Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person feels that her sensitivity is both a blessing and a curse

The ‘Blessing’ and ‘Curse’ of Being a Highly Sensitive Person

When I asked our Facebook page of over 19,000 highly sensitive people what it means to be sensitive, many of the responses were extremely positive. HSPs view their sensitivity as a superpower, and they gave examples of how it made them better friends, spouses, professionals, and leaders. For a lot of people, being sensitive is a gift.

But there was also a darker side that came out. For every response that emphasized the benefits of high sensitivity, there was one (or more) that talked about pain. And highly sensitive people, who process stimulation deeply, feel pain as keenly as a human soul can.

That doesn’t change the fact that being a highly sensitive person is normal and healthy — and there are definitely ways for HSPs to thrive. But the reality is, HSPs may feel the highs higher and the lows lower. And since HSPs are also pretty misunderstood by those around them, the result is that being sensitive can be both a blessing and a curse.

Here are 13 of the challenges HSPs described that come with being sensitive, and four rays of hope I’d like to offer based on HSPs who overcame that pain.

Noticing everything, weeping at the drop of a hat, feeling far too deeply… I get easily overwhelmed by those around me. It can be an avalanche.

The ‘Curse’ of Being Highly Sensitive

Why exactly is being sensitive (sometimes) so hard? Here are answers from real highly sensitive people:

  • “Being sensitive is like being a walking nerve ending.”
  • “I’m only ever as relaxed as the most unrelaxed person in the room.”
  • “I care way too much about what other people think and feel, and what they see if they look at me.”
  • “The things I observe bring up unpleasant or painful feelings in others that they don’t want to feel… and because they don’t want to feel, they shame me for feeling.”
  • “Noticing everything, weeping at the drop of a hat, feeling far too deeply… I get easily overwhelmed by those around me, whether family, friends, or strangers out in public. It can be an avalanche.”
  • “If I get asked for a favor and don’t want to do it, I start getting a bad stomachache. I get heavy breathing and anxiety.”
  • “It used to mean I cried under stressful circumstances or from words that shouldn’t have hurt me. Now I realize it’s also the reason that I feel deeply for those in my life and what propels me to be kind to them, do things for them, and make sure they’re looked after.”
  • “It means sensory overload and [being] so emotional.”
  • “It does mean crying a lot (but with therapy I’ve gotten better) but it also means for me, when there’s a lot going on around me, it’s hard to concentrate; all I want is to be away from the stimuli. [And] I have a challenging time making new connections since most people like that noisy atmosphere to meet new friends, like bars or social events.”
  • “A life of intensity… the good is really good, and the bad is really bad. There is very little middle ground.”
  • “I feel embarrassed and like a horrible person because I’m forever asking people to turn the volume down, point the fan away from me, turn the temperature (up? down? more moderate, anyway), and rushing out of stores with room fragrances.”
  • “I need a ‘life’ button to turn down.”
  • “A life of emotional pain.”

These HSPs aren’t alone in how they feel. Many highly sensitive people struggle with similar pain points every single day — and for some, the world can seem harsh and simply “too much.” But we know that being a highly sensitive person is NOT a disorder, and that it can actually be an incredible source of strength and wellbeing. So how do you turn your sensitivity into a blessing rather than a curse?

Making Your Sensitivity a ‘Blessing’

1. It actually does get better.

If you’re a younger highly sensitive person, you need to know that things will get better. Being sensitive is (usually) not as hard once you develop into your late 20s, 30s and beyond.

There are a lot of reasons why. Part of it is peer group — once you’re out of school, the people around you are a lot less likely to be openly cruel or mock you. Believe me, that’s a godsend.

And it takes time to develop the strategies you’ll use to manage your sensitivity. It does take management sometimes — and lots of self-care — and that’s okay! You’re a finely tuned instrument designed to sense and feel practically everything. It’s normal to get stressed, overwhelmed, and sometimes even crash…. and years of experience will teach you the ways to avoid or minimize that. I promise.

Also: parents are a thing. Many families are clueless about what to do with a highly sensitive person, and they have a huge role in your life even through your 20s. The results can range from simply unhelpful to outright emotional neglect.

2. It’s okay to back away from toxic people.

There may be no greater lesson a highly sensitive person can learn! HSPs can be natural targets for narcissists and bullies, because, according to psychologist Deborah Ward, they “are highly empathetic and care deeply about others, sympathizing with their troubles. They are sensitive to other people’s feelings and often feel the urge to help.”

And that’s a good trait, but it’s not healthy to allow it to be abused. Your happiness and wellbeing will change by orders of magnitude if you back away from toxic people. That doesn’t have to mean a dramatic “friend breakup” or even telling them you’re doing it. It simply means making a purposeful choice to spend less time with them.

Of course, this is easiest to do in social situations, and harder to do with your family or someone at work. Which brings me to….

3. Setting boundaries is a game-changer.

Often, highly sensitive people have a hard time saying no. After all, as extremely empathetic people, it really hurts to disappoint someone or let them down.

But setting boundaries is not a disappointment. Boundaries are not walls or dividers — they’re simply a list of what is okay (and not okay) with you. Effective boundary-setting comes down to two things: it’s clear and it’s compassionate yet firm. Both of these can seem daunting, but when you learn to do it, it can be effective even with a boss, relative, or someone else you know you have be around.

You can learn more about how to set boundaries as an HSP here.

4. Therapy is personal-growth rocket fuel for HSPs.

I’ve never met a group of people who seem to get more out of therapy — and enjoy it more — than highly sensitive people. Even the most well-adjusted HSP experiences strong emotions and overwhelm from time to time, and when you factor in that some HSPs are also prone to anxiety, therapy is a powerful tool.

Going to therapy is a sign of strength, not weakness. It’s taking control of your life and owning your personality, with all of its rare, wonderful, sensitive parts. In therapy, you can learn techniques to overcome shame and self-doubt, deal with criticism, and deal with “floods” of emotions — among many others. In fact, many HSPs are therapists themselves, including many of the authors on this site.

You can find a list of HSP-friendly therapists here, and start off by knowing what to tell your therapist up-front to help them understand your needs.

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