HSPs, You Are Not the Problem — Society Is. But Here’s What to Do About It

Close up of a highly sensitive person looking proudly toward the camera

A lot of people don’t “get” our sensitivity, which makes it look like we’re the problem — which couldn’t be further from the truth.

One afternoon on a school holiday, I locked myself in the bathroom to cry over something my brother had said. A few minutes later, I heard a knock.

I washed my face as fast as I could, refusing to look in the mirror. I opened the door and saw a large scoop of yogurt on the floor. It looked odd, but I knew it was just a prank my brother had pulled. My mom saw it and asked my brother to clean it up.

Out of the stack of clean, folded laundry, he pulled out my favorite skirt, a grey pencil cut one. My brother dropped it, put his foot on it, and mopped up the yogurt.

Indignant, I locked myself in the bathroom again.

My mom must have scolded him, because when I had finished crying and came out, my brother said, “Can’t you take a joke? Tell Mommy not to yell at me. This is just for fun, right?”

I stomped up to my mom and said, “Don’t get in the middle of our fight. It was just for fun.” 

Did I really think it was fun? No. Was I happy my mom scolded him? Oh, yeah! So why did I take his side? 

Because, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), I was convinced that I was the problem. That there was something “wrong” with me. I was the one who couldn’t handle a joke… Right?


Why Do HSPs Think They Are the Problem?

As highly sensitive people, we are connoisseurs of conversation. We are fluent in reading body language, hear what’s said through silences and vocal variety, and know the secret art of reading between the lines. We rarely ever stop at the surface of what is said. 

Instead, we ponder over it until we feel satisfied that we have understood the intended meaning. This makes us really good at knowing when something is wrong. We pick up on passive-aggressive behavior and judgment directed toward us. And we have the uncanny ability to tell when someone doesn’t like us.

But not being liked upsets us. From experience, we may know that if we call out the hostility, people might either deny it or say that they are hurt by what we are insinuating. Some of them may say they feel misunderstood. Others might just get angry. This causes us to second-guess ourselves and assume we need to be “fixed.” (We don’t.)

Now, people (particularly those non-HSPS who love us), on noticing that we get upset quickly, might encourage us not to read too much into things, not to take people’s words and actions too seriously, or, my favorite, “not be so sensitive.”

This is very difficult for us because, as HSPs, being this way is what comes naturally. It’s not something we choose to do, but a natural part of who we are. So we continue to be sensitive, observant, and overly aware of stimuli around us. We perceive all the cues, ruminate on things, and feel the full weight of our emotions. 

But we keep this all to ourselves, thinking we are the problem. We cry in the bathroom, refuse to look in the mirror, and put on masks when we come out. As Carl Jung said in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconsciousness, “…The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face.”

We are also careful not to step on anyone’s toes or make a situation worse. We do whatever we need to do for said interaction to be over, which sometimes includes siding with those who hurt us. We might even begin to mimic hurtful behavior, even if we dislike it, because we think that’s what we are supposed to do to be accepted.

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Are HSPs Really the Problem?

Our sensitivity to words and actions can be an inconvenience to others. They may feel that they have to be extra careful about what they say and do so that they don’t hurt us. But is that a bad thing? Perhaps that’s how we, and the people we interact with, learn what is okay — and what is not.

From the time we’re children, we all test boundaries. Our parents say, “Don’t put that in your mouth.” But we want nothing more than the taste of that handful of dirt. When we learn that it tastes disgusting, or that our moms will poke their fingers in our mouths trying to fish out what we’ve eaten, we don’t do it again. 

As we get older, we continue to test boundaries. When we were kids, our parents would have taught us where the lines were. When we’re adults, we need to learn from each other. Saying that something hurts us is setting a boundary which can help other people learn and grow, as well. However, because we HSPs are such people-pleasers, setting boundaries is challenging for us, yet it’s crucial that we do so.

When I was in college, I met a guy who was kind, funny, and intelligent. I liked spending time with him and wanted to be his friend. So I started to play pranks on him and tease him. He didn’t say anything. I assumed it was okay and that we were building a friendship.

A few months later, after I had bullied him a bit, one of my classmates whispered, “Ann, why are you so mean to him?”

“I am just pulling his leg — we’re friends. I’m sure he likes it,” I said.

“Did he say that?” she asked. “I don’t think anyone really likes being teased.”

Her words sent me on an introspective journey. I began to see that the mask of behavior I put on as a child, so that I felt accepted, was not actually serving me or anyone else in adulthood. I never liked being the object of derision. But I had concluded that other people must like it, that I was the only one who didn’t know how to take it. Playing pranks is a way of showing love, right?

