Put your boundaries in place, figure out any strategies that you need, look at any areas of your life where you are losing energy or that you feel negatively about and take steps to address that.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Wylde. Suzanne is a holistic coach, stretching trainer, writer, acupuncturist, and hardened tea-drinker. She has pursued her lifelong passion for self-development through university, hospitals, Mongolia, muddy fields, shamanic ceremonies, writing two books, loitering in cafes, standing in the occasional circle of hippies, and thinking about important things. Helping people to heal pain, express their gifts, and live happy, full lives lights her up. She also often deals with quite heavy baggage carried by people who are by nature light and sensitive, and navigating the discordance between these two states has put her skills as an HSP to the test in the best way possible (in fact, growing up in both the Jersey shore of England and in Rome may have given her an early advantage in tolerating and even celebrating dichotomies like this). She is happy exploring the subtleties and patterns each client brings in order to help them find their most genuine and powerful way forward. Even more so if there is a cup of tea nearby.
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 had a slightly unconventional experience as a teenager because I started studying Tai Chi and Qi Gong at the age of 16 instead of waiting until I was 60 like most sensible people do. Because of my growing fascination with Taoism and Chinese medical theory I opted for a 5-year degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (instead of becoming a nun or a spy, which I had previously considered) and I did not realize at the time how important learning a holistic way of thinking would be to me. Because I am a Highly Sensitive Person I tend to pick up a lot of subtle information and by learning how to let it fall into place within a larger web (rather than forcing it to fit into a more rigid framework) I have found the way of thinking that feels effortless and natural to me.
This is my 15th year of practicing acupuncture and over the years I have also studied energy work, some shamanism, resistance stretching, and holistic coaching. Combining my experience of stretching with working with a wide variety of clients, including many with chronic pain, I created my own method of stretching and called it Moving Stretch and also wrote a book of the same name. However, (like so many HSPs) I feel the pull to work holistically across different disciplines and so I also do a lot of work in the realm of self-development. At a certain point, I had enough information and exercises that I felt were useful to people to put into a book on self-development, which I called The Art of Coming Home. The name reflects the fact that even if something feels unfamiliar if it is genuine then by choosing it we are coming home to ourselves. I enjoy all the facets of my work and being an HSP I feel nourished by both the variety and the fact I am often using all the information I am taking in.
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?
I believe that HSPs are not simply more sensitive in terms of reacting more strongly to stimuli — but that we are taking much more information in the first place. This could be seen as having a thinner membrane between us and the world and therefore less of a barrier to sensory information entering our consciousness. In fact, as an HSP I have often found myself wondering how “normal” people could be so insensitive and it has taken me years to understand that someone may simply not be aware of the feelings of others or the subtext of a situation. Until I understood this fully I was absolutely bewildered by what I saw as callous and cruel behavior. Conversely, I believe that others who were not HSPs saw me as hypersensitive, overreactive, and irrational because they could not see the information that I was reacting to.
To give an example, recently someone said something to me which sounded fairly innocuous, but at that moment I was aware that the person was stressed and agitated and was trying to push his discomfort onto me by trying to make me ashamed of myself. I reacted angrily, which to others may have seemed over-the-top. However, I was not reacting to his words, but the meaning behind them. I saw in his eyes his desire to make me suffer and how little my well-being meant to him at that moment, and I felt a sharp pain and grief that I had to protect myself against someone I thought loved me. Incidentally, I am pretty sure that a person does love me — but is not an HSP and is not aware of his inner state or how it affects people. A tone of voice, look in the eyes, the slight quiver of a facial muscle, the choice of a word, the position of the body, and may other signs and signals are all information that I am not choosing to look for — they just enter. Therefore if you believe someone is an HSP and that you have offended them somehow, you might want to reflect on what your actual intentions were when you did so — as that is most likely what they are reacting to.
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?
HSPs tend to notice many more of the very subtle signs of emotion, giving them a greater awareness of other people’s feelings and a higher level of empathy than the average person. I believe most HSPs are also empaths because, on the rare occasions that I have seen HSPs not being empathetic, it seemed as if they had closed themselves defensively (probably because they had become overwhelmed or hurt in the past). An HSP would take offence on behalf of another if a comment was unnecessarily hurtful because they dislike ugliness in any form, including behavior.
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?
