Understand it’s not you. Your highly sensitive partner may spook easily, become suddenly emotional, or need time to decompress and relax. None of these things are necessarily indicative of fault on your part. Many HSPs don’t realize they’re HSPs, and (they)may be frustrated with themselves and unable to explain to you why they react as they do and what their needs are. Encourage them to learn more about their sensitive nature and have open, frank discussions about how it affects both of your day-to-day lives.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Reese Spykerman. Reese Spykerman, CEO of Design by Reese, is a conversion designer who knew, after her first job out of college, that life as an employee would gut her. After moving from the USA to Canada for a whirlwind romance, she hopped a plane to Malaysia, where she lived (and navigated an abundance of stimulation as an introvert and highly sensitive person) for nearly 8 years. Today she lives in Northern Michigan with her husband Jason and 4-pound step dog, Tiki the Morkie. Though her degree is in journalism, Reese decided to marry both words and visuals into meaningful websites and book covers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
As someone who’s both highly sensitive and introverted, I’m fortunate to run a design and marketing agency, which allows me to dictate my workdays on my own terms. After getting my degree in journalism, I knew a traditional job wasn’t the right fit for me: the constant pressure, expectations, and stimulation of an office environment were too stressful for me, so I started my design business, where I help businesses transform their websites so people actually want to buy from them.
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?
Imagine this scenario: it’s dinnertime, and your spouse is cooking stir fry. He’s scurrying around the kitchen, the microwave’s running to reheat rice, and the vent fan’s on high to whisk away grease from the stir fry. Sounds like an innocuous weeknight, right?
The scene I just described jettisons my body into a state of stress and tension: the combination of the various noises and my husband’s activity are all forms of stimulation that, for me as a highly sensitive person (HSP), are more felt (and often, agitating) than they’d be for someone who isn’t an HSP.
I don’t take offense easily. The other day a client sent me a video of a dog swearing its head off (via narration and motion effects on the dog’s mouth) and said: “hope this doesn’t offend you!” I thought it was hilarious.
It actually takes a lot to hurt my feelings or offend me. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, a highly sensitive person processes information (stimuli) more thoroughly than others do and 20% of the population has this trait.
Think about how your eyes feel, without sunglasses, on the brightest, sunniest of days. It’s overwhelming for most people’s systems. Well, a highly sensitive person experiences much of life and its stimulations like that bright, sunny day, but almost constantly. In other words, for many HSPs, the entire world is a bright, sunny day without sunglasses: noises, light, crowds. All those things are felt and processes by our bodies and systems a lot more deeply than they are for someone who isn’t an HSP.
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?
Some HSPs are mainly environmentally sensitive (like my sensitivities to bright light and noise) but others additionally have sensitivity toward others’ emotions.
My particularly sensitivities aren’t marked by being easily offended (though I was more sensitive to this in my teens and 20s) by what others may say or think about me. Instead, it’s that I can absorb others’ feelings like a sponge. So if someone close to me is angry, tense, or sad, my own mood changes accordingly. In this way, it’s a form of empathy, but for me, empathy is significantly about how it feels in my body versus how my perspective about the other person changes.
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?
A fellow HSP friend of mine can’t watch violent or horror movies. They’re too much on her physical system and affect her ability to sleep. It’s not that she goes to bed thinking consciously about the content from the movie, but rather that her body, in an overly stimulated state, is agitated and processing that agitation instead of relaxing into sleep.
While I can watch violent or horror movies without a problem, I’m sensitive to something like the sound of a long screech in a movie, or constantly pounding music.
News consumption can be problematic, as I’m often affected (my body will become tense or heavy) by stories of others’ suffering. For example, right now as we’re doing this interview, the world’s in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. I’m careful about the news I consume because a story about, say, an elderly doctor who left retirement to help in an ER and who later died from Covid-19 will adversely affect me for several hours, hampering my ability to focus and execute creative tasks.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
From the ages of 8–15, I was chronically bullied in school, and I think a big part of this was because I’m highly sensitive. Kids can pick that up — that another child is different — and it made me an easy target. It culminated in being physically attacked by another girl when I was 14.
