
- Limit your news
- Turn away from social media for periods of time (I know I do) especially when you are not in a good headspace. Don’t add fuel to the fire.
- Don’t feel like you have to keep up with others on social media if you are playing that game just unplug or unfollow people.
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?
As an HSP you need to pick your battles. Push the point when it is really important to you (even though usually everything is). It is really important to prioritize and evaluate what IS really important versus what you think is important. Know what bothers the people around you and remember/learn how they best respond when their views are challenged.
Another key is the presentation of your feelings to others. Using the right language, tone, and ownership of feelings (tell people how you feel, and avoid language that sounds like you are blaming others for how you feel). Finally, try supporting your feelings with facts. This is what wins people over. Crying over something or a tantrum has some effect when you are younger, but does not really work as an adult and should not be your go-to strategy when interacting with non-HSPs and narcists — it gets used against you and labels you.
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 have two strategies; mindfulness and communication. Before I go into the world I need to connect with and know how I feel and be honest with myself about it. My mindfulness and meditation practice allows me to do this. Every morning I meditate and do grounding visualizations, I also do a couple of breaths and mindfulness check-ins during the day. I make sure I take the time to become aware of my feelings and decide what I need to do with them, which allows me to interact well with others and change their perceptions of me.
Communication is my biggest ally:
- Using questions to help others express their feelings and understandings
- Backing up my feelings with examples, facts, and figures.
- Always staying calm and balanced when communicating
- When I can’t do these things I excuse myself and ask to come back to the conversation later.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
I think the biggest myth about HSPs is that they are crazy. All these emotions and feelings label people as crazy and discredit them in work and family situations.
People tend not to mind that ‘crazy’ when they need a problem solved but outside that scenario, we are often seen as too much.
I think labeling HSPs as empaths has really helped, because people want to be empathic to others, they want to love, feel love and give love as a way to show they understand and care.
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 educating people about feelings and allowing people to have feelings helps the whole process. When an HSP is acknowledged usually they feel much calmer and appreciated. The escalation of the situation is diffused by listening with compassion. Ignoring feelings leads to a pressure cooker situation, where you don’t know when and how it will erupt.
In Canada and at my daughter’s school they are using the “zone’s of regulation” which allows kids to express their feelings and identify what zone they are in; Whether it be, over the top, to calm, to feeling blue. These types of discussions are great for HSPs and non-HSPs because it gives them a common language.
In the work and home setting using statements like “why can’t you just stop being so sensitive?” is used by bullies to hold power over an HSP to control them. In these situations, HSPs have to stand up for themselves and let others know this language is not appropriate. Because standing up to people is not necessarily an HSP strong point I would suggest using a communication strategy (mentioned above) to put those people in their place. There is nothing more empowering as an empath when you have the facts, figures, and proof to go with your feelings. It takes practice and repetition to become confident and comfortable in standing up for yourself.
OK, here are 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 you are an HSP. Many of us go through the majority of our life not knowing we are an empath. This happened to me when I was a child and it wasn’t until I was in the business world that I discovered that I was an HSP which then led me to start a journey of self-discovery. If HS people run in your family helping them out earlier on in life by identifying that characteristic within them, help them nurture it and so they don’t have to learn the hard way.
- Check-in with your feelings and monitor yourself regularly. Every day I check in with my emotions and feelings by asking how I feel today? And where or who is this feeling coming from? Based on the feeling and the source I can adjust my behaviors and communications for the day while honoring how I feel. If during the day I have an unexpected turn I ask the questions again and work on a new strategy
- Develop your own mindfulness practice. Each day I do an energy meditation and sometimes more depending on my check-in status. I also use exercises like yoga and Qi Gong to support myself.
- Sharpen your communication skills and be prepared to walk away from conversations that become too emotional — but make sure you honor yourself and come back to them later. I learned this hard way in the business world. My colleagues and staff reacted in ways I did not intend them to react based on my feedback and decisions when it was based on emotion. When I had facts and figures and clearer communication it helped them understand my feelings and points of view. When I get too emotional at home or work I give myself permission to step out and come back — I am doing no one any favors by being upset in an interaction.
