In order to thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person, the first thing to do is to learn as much as you can about the trait. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch videos, join HSP groups. If we initially believe that we’re flawed, there is much power to be gained in learning this is how I’m wired, and there’s nothing wrong with me! We are in the minority, so when we look around, it can feel like we’re the only ones. Once we learn about the trait, we want to start observing any negative self-talk (I’m overreacting; I’m being too picky, etc.) as well as noticing the unhelpful messages we get from others (Why can’t you let it go? You’re so serious, etc.).
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Patricia Young, LCSW.
Patricia knows what it’s like to feel different from others. Learning about being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), helped Patricia rewrite her history with a deeper understanding, appreciation and a sense of self-compassion. She created a podcast called Unapologetically Sensitive that focuses on the strengths HSPs have BECAUSE of their sensitivity. Her tagline is: Sensitivity is nothing to apologize for; it’s our superpower!
Because Patricia felt there was something wrong with her, she now wants to educate people about the trait of High Sensitivity and to help people see the gifts that come with being sensitive. It does come with its challenges, but anyone who is alive will experience challenges.
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 therapist, and I learned about the trait of being a Highly Sensitive Person a few years ago. It totally changed my life. I gobbled up as much information as I could about the trait, and I had been wanting to start a podcast that incorporated vulnerability and authenticity. Once I learned about being an HSP, the pieces just fell together.
I want people to know that there’s nothing wrong with them! We tend to feel like the misfits, disrupters, black sheep and truth-tellers. Sensitivity is a superpower, and when we really understand the trait and how we’re wired, we learn that how we show up in the world is perfect!
I’ve switched to a coaching model, and I work exclusively online. I work with folks individually, and I run a Course for HSPs to learn about themselves. Some of the modules we focus on in the Course are perfectionism, boundaries, self-care, creating a lifestyle that embraces the HSP, communication, authenticity, vulnerability, mindfulness, and self-compassion. I am also a public speaker/presenter where I provide education about the trait, and I talk about the struggles and strengths we have as HSPs.
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?
If you’ve been told you’re too fill-in-the-blank (too sensitive, too intense, too dramatic, too picky, think too much, worry too much, can’t take a joke, need to get thicker skin), you may be a Highly Sensitive Person.
Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term Highly Sensitive Person, and she defined four core characteristics that spell the acronym DOES (depth of processing, overstimulation, emotional responsiveness/empathy & awareness of subtle stimuli).
This means we feel things deeply, and we like to mull things over. Having meaning is important, and we’re good at seeing the big picture, which means we can often come up with solutions that others don’t see. We tend to be mindful of social justice issues and have increased self-awareness.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of being an HSP is the overstimulation. Our culture values doing, and often success is measured in terms of achievement. Because we notice things that others don’t, we are more emotionally impacted by social stimulation, and we often feel depleted. Chronic overstimulation can lead to depression and anxiety, and we often compare ourselves to others and feel inadequate.
We are more impacted by both positive and negative things. We bring more emotional intensity and empathy in most situations. This often is expressed through writing, music, poetry, dance any by expressing ourselves passionately.
We may have an emotional response when someone is insensitive (and this may be more about insensitivity than sensitivity!). If the focus is on the notion that having an emotional response is problematic (which is a common cultural view), then we will be seen as easily hurt or offended. A Highly Sensitive Person who embraces their traits, and has done their work, may get their feelings hurt, or they may be offended, but this may be a perfectly average and healthy response. Pouting, arguing and withdrawing are traits of someone who is emotionally immature, NOT the traits of a Highly Sensitive Person (unless there is a crossover with wounding and being an HSP, but even then it’s still about emotional immaturity).
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?
Research shows that HSPs have more active mirror neurons, which are responsible for feelings of empathy for others, and fMRIs have shown more activity in the parts of the brain that are involved with emotional responses. We will likely feel pain/sadness when we see animals or children being harmed, or when we are aware of injustices.
We tend to be very conscientious and mindful about how we interact with others, and we are great listeners and care about the underdog.
