Highly Sensitive Refuge
A Chinese highly sensitive person looks off in the distance

Am I ‘Too Much’? Navigating Being an HSP in Chinese Culture

As a highly sensitive person, it’s a constant struggle between trying to mesh my Chinese identity with my HSP one.

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I process the world around me with great emotional depth. I am quick to see beauty, but also absorb pain. I indulge in long crying spells, yet also full-bellied laughter. I don’t read people’s lips — but can read their body language and energy — when getting to know them. 

In addition, some days are more overwhelming than others. Forget running a marathon; I become tired by simply being in my own head on any given day. I often judge myself for the fact that I experience my emotions in such depth — to the point where I need to rest because of them. 

In part, this judgment is likely a result of having been raised in a Chinese culture and the stereotypical expectations of what it means to be Chinese. I aim to find a balance between respecting those norms and expectations I’ve adopted, yet also recognizing my needs as an HSP. In my Chinese culture, I often feel I am “too much.” But am I?

Additionally, there are several challenges I face as an HSP while I try to find a sense of belonging in my Chinese culture, a culture that is not big on holding space for emotional expression. Below, I will also reflect on the ways I cope with those challenges. But first, let’s look further into what it means to be highly sensitive.

The Science Behind High Sensitivity

While everyone is sensitive to a degree, some people are more than others. In fact, approximately 30 percent of people are innately more sensitive — they’re born like this — and it manifests both physically and emotionally. (Note: Around 40 percent of people are average in sensitivity while 20 percent are low in sensitivity.) Researchers refer to this trait as environmental sensitivity — or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. And if these terms sound overwhelming, don’t worry: All three levels of environmental sensitivity are considered to be completely normal and healthy.

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are near the high end of the sensitivity continuum. They tend to have certain things in common with one another. For example, they are highly empathic, are very attune to their physical environment(s), and also to the emotions and feelings of other people, as well as pros when it comes to reading body language. Furthermore, they may be more sensitive than most to textures, noises, smells, and other everyday things that don’t seem to affect non-HSPs. If you’re an HSP, although it will not just “go away,” you can learn to better manage overstimulating and overwhelming situations. Some researchers also believe high sensitivity is linked to giftedness — sensitive people are extremely intuitive, think deeply (about everything), and notice the tiny details. Speaking of which, here are the three main challenges I face as a highly sensitive person in Chinese culture, and that others may, as well.

3 Challenges You May Face Being an HSP in Chinese Culture    

1. Not being able to speak openly about your feelings.

In Chinese culture, emotion is rarely, if ever, expressed. My mom told me that when she was growing up, her mom would scold her every time she cried. Even when one of her friends passed away during her college years, she was scolded for her overt expression of sadness and grief. From my experience with Chinese culture, I believe emotions are felt, but there is an expectation that you should not make them obvious or known to others; instead, you need to keep them to yourself or put them aside. And, sometimes, it may be easier to pretend they do not exist altogether. 

This approach to emotional expression is not necessarily negative. Yet this reserved, quieter way of emotional processing is normative in Chinese culture, in order to maintain group harmony and refrain from making others feel uncomfortable. In society, there is a big focus on how individuals impact the group-at-large. 

This is challenging for me as an HSP, since my intense emotions often demand thorough exploration and attention. As a young child, I would break down sobbing if my dad left the house for work in the morning without saying goodbye to me, run out of the room if an action-packed movie was on, and cry in terror at the sight of a roller coaster that had a big drop at the amusement park. 

I also had a lot of emotions about things around me. Because my emotions were so intense, it was hard to “just put them aside.” Despite my parents’ calm response to them, I would always feel guilty for seemingly being an inconvenience or “drama queen.” 

As a result, I would pick up on the Chinese cultural expectation that emotions are meant to be hidden so as to not bother others. Consequently, my larger-than-life emotions were, and are, often accompanied by harsh judgment, both from others and myself. Someone will tell me to pipe down so I don’t make others feel uncomfortable. However, this only makes me feel worse. 

Given the minimal space for overt emotional expression within Chinese culture, I am learning to address my need to connect with my emotions by journaling and engaging with friends who do appreciate my emotional openness. When I journal, the goal is to identify, and give myself a break from, the judgmental, critical voice in my head. This way, I can properly explore the reasons behind my emotions.

