Being an HSP will land you in the “weird” category with most ordinary folks.
I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s a secret that has taken me half a lifetime to even just partially figure out. If you are frequently accused of being emotional, sensitive, sappy, or weak, I can assure you that is proof that you are the exact opposite! Being able to feel as much as we do on a daily basis would bring a conventional tough guy to his knees in an instant.
Maybe that doesn’t matter to you in the slightest, but my entire life, until about five years ago, has been spent thinking I was somehow defective. Thinking I needed to toughen up and not be so “overly sensitive.” I used to wish for some kind of normalcy and marvel at my friends’ easygoingness. I thought there was something wrong with me, something I needed to work hard on correcting.
As it turns out, it’s not a defect at all; it’s a diamond in the rough.
Here’s what I experience as an HSP, and how I’ve come to see my sensitivity as a strength.
I Absorb the Suffering of People and Animals
Being a highly sensitive person (HSP) will land you in the “weird” category with most ordinary folks. I used to hate my constant anxiety and unexplained sudden mood changes. I would wish for an existence where I could be happy and carefree, where I could hang out with a large group of people, do the mindless stuff most people seem to enjoy, and not be overstimulated by the whole thing to the point of having to recover in solitude, sometimes for days on end just to get back to my default setting.
To be clear, my default setting isn’t exactly joyous. Like many HSPs, I take things seriously. I feel things deeply. And it can be as exhausting as it is painful. I tend to become everyone’s therapist. I’m one of those people who can’t go to the grocery store without being approached by a stranger who has the sudden urge to tell me their life’s story or their current struggle. I guess I have some kind of beacon on my head?
And if you confide in me, even when I desperately want you not to, your secret is safe with me — for eternity. I am fiercely loyal and ethical, even to those I don’t yet know, or people who have proven themselves over time unworthy of such coddling.
The worst part, for me, is the amount of outright suffering I feel on a regular basis. Nowadays I realize it’s most often not my suffering, but it can be extremely challenging to pinpoint where it originates, as well as to avoid feeling it to begin with. Like many HSPs, I easily absorb the emotions of those around me.
I’ve learned that I don’t actually have to see the sufferer whose pain I’m sensing. I seem to feel it from both people and animals, but honestly the animals bother me more, and this is what caused me to go vegetarian a very long time ago. Unlike people, animals are almost always victims of abuse. Someone directly caused or is causing their pain, which is often physical in nature.
Even though I can (quite literally) feel it, I am often powerless to do anything about it. If I’m actually able to track down the animal, trying to convince law enforcement to actually do anything is usually an exercise in futility.
With people, it can be overpowering as well, but in a different way, because the suffering somehow feels a little less profound, i.e. more psychological and less physical. It doesn’t feel as “urgent,” but if I’m bombarded with it from many different sources at the same time (which is usually the case), it’s still exhausting and extremely puzzling. How do you differentiate between your own stuff and that of others?
I Need Space From Others
There are many variations of sensitivity. Many, but not all of us, are introverts. My introversion is another thing that used to make me feel defective because everybody seemed to constantly point out how quiet and shy I was.
I’m not, actually. Never was, but I can’t stand large gatherings of people. (To me, a large gathering is anything over, say, four people.) Needless to say, school was endless “fun” with thirty kids to a class.
I am very selective and careful about who I surround myself with these days. I value substance and depth over idle chit chat. Too many people in one room at the same time creates a soup of noise and emotion that I can’t handle for long. The whole thing becomes painful, disorienting, and utterly pointless when I can’t even hold a conversation with one person because all the other conversations seem just as loud. If people choose to perceive me as rude for either leaving early or not attending at all, that’s their business, not mine. I have finally made my peace with this.
I used to think I was quite literally losing my mind when I lived in an especially dreary area with houses too close together for a proper “barrier” around me. It wasn’t until an empath friend of mine clarified for me that she, too, had an issue with proximity to people. She said her solution was to adopt a semi-hermit lifestyle. She moved to an extremely rural area where she could physically be miles away from the closest neighbor, and much farther away from a concentrated pocket of people.
This strategy has proven immensely helpful for me as well. I moved and now live in a sparsely populated area where I don’t have to feel the constant stress that close proximity to others causes me. It’s not a problem with people per se; it’s a problem with feeling what they feel, but not knowing who is feeling it, why, or having any chance of fixing it whatsoever.
It’s a tricky situation because most of us sensitive people also have a need to help. We feel compelled to do something, even when we don’t know what.
I’m Learning How to Protect Myself
There are various protection techniques to help HSPs and empaths cope with our gift; you can see some of them here on Dr. Judith Orloff’s website. I must admit, however, that I still struggle with them. It’s a process. Somehow these techniques feel just a little too virtual for me to grasp. They seem fantasy-like and kind of flighty, like a soap bubble that you just can’t seem to hold, or a dream you can’t quite remember. I haven’t yet mastered the concept in practice.
To avoid becoming emotionally exhausted and physically drained from other people’s stuff, we have to block their stuff from taking over our personal world. I’m slowly getting better at this, but it’s like my move away from the crowds was my last chance at drawing breath, and I’m still in recovery. I was drowning and didn’t know how to find me in all the feelings and impressions that were consuming me day and night.
I have learned to take people’s ignorance with a grain of salt. It doesn’t bother me the way it used to. But the accusatory tone of many friends and acquaintances can come as a shock:
- What’s the matter with you?
- Why are you always so quiet?
- Can’t you take a joke?
- Why are you always so serious?
- You don’t know how to have fun! (This last one was a favorite of my ex-husband’s. He liked to drink. A lot. I didn’t.)
- You’re just too sensitive!
- Lighten up, will ya!
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What People Think of You Will Cease to Matter
The Netflix series Sense8 drops us into a world of eight strangers from entirely different parts of the globe who suddenly discover that they are “sensates” — a different breed of human beings. They are mentally and emotionally linked and learn to quite literally walk in each other’s shoes.
This plotline had a real draw for me because for the first time ever, I got the feeling that someone had actually experienced my existence, at least to some extent. It made me feel empowered and lucky instead of defective and weird. The series is described as science fiction, but to me, it almost seemed documentary-like (with the exception of the incessant soft porn scenes), and I identified strongly with it.
If you’re not an HSP or empath, I doubt you’ll fully grasp its overall brilliance. Ours really is a different world, and this show demonstrates it. It’s a world where we easily connect with others, whether we want to or not. Our existence is not for the faint of heart, especially not in the learning stage. This kind of life will keep you on your toes from day one. You will probably be ridiculed and accused of being a party pooper, and if you let it, it will get to you. Don’t let it!
Instead, realize that what you have is not a weakness at all. It’s a superpower. It will take some determination to learn to use it, but once you realize what you are capable of, you will have no desire to give up this awesome gift.
And then, what people think of you will cease to matter.