The key to healing childhood wounds as an HSP is to practice sitting with uncomfortable sensations or thoughts — but first you have to make it emotionally safe to do so.
There are few among us who emerge into adulthood without wounds from our childhood, and fewer still who were taught the skills to heal those wounds. For a highly sensitive person (HSP), the experiences accrued in childhood, and their resulting impact, are often felt more deeply, both emotionally and physically.
For example, let’s say a highly sensitive child grew up with a parent who is unstable and inconsistent. As an adult, that HSP may have a hypervigilant attunement with the emotional energy and needs of others. This is often the result of the impact of their environment (nurture) with their innate temperament and neurobiology (nature).
For folks with the traits of high sensitivity, this means they are more prone to overwhelm, anxiety, and emotionally shutting down, and these can have corrosive effects on their relationships and well-being. With traits such as sensory sensitivities, depth of emotion, strong intuition, and observational skills, an HSP’s childhood experiences can leave lasting imprints on their emotional topography as they become adults.
What a ‘Bad Childhood’ Actually Means
Childhood wounding, sometimes referred to as a “bad childhood,” is a widely discussed topic among therapists and their clients, but what does it actually mean? Wounds in our early landscape are not just singular traumatic events. The following is an incomplete list of common occurrences that can lead to an accumulation of wounds as highly sensitive humans:
- subtle or overt chronic invalidation
- withdrawing of affection (as punishment)
- being compared to others
- unrealistic expectations from adults
- caregivers with poor boundaries/confiding too much
- racism, including microaggressions
- abuse and neglect
- divorce and other family ruptures
- untreated mental illness and/or substance use in our caregivers
- medical events, disease, and illness
- loss by suicide or other means
Big ‘T’ Traumas vs. Little ‘t’ Traumas
Many items in the above list are what we might refer to as “Big ‘T’ traumas” — identifiable events which most people would associate with negative impact — such as being abused or the sudden death of a loved one.
The list also contains “little ‘t’ traumas” — events, patterns, and dynamics which may not seem “that bad,” but which overload our system; anything that overwhelms our ability to process and cope, like being frequently compared to siblings, having emotionally unavailable caregivers, being bullied, or the loss of a pet.
Little “t” traumas are frequently minimized by those that experience them, and I often hear clients say, “It was hard, but other people had it much worse,” or “My parents yelled a lot, but they never hit me.”
When you are a child, your internal system can easily become overwhelmed when you’re yelled at by an angry adult. Although you may not have been physically harmed — and maybe even became accustomed to being yelled at — your nervous system sensed danger. Whether it happened once, or you were chronically exposed, you likely developed an idea or belief about being yelled at.
For many, this belief is something along the lines of, “It is my fault. I should not have … I am bad.” Or, “I am unlovable.” Most often, these beliefs will be unconscious until they resurface later in life. Your nervous system also changes when you are exposed to these types of painful experiences, and you may find it difficult to regulate your emotions as you grow into adulthood.
Another example of an invalidating experience is receiving the message that you are “too much.” Sensitive children raised by adults who aren’t aware of the HSP profile (and how to nurture it) are told they are “too shy,” “too loud,” “too sensitive,” “too exuberant,” or “too much” of something or “not enough” of something else. This might be verbalized by a parent, teacher, other adults, or peers.
Perhaps it was never stated aloud, but the message was received regardless: by a parent heaving a big sigh when you couldn’t go at their pace or when you expressed an intense feeling; by the withdrawal of physical or verbal expressions of affection when you didn’t behave the way they expected; or by being punished.
But the good news is, there are ways to heal childhood wounds, particularly if you’re a highly sensitive person.
The Path to Healing Your Highly Sensitive Soul
If you recognize yourself in any of the above scenarios, you are not alone, and there is hope. While few (or maybe none) of us emerge into adulthood without accumulating some emotional wounds, HSPs have immense capacity for healing: We feel our emotions deeply and can heal by using our innate intuition and depth of processing to our advantage.