One of the byproducts of me being highly sensitive is I struggled to stand up for myself, to meet confrontation or bullying head-on. This is because confrontation is stressful and overstimulating to my system. My processes shut down: my body goes into flight mode, and my brain’s functionality — my ability to form coherent thoughts or sentences — is stunted. So in any aggressive or even mild confrontation, my highly sensitive nature causes me to become small and quiet, sort of like a possum. A few years ago, a long-term client blew up at me on the phone, and the aftermath took a good week before my body stopped feeling sluggish and heavy.
Because of this, I carefully both vet the clients I work with and my personal relationships.
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 completed kindergarten as a happy, chirpy child and then was thrust into a 1st-grade classroom with, let’s just say, one extraordinarily cantankerous teacher who made her dislike for me apparent from the get-go. One day I brought in my stuffed gorilla for show and tell, and she mocked my favorite toy. In one parent-teacher conference, this teacher said, with disapproval in her tone, “Reese is very sensitive.”
Thankfully my dad piped up and said “I know. That’s something I like about her.”
But it wasn’t until my tween years (around age 10 or 11) I became self-aware of how different from other kids I was. I didn’t know or understand that it was because my sensitivity was above the norm, but I realized I did not and could not fit in, socially, with other kids. No matter the various attempts to make friends, I was shunned or bullied.
In college, a friend passed me Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person, and told me she thought I could probably relate to much of the book. To this day I’m thankful my friend gave me that book, which I rapidly read while nodding and thinking, “This is totally me.”
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Yes! I like to describe my high sensitivity as a superpower. Highly sensitive people can leverage their sensitivity to being one of their biggest strengths.
For example, I know of a woman who’s a well-paid executive assistant. Though her CEO boss didn’t know to call her a “highly sensitive person,” he observed that when she was present during negotiation meetings, the tension in the room was much lower than when she wasn’t present. He started to draft her, frequently, into these meetings. Her sensitivity translated into an ability to rapidly see a potential escalation (based on cues like body language, tone of voice, and energy) and defuse it before a greater conflict rose, which made her invaluable to the CEO.
In my own business, my capacity to read and understand the nuances of people’s motivations, desires and fears make me both a better designer (because I put myself in people’s shoes and advocate for things like improved usability) and copywriter (because I can easily imagine the frame of mind and emotions of someone reading the copy).
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
One of the more interesting aspects of great sensitivity is the ability to see the bigger picture and the interrelatedness of people and/or a situation. You’d think high sensitivity would make for an overly reactive person, but I’ve found in my life it actually enables me to strategically evaluate decisions and long-term consequences as long as I take care of my overall general health. My capacity to pick up on nuance helps me “zoom-out” on a situation and see multiple perspectives.
My father died from cancer a few years ago, and it’s a situation where most people would assume the emotions and loss at the time would disarm me, but instead, I shifted into management, logistics, and therapist mode. I could see the emotional and logistical needs of others who were affected by his death and remained calm enough to help with an obituary, memorial preparations and helping others process their own emotions and grief.
When that client blew up at me, I complained to my husband afterward that I felt weak because I didn’t stand up for myself in the moment. But he helped me see my sensitivity differently and said, “Even though your body processes negative events for a long time afterward, you’re like a rock in the face of chaos. In a tense moment, your ability to remain calm makes you stronger than most people. It’s potentially the biggest way to disarm an aggressive opponent.”
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
At this point in my life, I have solid boundaries around the empathy part of my sensitivity. For example, I limit the news and media I consume, and curate relationships carefully so that I’m not in a close relationship with someone whose own life and needs may kick my empathy into overdrive.
But my high sensitivity to noise, sound, and stimulation is another issue altogether. With empathy, I can use tools to pragmatically detach myself. With my other forms of high sensitivity, I’m still easily triggered on a physiological level by something environmental. If my neighbor plays loud, booming bass music, there’s little I can do to prevent myself from being stimulated by that besides leaving my house. But I can more easily enact boundaries around my relationships and media consumption to help reduce how much my empathy goes into hyperdrive.