Based on how we’re hard-wired it can hurt our hearts when we’re exposed to unkind treatment or insensitive and hurtful remarks. Does this make us more sensitive? Could it mean that others are too insensitive? It’s crucial to understand that people are wired differently. This doesn’t necessarily mean better or worse; just different.
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?
In general, most HSPs don’t like violence, watching children or animals get hurt; watching bloopers of people being pranked or falling, and some of us don’t like to watch the news. Because we have high levels of empathy and have more active mirror neurons, these things can hurt our hearts and get etched in our souls, and we can have a difficult time letting go of these images. We tend to take things to heart — the positive and the negative.
Although this isn’t true for all Highly Sensitive People, some HSPs love thrill and horror, or the news doesn’t bother them. Some HSPs that are High Sensation Seekers like intensity and may like the depth of a story so the blood, gore or violence doesn’t impact them as much (or at all).
When I was a child, I had to have my mom sit with me when I watched the movie The Wizard of Oz, because the scenes with the flying monkeys scared me, and I’d have nightmares. I choose not to watch the news, but I love medical drama and stories about firefighters. I don’t like seeing the blood and flesh, so I look away, but I love medical intensity.
I worked in an acute care hospital for nine years, and I covered the emergency room, ICU and labor, and delivery. Although it wasn’t a trauma hospital, I dealt with a lot of unexpected death. Because my job was to support families and I’m able to connect deeply and with empathy; I enjoyed this part of my job, and it didn’t bother me or upset me. It’s never pleasant to watch families in pain or grief, but it’s also an honor to be present for people in times when they are grieving, scared and feeling very vulnerable. Because of the strengths, I have due to being an HSP, I was able to use the power of my presence during these very sacred times.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for you at work or socially?
There are two ways that being sensitive can be problematic in the workplace. The first is when the system or organization doesn’t honor, value or understand the strengths and gifts that come with their sensitive employees. In these situations, it rarely works out well for the Highly Sensitive Person because it is unlikely that they will ever be truly viewed in a way that is valuable and capable.
I had a client who worked in a dysfunctional environment that didn’t honor my client’s traits. When he was corrected for doing something by his boss, he apologized and explained that he had seen others do the same thing. He asked for clarification (owning his part, asking for information, observing what others had been doing and following suit — these are excellent qualities in an employee). My client was again reprimanded, so we discussed that in this environment it’s best for him to say, “I’m sorry.” and leave it at that.
When we as HSPs learn about our traits, and we are able to own our strengths; we can identify when others aren’t really able to recognize the strengths we have, and we can accept that it has nothing to do with us.
The other way being sensitive can be problematic is when the Highly Sensitive Person gets overstimulated. We can sometimes perform poorly when we are being observed, so we can become awkward and get tongue-tied. Then we feel like we didn’t competently demonstrate our knowledge and expertise.
I worked with a client who had a big interview to get into a training program at a university. She had failed the interview the first time. When she was being interviewed, she became fearful and her survival skills took over (fight, flight or freeze), so her frontal lobe (logic and reasoning) was not accessible to her. This client knew her subject — she was competent; she’d worked in this field and had proven that she had the requisite skills. We worked together on ways that she could stay centered because she knew she’d be an excellent candidate for this program, and she had a lot to offer.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
My question would be: why does society fear sensitivity and view it as being too much?
If the question is about people who haven’t learned to manage their emotions due to neglect, abuse, trauma, and/or PTSD, we’re not talking exclusively about the trait of being a Highly Sensitive Person. We’re talking about people who may have wounding or are emotionally immature (meaning they haven’t learned how to manage intense emotions and cannot regulate or self-soothe). If a child doesn’t learn these skills from their parents or caregivers, and they don’t seek help when they are adults, they probably will struggle, and most likely will be explosive, withdraw, threaten, or employ other extreme behaviors in their attempts to self-regulate.
Dr. Aron’s research indicates that children who grow up in supportive environments have good outcomes. Those children that have difficult childhoods have higher rates of depression and anxiety.
