“Can we turn the news off?” This has become my chorus since relocating back from the United Kingdom and staying with my news-junkie parents. I appreciate the need to be informed about today’s issues and — considering that I am an activist — one might think that it’s my job to watch the news non-stop to stay informed.
But my highly sensitive brain cannot handle the constant influx of problems, let alone the sheer noise with which those problems are presented. The seemingly constant shouting and arguing of our current political discourse is too much for me. After a day of watching the news, I usually find myself curled up in a ball, with a blanket pulled over my head, and my mind echoing one plea: STOP.
Hardly the image of a fearless leader.
And yet I am. (At least about the leader part.) More specifically, I am a mental health advocate who is the founder and president of a growing non-profit organization. I founded it after struggling for years with the blatant disconnect between the mental health advocacy I saw happening online and the hurtful misunderstandings of mental illness in my community.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that highly sensitive people (HSPs) are drawn to non-profit work, but in our current “loud” political climate, I certainly surprised myself by choosing to take up the mantle of social activism.
Finding The Courage
Many highly sensitive people struggle with their self-esteem, and I personally am prone to social anxiety. I have struggled with both of these things deeply, and both are intertwined with my experience of mental illness.
My passion for mental health advocacy had been tugging at my heart for a while, but as soon as I would have another bad day that left me curled up in bed or crying on the floor, I’d think to myself, “Yeah, right. You? An activist? You clearly don’t have what it takes.”
But over time I learned more and more about the incredible asset that is my high sensitivity. I learned to let go of the external expectations of what a strong person looks like, or what an activist “should” be, and instead learned to listen to my own quieter instincts.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about leveraging my high sensitivity as an activist, and how the two actually complement each other in exciting ways.
4 Lessons for Highly Sensitive Activists
1. “Lending my ears” means truly listening.
Because I’m an HSP, I am acutely aware of my sensory input. A certain amount of quiet time is an absolute necessity, and my symptoms of mental illness (especially hearing voices) make me even more prone to sensory overload (if that’s even possible).
But my sensitivity to sound has also made me a good listener. I can genuinely enjoy sitting silently in a quiet room, listening to a friend or reading — I don’t need any more stimuli than that! In our day and age, stimulation is everywhere and listening is incredibly undervalued, but my ability to handle silence and truly listen is an indispensable trait in advocacy.
2. Beyond listening, I process information to respond — not react.
My active listening skills and depth of processing make me less prone to “reacting” and more prone to “responding.” The distinction is one I heard from a clinical psychologist who differentiates between unhealthy knee-jerk reactions (reacting) and thoughtful decisions made after processing all the relevant information (responding).
Our current culture runs rampant with “reactions,” and this is part of what contributes to the impression that everyone is shouting all the time. I have found that highly sensitive people, however, are more prone to responding. We require more time to process experiences and information, and, in many cases, our brains literally won’t let us continue until we’ve done that. As a result, when we listen to our needs and trust our brains’ natural strengths, our depth of processing means that we are more likely to come up with thoughtful and meaningful answers.
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3. I have a sensitivity to subtlety that helps evaluate solutions.
My high sensitivity is probably one of the main reasons I felt called to this work in the first place. As I became aware of more and more stories of people suffering — based largely on the ignorance and shame around mental illness — and families suffering from broken psychiatric systems, my heart simply couldn’t stand the thought of doing nothing.
My sensitive nature means that my heart is easily stirred by other’s pain, but it also means that I am sensitive to subtlety. Therefore, I am less likely to explode with rage upon hearing these stories, and more likely to take time needed to process each of the proposed solutions. My sensitivity, and my capacity for thinking and processing very deeply, gives me the gift of subtlety of thought in comparing solutions that must be both compassionate and effective.
4. My activism is empathetic through and through.
Representation is something I very much take to heart. As someone who felt utterly alone and unrepresented most of their childhood, I make a conscious effort not to neglect others and leave them to the same fate.
HSPs are empathetic by nature, and that can be a call to respond to bigger missions in life. As the founder of my organization, I take to heart my duty to understand our mission as being much bigger than my own agenda. I didn’t start an organization to justify jumping atop a soapbox and making everyone listen to my opinions. I founded an organization to improve the lives of others. Therefore, in my mind, my activism is far more about listening than it is about speaking. And for HSPs, their sense of empathy can yield a kind of activism that has real impact.
Use Your Sensitivity for Good
Our world has such a plethora and variety of problems that it does not take much to feel discouraged. But I firmly believe that highly sensitive people are desperately needed in this time of confusion, pain, division, and (rightful) outrage. Our gifts of sensitivity both to our own needs and those of others have the power to revolutionize our social and political discourse into one of compassion, selflessness, and meaning.
I once mistakenly assumed that my sensitive nature meant I would surely crumble under the yoke of social activism, but instead I have discovered that I have only grown as a person. The awareness I feel about my sensitivity has become more pronounced, refined, and beneficial. This would never be the case, however, if I had continued to bury my sensitivity as though it were a weakness, or attempted to bolster it into a directionless anger in an attempt to make myself heard.
I may not be the person who is saying the most or shouting the loudest, but I don’t think that’s what our culture particularly needs more of right now. I believe it needs us, the sensitive ones, who know how to listen to our strengths and trust our sensitivity to guide us toward compassion.