10 Things You Should Never Say to a Highly Sensitive Person

A highly sensitive person upset with her friend

Yes, we know we’re sensitive. But “too” sensitive? Them’s fightin’ words.

Just because we HSPs feel our emotions deeply doesn’t mean that our feelings aren’t valid.

Since we HSPs have such sensitive nervous systems, it does not take much to throw it out of whack. That being said, when we aren’t able to get our needs met, this can make it nearly impossible to function and can lead to burnout. And while our needs might not seem like a big deal or make sense to you, they are still needs for a reason. Let us take care of our sensitive nervous systems by meeting our needs. 

Chances are, if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you’ve probably gone throughout most of your life feeling like people don’t quite “get” you. After all, we’re somewhat common, but still in the minority — nearly 30 percent of us are HSPs. So we’re bound to be misunderstood by most folks in our life, as well as society at large. What’s more, our society tends to misunderstand, and undervalue, sensitivity, perceiving it as a “weakness” — while valuing traits like stoicism — which only adds fuel to the fire. 

Unfortunately, this means that people don’t always know how to treat those of us who are sensitive. This recipe of confusion, and lack of awareness, often results in people saying things to HSPs that they, well, just shouldn’t! As a psychotherapist and HSP myself, here are some things that should never be said to an HSP.

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10 Things You Should Never Say to a Highly Sensitive Person

1. “You’re too sensitive.”

Okay, you probably saw this one coming, probably because of just how often we HSPs hear this. Yes, we know we’re sensitive. However, you saying we’re too sensitive is shaming, since this implies there is something wrong with us for being sensitive. And, unfortunately, many of us have internalized shame for being sensitive, due to societal messages that sensitivity is equated with weakness, and, therefore, should be remedied. 

In reality, we cannot change our sensitivity — this trait is innate to us. Further, our sensitivity is a strength, since it makes us more compassionate, is linked to creativity, is connected to thinking deeply, and strengthens our sense of intuition (to name just a few). We wouldn’t be ourselves without our sensitivity, and to say that we’re “too sensitive” is to say that we shouldn’t be us. We can’t have one without the other.

2. “Don’t take things so personally. Stop being so emotional!”  

A key trait among us sensitive ones is that we feel deeply. Feeling our emotions so strongly may manifest as crying more often, having a difficult time repressing our emotions, and needing to take time to process our feelings. 

Unfortunately, our society seems to be perplexed by emotions — this lack of knowing what to do often results in our emotional experience being invalidated. Sometimes, this invalidation is rooted in good intentions (“It’s not so bad! Look on the bright side!”). Other times, it is deliberately meant to belittle our feelings (such as the above). 

However, these types of responses do not “cure” our emotions or suddenly make us stop feeling our feelings. On the contrary, it often compounds our current emotional experience with additional feelings of isolation, guilt, and shame. Just because we HSPs feel our emotions deeply doesn’t mean that our feelings aren’t valid.

3. “It’s not that big a deal. You can change your mind — just this once.”

The actual wording behind this may vary, but in essence, this is when others pressure us to do something and push against our boundaries. Of course, it’s never recommended to violate anyone’s boundaries (for obvious reasons), yet this is an even harder hit for HSPs. 

You see, HSPs tend to have difficulty with the whole process of enacting boundaries — from identifying what our boundaries are to communicating them to actually following through with enacting them. This is likely due to our people-pleasing nature, in which we want to make others happy; and boundaries do not do that, unfortunately. As emotional sponges, we absorb your emotions and feel your feelings. So when we set a boundary, it is because this is something very important to us, not something we’re doing to “stir up drama.” 

And when you violate our boundary, not only is this sending us the message that we are not worthy of having needs (which promotes shame), but this also puts us in the awkward position of cleaning up the mess of that boundary violation. And while pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone can promote growth, this should always be something that is a personal decision, not an external pressure to go beyond our limits. 

So please respect us by respecting our boundaries.

4. “SURPRISE!” (“Expect the unexpected” is not a phrase HSPs live by.)

“Expect the unexpected” is not a phrase HSPs live by, and for good reason. Due to our sensory processing sensitivity, HSPs require stability, and it can take HSPs longer than non-HSPs to adjust to our environments. This is why HSPs thrive when following a plan — we like to know what to expect, as it helps us mentally, emotionally, and physically prepare; anything else will catch us off-guard and throw off our balance. 

So, suffice it to say, surprises create overwhelm, which makes it difficult to function, let alone do anything else. Further, when there is a sudden change of plans or new information presented, there isn’t enough time to adequately think through, and integrate this, into our psyche. 

As deep thinkers, HSPs need time to process information, especially new information. Really, the only time it is acceptable to say “Surprise!” to us is if it’s followed by “I got you your favorite bar of chocolate.”

5. “Let’s go to this loud, crowded event!” 

The HSP experience is one that is amplified. Given our sensory processing sensitivity, we are greatly impacted by our environment. This means that almost everything during the typical day drains our already-limited energy reserves, including hectic work schedules, small talk with others, chores, soaking up everyones’ emotions, and physical factors, like lighting, noises, smells, and so on. 