My dad abandoned me at age five. My mom had left home when she was 16. As a single parent, she was pretty overwhelmed (it turns out she’s also an HSP, but she had to bury the trait to survive). Because my mom was in survival mode, and no one embraced and honored her feelings, she wasn’t able to teach me how to really be ok with my feelings. She was a good enough parent. I got some great skills from her, and I lacked a number of skills in other areas. As a result, I have attachment wounds, abandonment issues, and I didn’t know how to sit with uncomfortable feelings for much of my life (I’d use food and other things to numb). I couldn’t tell you what a feeling was when I was 30. To survive, I had to be very analytical. I experienced depression and anxiety and was on medication for years. Had I not sought out therapy, and really committed to doing the healing work, I would have remained reactive and would have struggled in relationships.
I was in therapy for years, and I continue to work on my wounding. I’ve healed tremendously! I’ve been married (second marriage) for 22 years, and we’ve raised caring, resilient twin boys who are 19. Because I’m a human being, I get my feelings hurt. I feel disappointed; I’m impacted deeply by the current political climate. My responses are healthy, appropriate, and they help me have deep, meaningful connections with a small group of people I choose to be part of my inner circle.
We need to make a distinction between wounding/emotional immaturity and the trait of being a Highly Sensitive Person when we talk about “too sensitive.”
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Being a Highly Sensitive Person comes with some amazing qualities. While we all vary in our traits, HSPs tend to be truth-tellers (we have excellent BS detectors). We are creative, and we are able to think outside the box and come up with solutions to problems that others don’t. Because we take in so much information (body language, tone of voice, subtleties that others miss, picking up on nuances), we have an amazing ability to connect and really “see” and “hear” other ways that are meaningful. We’re good listeners, and we make great leaders due to the traits listed above. We tend to be healers, creatives, justice-makers, and we have deep empathy and compassion, so we can be loyal and conscientious partners, friends and parents.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
One of my sons is away at college. He’s been very sick this week, and he has had to go to urgent care twice. He’s had a terrible time getting urgent care to call the prescriptions to the pharmacy that is linked to our insurance. Despite asking urgent care to call his prescription to the correct pharmacy, they called it into one that’s not in-network. He should have gotten his prescription last night. He was told it wouldn’t be ready until after 3 pm today. Meanwhile, he can’t swallow, and he can only drink liquids because he needs this medication.
My Mama Bear heart hurts for him because he’s suffering. I feel powerless, and this snafu is unacceptable. Because my son is feeling sick and he’s 19, he isn’t always skilled at self-advocacy. My sensitivity makes me a fierce protector, so I’ve spent the last hour on the phone with two pharmacies and the insurance company trying to figure out why the heck no one seems to know where my son’s prescription is.
Our sensitive nature can become powerful, fierce and incredibly protective when there is injustice. It’s the passion I have to ensure that my son’s needs are taken care of, and I know that I will fight to ensure he gets his medication. Sensitivity isn’t always flowers and kittens. HSPs can have a difficult time advocating for ourselves, but when someone else is being treating unfairly, we can become fierce advocates for justice.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Having high levels of empathy (more active mirror neurons) translates to feeling things deeply, caring for the underdog, and often having a strong connection to nature and animals. These are amazing strengths that we bring to the table.
I don’t believe a line can or needs to be drawn. Being empathic is one of the four core characteristics of being a Highly Sensitive Person according to Dr. Elain Aron’s research.
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?
It is everyone’s responsibility to choose how they engage in social media. HSPs may want to be mindful about what they are “consuming” in their lives. It’s easy to see everyone’s highlight reel, and then compare other’s “best” with our day-to-day. Most people don’t post pics of themselves in their pjs, unshowered, watching tv and eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but most of us have had days like that. We can “consume” media that fills us up (authentic, positive hopeful information, cute animals, meaningful), or we can consume media that drains us (news, people being hurt/injured, bullying, toxic people and posts). We can unfollow and unfriend when we consciously choose how to engage with social medial.
In order to be enlightened consumers who thoughtfully engage in social media, we get to choose 1) what we consume 2) how much we consume 3) when we consume 4) how long we consume and 5) who we consume/engage with.
Social media can be overstimulating, and it can also be a great way to get a sense of connection while being in the comfort of our own environment, where we can easily turn it off or walk away (which isn’t always as easy to do in person).
