When I was young, people commented on my sensitivity. They would tell me that everyone knows how I am feeling by the look on my face, that I wear my heart on my sleeve. I learned that I needed to toughen up, thicken my skin, get a better poker face if I was going to avoid further comments and keep anything to myself. It sounded harsh then, but what I know now is that these people were trying to protect me. They could see that the way I walked through the world was not going to be easy for me, and that if I showed up just how I was, I would get hurt. A lot. Who wants that for someone they care about? Parents want to protect their children from pain and loss as much as possible. But what I have learned is that there is no way my family could have protected me from what would come. My parents would have done absolutely anything to save me from my life experiences and the depth of feeling that would accompany those moments, but they just couldn’t. They had to figure out how to support me.
So I felt everything. I felt my feelings in a way that many people could probably avoid; most of the time, this didn't feel optional. It seemed to me that most people had a filter through which to process information, news, and images, and I didn't have one. There were definitely times I stuck my head in the sand and the pain of being a human was so intense that I needed to retreat to a place that felt safe for me. There were times I felt things so acutely that I thought my heart would shatter, that my body would shut down because the emotional weight was too much to carry. I was acutely aware of this when I had cancer. I believe my experience with illness was a serious reckoning between my body and the way I was living my life without awareness of my needs. I know now (and maybe because I’m 10 years older) that I need 8 hours of sleep each night; I need to eat regularly and well; I need to drink a lot of water; and I need to have time every day to focus on my breath and notice my feelings. I was not doing any of that in college, and I paid a dear price. I was trying so hard to ignore what my body needed because it wasn’t convenient, and it certainly didn’t align with college expectations.
For a long time, I didn't have a name or language to talk about the dissonance between what I needed and how I was actually engaging in my life. It also felt pretty crappy to be the person who was "high maintenance" in my circle of friends. Then I learned about the concept of Highly Sensitive People (HSP), coined by Elaine Aron. I didn’t realize I was highly sensitive until my late 20s, even though I knew there was something different about me. I thought I was just weird and easily overwhelmed (those may both still be true, but the highly sensitive part is definitely real). When I first heard the word “hangry”, it felt like someone was finally able to help me label the terrible feeling seemingly turned on by a switch in my brain when I would say mean things and feel like I was going to pass out at the same time (and helpful for my partner to understand that carrying snacks was essential during outings). Approximately 20% of people are considered to be highly sensitive (you can take a test here to see if you identify with the traits of highly sensitive folks), so it’s likely we will all have experiences with HSPs in various realms of our lives.
Highly sensitive people may identify strongly with the following statements, from The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron:
I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.
Other people’s moods affect me.
I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.
I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
I startle easily.
When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment, I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).
I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.
I make it a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.
Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.
My work throughout my life has been to maintain a balance of feeling but not letting the feelings completely hijack my life. My mom and best friend were amazing supports to me as I had cancer treatment and as I healed, and I am so grateful they knew how to be with me. I think my feelings probably scared them, but they didn’t try to stop me from feeling. They showed up for me however I was—in denial, in tears, in hopelessness, in grace. I know how much they were both feeling during those times, and they didn’t make me carry their feelings, too. They allowed me to feel the way I needed to. They gave me space and comfort, and not in a superficial way. They didn’t tell me to smile or cheer up. They said “this really sucks” when I cried or was angry. They knew they couldn’t fix it so they didn’t pretend they could. They were right there with me and didn’t ask me to be anywhere else. They knew the only way out was through. We were walking the path together and turning back was not an option; the pain would be there, waiting for us later.
It can be difficult to identify how to ask for support as a highly sensitive person. It’s also hard to know how to support someone who is sensitive in a way that feels helpful. Here are some ways to support your favorite highly sensitive people:
- Don’t try to fix it. You probably can’t fix it, and they are not asking you to—your full attention and love is what they are needing right now. The problem-solving can come later if necessary, and it’s important to allow them to maintain their autonomy and be the decision-maker about whether the fixing is needed.
- Understand the intensity of their feelings. They are not making this up. What they are showing you on the outside is likely just a fraction of what they are feeling on the inside.
- Listen. What are they really saying? What feelings and experiences could you validate to help them know you are present with them? Ask questions. Be curious.
- Respect when boundaries are set. This may be the only way a highly sensitive person knows how to reduce stimulation in their environment or relationships. HSPs can feel challenged by boundary-setting, so if they are setting limits, they are letting you know the boundaries are important.
- Recognize sensitivity as a gift, not a weakness. The person you are supporting is experiencing life in a way that many others can’t—and that is pretty lovely.
Stay tuned for an exciting collaboration between myself and Laura Torres, LPC in March 2017 that will aim to support highly sensitive folks in our community!
Elizabeth Gillette, LCSW specializes in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, adjustment to parenthood, couples counseling and life transitions.