Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person of color hold her hand up to say "no" to stereotypes that don't fit.

As a Highly Sensitive Person of Color, I Don’t Fit Anyone’s Cookie Cutter

I was ‘supposed’ to be loud instead of reticent, because aren’t all Black women loud?

At an early age, most of us are taught that diversity contributes to life’s beauty. As children, we may have had parents or teachers who pointed to a garden featuring a variety of flowers and explained that each plant’s unique appearance and qualities added to the overall perfection of the garden. The analogy? That diversity is a positive aspect of life. 

Pleasant as this concept may be, is it a belief that our culture truly values?

A 2019 study examining workplace discrimination among 40 million US workers found that mistreatment ranged from a high of 25 percent for black women workers to a low of 11 percent for white men. Those numbers illustrate a disheartening fact: Some of the most unrepresented individuals in the workforce — the ones who are considered ‘diverse’ and should be valued for the beauty they add to the ‘garden’ —  aren’t treated that way.  

The Double Pain of Being a Highly Sensitive Person of Color

Like the women who participated in that survey, I’m African American, but I’m also a highly sensitive person (HSP). For most of my life, I’ve felt as though I had no community, no “people” to lean on for support or understanding. 

Of course, it isn’t surprising to hear an HSP express feelings of loneliness rooted in the way they’ve been treated. Many HSPs have shared experiences in which their family and friends made it known that their highly sensitive qualities were really flaws that should be swapped out with louder, more aggressive behavior. Being “different” is a real struggle as an HSP. 

However, when an HSP happens to be a person of color (POC), they likely experience that HSP-specific loneliness as well as social rejection based on the color of their skin and familial rejection because they fall short of cultural or ethnic standards related to social interactions.

Rejection hits an HSP with the force of a knife-wound. Our sensitive nature often turns even small criticisms into gaping flaws that we become anxious to fix. But when the rejection is based on something an HSP can’t change, like their ethnicity, we’re left with a deep sense of hopelessness, feeling as though no matter what we do, we’ll never be accepted or acceptable.  

Breaking POC Stereotypes as an HSP

A few years ago, I learned that sad lesson the hard way. I decided to begin collaborating with local wedding videographers in my Louisiana hometown because I wanted to build up my courage and skills behind the camera so I could one day direct. 

A family member put me in touch with one particular videographer, who agreed to let me help out with an out-of-town wedding shoot. I met up with him the day-of so we could make the long drive to the venue. If being stuck in a car with an extroverted stranger sounds rough, it was actually a great trip. At first. He was an amazing conversationalist, and though I can be very quiet, I felt comfortable talking to someone as animated and funny as he was. 

When we stopped to get lunch, though, he looked at me and said something I’ll never forget: “This has been great! I can’t believe I’m having a conversation with a Black woman!” I smiled and faked a laugh. But when he said that, my heart plummeted. 

I honestly hadn’t been thinking about skin color. I was just enjoying myself. But his comment, which was said in innocence, taught me a terrible lesson. From that moment on, I believed that when people saw me, they didn’t see me, they only saw a Black woman. His remark taught me that I’m not always a person to those who don’t look like me — I’m a stereotype.

For the rest of the day, I tried not to let my feelings turn into some hovering cloud. But, in typical HSP fashion, I overanalyzed his words. I was hit with a right hook to the heart that resulted in a painful realization: My social life, including the way I was treated at work and the way acquaintances and friends interacted with me, was all tinged with that same color barrier.

How an Aggressive World Punishes Highly Sensitive POC

At that moment, I realized the “problem” with me extended far beyond my shy nature. The real problem was that I looked like a person who wasn’t supposed to be shy. I was supposed to be loud, instead of reticent, because aren’t all Black women loud? And I was supposed to be strong, instead of mild, because aren’t all Black women strong? I didn’t make sense to people because I didn’t “act like my race.”

After the incident with the videographer, I felt like some kind of freak of nature and I started hating the fact that I was drawn to hobbies and entertainment that seemed out of harmony with what a stereotypical Black woman was supposed to enjoy. For a long time, I felt stuck and hopelessly weird. 

Those feelings, however, were shaped by a culture that punishes diversity. Thankfully, my perspective began to shift after learning what it meant to be an HSP and then speaking with other highly sensitive POC. 

These exchanges allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief. I gradually began to understand that there was nothing wrong with me. Instead, I saw that there was something very wrong with our current world culture. It was based on a system that created racial stereotypes for the purpose of dehumanizing members of certain ethnicities. 

In speaking with other HSP POC, I also learned that despite feeling lonely for so long, nearly all of us have struggled with low self-esteem and intense feelings of worthlessness due to living with prejudice, which I believe is a form of abuse.

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How I Heal My Scars

As with any abuse, it takes years to recover from the scars that racism and prejudice cause.  

But I can say, I feel lighter now — happier. And, as I continue to heal, I’ve learned to cherish three practices that are helping me along the path to self-acceptance. 

1. Reconnecting with myself. 

It’s a simple yet effective technique. It involves taking a few minutes to write three lists. I write a list of the things I absolutely love to do, a list of my talents, and finally a list of my goals. 

After incidents of prejudice/discrimination occur on the job or in every day life, I take a moment to reflect on who I am, and what I have to contribute to our word helps to rebuild my confidence. 

2. Finding like-minded people. 

I’ve used Facebook Groups, Meetup.com, and even my local library to get in touch with other HSPs, writers, and filmmakers to chat with. The interactions are refreshing and I find I can be myself around gentle souls who share my interests and value me as an individual. 

The feelings of loneliness HSPs experience are exacerbated when they also frequently experience racial prejudice. But the truth is that none of us are alone. We have a global community of kind and empathetic HSPs who will readily support their fellow quiet folk. 

3. Therapy

I’m working with a psychologist to rebuild my self-esteem. Experiencing prolonged prejudice and racism, especially as an HSP, has been detrimental to my emotional well-being. I firmly believe that anyone who’s been exposed to such abuse would benefit from the assistance of an experienced psychologist. 

The truth is that none of us are alone. We have a global community of kind and empathetic HSP who will readily support their fellow quiet folk.

Reaching out to make connections can be daunting. But when we do, our journey through this world stops feeling like a solitary trek of wrong turns, and becomes an enjoyable adventure that unfolds alongside a supportive group of companions. 

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