- Self-care: have a way to help you expel feelings from your body. For me, I have developed my own toolbox of self-care. Because I find the same tactic does not always work for me. Some great tools that work for me include walking, yoga Qi Gong, reiki and working with crystals. I also do meditations, writing or even having an awesome conversation with a trusted friend, family member and I have recently learned the value of having a mentor who generally will be very objective with me. Sometimes the only cure as an empath is sitting with the feelings and let time work its magic. The reason self-care is an essential part of thriving as HSP is because it is all about receiving, as HSP we tend to give a lot to others, so receiving self-care helps give us the energy to go out there again and be of service to others.
- I know the article says five but one last point is having people around you who you trust, get you and support you. Having people you can share with about how you are feeling for the day or reminding you about doing some self-care practices is priceless. These people do their best to support you like, call you out (in a gentle way) that you are being too sensitive or remind you that you should practice self-care to recharge the batteries.
Can you share with us your “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive If You Love Or Are In A Relationship With A Highly Sensitive Person? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Accept your partner for being sensitive. Accepting that your loved one is an HSP takes courage. They operate differently from you. My entire family are sensitives, my husband, my daughter, myself and even my dog! Each of us has different sensitivities, a different spectrum of sensitivity and tolerances and I need to work with those differences to have the best relationship I can with them. I love them, so this is something that I work with on a daily basis.
- Acknowledge their feelings by listening — even if you disagree. The most hurtful thing you can do to an empath is to not listen to them and acknowledge what they say. If you disagree and cannot relate to what they are feeling, just say that. Don’t try to justify or explain why they should not feel that way — it just makes it worse (remember point 1 about acceptance?). The best thing you can say is “I understand you feel that way, while I don’t relate to it, is there a way I can support you with this feeling?”. Sometimes listening is the best gift you can give an HSP, sensitive people can ease a lot of their burdens just by talking to you– Thich Nhat Hanh talks about this by using compassionate listening. “Where you just listen to help him or her to ease their burdens and empty their hear
- Don’t buy into overly emotional interactions and try to find ways to deescalate through good communication practices and taking distance. Ok, just because someone is sensitive does not allow them to have poor behaviors and take things out on you. While they can be emotional — yelling, name-calling and violence should not be tolerated by anyone. In these situations when your loved one is over the top encourage them to take a break and come back later to the conversation, encourage them to do one of their self-care activities or mindfulness. Make sure that if you offer an HSP support in this way that you have permission to do so. By this I mean, you should not have a conversation about this type of behavior when you are in the height of being emotional, otherwise, they will think that you are picking on them. So when you are both in a good space say “my love, we need to talk about some strategies (or things) that I can use to support you, the reason I am asking this is because I don’t know how I can best help you and I want to help you — tell me what you need?” etc.
- Encourage the person to take the time they need for self-care and unwind. So when you have had that conversation of how you can help as mentioned in tip 3, it helps to give your HSP options, they can choose to stay on the sensitive track or choose to come off it by using one of their strategies. And if you are the type of partner that notices the ebbs and flows of your partner you can help your HSP even further by getting in early before there is an escalation with feedback and help by suggesting they do self-care.
- Act with empathy and compassion by doing random acts of kindness to uplift your HSP. Doing little things you know that they like when they are having a tough time or needing support goes a long way for HSP. They are always there for you when you need it and your little acts of kindness go a long way to helping keep their heart full and giving.
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.
Mindfulness-based energy work, understanding how our energy and the energy of others impacts our mental, physical and spiritual health.
We have just felt comfortable as a society allowing in yoga and meditation. But there are complementary energy practices that need to be studied and researched to show how they help others like reiki and energy work. These practices can go a long way in helping all the wonderful advances we have made in science.
I believe that HSPs are a great source for providing comfort to others through their empathic skills by feeling the pain and dis-ease of others and removing those burdens. If we brought this practice more into our lives and business world we would have more harmony, balance and less conflict. For too long we have created an economic world where emotions do not matter and have no currency. Emotion needs to be a new currency.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.