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 often love to ask, “What is it that seems petty or minor to you?” We can also ask, “What does that bring up for you when I say this bothers me?” Comments like these, generally have little to do with the Highly Sensitive Person.
If the non-HSP were able to articulate what it is that bugs them about HSPs, I often imagine this is what they’d say: “I have a hard time understanding why you feel or think about things so deeply, because to me, I don’t process or feel on such a deep level. I don’t understand it, and because I generally don’t go within to get curious about these things, it’s easier for me to make it about you, instead of wondering if I lack depth and feeling.”
While this may seem silly, we tend to look at the HSP as having a deficit or being “too” (sensitive or intense or simply wrong). But why is it that we don’t look at the non-HSPs and question their lack of sensitivity, empathy, caring, etc.?
Ultimately, we want to understand that we are all wired differently, and one way is not wrong or inherently better or worse than the other. We want to respect and honor our strengths and challenges all the way around.
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 question assumes that “being overly sensitive” is problematic and needs to be changed. Being Highly Sensitive means that we feel things deeply and we process things at a deep level, as well as having high levels of empathy, taking in a lot of information from the environment and often feeling overstimulated since we process so much input.
When we know how we’re wired, embrace our emotions and know our strengths, there really is no such thing as “overly sensitive.” Many systems in our culture are set up to NOT value our strengths. That’s more about “them” than it is about us.
If people get their feelings hurt easily and are over-reactive, that may be about wounding from childhood and not knowing how to feel and express emotions in a way that is effective. This often gets confused with the trait of High Sensitivity. We can have strong emotional responses to things, and it’s pretty common to experience hurt feelings, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong that needs to be changed.
If someone is “overly sensitive,” and is having a difficult time managing on a day-to-day basis, that’s more about not having skills due to what did or didn’t happen in childhood. This is different from being a Highly Sensitive Person. Therapy may be a good starting place.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
What often comes to mind when someone hears the term Highly Sensitive Person, is someone who is emotional, weepy, fragile and dramatic. In our culture, sensitivity is often viewed as a weakness, and success is often measured in terms of what people accomplish. Many of the strengths of the Highly Sensitive Person have to do with the power of our presence, and the ability to create connections where there are none. It takes courage and strength to allow ourselves to feel deeply. People usually find themselves sharing their life stories with us. Others feel seen, heard and valued by us. While we can certainly succeed and accomplish many things, many of our innate strengths have to do with being, which is much harder to measure compared to traditional external markers of success.
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?
As people learn and understand that the trait of being Highly Sensitive is hardwired when we are born, perhaps there will be greater understanding and appreciation that we all have strengths and challenges whether we are HSPs or not.
It would be just as easy to change the narrative and ask, “Why are you so insensitive?” or “Why can’t you be more sensitive?” It’s not helpful to create a divide between HSPs and non-HSPs; it’s about understanding and honoring how we show up in the world.
My hope is that as more people understand the trait and all of the amazing gifts and strengths that come with it, people will come to appreciate how much sensitives bring to the world.
It’s also important to make a distinction between those people who experienced neglect and abuse from their caregivers, who didn’t have the capability to model healthy expression of feelings, and those people who feel deeply in a way that is not maladaptive. The Highly Sensitive Person is NOT someone who has a tantrum, cries at the drop of a hat and cannot function, which is how I think sensitivity can be perceived.
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.
In order to thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person, the first thing to do is to learn as much as you can about the trait. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch videos, join HSP groups. If we initially believe that we’re flawed, there is much power to be gained in learning this is how I’m wired, and there’s nothing wrong with me! We are in the minority, so when we look around, it can feel like we’re the only ones.
Once we learn about the trait, we want to start observing any negative self-talk (I’m overreacting; I’m being too picky, etc.) as well as noticing the unhelpful messages we get from others (Why can’t you let it go? You’re so serious, etc.).
This is really important. We can use mindfulness and self-compassion to consciously check those thoughts and to see if they are really true.