Because most HSPs are very empathic it can be distressing to witness violence and injury because we may feel it within ourselves. However, I typically do not struggle with this because I can choose to avoid a film I know is violent, or close my eyes when something unpleasant begins. Something that I find more challenging, and which can cause me to feel pain deep right to my core, is if I am scrolling through an otherwise pleasant or uneventful social media feed and am suddenly confronted with a picture of someone’s wound. I feel that people should put a trigger warning with a lot of space above the picture so that people can avoid seeing it if they choose to. Conversely, I may be overly careful and I often check with people before revealing a picture or piece of information, because there is no erasing it after the fact.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
I had a client who had to work in a very macho, extraverted company and although she was passionate about her work it was the polar opposite of the culture that would have suited her naturally. So many of the attributes of the office including the bright lights, open plan layout, loud talking, and very little space for privacy or self-reflection made working there exhausting for her. Added to that, the aggressive, competitive culture where it was quite normal to speak over quieter people and assert oneself almost to the point of bullying, made it hard for her to show up as her genuine self and have the impact she wanted to make.
Initially, I helped her mitigate the barrage of sensory stimuli that was draining her energy, with strategies for finding space for quiet and focus amid the noise (including headphones, getting out at lunch and scheduling one-to-one meetings rather than group meetings where possible). Then we looked at shifting perspective from victim to observer so that although she was still a fish out of the water, she was learning as much as possible, which helped her to feel engaged, in-control, and empowered. She learned to start asserting her needs and although she could not change the culture completely, she found that she was listened to more and more. I believe that because she was able to both center herself more and empower herself through learning, others sensed her increased personal power and gave her more space. It is usually not the loudest person in the room who has the most power, but the person who is most sure of themselves. HSPs can become more sure of themselves through learning to ride the onslaught of information and remain centered rather than be bowled over by it. Breathing techniques can also help a lot with this.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
There are very wide variations in sensitivity and these changes as our culture changes also. You can see this reflected in the movies that were once banned and which now seem quite mild to us. I would say that someone’s sensitivity is getting in the way if they cannot function in society. However, others may see people as too sensitive if they cannot tolerate loud music and noises, violent movies, rudeness, inconsiderate behavior, or unnecessary ugliness. People often judge others as too sensitive specifically in the areas that they are less aware of, so they usually do not see the problem that is aggravating an HSP, they only see the reaction.
Clearer conflicts arise where someone who is not dealing with their emotions is either acting out or seeking catharsis through horror movies or violent films, so they are purposefully trying to turn their level of stimulation up, while the HSP is trying to turn it down. It would be easy for them both to judge each other due to not understanding the other person’s motives and it can be very hard to relate to a person who has the opposite reaction to an experience. Knowing that people work differently and need different things to feel happy can help you to bridge that gap in understanding.
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 an HSP allows me to tune into my clients on many levels and see patterns in their lives and in their problems. By picking up a lot of subtle information and viewing it in an interconnected way I can give people useful perspectives on what I think is happening for them and how they might move forward, which they might not be able to find in another way.
In my own life being an HSP has allowed me to enjoy my creativity, appreciate beauty and art, form deep relationships and it gives me a very rich experience of life.
I have noticed that other HSPs have channeled their sensitivity into creating great depth — whether that is artistically, professionally, philosophically, in their relationships or in themselves. As they are used to sensing beyond the surface, this depth is par for the course for many Highly Sensitive People and it tends to give them a unique and beautiful perspective that can transport people or touch them deeply.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
It is common for HSPs to suffer in childhood because society and parenting techniques have not historically been very good at caring for this personality type. This woundedness may hold the HSP back for a long time, preventing them from living their lives in an expansive and open-hearted way. However, when they understand that this wound is actually their potential and start the work of transforming it, this same pain can become their advantage, giving them unique insights, gifts, and inner strength. All of the HSPs I have worked within this regard have had diverse, beautiful, and sometimes powerful abilities come forward. This, partnered with experience of how to preserve their energy and peace of mind, often leads to very interesting and fulfilling lives.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
If someone was solely an empath and not an HSP they would only be taking in information about people’s emotions, not all the stimulus from the general environment around them. However, most HSPs are also empaths. Surprisingly, being empathetic is not always helpful because studies have shown that when witnessing someone in distress an empath may often act to make themselves feel better, even if it is worse for the person in distress.
A clear example of this was when I was on the London underground and I witnessed a man saying racist things to a woman before she got on the train that had just arrived. As I stood near her I wanted to talk to her to make sure she was OK, like the woman next to her seemed to have no problem doing. However, I was in a lot of distress also and wanted to make sure I would not burst into tears, adding to her problems. After several stops, I felt that I had finally got myself together enough but while talking to her the look in her eyes tipped me over the edge and I burst into tears. She ended up hugging me in the middle of the train and although I saw that she felt better as a result anyway, it was a very real confirmation to me of what the studies say — empaths are not always helpful in a crisis.