There are several different methods of healing from past experiences and traumas, and not all methods will be right for everyone. By working with a therapist, you can see which method is best for you. For myself and my clients, I have found that something called Internal Family Systems (IFS) resonates powerfully. In short, IFS is a transformative type of psychotherapy that proposes we all have many parts, a family of sorts, within us.
A primary intention in IFS is to help parts heal, and we cannot do this by ignoring them or wishing them away. As HSPs, we can feel especially unsettled when we feel disconnected and misunderstood. The parts within us that hold our trauma are no different — they, too, wish to be seen and understood, and appreciated. Our intention here is to get to know whatever arises, rather than distract away from it or get rid of it.
As children, we did not have the skills or support to process what happened, so we developed a belief about it, which then impacts us and our world view until we heal it. Instead of coming face-to-face with these traumatic experiences, we push them down and find ways to cope. Maybe we stay busy all the time so we don’t have time to think or feel; some of us will drink too much alcohol; and others will pick small arguments with others to release tension and feel righteous.
Getting to know these parts of ourselves, and understanding how they work, will lead us to relieving the burdens we carry. This will then create emotional space from suffering, and we’ll invite back in some of the qualities that were lost, like more playfulness or inner peace. Sometimes referred to as “parts work,” IFS is most often done with a trained therapist. However, there is plenty that people can explore on their own, starting with the exercise below.
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To Heal Childhood Wounds, You Must Practice Sitting With Uncomfortable Sensations or Thoughts
To start the healing process, set aside a few minutes in a quiet space (like your HSP sanctuary) and try this exercise.
- Get comfortable. There’s no right or wrong way to be — you may sit upright, lie on the floor or bed, curl up, or whatever is most comfortable for you.
- Take a few deep breaths — breathe in for the count of four, and breathe out for a count of six. What do you notice? Is your back aching? Are you thinking of what item is next on your to-do list? Do you feel annoyed? Relieved? Whatever you notice is welcome. There’s no need to push it away or try to “do better.” That voice telling you you’re doing it wrong? Just acknowledge it and let it know you’re trying something new. Maybe even send it gratitude for its effort in wanting you to do well.
- Whether you are noticing many sensations or thoughts, or just one, choose what feels most urgent or what sensation you feel most. Do you feel it in your body or around you? Allow yourself time to get to know this sensation or thought. Perhaps it is an image in your mind’s eye; for some, it might be a memory, word, or sound. For example, you may recall a recent conflict with your partner and begin to feel your jaw clenching or see red. Pro tip: If it feels right, you can place your hand on wherever you feel a part, sensation, or belief in your body.
- Once you have chosen what part you’d like to start with, let it know that you see it and feel it. That’s right, you’re speaking to it as though it’s a separate being! If that sounds a bit “out there,” that’s OK! You might say (even aloud) to the feeling, “I see you. I want to get to know you.” Notice if anything shifts when you acknowledge the sensation or thought. Don’t rush. Oftentimes, just noticing the part allows it to soften a bit.
Practicing this exercise consistently will build your capacity to tolerate intensity. By being open to sensations, beliefs, and feelings arising — and giving them attention — we are building trust between ourselves and the parts of us that are wounded. You will begin to notice the way that memories, sensations, and beliefs affect your inner system — and this noticing allows you to respond differently, such as reacting from a place of calm rather than fear, and will create space for healing your wounded childhood parts. It will take work, but it is possible. And HSPs, in my experience, take to this work quite readily and intuitively respond to their parts. And learning about one part will inevitably lead to learning about another.
For today, just start with one. Building relationships with our parts takes time — and it is time well-spent. Exploring our rich inner landscape allows us to know our strengths, our fears, our deepest joys, and our childhood painful parts.
The IFS process — and any healing process — can take months or years, and again, is best done with the support of a trained IFS therapist. You can find a directory here (I am one of the therapists in this group practice).