Why Do Highly Sensitive People Beat Themselves Up So Much?

A highly sensitive person feeling overwhelmed

One of the most distinctive features of highly sensitive people (HSPs) is they often “beat themselves up” when they do something wrong. I find myself doing this often. If I failed at something, didn’t complete a task as well as I could have, or made a bad decision, I have a very hard time letting go. Most other people don’t seem to struggle with this as much as I do.

When I beat myself up, this may manifest in me withdrawing and wanting to be alone, refusing to voice my opinion, or hesitating to make another decision in the future.

I recognize that these are negative behaviors. Yet I have a hard time overcoming them. I may never completely avoid them, at least to the extent that non-HSPs do. But I can try to understand why they occur and to minimize their impact.

At the same time, those who are not HSPs should try to understand what a highly sensitive person is and why HSPs react this way — and not be so judgmental when they do.

Why HSPs Might Be Hard on Themselves

Here are three reasons I have identified as to why I tend to be hard on myself, and how I try to overcome them.

1. I struggle with low self-esteem.

I have always struggled to assert myself, whether it comes to applying for jobs, making new friends, or asking women on dates (I’m now married). If I forget to do something — let’s say, forget to go to the store and get dinner on the way home from work — it reinforces all the negative stereotypes I naturally have about myself, and it takes me a long time to recover from that.

To non-HSPs, this may sound ridiculous, but it’s a real struggle for me. I’ve heard it said that it takes seven positive experiences for humans to overcome a negative one. I’m sure it’s more for me; I have to remember to go to the store more than seven times in a row before I let go of the one time I forgot.

How to overcome it: Low self-esteem is a lifelong struggle for those who suffer from it. Those who have not faced it don’t understand. We’re constantly told that loving ourselves is a choice and that it’s our own fault if we don’t do it, but it’s not that simple. What helps me is to remember that all human beings have value, and the fact that others choose to be around me is a sign that they see value in me as well.

2. I hold myself to a high standard.

I strive for perfection. I always want to be learning and getting better. When I identify a weakness, I want to fix it. And if I mess up, I want to ensure that I don’t make the same mistake again.

For example, if I didn’t add up the numbers correctly in a report, I go back and figure out where I added incorrectly so I’m more careful next time. I can’t do that if I just forget about it. But that’s using my energy in a positive way. If I hand over that report to another person next time because I’m afraid to do it, I’m using my energy in a destructive way.

How to overcome it: I remember that no human is perfect. No matter our best intentions, sometimes we will fall short. I think of the times I have done something wrong and how those closest to me still accept me. In return, I accept them no matter how much they mess up.

And who exactly am I trying to impress, anyway? If I spend too much time trying to impress myself, I’m not spending enough time helping others and observing the world around me. When you think of times that you mess up as an opportunity to get better, instead of as a reflection on yourself, you’ll achieve so much more.

3. I value what other people think of me.

I used to wonder why people would get upset when I didn’t assert myself and instead did things to please others. For example, instead of telling my friends what movie I want to see, I’ll ask them for their opinion. “I’m just putting others before myself,” I’d say to myself. “Since when is being unselfish such a bad thing?”

I’ve always hated disappointing other people, so much so that when I do it once, I tend to withdraw, physically and emotionally, because I’m afraid that interacting with them again will lead to me disappointing them again. Put differently, I should just “stay out of their way” next time. But is that really borne of my concern for them, or does that link back to my low opinion of myself?

How to overcome it: Over time, I’ve learned that there’s a difference between simply deferring to other people and not interacting with them. The former is due to caring about what other people think of me — which is self-centered — while the latter is due to wanting to be a team player who solves problems. If I really care about others, I’ll share my knowledge and experiences with them in order to help them. Withholding that knowledge and experience could deprive them of valuable information.

In the above example, I may hesitate to suggest a movie because I’m afraid my friends won’t like it. But it’s also possible that it could be a good movie. And it’s also possible that if I leave it to them, they’ll pick a bad one.

To non-HSPs who become frustrated when HSPs withdraw or are hard on themselves, please make an effort to be sensitive to their struggle. Offer positive reinforcement when they do something right.

And don’t be quick to judge. If they’re upset about something, they may need just a little time to themselves to get through it. That’s okay. Criticizing them right after they make a mistake or asking them why they’re being so sensitive will make it more difficult for them to get out of the rut they may slip into when they make a mistake. And that hurts everyone.

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