Check in with yourself multiple times per day. This is the foundation of emotional awareness — you have to understand where you’re at emotionally in order to make smart decisions that set you up for success during your day. Some days you might check in and realize you feel quite good, but other times you might realize you’re feeling especially agitated and, as a result, reschedule plans because you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to show up the way you want to.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Farris. Sarah is an emotional intelligence and energy expert and, as the Founder and Principal of Vibe Elevated [VibeElevated.com], is dedicated to helping people develop greater emotional awareness and resilience in the workplace and beyond.
She is a member of the Female Founders Collective, has been published on mindbodygreen, and has engaged in professional collaborations with Free People, Lululemon, Athleta, and The Riveter. Sarah serves a worldwide client base spanning North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia.
She holds a certificate in Women in Leadership from Cornell University as well as a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Additionally, Sarah has been attuned to the master level of Reiki and is a member of the lineage that can be traced directly back to Mikao Usui, the founder of Reiki.
She resides in Seattle, WA with her husband and rescue pup, Miller.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Absolutely! I am the Founder & Principal of Vibe Elevated where I work as an emotional intelligence and energy expert helping people develop greater emotional awareness and resilience in the workplace and beyond.
I built Vibe Elevated on the foundation that we can’t often control what happens to us in life but we can control how we respond. I help people better understand their emotions and equip them with tools so they can better regulate their reactions.
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 is greatly impacted by the people, places, and things around them. HSP may feel disrupted by their immediate environment, including loud noises, crowds, or even harsh light. In general, those who identify as HSP feel things on a deeper level than most people and need a safe space to process and recover from the impact of their daily interactions.
For example, they may have lower levels of emotional resilience, so a remark that may not even register with a non-HSP could be extremely impactful for a HSP; they may ruminate on an offhanded comment much longer than they’d like to.
It’s true that HSP can feel hurt or offended more easily than a non-HSP, but it goes beyond that.
Imagine that we all have a dial with a range from one to ten. If your dial is set at one, there could be extreme chaos around you and you wouldn’t be affected by it. Conversely, if your dial is set to ten, you would be deeply impacted by your environment and could even experience difficulty moving on from triggering surroundings once you return to a comfortable setting. Our dials can fluctuate depending on our moods, environments, etc., and HSP typically experience life with dials set in the higher range.
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?
Highly sensitive people can be empathic, but the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. If an empathic person is around a friend who’s going through a major loss, they are likely going to feel deep grief and can even experience that friend’s emotional response as if it’s their own.
A HSP generally wouldn’t experience a similar emotion to that friend, but instead they might have a difficult time being around them or feel hurt because that friend isn’t as emotionally available for them as they might otherwise be.
A highly sensitive person could be offended by hurtful remarks made about other people, but that situation could also cause the HSP to feel anxiety about what that person might be saying about them.
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?
Anything that influences our environment can be disruptive to a highly sensitive person, so if you are a HSP who spends a lot of time on social media or reading through news articles, those virtual spaces can infiltrate your emotional space.
I work with several clients who choose to not watch movies or TV shows that are violent because that media is too disruptive for them and they feel like it’s not worth it for the level of emotional and energetic recovery it requires. Someone who doesn’t identify as a HSP can generally stay detached from the violence, as an example, and just see the entertainment value in it.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
I recently helped a client who works in an office that uses an open workspace setup with cubicles. The only offices with doors are reserved for senior-level employees, so there is no way for her to create any physical barriers between her space and that of her colleagues.
One of her desk neighbors had been going through a lengthy and intense divorce, and she would often come to the office and spend the first hour of her workday talking to colleagues about the drama and turbulence of her separation.
My client was really struggling with this situation because it was impacting her environment and she didn’t have much control over it. She noticed that she was feeling more agitated during the day and was having a hard time focusing on her work.
Once we really dug into her frustrations, she realized that her workspace in general was not a good fit for her because she identifies as a highly sensitive person. She was particularly sensitive to the bright fluorescent lights, commotion of people constantly walking past her desk, and deeply struggled with the chaos that came from her supervisor’s weekly panic-stricken moments when there was a fire to be put out.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
As a society, our collective pendulum has swung in a direction where we’re more aware of sensitivities than we were just ten years ago.
This is a silly example, but look at the TV show, The Office (US). There are story lines on that show that would not fly in 2020, but when the show came out, there was a higher level of tolerance. It seems like we’re starting to become more aware of how certain things affect people and, as a result, are showing more sensitivity towards the content on our screens.
