What you see as a weakness — your sensitivity — is actually your greatest strength, and it will help you succeed both professionally and personally.
“Don’t be so emotional.”
“Don’t take things so personally.”
“You’re too sensitive.”
Like many highly sensitive people (HSPs), I grew up hearing some version of those words. Although the people providing me these messages were well-meaning, this ultimately contributed to the belief that my sensitivity was wrong. As a people-pleaser, I desired to correct what was seen by others as a detriment or disorder. However, despite their expectations, I couldn’t turn my sensitivity “off.”
Growing Up as an HSP
I was the kid who cried… a lot. I experienced so many emotions, and as an HSP, these emotional experiences were heightened in comparison to my non-HSP peers and family members. Despite the fact that an estimated 20 percent or so of our population are HSPs, I was an anomaly among my less sensitive family members and friends. Therefore, I didn’t have anyone in my life who understood my highly sensitive nature.
This manifested in different ways throughout my childhood. For instance, I did not feel safe sharing my emotional experiences with others, so I often hid my true feelings and retreated inward, which only further perpetuated feelings of loneliness and shame. I also struggled to set boundaries with others — common among HSPs — due to my people-pleasing tendencies.
My Lightbulb Moment
It was in my 20s that I stumbled upon The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron. When I took the HSP self-assessment in the book — which asked questions such as if I easily feel overwhelmed and if other people’s moods affect me — I checked every single box.
This was a lightbulb moment for me: For the first time in my life, I felt understood. I was able to make sense of why I am “different” and why I have not been able to change my sensitive nature. Having a term and an explanation for my heightened sensitivity was crucial in giving myself permission to be the highly sensitive person that I am, which has even contributed to my career as a psychotherapist. I wish that I could go back in time to my younger HSP self to share with her the insight I have since learned. Although I cannot do that, I hope that, dear reader, perhaps the following messages can be of benefit to you.
7 Things I Wish I Could Tell My Younger HSP Self
1. “Sensitivity is an innate part of you.”
It was liberating to discover that high sensitivity is a trait. I felt such a sense of comfort knowing that there were others like me: I was no longer alone in my sensitivity! Reading the scientific evidence about how high sensitivity is biologically-rooted — our brains are different than those of non-HSPs — helped me in the process of embracing my sensitivity. Indeed, my high sensitivity is an innate part of me; I cannot change it, just as I cannot change my height or my eye color.
Being able to have a solid sense of self and being able to vocalize my knowledge about my sensitivity has also helped me in my interpersonal relationships, as I am now better able to advocate for my own needs. Perhaps more importantly, this has improved my relationship with myself. I am now at peace with my HSP nature, and by extension, myself as a whole.
Questions to ask yourself: How does knowing the science behind HSPs affect your relationship with your highly sensitive nature? Can you give yourself permission to be an HSP? What would it be like to embrace your sensitivity?
2. “Let go of the shame.”
Being told time and time again that I was “too sensitive,” I eventually began to internalize that message, carrying shame about my sensitivity as a result. I have since realized that I was not wrong for being sensitive. Indeed, shame is our only emotion that is not useful to us because it keeps us stuck in the narrative of “I am wrong.” After all, how can we move forward when we believe that we are inherently wrong?
Letting go of shame requires accepting that “highly sensitive” does not mean “too sensitive.” We are not wrong for being HSPs. Unfortunately, sensitivity is undervalued in our society, so it is often misunderstood. This does not make sensitivity wrong, though. On the contrary, sensitivity is a strength.
Questions to ask yourself: Have you been holding onto shame for being highly sensitive? What is holding you back from letting that shame go? What would it be like to be free of that shame?
3. “Your emotions are valid and important.”
HSPs tend to feel our emotions very strongly. This makes sense, as sensitivity and feeling deeply go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, this can result in us being labeled as “overly emotional,” which invalidates our feelings. This is a form of gaslighting because it undermines our realities.
However, feeling our emotions is healthy for several reasons. First, repressing emotions takes a lot of effort and does not work, similar to keeping a beach ball submerged underwater. Additionally, research indicates that by identifying and labeling our emotions, we are able to process them more effectively. Most importantly, our emotions are here for a reason. Each of our emotions has a message they are trying to communicate to us. Because of this, one question I commonly ask my clients in psychotherapy is: “What are your emotions trying to tell you?” For example, sadness can mean that a need of ours is not being met, while anger can mean that our boundaries are being violated. Given how disconnected our society tends to be from our emotional experience, I believe that our strong connection to our emotions is actually an HSP superpower.