Additionally, putting my emotions into words helps me talk them out in a concrete manner with friends. The validation from friends — and reassurance that I am not “too much” — is helpful in allowing me to embrace my emotional experiences as an HSP, rather than fixating on the immediate belief that I am inconveniencing others. 

2. Not being able to experience a verbal emotional connection.

Although neither of my parents ever responded to my emotional expression in an unkind way, it was rare for them to directly display affection or gratitude, like saying “I love you” or telling me what I mean to them. Based on my experiences, indirect communication is a normative part of relating and connecting in Chinese culture. For example, instead of explicitly saying how much someone cares for you, it is more likely they would express that care through their actions, like making you your favorite meal. It’s not that there is no care or love; it’s just that it’s shown and shared differently.        

As an HSP, I prefer deep and intimate emotional connections with others, and sometimes this need is not satisfied when I’m trying to connect with others in my culture. This is because if someone does not tell me what I mean to them, I begin wondering what they think of me (and I assume they have a negative opinion). In fact, this often triggers feelings of unworthiness, disconnection, and the perception that the relationship is not high quality or close. It can be discouraging! 

After all, in most of my friendships that I deem “high quality,” there is a lot of direct communication — we’re open regarding how we feel about each other. This level of intimacy involves language such as, “I love you,” or asking to spend more quality time together. I also enjoy writing cards to them, as well as receiving them, where we can say what we mean to each other. This invitation to be vulnerable with one another really energizes me as an HSP.  

Furthermore, I am recognizing the variety of ways that people in Chinese culture show their care for me indirectly. This involves recognizing the presence of different love languages, as well as writing out the ways in which that person expresses their love and care for me. That way, I can appreciate and feel fulfilled in those relationships, too. 

Another tactic that I’ve adopted to better receive indirect expressions of love is engaging with others from a place of worthiness. As an HSP, I have the propensity to take things too personally and hold other people’s matters too close to my heart. As a result, I began thinking that I did something to upset them and blame myself for their distancing behavior. But when I accept the fact that they communicate and interact differently than I do, I’m able to see that showing your love for someone can be quiet, steadfast, and tenacious.

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3. Not being able to say “no” (without a lot of guilt).

As an HSP, it’s very easy to absorb others’ emotions. If a friend is having a bad day, it is common for me to come away from a conversation with them also feeling somewhat sad and discouraged. As a result, setting boundaries — and being able to say no to people — is important. However, I believe Chinese culture has an unspoken expectation that you should be responsible for lessening the pain and burden of others, especially those who are close to you, such as your family and friends. 

This is illustrated in The Farewell, a movie where a Chinese family avoids telling their grandmother that she has terminal cancer in an attempt to protect her from bearing any grief and emotional pain. However, they themselves suffer quietly from carrying all the grief. This is by no means a negative approach, but I would personally have immense difficulty accepting full responsibility for such intense emotions. 

As a sensitive person, I feel guilty that I cannot live up to this expectation to be responsible for others’ emotional hardships. It is a struggle to find a balance between wanting to align myself with Chinese values and respecting the draining experience that occurs when I take on other people’s problems and emotions. In order to acknowledge my HSP needs, I remind myself of the consequences of taking full responsibility for people’s emotions and the ensuing feelings of resentment and deterioration of my own mental health

It’s difficult to honor that need for calm and rest away from intense swirls of emotions, because as highly sensitive souls, we find value and meaning in caring for others. In fact, we are often made to believe that that alone gives us a sense of purpose and worth. However, by thinking about our needs first — and setting boundaries — it protects me from feeling drained and blaming people for how I’m feeling later on. 

Additionally, I am learning that giving an individual the space to cope with their own problems is a form of respect and support, because they have the chance to help themselves and mobilize their own strengths. It may not be the same approach that Chinese culture has for relationships, but at the heart of the situation, the goal is the same: There is sincere respect for the relationship and intention to preserve it. 

Trying to Mesh My Chinese Identity With My HSP One

It often feels as though embracing my HSP emotionality alienates me from Chinese culture. I get stuck with wanting to be my emotional authentic self, but then become worried about loosening my ties to Chinese culture. Although I easily look to Chinese stereotypes to measure my level of belonging to the culture, the truth is, I need to look inward and accept my unique way of simultaneously being both Chinese and an HSP. 

There are many different ways of relating with our various identities. The goal is to recognize and share in the ongoing, fascinating dance between confusion and acceptance that all of us experience with our intersecting identities. 

How do your cultural expectations interact with being an HSP? I would love to hear in the comments below!

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