The word “sensitive” has both positive and negative connotations in our society, from statements like “he’s such a sensitive person” to phrases like “don’t be so sensitive!”. Yet the nature of human sensitivity is often misunderstood, especially when it comes to recognizing and dealing with highly sensitive people.
As I discuss in this week’s blog and podcast with psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Elaine Aron, a significant percentage of the population (regardless of gender, race or nationality) are highly sensitive individuals, although many of them don’t know they are highly sensitive, or what that means for the way they interact with others, express their emotions, deal with disapproval or parent their children.
This classification is not restricted to women, introverts, people that are quiet or someone who cries easily. It is not a sign of weakness or emotional instability. All highly sensitive people are unique, and have certain qualities that make them far more attuned to the world around them, which has both benefits and drawbacks (like everything concerning us humans!):
1. Depth of processing.
Highly sensitive individuals are naturally deep thinkers, and can sense more gradations in their environment, which usually makes them very observant to what is going on around them.
2. Easily over-stimulated.
Highly sensitive people are easily over-stimulated by their environment because they process everything deeply, which wears them out more quickly than a non-highly sensitive person.
3. Emotional responsive and empathic.
They are very responsive to the needs and feelings of others, although some people misunderstand this as emotional reactivity. However, it is important to recognize that we all need emotions to help us navigate the world and motivate ourselves. For example, the desire to do well generally makes us perform better in a test. Emotions are not just "bad", and should not be demonized or pathologized. In fact, if we don’t face and deal with our emotions, they can take over our lives and cause all sorts of physical and mental issues!
4. Sensitive to subtle stimuli.
Highly sensitive people are generally able to notice what others don’t, and can pick up on social nuances more easily than non-highly sensitive individuals. Although they can pick up more on the negative, which may make them more susceptible to feelings of depression and anxiety, they can also pick up more on the positive, which often makes them very creative and attuned to the beauty in everyday life, as well as emotional leaders who are able to create safe spaces for other people to express how they feel.
This can, however, be more challenging for men, as they are often trained from young not to express their emotions, or only to express how they feel as anger, since this is seen as a more “acceptable” emotion for the male sex, especially in North America, where sensitivity has a very bad reputation amongst men (for more on this see my recent podcast episode #170 and blog on toxic masculinity).
Thankfully, there are ways highly sensitive people can manage and deal with their feelings and interact with their environment. As Dr. Elaine points out in her best-selling book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, highly sensitive people should focus on:
1. Getting lots of downtime.
Because highly sensitive people are so attuned to their environment and the people around them, they can feel exhausted and overwhelmed very quickly.
This is why it very important to have lots of downtime (at least one hour per day and one day off per week, if possible) if you are a highly sensitive person, where you switch off to the external and switch on to the internal and let your mind rest. One great way to do this is what I call “thinker moments”, where you let your mind wander and daydream. These moments give your brain a rest and allow it to reboot and heal, which increases your clarity of mind and reduces your anxiety and stress (to learn more about thinker moments and how to make them a part of your daily routine, see my book Think, Learn, Succeed).
2. Acknowledging that the sensitivity is real.
Your feelings are not just “in your head”! This is who you are, not a mistake or failure. The more you embrace and understand your sensitivity, the more you will get better at understanding yourself.
3. Reframing the past.
Recognize the cultural pressures and assumptions that may have played a role in the way people have responded to your sensitivity, and see them for what they are: cultural constructs. Say, for example, you were called “shy” or a “crybaby” at school—don’t see this as a judgement on your character or as your identity.
4. Healing trauma.
Highly sensitive people really battle dealing with the negative because they feel it so strongly. So, if you are a highly sensitive person (or any person in truth!) take the time to face and deal with past traumas and hurts with a therapist, counselor or someone you trust. Dr. Elaine has a great list of therapists, counselors and mental health professionals on her website, so check them out! And remember, it’s okay to shop around for a therapist that meets your needs as an individual. We are all unique, and we all relate to each other differently.
You can also work through past traumas using my app SWITCH, which is a great tool for helping you learn how to manage your mind, deal with the roots of your trauma, and overcome negative thought patterns and behaviors that impact your mental health through the mental process of reconceptualization (it is now on sale less 50% for a 3-month subscription).
5. Rearranging your lifestyle to suit your sensitivity.
If you need more “me time”, then take it! If you need to leave work at 5 pm and other people decide to stay on, don’t let their actions pressure you into staying. At the end of the day, you have to live with “you” (there is no escaping yourself!), so take the time to focus on your mental and physical self-care.
6. Meeting other highly sensitive people.
Dr. Elaine has great resources on her website to find gatherings of other highly sensitive people in your area (barring current COVID-19 restrictions).
It is also important that parents who are highly sensitive recognize and acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses, and find a way of parenting that works for them. As Dr. Elaine notes in her latest book, The Highly Sensitive Parent: Be Brilliant in Your Role, Even When the World Overwhelms You, highly sensitive parents are far more attuned to their children’s, emotions desires and needs, which can be both a good and bad thing. In some cases, their sensitivity may make them come down too hard on their kids, and, in other cases, they may give their children too much freedom because they find parenting overwhelming (which, to be honest, is the case with all parents at times—we all need a break now and then). This is why a highly sensitive parent should:
1. Be okay asking for help. We need to give all parents the permission to take a time out or ask for help—we don’t have to be on call 24/7, and we don't need to have all the answers.
You are not a bad parent if you are asking for help because you want to be a better parent!
2. Take the time to focus on yourself. Make sure you are filling up too—don’t just give and give and give and then try run on empty, because this will make parenting seem like an insurmountable task. Take lots of downtime and “me time”, and give yourself permission to rest.
3. Understand the temperament of your children. This is especially important if your child is not a highly sensitive person; they may take advantage of your personality to get their own way, or play you and your partner off against each other.
4. Not feel guilty. Feeling guilty because you need help or need a break will only make you more stressed out, overwhelmed and less able to parent your children, so don’t give into those feelings!
5. Not project how you feel. As mentioned above, take the time to work on understanding yourself and healing any traumas or past wounds you have--don’t project these on your children.
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2:49 How Dr. Elaine coined the term “highly sensitive person”
5:00 Why highly sensitive people are not just introverts
6:18 What does the term highly sensitive mean?
10:28 The word “sensitive” has both positive and negative connotations
14:00 Raising sensitive boys
16:08 How to manage your sensitivity
31:40 Parenting as a highly sensitive person
48:10 Getting over the ideal of the perfect person
55:00 Why you need to find a therapist that works for you
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