Questions to ask yourself: What is your relationship like with your emotions? What emotions have you been experiencing lately? What are your emotions trying to tell you?
4. “Self-care is not selfish.”
HSPs have caring hearts, and because of this, many HSPs feel called to help others. Unfortunately, HSPs often neglect themselves in the process, which eventually results in burnout. The antidote? Prioritizing self-care.
Until recently, the idea of taking time for ourselves was often labeled as selfish. And for HSPs, who have an innate desire to help others, the idea of acting selfishly is uncomfortable. However, the phrase “you can’t pour from an empty cup” is a cliché for a reason: We can’t help others if we aren’t first taking care of ourselves.
For me, my self-care non-negotiables include adequate sleep, joyful movement, nourishing meals (to my body and my soul, so chocolate is definitely included!), and restful time to destimulate and recover from overwhelm. (The HSP hangover is real!) I encourage you to extend that same compassion you have toward others onto yourself and allow yourself to engage in the self-care that you need.
Questions to ask yourself: Do you currently have enough self-care in your life? What are your self-care non-negotiables? What are some acts of self-care that you would like to add to your life?
5. “It’s necessary to set boundaries.”
As with most people, I was unfamiliar with boundaries growing up. Like many HSPs, it was easy to drop into the habit of people-pleasing, with more consideration for the feelings of others than for my own. Unsurprisingly, I thought that saying “no” was bad. To make matters worse, those few times I was desperate enough to set boundaries, it backfired.
Setting boundaries is a difficult lesson to learn, one that most of us are still learning and relearning. However, boundaries are necessary to keep us functioning at our best. Often, one of the most difficult aspects about setting boundaries as an HSP is the fear of hurting others. However, if these people are truly worth being in our lives, they will want the best for us and, therefore, be understanding when we set boundaries. Boundaries can be set with family members, friends, partners, work, school, and even ourselves.
Questions to ask yourself: How are you with setting boundaries? Is there anything holding you back from setting boundaries? What are some boundaries you can set in order to make your life more optimal?
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6. “Listen to your intuition.”
Highly sensitive types have rich internal worlds. Because of this, we HSPs tend to have a strong connection to our intuition. Although society undervalues using our intuition, society was not built considering sensitivity, and is therefore not always suited for HSPs. That being said, society’s expectations are often wrong for HSPs. Indeed, I have found that my intuition leads me to make the right decisions.
For instance, my intuition has felt uneasy about certain people and has felt strongly pulled toward certain opportunities. It lets me know what it is I truly need in order to function at my best. My intuition has also guided me in my professional work. As a psychotherapist, I find my intuition to be a powerful tool in helping me determine certain areas to explore and which interventions are best-suited for specific clients. I believe that intuition is a valuable skill for anyone, especially HSPs, to possess.
Questions to ask yourself: How often do you listen to your intuition? What has your intuition led you to in the past? What is your intuition communicating with you?
7. “Your sensitivity is your greatest strength.”
What I once believed to be a weakness is actually one of my greatest strengths. My sensitivity makes up a large foundation of who I am as a person and has helped me, both professionally and personally.
Professionally, my sensitivity has led me to helping others with their mental well-being through psychotherapy. I believe my sensitivity has made me a better therapist than I would be otherwise, as it helps me empathize with others. This aids me in understanding the clients I work with, seeing and appreciating the core of who they are as a person.
Personally, my sensitivity helps me pay better attention to detail, noticing aspects many other people miss, such as the intricacies within nature or the raw emotion displayed in art. My sensitivity allows me to experience the world differently, as I am strongly moved by the beauty around me. As such, I find myself deeply moved by that one song, that bite of dessert, or that touching story. I also believe my sensitivity has made me a better person, as I am conscientious and passionate about activism and social justice issues. One of my dearest friends has told me that my sensitivity is her favorite thing about me. It is strange to think that the very quality I once viewed as my detriment is now the same quality that embodies who I am.
Given society’s misconceptions about sensitivity, it can be a challenge to overcome these messages. We are not “too sensitive.” I hope you too, dear reader, can embrace your sensitivity and appreciate the ways in which sensitivity is your strength.
One last question: How has your sensitive nature contributed to your strengths? Comment below!
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