Just like anything in life, being a highly sensitive person (HSP) comes with its ups and its downs.
On the one hand, it’s a beautiful gift. We are typically highly intuitive, artistic, and creative individuals. We understand people and (eventually) ourselves to the finest, nth degree. We feel deeply through our senses, and can often communicate intricate and nuanced art in one form or another, whether it’s through songs or stories or artwork.
On the other hand, with this power comes great responsibility (I reckon Peter Parker was an HSP…). Being an HSP involves processing everything very deeply — and that can be a double-edged sword. In my opinion, here are the “best” and “worst” parts of high sensitivity.
1. We feel everything.
Like literally, everything. We can be sitting in a doctor’s waiting area and absorb the nervousness of the other patients, or we’ll be watching a poignant scene in a movie (the start of the movie Up comes to mind), and we’ll find ourselves in tears before the movie has barely begun (#guilty). This can be amazing. It’s a treasure that we connect with the arts so deeply, and it makes us highly empathetic and great at working with people.
On the other hand, our environment can easily overwhelm and over-stimulate us. Too much stimulation, whether it’s from people or just background noise, can quickly become overpowering for us and wear us out.
Because we feel so strongly, it’s important for us to set boundaries, and take time out alone to recharge our batteries and re-ground ourselves — especially after particularly intense interactions. Double that if you’re a highly sensitive counselor, teacher, salesperson, or in any other people-facing position.
2. We’re great in people-focused roles.
As we are highly empathetic, we do very well in roles and scenarios involving people. Whether it’s in healthcare or psychology, or in sales and relationship-building, we thrive in such settings. That’s especially true in one-on-one situations, although we can also be wonderful group facilitators with practice and some careful work around energy (there’s a lot of energy to be dealt with when dealing with a group of people).
The flip side is that we get burned out, and we need to make sure we set the appropriate boundaries so as to avoid taking on too much of others’ emotions (particularly in roles where the highly sensitive person is acting as a caretaker, healer, or problem-solver for others).
As HSPs, the way to keep our empathy from overwhelming us is through balance. We need to make sure not to over-invest ourselves in the needs of others and sometimes put our own needs first. It’s healthy to feel strongly for others and it’s good to try to help, but it must be coupled with recognising our own limits and taking the time for inner self-care practices. (Check out this HSP therapist’s tips for exactly how to do this.)
3. We feel very out of place at times.
I had a hard time in my teens and early 20s when I was expecting to somehow become cool and start going out and having the same experience as everyone else, the crazy-n-wild student experience society was telling me I was supposed to have. Uh-uh. I never really liked going out at university and, unsurprisingly, alcohol + loud music + late nights was the perfect recipe for… you guessed it, emotional overwhelm and exhaustion.
Back then, I thought there was something wrong with me. It contributed to my teenage and young adult angst.
Now, however, I know that this is perfectly normal for HSPs — and that it’s not always a bad thing. The fact that we get overwhelmed in huge group settings can help us focus on quality over quantity when it comes to friends, and that’s something most people take many years to learn. If you’re a young HSP (or any HSP) looking to make friends, focus on people with similar interests at clubs or meetups, avoid the ones who make you feel chaotic or stressed, and whenever possible, hang out with them one-on-one or in small groups. Suddenly, social time will become a source of strength and joy in your life instead of stress.
4. Even day-to-day interactions can be tedious.
I work remotely, and I spend much of my work time at a cafe tucked inside my local gym. I have to be cautious when it comes to managing my time and energy, and not over-exert myself and make too much of an effort with the people in my surrounding environment. I used to say “hi” to anyone and everyone, and before I knew it, I’d get wrapped up in a conversation that not only distracted me from my workout but also contributed to depleting my energy. We only have a certain amount of battery life, people!
For HSPs, this can happen when there are people around, because we are naturally empathic and a part of our brain will always be paying attention to the needs of others (real or perceived). This is a huge asset a lot of the time, but not so much when you need to focus.
You can use your sensory sensitivity to get around this, though. Headphones with music can be distracting for some HSPs, but headphones with a simple white noise track can be almost hypnotic and help you completely forget your surroundings.
5. We keep to ourselves.
Because “people time” can be so overstimulating, many HSPs have a tendency to withdraw. Sometimes I do this just because I’m feeling overwhelmed in general; other times, I’ve over-committed and have to cancel. (That’s not to say that I don’t like people — connection is one of my themes for 2019, and I find it so very nourishing.)
While this can seem like an easy way to avoid overstimulation, though, it does come with its own cost. On days when I’ve had any human interaction whatsoever, I get antsy and stuck in my head — and it’s not a good thing.
Where possible, I try to make time for one nourishing human-to-human interaction a day, even if it’s a call or — believe it or not — a meaningful email exchange with a friend. I have a couple of email pals (like pen pals, but over email) who I back-and-forth with over email, Skype, or Google Hangouts. But in person (or at least a video call) is ideal whenever possible.
6. We can overthink — and overfeel — everything!
With a highly-attuned intuition, we read people or situations with a lot of information being soaked up from our senses. Sometimes, we’ll have a gut feel that is right-on and serves us well, even if we don’t logically know why. Sound familiar? On the other hand, there are also times when there’s so much we’ve taken in that we’re confused about what we actually think or feel. We get system overload, and a full-fledged meltdown can occur. Not good.
In short, it comes down to us absorbing nonstop from our environment and from other people, and that internal dial of ours quickly getting cranked way too far up.
While this can be overwhelming, though, it’s also what makes us insightful, creative, caring, and helpful to others. It’s why we are natural healers, poets, and great friends. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
As HSPs, it is up to us to honour this sensitivity, to honour our energy, and to honour our boundaries.
If we don’t, no one else will.
We have beautiful gifts to share with the world, and at times, they do come with a price. In my humble opinion, this HSP feels that it’s a small price to pay.