I reached out to a friend because I was having a hard day, and I asked if they had 10–15 minutes to talk (this friend lives out of town, and we communicate using a video app). They texted me back, but they did not really respond directly to my request. I felt disappointed, and I allowed myself to feel disappointed. I also reached out to other friends and got the support I needed. I sat with my feelings, and after a few days I went back to this friend and we talked about why they didn’t respond in the way I had requested. Part of it was I wasn’t clear that I wanted to talk by phone, and the other thing I discovered is that they don’t like talking on the phone. We’ve been “talking” for over a year (via a video app), but this is the first time this had come up. Had I not gone back to get information, I would have made up a story in my head about how this person doesn’t care and thinks I’m too much, and I can’t depend on them. Using mindfulness is crucial.
The third thing to do is notice if you’re feeling unusually hurt, disappointed, or you feel like you can’t depend on others or trust others. Do you have a hard time maintaining relationships or jobs? Are your relationships one-sided, where you give, but there’s not a sense of reciprocity? These may be indicators that you have wounding from childhood that needs to be healed because it’s interfering with your ability to have intimacy and a sense of trust and security in your relationships.
We all have some kind of wounding. It’s possible that this type of wounding is what gets confused with negative traits of being Highly Sensitive. If our caregivers couldn’t model to us how to embrace our emotions, and they weren’t able to co-regulate with us, we don’t learn those skills, so our emotions can run us.
This is an indicator that working with a skilled therapist or coach who is familiar with the trait of High Sensitivity can be beneficial. I find that longer-term work may be more effective because the healing often comes from having a secure relationship (attachment) with a professional who can model what we didn’t get in childhood, so the client has a reparative experience. The therapist or coach also teaches skill-building.
The fourth thing to do is to create a supportive community. Dr. Elaine Aron suggests we have other HSPs in our lives. Because we are in the minority, it feels so validating when another HSP “gets” us.
I’ve been married for over 22 years to a wonderful, caring man. When something happens and I tell him how I’m feeling, he’s sympathetic and supportive. When I share the same thing with a friend who’s also an HSP, they will say, “Oh my gosh! How terrible! That sucks! I’d be so angry if I were you!” There’s nothing wrong with how my husband responds, but my HS friends respond in a way that often brings me to tears because I feel truly seen and heard!
The final thing to do is to create a lifestyle that honors our HS self. This can include things like ensuring you have quiet/downtime daily (even if you have kids and you can only steal a few minutes alone in the bathroom or in the car). Ideally, you want to have 1–2 close relationships that meet your emotional needs and satisfy your need for meaning and connection. You want to have a creative outlet (cooking, gardening, time in nature, poetry, music, dance, journaling, making things, organizing, time with pets, etc.), and ways to joyfully move your body. You want to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, and you’re eating in ways that nourish your body.
I worked at a job I had planned to retire from, but I ended up leaving after something happened that felt terrible to me at the time. Now, four years later, I work from home, and I work for myself. I had to let go of a number of long-term relationships that I had outgrown. Now I have a few close friendships that are really nurturing. I’m doing work that I love, and I’m making a difference. It’s not always easy and fun, but it’s worth the hard work. I’ve created a lifestyle that suits me.
Often what feels like a breakdown or a crisis, leads us to a better place that allows us to thrive.
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 everyone to really understand what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person and to understand and appreciate the gifts we bring to the world. We are often the emotional glue that holds relationships and families together. We can be the peacekeepers and peacemakers, but we are also leaders, healers, creatives and justice-makers.
I would love to change the narrative that being sensitive or vulnerable is a weakness. It takes tremendous courage to feel deeply and to open our hearts to others. It’s easy to go along with the crowd, but it takes guts to be a truth-teller. As Brene Brown says, people have to earn the right to hear our stories. We often experience the world in a magical and creative way. Think about the beauty and awe we experience in movies, music, art, dance, and the joy they bring. HSPs bring healing to the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
I have a podcast called Unapologetically Sensitive, which can be found on most podcast player (Pandora, Spotify, GooglePlay, Apple, iHeartRadio), or you can listen directly at https://unapologeticallysensitive.com/unapologetically-sensitive/
Facebook group Unapologetically Sensitive– https://www.facebook.com/groups/2099705880047619/
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.