So, by the end of the day, saying that we are exhausted is often an understatement. So please, please, do not force us to go out. While this might be an energy boost to our non-HSP counterparts, going out with low energy will completely drain our battery, resulting in an “HSP hangover.” Also, more points are deducted if there will be small talk, strangers around, it’s loud, it’s crowded, the plans are last-minute, or it is on a weeknight. Just — no… and trust me, we’ll have no problem saying it.

Instead, what we’re really craving is to retreat into our HSP sanctuary for some alone time and self-care. That sounds like the perfect night (in).

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6. “You can sleep when you’re dead,” “Toughen up,” “Just push through it,” etc. when HSPs state their needs.

Yes, this one is more broad, but it bears discussing. What these have in common is that they invalidate, and therefore make it more difficult, to meet our needs. This might look like trying to convince us to stay up later than our bedtime (even though HSPs require more sleep), pushing back our mealtime so that we become “hangry,” hungry + angry (which HSPs are prone to), or pressuring us to go out and do something instead of resting and getting the downtime we truly need (resulting in feelings of overwhelm). 

Since we HSPs have such sensitive nervous systems, it does not take much to throw it out of whack. That being said, when we aren’t able to get our needs met, this can make it nearly impossible to function and can lead to burnout. And while our needs might not seem like a big deal or make sense to you, they are still needs for a reason. So let us take care of our sensitive nervous systems by meeting our needs. 

7. “I’m sorry” (when you don’t truly mean it).

Although it seems obvious to not apologize if you don’t mean it, too many people still do this, whether it’s to end a conflict for the short-term or to manipulate someone (or a situation). This could also take the form of saying you’re sorry — but then not following through in a meaningful way, such as changing the problematic behavior. 

There are several reasons you should not give an apology that isn’t really an apology. Firstly, our strong sense of intuition is like an HSP superpower, which has earned us the label of “human lie detectors” — meaning we can tell when you are lying. A false apology is a form of lying, which is disrespectful to us and wastes our time. 

Secondly, due to our kind and caring nature, it is not unusual for HSPs to people-please by giving others the benefit of the doubt (even when we know they are being disingenuous, we want to believe the best in people). These tendencies tend to attract narcissists to HSPs since they see us as easy targets, as we are more likely to forgive their toxic behaviors. This can become even more harmful to HSPs if we lack strong boundaries, as we can let the other person off the hook too easily without holding them accountable. 

So don’t apologize if you don’t mean it or aren’t ready to address the root issue. As we all know, actions speak louder than words.

8. “Your experience, desires, feelings, thoughts, etc. don’t matter.”

While this would likely not be explicitly stated, there are many actions that send us this harmful message. Indeed, due to our sensory processing sensitivity, our experience as HSPs is different from that of non-HSPs. That being said, HSPs are easily prone to overwhelm and overstimulation, whether it be the lights are too bright, the noises are too loud, there are too many people around us — it’s just too much for our sensitive nervous systems to handle. 

So when we describe our experience — including what needs to be changed for more optimal arousal — please don’t just dismiss what we say; it’s not the same as your experience. This can make us feel guilty for trying to take care of ourselves, invalidate our experience, and reinforce the message that we are “too much” (which, unfortunately, we seem to hear a lot). Instead, trust that our experience is valid, and that if we need to make a change in order to take care of ourselves, then it is for the best. 

9. “Can you do me a favor?”

No, there is nothing inherently wrong with asking an HSP for a favor. Given our compassionate nature, we are often more than happy to help you out. However, this can be part of the problem — if we fall into the trap of people-pleasing and don’t have good boundaries, HSPs tend to help out too much. 

What is helping “too much?” When we self-sacrifice to the point where we no longer adequately take care of ourselves, resulting in resentment, burnout, and “compassion fatigue.” In other words, less-than-ideal consequences for HSPs. 

So although it is okay to ask for our help, do not take advantage of our generosity and empathetic, kind nature. Please explicitly remind us that there is no pressure if we are unable to, be mindful of how often you ask for help, check in with how we are doing, and offer that same help to us in return. That way, we’ll feel the relationship is more reciprocal vs. one-sided — and we’ll also be more likely to help you in the future as a result.

10. “Listen to reason!”

HSPs tend to feel our emotions deeply and have a strong connection to our sense of intuition. As such, we often base our decisions on our emotions and our “gut feeling.” Non-HSPs might not understand this, instead dismissing us as “illogical.” And while there is nothing wrong with taking cold, hard facts into consideration, these can only go so far. 

For instance, our emotions are here for a reason and contain important information we need to know. Likewise, our strong connection to our intuition is an HSP superpower that guides us along our life path. Questions such as: Do you take that job offer? Where do you move? Is this a good relationship to get into? are those where facts alone may not cut it, and our HSP gut feeling helps us to innately know what to do. 

So please don’t tell us we’re irrational or that we should “listen to reason” (yes, the job pays well, but it is not our calling). Instead, trust that we can connect to our inner wisdom. (You may even learn a thing or two.)

Fellow HSPs, what are you tired of hearing? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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