Highly Sensitive Refuge
A young highly sensitive person walking alone outside after dealing wth a bad childhood

Dear HSP With a Bad Childhood: There Is Hope

When I first learned that I am a highly sensitive person, I read everything I could get my hands on about the topic. It was life-altering, to put it mildly.  

I mean, here I had an explanation for three decades worth of struggle neatly handed to me like a present with a bow on top. Why I was bothered by certain things other people barely noticed. Why I could so easily tell what other people were feeling even when they couldn’t return the favor. Why “normal” life often felt so unbearably exhausting.

And yet, all the reading I was doing also left me a little deflated. Sure, the benefits of high sensitivity were celebrated. Sure, there were countless examples of thriving highly sensitive people (HSPs) for me to look up to for inspiration.

But there were also the warnings about the detrimental impact a “bad” childhood could have on a sensitive mind and body. How we — more than others — need a nurturing environment to grow into healthy adults.

And that’s something I didn’t have.

Wondering if you’re a highly sensitive person? Read this.

How I Struggled

My childhood clearly fell in the “bad” category. My father was an alcoholic and my first memories are of my mother getting beat up during his drunken rages. I was a victim of sibling abuse myself.   

As the scientific studies predicted, I suffered the consequences. While I managed to get myself a graduate-level education, marry, and for the most part, keep up appearances of a normal life, the truth is I was struggling mightily behind the scenes. I’m talking out-of-control anxiety. Episodes of severe depression. Various stress-related chronic health problems.

Just like they predicted. HSP with a bad childhood = a bad outcome.

A Detrimental Combination

Here’s the reason high sensitivity paired with a bad childhood can be such a detrimental combo.  

As documented in The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive by W. Thomas Boyce, MD, highly sensitive children (the orchids) have a lower stress threshold than non-sensitive children (the dandelions). This means it takes less for an HSP’s physical stress response to be triggered.

There’s also a whole bunch of research showing that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — whether physical, emotional, or social — can change your brain and your stress response so you become more sensitive to future stressors and have a harder time returning to a normal state after being stressed. (For an eye-opening summary of this research, see the website Aces Too High.)   

This means that HSPs with bad childhoods are served a double whammy. They are more vulnerable to stress to begin with, and then they are planted in an environment that makes it worse. The result can be an overload of stress hormones, which puts you at an increased risk for various chronic mental and physical illnesses later in life.

Sounds pretty grim, right?  

My Story Didn’t End There

What I really want you to know is my story didn’t end there. You see, I didn’t remain anxious, depressed, and unhealthy for the rest of my life.  

Today, I’m actually thriving. I’m a happily married mother of three with a career I love. My mental and physical health problems are firmly in the past.  

And that’s what I really want to tell you about. If you are an HSP with a bad childhood or one of your loved ones is, I want you to know there is hope.

I want you to know that it’s very much possible to turn things around even if your childhood sucked, and even if you have already suffered some of the predictable consequences.       

Here are three things that have been key in my own recovery.

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3 Healing Tips For HSPs With Bad Childhoods 

1. Address your stress levels from every possible direction.

Knowing that excessive stress is the root cause of your issues also gives you the solution. Simply making a concerted effort to keep my stress levels low by any means necessary has given me a new lease on life. These efforts have included:

  • Reducing the number of stressors I’m faced with by making career, relationship, and lifestyle choices that leave room for self-care and let me avoid needless drama.
  • Using techniques like physical exercise, breathwork, and mindfulness to help my body stay in a relaxed state the vast majority of the time.
  • Improving my coping skills and the way I handle those stressors that I either can’t or don’t want to avoid. 

2. Own your sensitivity.

Another way in which a dysfunctional upbringing can put you at a disadvantage is by leaving you with low self-worth. Nobody taught you to value yourself, so you don’t. You see your sensitivity as just another flaw. Something that makes you inferior. Something you should squelch down or grow out of.

Except you can’t. Your sensitivity is an integral part of you, and it always will be.

The only way to achieve wellbeing as an HSP is by learning to accept that this is who you are. That you are sensitive, and you will always be, and that isn’t a character flaw.  

Once you accept these truths, you are able to align your lifestyle accordingly and start meeting your needs as a sensitive person. And THAT is when life will start feeling a whole lot better.

For me, this acceptance didn’t come overnight. There were a lot of “shoulds” running around in my mind. I should be stronger… I should be more like everyone else… I shouldn’t be so affected…  

It took some serious work to silence the shoulds, but here’s what helped:

  • Learning about the science of high sensitivity
  • Reading about the experiences of other HSPs online
  • Thinking about my strengths as an HSP. What comes easy to me that non-HSPs have a hard time with?   

3. Put yourself in a healthy environment now.

You may be a wilting orchid, because you were planted in poor soil, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be nourished back to health with some tender loving care in the right environment.  

When you were a child, you didn’t have a choice. But as an adult, you do. You can choose to take care of yourself, and you can choose to seek encouragement and support.

Making the choice to leave the old behind and move on to something better isn’t always easy, but I have found it always pays off in the end.

I’ve learned to evaluate all of my life choices — big and small — based on whether they move me toward health and wellbeing or away from it:

  • Who I spend time with
  • What kind of work I do
  • What media I consume

None of this is rocket science, really, although at times it has seemed to require an equivalent amount of effort. 

In the end, it all boils down to loving yourself enough to take good care of yourself. That’s the simple formula to nurturing yourself back to health!

Did you experience a “bad” childhood? How has it affected you, and how have you grown from it? Let me know in the comments below.

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