We work long hours, endure toxic environments, and push ourselves way past our limit — all in the name of not looking “weak.”
I remember being 22 years old and teetering in high heels at a loud bar in Newport Beach, California. It was early in the night, but I’d already had a drink spilled on me and had fielded an unwanted advance from a stranger. My new friends and I sipped beers while the ocean waves crashed behind us. They all seemed so carefree and happy. For most 20-somethings, this was a dream scenario.
Me? I wanted to go home.
I wanted to curl up in bed with a good book and listen to the ocean waves crash from my bedroom window instead. I had just moved to California and was renting a beach bungalow for the winter with one of my new friends. I imagined myself kicking off the uncomfortable heels, making a bowl of popcorn, and relaxing in peace.
“Alissa! Let’s go dance!” my friend shouted to me over the music.
I was abruptly taken out of my daydream and returned to reality, back to the strobe lights, bad beer, and music pulsing in my ears. I finished my beer and walked out to the dance floor with my friend as I had these thoughts: If I want to be accepted, I have to stay out late with my friends. If I want to be accepted, I have to act cool.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), all the external stimuli was really getting to me. I was overwhelmed and tired, but it was only 10 p.m. and I didn’t want my new friends to think I was lame if I went home early.
Yes, I had to hide my sensitive side. Again.
Hiding Your Sensitivity to ‘Fit In’
Our desire to fit in begins at a young age. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that, by the way. It’s part of our human nature to want to be accepted by others and feel like part of a group. However, it becomes a problem when we lose ourselves in the pursuit of fitting in.
Most highly sensitive people grow up knowing they feel different than others, but don’t really know why. We feel different but we don’t want to be different, so we try to be more like everyone else. Inadvertently, we begin to feel “wrong” for the way we are because we don’t see examples of it around us. (Or maybe our friends are hiding their high sensitivity, too!)
In middle school, we notice what type of kids are deemed “cool” and seem to be accepted by everyone. Often these kids are more extroverted and outgoing and bold. Intentionally or not, we begin modeling the behaviors of these people who seem to be doing things the “right” way. We start hiding the sensitive aspects of ourselves.
By the time we graduate college, we’ve become masters at fitting in. Unless we’ve been lucky enough to have our sensitive nature fostered and encouraged, many of us emerge into adulthood in denial that we’re sensitive at all. However, high sensitivity isn’t something that can easily stay hidden because it’s part of our true nature. At the end of the day, who we truly are will always find a way to shine through.
That night at the bar in Newport Beach, when I went out to the dance floor instead of going home, it was just one of many times I pushed myself to stay in a situation because I wanted to fit in.
Over time, though, I could no longer deny my true, sensitive nature. My anxiety was through the roof and I was unhappy. I wasn’t being myself. Later that year, my mom bought me a book called The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron and it changed my life.
I remember proudly telling my new friend that I’d learned I was a highly sensitive person. At my wedding, six years later, this friend was one of my bridesmaids. In her speech, she shared that her favorite thing about me is my soft, empathetic nature. It was an ah-ha moment: I’d never needed to be anything but me, after all, in order to be accepted.
You Are Not ‘Too Much’ When You’re With the Right People
On my first date with my now-husband, we shared a cheese board (even though dairy upsets my stomach). I didn’t tell him that, though. I wanted to be cool and easygoing. I didn’t want him to think I was too difficult.
When dating, that seems to be a theme for highly sensitive people; a fear of being too much for people. We don’t want to seem too sensitive, too emotional, too difficult, too weak, too anything for fear of scaring them off. Oftentimes, it just feels easier to hide who we are, even if that means giving ourselves a stomachache in the process.
In looking for a potential partner, we often want to portray ourselves as chill and easygoing because it’s what’s modeled as “cool” in our society. We don’t want to text back too fast, for fear of seeming like we care too much. We don’t want to share our feelings too quickly, for fear of seeming like we’re too emotional. We don’t want to share our needs, for fear of seeming like we’re too high-maintenance. And we especially don’t want someone to pick up on how sensitive we are to external stimuli: Will they reject us if we tear up at the slightest thing?
So, we hide it. We hide our true, sensitive selves from the people we date for as long as we can until it inevitably slips out one day (or until we finally feel comfortable enough to share who we really are).
These days, my husband knows I can’t eat dairy. He knows that, in order to sleep, I need a pitch-black room and a fan running. He knows to hand me a tissue any time we watch a sad movie and that, sometimes, I just really like to be alone and hide out in my HSP sanctuary (which I highly recommend!).
At the end of the day, I’ve learned that the person who is right for us will never want us to hide our sensitive nature. In fact, they’ll encourage it and love us for it.
Society Is Obsessed With Not Appearing ‘Weak’ — But You Don’t Have to Be
The workplace is arguably one of the most difficult environments for a highly sensitive person to show their true nature. When climbing the corporate ladder, we often see the people who get ahead are the ones who work long hours and don’t mind getting yelled at once in a while. They’re tough, aggressive, and competitive.
Many of these people at the top hold the exact opposite characteristics of an HSP. So, what do we do? We hide our sensitivity, once again, because we don’t want to seem “weak.” We work long hours, endure toxic environments, and push ourselves past our limits in order to feel worthy of a promotion. And we certainly don’t let them see us cry.
However, highly sensitive people were not built to push themselves to this level. We can absolutely be high achievers and strive for more, but we also must listen to our bodies in the process. We must honor our sensitive nature and rest as needed, or else we risk burning out.
As a high-achieving HSP myself, I burnt myself out at a young age in the corporate world. At 23 years old, I had chronic digestive issues due to the extreme levels of stress and anxiety I was experiencing from my job. Research, too, shows that stress can affect our nervous systems. I was denying my sensitive nature in order to get ahead in my career. This backfired and I eventually had to quit that job because I could no longer take it.
Although this experience was painful, it taught me that there’s no denying who I am. I also learned, in my next job, that there’s so much strength in being a highly sensitive person in the workplace. In fact, empathetic leaders are something we desperately need more of and emotional intelligence is gaining attention for its importance.
Your Sensitivity Is the Root of Your Humanity
There are many reasons highly sensitive people may feel the need to hide their sensitive nature — we want to fit in, we don’t want to feel like we’re too much, and we certainly don’t want people to assume we’re weak. Yet, by denying our sensitivity, we’re denying one of the most beautiful aspects of ourselves: Our sensitivity is the root of our humanity.
As I’ve grown older and more comfortable in my sensitive nature, I think of how many HSPs are still hiding who they truly are. I want to be an example for them because I think there’s an importance and duty in showing others what’s possible when you’re proud of your sensitive nature.
I think of the people staying out at the bar even though they desperately want to be home, curled up with a book. I think of the people on first dates, trying to act easygoing even though they’d love nothing more than to have a deep conversation. I think of the countless HSPs in the workplace, trying to act tough when it’s slowly burning them out.
To all of those people, I want to say, please stop hiding. It’s okay to be yourself. Let your true, vibrant, sensitive nature shine through. We need you to show others why it’s so special to be a highly sensitive person.
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You might like:
- 13 Problems Only Highly Sensitive People Will Understand
- 9 Signs of Chronic Overstimulation
- What Happens When a Highly Sensitive Person Grows Up with Emotional Neglect
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