But my classmate’s words confronted those beliefs, and I began to look inward and go back and embrace who I truly was inside: Sensitive. 

As HSPs, we are naturally able to pick up on aggression. It’s a good idea to trust our gut and pay heed to what we are feeling while interacting with others. Our intuition, in this sense, is like Superman’s X-ray vision. We feel the malice beyond the facades of social interaction.

Thinking of this as a superpower reminds me of our possible responsibility. It’s not easy to do, but if we speak up about what we see, we can call out and challenge injustice. We can help people grow while also setting our own boundaries. If we simultaneously demonstrate empathy, care, and love, we can show the world how to become a kinder place.

6 Ways to Speak Up for Yourself as an HSP

As I mentioned before, many people get angry and defensive when we point out that something they are doing is not right. As a result, we feel they may say or do something that would hurt us more. We might also feel that we will lose their approval. Because of this, verbal communication can be difficult for HSPs and we may hesitate to speak up — even when we know we should.

Here are six things that helped me to go from crying in my bathroom to being vocal about what offends me. Hopefully, you’ll be able to relate.

1. Embrace your sensitivity for all its wonderful traits.

All HSPs feel the conflict between who we are on the inside and who we think the world wants us to be. To protect ourselves, and to be socially accepted, we wear those masks (or personas, as Carl Jung called it) that are closer to what the world expects. So our sensitivity gets hidden away. 

But, as I mentioned before, high sensitivity has its role in the community. The world needs the people we are inside. But we cannot show up as we are, or drop our masks, until we first embrace our sensitive nature and all the beautiful characteristics that come with it, from our empathy to noticing little things to countless others. 

2. Learn to be okay with not being liked.

Because of our sensitivity, we find it difficult to live in the knowledge that we are disliked by anybody. But, no matter how hard we try, there will always be some people who aren’t fond of us. And that’s okay. 

After all, we don’t like everybody either, do we? I now finally understand, after many years of fighting it, that wanting everyone’s approval is an unachievable pipe dream. I settled for the love of family, friends, and, as we’ll see in the next point, myself.

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

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3. Watch the self-talk — be just as proud of yourself as you are of others. 

Research has found that ust as we want the world to accept us, we also want to like, and have reason, to be proud of ourselves. To give appreciation and approval to ourselves can be easy. When I speak up or do something courageous, for example, I literally pat myself on the back or do a dorky dance. Then, I allow myself to think, “Yay! I did something great!” (If this does not come as easily to you, practice!)

On the other hand, negative thoughts that depreciate our value, or dehumanize us, can make us feel really bad. It’s like we are disapproving of ourselves. Stopping the negative self-talk is easier said than done, however. I needed to work with a professional to help me with this, and it was a slow and methodical process. (In fact, I’m still working on it.) So seek out a therapist’s help if you could use some guidance in this area, too.

4. Keep in mind that it’s important to clean the wound, so to speak.

When we speak up, we might make the people who hurt us feel bad. As HSPs, we find this unpleasant, because we don’t like causing pain any more than we like feeling it. 

This was another reason why I didn’t speak up for so long. But, over time, I began thinking of it like cleaning wounds. It’s painful, but it’s also very important for the person with the wound. If it’s not cleaned, it might never heal. (And childhood wounds can take a while to heal if we have let them fester for so long!)

I’m sure it is unpleasant for people to hear someone else say that what they’re doing to us is not nice. But I think when the defenses come down, maybe when they’re reflecting about it on their own, they might see the value in our feedback.

5. Watch other people speak up and learn from them.

Reading people’s work, hearing about what they have done, and watching powerful stories in nonfiction videos have all inspired me to speak up. I often get scared and back away from telling the truth. (In fact, I almost didn’t submit this article!) 

But when I see the courage that the people who have changed my life have demonstrated by communicating their thoughts, I feel the urge to join them. This brings me to the last point…

6. Learn how to tell the truth without escalating the situation.

By carefully observing different people tell their stories and speak against injustice, I learned that some ways of telling the truth worsen the situation whereas others do not. The people whom I admire never use violence to make their point, for instance. They are also mindful that their word choices are poignant, but not malicious. HSPs are the activists we need, and we can inspire others by always letting the truth guide the way.

Though it may seem like we are the problem, and that our sensitivity is the problem, the truth is, we don’t live in a world that is always kind. Instead, boundaries are breached, children are teased, and people are hurt in the process. Our emotional sensitivity may be the radar that helps spot that unkindness, and our words and actions can help transform it into love and be an example for others. 

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