HSPs often silently suffer in their own minds — but therapy can help chip away at walls you’ve built up and help you accept yourself.
Sitting quietly in the waiting room, I probably seemed calm and collected. But no one else could feel my heartbeat drumming against my chest or see the sweaty palms I was sitting on to keep them from shaking. Taking deep breaths in and out didn’t seem to help much. The anxiety washed over me as I waited for the unknown.
It was my very first therapy appointment, and I felt terrified. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), and someone with social anxiety, scheduling this first meeting was a considerable feat — and I wasn’t yet convinced it was worth it.
Thankfully, I’m writing this about a year-and-a-half later, and I can conclusively say therapy was a good idea. Actually, it was a huge stepping stone toward improving my mental health. But I did (and sometimes still do) have challenges related to my being highly sensitive, which I’ll get into below.
If you are a fellow HSP curious about going to therapy, here are some insights I’d like to share. And if you already go to therapy, perhaps you’ll be able to relate!
9 Things Highly Sensitive People Should Know About Going to Therapy
1. Therapy might be harder than you’re expecting, and you could feel worse at first.
This is the number-one fact that I wasn’t ready for about therapy: It may be hard. At my first appointment, I started crying within minutes and was a sobbing mess until I left. There was a lot to unload, and I felt exhausted when it was over. It was different than venting to a friend or crying to my husband. It was work.
I went home wondering if therapy was for me because so many things still felt unresolved. I think this is common for those of us who feel a lot. HSPs can carry significant emotional weight since we process so deeply and hold onto others’ emotions. We might not realize how much we have to release — until someone gives us the opportunity.
However, the work from therapy was what I needed to start feeling better.
As I went to more sessions, my therapist and I started breaking things down and slowly working through issues I had never verbalized before. For example, I would hold onto critical comments from someone at work or beliefs about myself that I was used to “powering through” instead of addressing. Talking through these things was so uncomfortable, but it got easier overall.
So if therapy is a lot at first, just know that your feelings are normal and valid. Therapy is not easy. But once you find a good therapist, they get to know your needs and you develop a beneficial therapist-client relationship. And then you’ll start to experience the benefits you might be looking for.
2. The first therapist could be wrong for you (and that’s OK).
Speaking of the “right” therapist, it might take time to find that person.
I got pretty lucky — the first person I met with was a nice fit, and we had a lot in common. But I know it’s standard to go through one or more therapists before you find synchronicity. Having a bad therapy experience can be especially tough for HSPs because of how much we fear judgment and criticism. A session with the wrong therapist can feel like a personal failure, rather than simply having a bad match.
If your therapist makes you feel bad about yourself or doesn’t seem to understand your needs, it’s OK to look elsewhere. (Here’s how to recognize when a therapist isn’t right for you.) And if you need to take some time between finding a new one, please do. Just remember that therapy is a process, and a bad experience doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad idea or not for you.
If you have a doctor you trust, you might ask for recommendations based on what you need help with. This is what helped me: I found my therapist through the psychiatrist I’d been going to for a while.
3. You’ll probably feel inclined to hide your sensitivity.
Every HSP has heard the phrase in some variation: “You’re too sensitive!” or “Stop being so sensitive!” In a world that praises boldness and brashness, I’m so used to hiding my sensitive side and pretending to be OK when I’m not. This didn’t change just because I was sitting on a cozy couch in front of a kind professional.
I would end one session talking about all of the good things happening in my life, then come back next week in tears. I remember my therapist asking what changed so quickly as I sobbed through an answer like, “I just try to stay positive and wasn’t aware of everything that was wrong.”
As an HSP, I wasn’t used to vocalizing issues that seem to not bother other people as much — because I felt like it shouldn’t be a problem for me. So while I might have seemed great a week ago, in reality, everything I hadn’t said had built up and boiled over: I’d been mentally and emotionally flooded. Like many HSPs, I’m also a people-pleaser, so my nature makes my therapist feel like my progress is good — even if it’s not.
I’ve had to learn that my therapist is the person to bring up these concerns with. Being honest about anything that’s bothering me means I can start working through it in a safe space. Your therapist won’t get upset or offended by anything you say. (If they do, that’s a sign that it’s not a good fit.) They are there to help you with any concerns you have.
To that end, it’s important to let your therapist know that you’re highly sensitive (although they may also figure it out for themselves, like my crying-so-easily example above). That way, they can better help you according to your HSP needs.
And if you’re not sure how to bring something up, you might say something like, “I want to talk about something, but I feel embarrassed/scared/uncomfortable.” That can act as a stepping stone to the topic, helping you and your therapist gently work through it.
4. If you can, schedule therapy on your less busy days.
Therapy can be draining, especially for HSPs who hold onto so many emotions. After a day of too much human interaction, we need quiet alone time to recoup.
If your schedule allows, plan for therapy on days when you can do less. If you can’t do that, plan at least one act of self-care for yourself, like meditating or taking a walk in your favorite park. And tell those you live with that you’ll need some extra space, too, since you’ll need time to process the therapy appointment once you get home.
5. Keep your appointment even if you feel there’s nothing to talk about.
HSPs process their feelings and emotions more intensely than others. I often need a lot of time to work through how I’m feeling before vocalizing it. (For example, I waited weeks before telling anyone about a massive breakup I’d had with a long-term boyfriend in college. I just needed to process it first.)
This can make therapy difficult because I often feel like I don’t have the energy to share. But when I go anyway, I’m usually glad that I did, and simply being there helps me think of things I need to talk about.
My therapist has also encouraged me to write down things that are bothering me as I think of them. I’m still not the best at this, but even jotting down a few words or sentences in the middle of the day helps. I’ll bring that list to my appointment, and my therapist can ask questions to help me open up.
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6. There could be homework (dun, dun, duuuun).
The word “homework” might take you back to high school, which most of us don’t appreciate. And the homework I get for therapy isn’t exactly fun either. That’s because it encourages me to take action outside of a 50-minute session, and, as I’ve covered above, working on yourself is no joke. At the same time, I know therapy work is setting me up to move more easily through the world and find more peace. That’s often incentive enough to follow through.
Examples of “homework” I’ve gotten include:
- Making time for one-minute meditations three times a day (you can do ones you know or use an app, like Insight Timer)
- Completing a “negative thoughts” worksheet (yep, what it sounds like!)
- Saying “hi” to three people per day (to slowly address social anxiety)
These assignments will vary a lot depending on your needs, your therapist, and other factors.
7. Therapists are people, too, and they might not get it right every time.
Even professional relationships aren’t perfect. I’ve often expected my therapist to know every fix for my issues or respond in specific ways. When her reactions didn’t meet my expectations, I felt crushed at times. But as we had more appointments, I learned to give her grace just like any other human. And the longer we’ve met, the better we’ve developed a rapport that works for me.
8. It’s OK to pause or stop therapy — just be open with your therapist about it.
How long you go to therapy will depend on your situation. Some people see a therapist shorter-term, while others are in therapy for years or decades. I’m in a situation right now where I text my therapist when I need to talk, and we don’t set ongoing appointments. Try to be open with your therapist about your needs, including when you’re considering pausing or stopping altogether.
9. The work you do in therapy helps your present and future HSP self.
A lot of therapy is messy and uncomfortable and scary, but it also helps you address mental health conditions, trauma, self-worth issues, and more. HSPs are often more likely to silently suffer in our own minds without knowing how to feel better. Therapy chips away at walls we’ve built up and helps lighten the load — and also helps us accept ourselves just as we are.
All in all, therapy just might change your life. (For the better, of course.)
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