The societal norm is evolving at a really rapid rate, so it’s difficult to keep a finger on the pulse of what that looks like. When I think about someone in a group of people being called out by a peer for showing too much sensitivity, it seems like the response of the group would differ tremendously today from what we would have observed ten years ago. In our current climate, it feels like more people would be open to respecting that person’s sensitivity compared to how it would have been handled in the past.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Highly sensitive people can greatly benefit from their sensitivities if they have tools to leverage them instead of feeling completely overcome by their physical and emotional responses.
HSP can contribute incredibly thoughtful insight and feedback to people who might not have the same sensitivities. For example, if you have a HSP do a walk-through of a newly designed hotel, they can give critical feedback on things that designers and marketing teams would want to know (i.e. how the lighting makes them feel, the energy the colors of the guestrooms evoke, etc.).
In general, HSP can help the rest of the population step outside of themselves and consider some of the intangible qualities and implications of their environments and communications.
HSP who have leaned into their sensitivities can also be excellent friends, managers, and parents because they are so plugged into the subtle cues that some people might normally miss.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
Before I founded Vibe Elevated I worked as an events manager and knew a handful of highly sensitive people in my office. I witnessed first-hand how their sensitivities contributed to seamless event executions because they thought through every step of the attendee’s experience, from the moment they arrived to the moment they departed.
Regardless of what industry you work in, it’s paramount to have a deep understanding of the customer’s experience, and HSP often just get it; that knowingness comes very organically and enables the customer to feel completely seen and taken care of.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
I do believe there is harm in being overly empathic when you don’t have the tools in place to help you regulate. I identify as highly empathic and really struggled with how deeply I was affected by the emotions and energy of the people, places, and things around me until I learned some incredibly valuable techniques and skills; it can be exhausting and draining otherwise. That’s a major part of why I do what I do professionally — I am passionate about sharing that information with other empathic people.
In general, being empathic usually entails more intuition than being highly sensitive. A highly sensitive person can walk into a room and be affected by the lighting, tone of conversations happening around them, traffic noises from the street, and more.
An empathic person will notice those things, too, but they can take it a few steps further and intuit why the tone has evolved in that direction or who’s really driving it and why. The empathic person will also typically feel the emotions and energy of the people around them while a HSP may just notice that they don’t like what those people are projecting and how it makes them feel personally.
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?
Social media can affect a highly sensitive person because it’s an extension of a virtual environment that can be accessed at any hour of the day. A work environment, for example, has constraints; you’re usually there for a set number of hours and can’t access that same environment (people, lighting, physical space, dialogue) outside of business hours.
With social media, it’s always there and constantly available for our use, plus it has this ability to pull you in. How many of us have gotten sucked into the comments section of a post and only to realize 15 minutes later we went far down the rabbit hole? Social media is interesting because it can infiltrate your physical environment if you let it; the people you follow and the energy they bring to your newsfeed can absolutely impact your mood and emotions.
Every single person on social media should be aware of how the accounts they follow or the posts they engage with affect them on an emotional level, but this is of the utmost importance for people who identify as highly sensitive.
Pay attention to your mood and how you are feeling before, during, and after you spend time on social media. Do you feel zapped or drained? Do you walk away from your time on social platforms feeling energized and more connected? These are all cues indicating the impact social media has on your mental and emotional state.
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?
The way a person responds to you setting a boundary is exceptionally telling. There will be people who don’t respect your unique view and comfort zone for a multitude of reasons and it’s not your job to figure out why.
In this instance, I would advise my client to offer a brief explanation of how removing themselves from that situation or trigger can benefit the people who are calling them petty.
For example: “Bill, I understand you think it’s petty that I get overwhelmed by Dave’s emotional outbursts at work. Could I share some context? When I feel overwhelmed, it’s hard for me to focus on my work and my productivity tanks. It’s important to me that I pull my weight here and I am committed to doing whatever I can to ensure I’m as effective in my role as possible and know you want that, too, because we all benefit. I get that it might be easier for you to ignore Dave but it just hits me differently.”
The goal isn’t to spend an hour justifying your actions to Bill, but to convey to him that there’s a bigger reason for setting that boundary and hopefully he can see that.
