Marginalized people are often silenced for being “different” — and this is even more prevalent for marginalized people who are also HSPs.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP) of color, it’s been a validating experience to learn about how my being “too sensitive” is an imposed fallacy.
But I’ve often wondered: What about the added layers of living in an oppressive society? What might being an HSP look like for those of us who don’t quite fit the mold of the “ideal” social character? You know what I mean: white, cishet, middle-to-upper class, educated, U.S.-born, able-bodied, neurotypical, and male.
Yet what about those of us who are from (multiple) historically marginalized communities who face an ongoing history, and experience, of oppression? While there are numerous ways that oppression may impact the highly sensitive person’s experience, here are five that come to mind.
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5 Ways Oppression May Impact Your Experience as an HSP
1. There are expectations regarding how you are “supposed to” behave, which can lead to distorted views of yourself.
In feminist psychology, a common area of exploration is the rules around the role you were assigned to in society based on how you are perceived. For me, as an Asian presenting woman of color, I was taught by larger society that I must be sensitive (yup, I know), passive, submissive, subservient, smart (but not too smart), boring, a terrible driver, know Chinese (even if I’m not), and more.
Now, these expectations on how I am “supposed to” behave — along with the repercussions from others if I do not behave in that way — can often hit like a car-versus-wall scenario, with me breaking through the windshield like a (miniature Asian-sized) crash test dummy. Perhaps it’s an understatement to say that we learn how (and how not) to behave from the feedback we get from others.
For HSPs, finding ourselves and our purpose may already be difficult, due to being an open donation box for others’ emotions, expectations, and rules for how we “should” show up for them (activating the oh-so-common people-pleasing behavior). Methods we use for survival (i.e., people-pleasing) may then lead to more distorted views of ourselves, making the journey back to honoring and celebrating who we are that much more difficult.
2. You are abandoned in the margins, which may further be transmitted intergenerationally.
The impact of marginalization is a very real experience that affects people all around us. Unfortunately, how someone looks, sounds, moves, loves, processes, or the amount of money they hold can greatly impact what they have access to.
While this may impact people individually, it is not an individual experience. Marginalization happens to whole families and whole communities. For instance, those in poverty may themselves experience difficulties having access to basic human needs (e.g., shelter and food). But, this family may also be situated in a geographic location where they live near others who share a similar socioeconomic status. That geographic location may also be in a food desert, with high crime rates and low rates of emergency response. Poverty may further be transmitted intergenerationally, meaning that families may have a history of poverty, impacting lessons and stories of what was and who one can become. Nearby schools and jobs may further solidify these lessons.
Ultimately, the impacts of marginalization can be felt by a whole block, neighborhood, or bloodline of people. When we think of an HSP existing in a stressful environment — where people all around them are experiencing the impacts of oppression — the intensity of emotions felt and absorbed by the HSP may be that much more overwhelming, difficult, and painful.
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3. It leads to increased stress — specifically, minority stress — which is bad for your health.
The toll stress takes on our bodies has been talked about a million times over. Don’t get me wrong, I love that we are talking about how stress impacts our bodies — is so incredibly important. (Pandemic hair loss, anyone?)
But what about stress related to oppression? Research shows that there are different ways that marginalized communities may experience stress, with one example being minority stress. Originally centered on the experiences of the queer community, minority stress has since been used to understand how people from other historically marginalized communities may experience negative health outcomes.
Essentially, minority stress theory illuminates the link between navigating an environment rich with prejudice and discrimination, and a person’s mental and physical health. In other words, oppression is bad for your health.
Now, when it comes to health issues, HSPs already have a difficult time. Many of us have heightened sensitivity to sensations in our bodies, or high interoception. Over time, we may have learned to doubt or second guess what we are experiencing, which may impact whether we have ailments checked by medical professionals. And when we do decide to see someone, doctor visits are different for highly sensitive people.
But for the marginalized HSP, potential prejudicial care from health professionals may make it even harder to have physical concerns addressed. Research has found that those who are racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to have physical health symptoms dismissed by their healthcare provider. This can be an additional barrier for the marginalized HSP to navigate when it comes to their health.
4. You’re often silenced for being “different,” which leads to the false belief that your voice doesn’t matter.
Depending on what identities an HSP holds, they may experience messaging from multiple places that tell them that their voice doesn’t matter. For instance, those who immigrated, migrated, or sought refuge in the U.S. are often mistreated and discriminated against for their accents. Whether HSPs or not, having a voice that sounds different than the norm is already attracting messaging that it doesn’t belong, is not as credible, or as valid. Such oppressive messaging snuffs out voices of difference, which is extremely harmful and detrimental to one’s experience.
Since childhood, HSPs have often been told to stop crying or expressing our felt pain. While this may have been due to others not understanding the HSP’s experience, it is a form of silencing. HSPs with marginalized identities may be further silenced by other members of society (e.g., teachers and healthcare providers) just for simply existing in a body of difference, regardless of being an HSP. In turn, marginalized HSPs learn that their voices don’t matter, which then translates to I don’t matter. Being silenced by multiple areas of one’s life may make it more difficult to voice our experiences to not internalize prejudice against being a sensitive person, let alone a person of difference.
5. You are a victim of gaslighting, a form of abuse wherein you start to second-guess your thoughts and experiences.
Last but not least, experiences an HSP has may further be turned around and twisted in a way that distorts whether the experience even happened. Gaslighting is a form of abuse that has been shown to lead to detrimental long-term harm, such as anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress.
There’s an intersection of gaslighting and oppression, as any form of abuse is about power and control. Meaning, that an abuser uses tactics against another person in order to feel more powerful. Given the nature of abuse, gaslighting often occurs within relationships against someone who holds lesser power. Examples include children, women, and gender-diverse folx, as well as those with disabilities.
HSPs may already experience intentional (and unintentional) gaslighting from those closest to them. As we can imagine, those who are also gaslighted based on their identities may be further isolated into their experience.
My fellow HSPs, what are some other ways that oppression may impact highly sensitive people’s experiences? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!