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 important for HSPs to differentiate between people who are venting or trying to get a rise out of other people and those who are honestly expressing themselves so they do not take everything at face value. I know some HSPs who actually take themselves off social media in order to protect themselves. Others skim through and only focus on things that they want to pay attention to. I would say that if you are being negatively affected by anything that is non-essential the easiest way to deal with it is to remove it.
However, you could also see it as a very low-risk way to train yourself to put that shield up. This is a skill that all HSPs need to develop if they want to live in society and be content, so if you wanted to practice this try looking through your social media and when something feels uncomfortable just think to yourself — it is outside you, it is not a part of your life and you choose not to take it in. Like so many skills practice is crucial and the benefit of using social media is that you can turn it off whenever you like. Of course, you will also need to practice in real life to hone your abilities, but this can be a great start.
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?
If others are downplaying something that bothers you, you could explain why it is not minor as many people simply lack the contextual information that HSPs pick up on. However, if you feel that the other person’s ignorance is purposeful instead of accidental then a direct confrontation with that state of mind will not get you anywhere. Instead, try making a clear comment about the situation and then change the subject to something completely different so the person has time to mull it over without feeling defensive. Many HSPs do not understand that some people do not like knowing things — it the antithesis of their way of being. Simply knowing that can explain so many situations that have confused them.
Yet there are times when we have to make a stand and there is no way around it or diplomatic alternative. Just be prepared for other people’s reactions and know that they are usually not about you — it can be hard for people to accept that the sensitive, quiet person who is usually so considerate suddenly has a definite opinion. Clearly expressing an opinion can be done with love, so you can stand firm on an issue while still leaving the door to communication open.
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?
Be discerning and selective. You need to choose the environment, the job, the friends, the hobbies, and art that inspires and nourishes you. If you have to be somewhere loud and it is safe to use noise-canceling headphones I recommend that. If you can listen to music, find a quiet corner, take a walk at lunch, be in nature, make your surroundings aesthetically pleasing to you, cultivate calm environments, and warm and supportive friendships you will probably finding yourself growing more and more open. The main challenge is not closing down to avoid over-stimulation or those people who want to push their own negative emotions onto more sensitive people.
Having good boundaries and being picky about what is inside those boundaries can help to create a space where you can recharge. While some think that all empathic people should give endlessly, this is a bad idea. When you have a tiny lose screw you use a fine little screwdriver, not a hammer. If someone wants to vent negative emotions they do not need a highly-attuned HSP or empath. But if someone needs perspective or subtle information to be read and understood, an HSP is ideal. Through understanding their strengths and the best places and times to use them, HSPs can be effective and caring while avoiding burnout.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
They may be seen as capricious, selfish, or touchy by some when responding to stimuli that others are unaware of. This reaction may even make you feel that they lack inner strength, understanding, resilience, purpose, generosity, or self-awareness. However, an HSP’s feelings are genuine, and rather than being weak or flighty, they often have a powerful inner strength and determination that comes from knowing themselves very well.
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?
That phrase often adds insult to injury because people usually say it at the time the HSP is suffering. I believe that people are frustrated at having to take more care of another person than they want to. What they are probably less aware of is how much care the HSP has already been taking of them. The HSP may have a file in their heads of all the things that are potentially unpleasant for the other person and have been instinctively protecting them, which makes it doubly painful when the other person does not seem to care for their wellbeing.
It is important for the HSP to first clarify their own emotions, maybe even separating past hurts from what is currently happening and looking at the other person’s true intentions. Getting clear and naming emotions can help them to feel calmer while allowing their emotional pain to be there instead of stifling or judging it means that they are much more likely to learn what that pain is trying to tell them.
For non-HSPs, knowing that it is not an over-reaction but an equal and opposite reaction will inform them of the size of the problem. This is analogous to judging the strength of someone’s serve by how far their ball travels. It is not traveling that far by accident — it is not “over-reacting” to the tennis racket. When an HSP is reacting to an issue you can not see the full extent of, you can gauge the size of it by the size of their reaction.
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?
1. Stop expecting that non-HSPs will anticipate your needs
This can be very uncomfortable to someone with an awareness that is used to gently sensing the edges of invisible things, but you have to learn to specifically state what it is that you need. The lack of nuance, being anticipated or sensing involved in this type of communication can feel a bit ugly or even aggressive to an HSP. To a non-HSP, it will probably just seem like information. An example of this might be an employee clearly telling their boss they are hoping for a certain promotion rather than hoping in secret that a million tiny signs will be picked up on.