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 foundation of overcoming these challenges is having a strong degree of emotional awareness and knowing exactly what affects you. There will be some things you can control, so if you notice that you are strongly affected by being in crowds, for example, try to tweak your activities so you aren’t intentionally putting yourself in compromising situations.
There will also be circumstances that you cannot control, but having a good grasp on your emotions and triggers can help you prepare. If you’re emotionally aware, you will know before entering an environment that you might be feeling particularly stressed, so you can put some boundaries in place to help yourself succeed in that scenario.
If we know a big storm is coming, we stock up on goods and supplies to be as prepared as possible. We need to take inventory of our emotional states and do the same. If you’re heading into the holiday season and are feeling more depleted than usual, you have to prepare and control what is within your scope. Maybe you can take a personal day after spending a week with your family so you can decompress, maybe you make a deal with yourself and if you feel your sensitivity escalating, you take a five-minute breather in the restroom or step outside and take a few deep breaths. Even small coping mechanisms can help get you through challenging situations, so always keep an eye out for opportunities to check in and regulate.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
Sensitivity does not translate to weakness. Consider that highly sensitive people might exhibit even more strength than the average person because they have to try harder to block out disruptors and regulate their responses.
Highly sensitive people did not choose to be highly sensitive — many people show signs of being highly sensitive in childhood.
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?
We need to learn how to be better about respectfully listening to someone else’s opinion or perspective and hearing their explanations and rationale even if we don’t agree. If we started to do more of this, maybe we could learn from each other instead of ruminating in assumptions and judgement.
I had a childhood ‘friend’ who constantly made fun of me for being low energy; I was always the first one to fall asleep at a sleepover, prefered one-on-one interactions, and loved hanging out at home with a good book. As an adult, I have the language and knowledge to identify that I am (and was) an introvert, but this girl just made me feel lazy and weird.
My biggest takeaway from that experience is that her reaction towards me was a reflection of her inner state; her parents were going through a divorce and she was constantly criticized by her dad for her weight, so her treatment of other people was just a mirror of what she felt on the inside. It didn’t justify the way she treated me, but it helped me feel more compassion towards her.
Keep in mind that the way people respond to you often isn’t about you, especially if you approach them with kindness and respect. Their reactions likely are saying much more about how they feel about themselves.
You can offer brief explanations to people about why you need to set boundaries as a highly sensitive person, but at the end of the day, there will always be people who can’t understand and it’s a waste of your time and energy to try to get them 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.
- Check in with yourself multiple times per day. This is the foundation of emotional awareness — you have to understand where you’re at emotionally in order to make smart decisions that set you up for success during your day. Some days you might check in and realize you feel quite good, but other times you might realize you’re feeling especially agitated and, as a result, reschedule plans because you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to show up the way you want to.
- Take inventory of what and who affects you. If you leave every interaction with your friend Marie feeling extremely anxious and drained, that’s good information for you to have. Throw out the extremes and take the average — everyone has off days.
- Honor who you are. Because of the stigma associated with being a highly sensitive person, it’s easy to feel embarrassed or ashamed of the space you might require. Reflect on what unique strengths you bring to the table because of your sensitivities, because you can always find a positive to counter a perceived negative.
- Have a game plan for when you’re feeling triggered. It’s key to have a few tried-and-true techniques that you know you can do to help replenish your reserves. Again, we can’t control what happens to us, so let’s focus on what we can control.
- Don’t be afraid to make changes to your lifestyle. As a highly empathic person, I had to make some lifestyle changes so I could feel better on a more consistent basis. You have to be honest about what works — and doesn’t work — for you. Big networking events feel incredibly draining to me, so I instead focus on meeting up with contacts for coffee one-on-one or in small groups.
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.
Wow, that’s a big question! I strongly feel that the way we treat others is a reflection of our internal environment, so that’s why I am so deeply passionate about emotional awareness. When I’m irritated, I’m not as patient with the people around me. Many of us don’t realize the impact our own emotions have on the people around us, and it’s a ripple effect. If we made more of an attempt to identify how we’re feeling at any given moment, that would enable us to make choices that allow us to better care for ourselves. When we feel better, we treat other people better — from the cashier at the grocery store to our partners and kids. We need more kindness and human connection in this world, and I believe it all starts with a greater understanding of what’s going on internally.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me on the web at VibeElevated.com or on Instagram and Facebook @VibeElevated.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thanks for your thoughtful questions, it has been a pleasure!