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?
Boy am I relieved I didn’t grow up as a teenager in the age of social media. Just thinking about a highly sensitive kid in today’s social media environment makes me sad and stressed for that kid.
Part of being a mature adult is putting firm boundaries around what I will and will not consume, and for how long. I’ve created compartments around social media.
For example, Facebook is mainly for marketing and networking in select Facebook groups.
I use Twitter to catch up on news and politics and limit the time I spent on Twitter.
I recommend any highly sensitive person make a concrete, conscious decision about how they will use each social media platform, its purpose in their life, and how they’ll limit both the time they spend and what they consume on social media.
Phone apps that limit usage help, especially if consumption reduction is new to you. I think we really need to ask yourself, “how is this truly benefitting my life? Do I need to filter my feeds so I don’t see Uncle Jim’s angry rants? How much are my mind and body affecting by the things I read on social media? Is that helping or hurting my mental and physical health?”
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?
Whew, well, here we return to potential confrontation again, and that’s a minefield for a lot of HSPs. The older I get, the less I care about what others think of me, and the easier it is for me to respond with something like, “This does affect me. It may not affect you, but it impacts me,” or, simply, “it matters to me. We don’t have to agree on this, but it bothers me and if you value our relationship, you’ll take that into account.”
But if someone else makes negative comments about me or tries to belittle me, I’m resolute in distancing myself from a person or situation that causes me harm. Hashimoto’s Disease, the autoimmune condition I have, is worse with stress — I’ll crash, physically, and experience extreme fatigue. Because of this, protecting my health and stress levels is non-negotiable, and I encourage any other HSPs reading this to consider creating boundaries that make their own mental and physical health their biggest priority.
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?
Being highly sensitive has, over time, made me a more private person. I’m careful about who I let into my innermost world and have learned to build up a stock of “go-to” conversation topics that are casual and engaging but don’t expose me to potential conflict. Someone who isn’t an HSP might read this and think that sounds dull and calculated, but for any of us with high sensitivities, the art of navigating social relationships is something we often have to carefully construct.
I see my empathy as a gift and share it accordingly. Not everyone is deserving of that gift of mine, but more critically, putting limitations around where I expend my empathy is necessary in light of having Hashimoto’s Disease, which is associated with extreme fatigue.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
Two myths I used to believe are 1. that my high sensitivity is a weakness and 2. that I just need to suck it up and grow a spine.
The older I get, the more I see that my HSP nature is far stronger than I used to give myself credit for. Yes, I spook easily (just ask my poor husband about how he’s had to try and not accidentally sneak up on me) and need a certain calm and quiet in my home. But the depth to which I feel and process things gives me a special level of strength and intelligence. For example, my ability to read others’ emotions enables me to far more easily mediate a discussion with diplomacy and flexibility.
As for the idea that HSPs can just suck it up and grow a spine, that myth is perpetuated by a world dominated by non-HSPs. It’s kind of begging the question. Of course, someone without high sensitivity lacks the capacity to understand what it’s really like to have your entire physical system on high drive, 24/7, and that it’s not a matter of choice but of physiology. But research shows Highly Sensitive People have genetic traits that differ from non-HSPs. The point at which an HSP can accept their nature, and begin to work WITH it, instead of trying to force themselves into showing up like the other 80% of society, is the point at which they begin to both find peace, and flourish.
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?
Dr. Elaine Aron points to studies that show high sensitivity is an inherited, genetic trait. We cannot simply “just get over it.” High sensitivity isn’t an issue of mind over matter: it’s a physical difference we HSPs have, and my own life became a lot calmer and saner when I accepted my nature, without apology, and stop trying to change my sensitivity.
I encourage other HSPs to dedicate time and effort into building their self-esteem. This, along with the therapy modality EMDR (a form of therapy that helps you process negative emotions rapidly) made the biggest impact in helping me stop caring what others think. And that’s really the answer to your question: with 80% of the population NOT HSP, the likelihood of a mass cultural change that raises awareness about highly sensitive people and sees them treated with more tolerance and respect is unlikely. So what needs to change is us — you — the HSP reading this. The only person you can control is yourself and growing into acceptance of your nature as an HSP, and putting strong boundaries around the types of people and sentiment you’ll allow in your life is key to thriving.