2. Honor your needs
Even if the society you live in does not value what you need, you have to value it. Because you need it. It is not a frivolous whimsy — it is essential to your happiness. So, put your boundaries in place, figure out any strategies that you need, look at any areas of your life where you are losing energy or that you feel negatively about and take steps to address that. If this is hard to figure out because you have so many needs that are not being met, picture your perfect life if money and duty were not a concern. Write out all the details of that and when you have finished think of a practical and authentic way you can bring them into your life. I knew an HSP who felt that she had to give endlessly and as a result ended up feeling embittered, drained, and became ill. This forced her to admit both that she had needs and also that she should not run away from her emotions by throwing herself into other people’s lives. Now she values her own needs and is centered in her life. When she has extra energy she gives it but she takes the approach of empowering people to help themselves, no longer spending her “life energy” on fixing other people’s problems.
3. Find your unique gifts
Every HSP I have met has talents, strengths, and abilities that others do not, but these are often not being expressed fully as the person may be in survival mode. Through taking the steps to meet your needs and create safe spaces you will be able to open up more and more, expressing your creativity and other facets. Why not take the time to explore different avenues and skills? I recommend being playful; not everything has to be profitable or impressive. Some things are just for us to be ourselves and an open-ended exploration can lead to real beauty.
An example, which is true for many of my clients, is the person who moves from seeing themselves as flawed and overly sensitive to acknowledging their strengths and setting themselves up for success. By protecting their sensitivity their awareness no longer has to be focused on self-defense, they can allow it to sink deeper and deeper into a certain topic. The result of this may be works of art, solutions to problems, or understanding complex ideas, perhaps. Whatever the result, it is grounded in giving oneself permission to be sensitive and seeing the value in that.
4. Laugh more
The world seems a bit chaotic and restless nowadays and this is throwing more and more of the “shadow” of society and people up to be dealt with. These murky emotions and behaviors can be genuinely distressing to an HSP, but if you have a safe space and some people you feel at ease with you can forget your troubles by having a good time. Laughing and having fun not only deepen relationships and lighten the load, but they also boost our immunity.
I know quite a lot of HSPs who feel that since they are more aware of certain issues they carry more of the responsibility for dealing with them. Remembering you are not a superhero and have needs and live like everyone else is important for avoiding carrying the whole world on your shoulders. Let yourself be human and others are competent.
5. Cultivate both compassion and self-compassion
Being told there is something wrong with you throughout your life can have a strange effect on a person. In some cases, it might make you feel like a stranger to yourself and perpetually off-center. Through practicing self-compassion you may begin to feel that you are exactly what you are meant to be and that you have the permission to live fully. Also, by cultivating compassion you can bridge the gap in understanding that often exists between HSPs and non-HSPs. Everyone has the same fundamental needs, everyone wants to be loved and respected, to have a purpose. Even though some people take in more information than others, at its root our fundamental humanity is the same.
I have known several HSPs who had a deep wound running through them, like a chasm that was a never-ending source of pain. Having not been accepted for who they were by one or both of their parents, they had never learned to fully trust themselves or to live in a whole-hearted and genuine way. Although it may be a cliché, understanding that their parents did the best they could but were not able to understand their child or the full extent of their gifts can help to make it feel less personal. Through learning to care for the part of themselves that wanted more, understand what happened, and feel compassion for their parents, most of the HSPs I know who are working on this have changed remarkably. They have grown in confidence, self-awareness, ability to self-express and they have the kind of centered-strength that allows them to be loving and show up for others. Although this road can be tough, understanding that forgiveness is a full acknowledgment of our pain whilst also seeing the vulnerability and suffering of the other person can help to free us from that painful pattern. We regain our flexibility and sense of self because our inner compass is no longer set to navigate in relation to pain but to our genuine impulses and desires.
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.
Every single person I have met has a gift or ability that they are uniquely qualified to bring into the world. If everyone were to do this, our society would be full of incredibly fulfilled, open-minded, and supportive people. Conversely, those who hide their gifts may become jaded or unsupportive to others over time leading to cultures that diminish people instead of lifting them up. Therefore, I hope that if there is something you would like to do, make, write, or invent, you make a plan to achieve this and start.
I know it can be scary, but if an idea has found you it probably means that you have the resources and inner strength to make it happen. I highly recommend choosing the fear of doing something over the regret of never having tried.
How can our readers follow you online?
At www.suzannewylde.com or on Instagram @suzanne_wylde, Facebook @Wyldesuzanne or twitter @Suzanne_Wylde.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.