However, that’s sometimes easier said than done. As a business owner, for example, I have a lot of freedom and privilege around what I will and won’t tolerate from clients. An employed HSP may lack that level of freedom and face challenges and pushback in the work environment.
In cases like that or with a family member they continue to engage with, being calm, firm, and persistent in asking for what you need is critical. It can help to explain to someone else (especially a coworker or boss) “The same thing that makes me a great (insert a positive trait) is also the thing that makes me have different sensitivities than others. Is it a problem to accommodate my request?”
Someone stating that you’re too sensitive should be able to explain why they think you should be the one to change. To that I’d add, why is it only the HSP who is asked to change? It’s reasonable for the HSP to ask others to accommodate some of their needs, or in the very least, request a happy medium be found (for example, perhaps loud music is played for only half the time it’s normally played by the other person. Or the HSP can create “office hours” of availability, and put on headphones and a “do not disturb” sign for the non-office hours).
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 If You Love Or Are In A Relationship With A Highly Sensitive Person? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Understand it’s not you. Your highly sensitive partner may spook easily, become suddenly emotional, or need time to decompress and relax. None of these things are necessarily indicative of fault on your part. Many HSPs don’t realize they’re HSPs, and (they)may be frustrated with themselves and unable to explain to you why they react as they do and what their needs are. Encourage them to learn more about their sensitive nature and have open, frank discussions about how it affects both of your day-to-day lives.
- Ask for what you need. Your needs matter, too. Openly communicate, in a patient and respectful way, about what you need: whether it’s more physical affection, times when you can play music loudly, or negotiated times when you have friends over to socialize. Relationships are give-and-take, and your needs as a non-HSP are valid, too.
- Contribute to your HSP’s love bank (by understanding and anticipating their needs). One of the kindest things my husband does is when he notices I’ve had a long, full, tiring day and says to me, “do you want to wind down a little earlier tonight before bed so you have time to relax and destress?” He gets what I need — that quiet, transitional time before bed will help my sleep.
- Define time where you can let it all out. You may find your HSP needs a quieter or less stimulating environment than you crave. Find ways, spaces, and times to do things your way. It helps avoid pent-up tension and gives you some relief. The more you communicate clearly with your HSP (and ask them if a schedule or negotiated space and time will help them) the more you can both relax into your relationship.
- Watch your tone of voice and demonstrations of anger. Anger is a valid emotion that every human experience. Some people may need to hit a boxing bag or go for a run to physically dispel their anger, and those are great examples of healthy outlets. Your HSP partner is likely highly attuned to your emotions, which doesn’t mean “don’t have or display emotions” but understand the more calm and even-keeled tone you bring into a conversation (especially those difficult conversations!) the more constructive and productive the outcome.
Confrontation can make many an HSP shut down. We’re sensitive to both a raised voice and stonewalling alike. Both can make us freeze or struggle to focus on the moment. Communicate with maturity — seek therapeutic help in practicing constructive communication if both you and your HSP partner need it.
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’d inspire a movement that uplifts outcast children and addresses school bullying at a fundamental, cultural level. In Western culture, in particular, bullying is often dismissed, swept under the rug, or justified as “kids just being kids.” But a bullied child, who isn’t protected by either the school system or adults, receives a message, early on, of injustice. This can propagate despair and helplessness.
If every outcast child had a trusted adult mentor to help improve their self-esteem from an early age, and if every school and youth environment had strong, decisive policies in place to address bullying, we’d see a better culture emerge as those children grow into adulthood. Bullying stymies a child’s education, self-esteem and outlook on life: it can stunt their development and capacity to explore new interests. This harms us all because a bullied child is often a sensitive child, and a sensitive child has the capacity, within the right environment, to be a positive leader and creative force of good in the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
At my website at designbyreese.com
On Instagram at @designbyreese
On Facebook at facebook.com/byreese
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thank you so much for a thoughtful and considerate interview!