When I was a highly sensitive child growing up in a non-highly sensitive family, I struggled with self-acceptance. I had never heard the words “highly sensitive person” (HSP), nor did I know that my sensitive traits were shared by roughly 1 in 5 people in the world. I just knew there was something inherently different about me, and as a child, that didn’t feel like a good thing.
My family didn’t understand why things affected me so deeply: I cried a lot, refused to eat certain foods, and was easily overwhelmed by loud noises and strong smells. I was very emotional and I broke down in tears when receiving discipline. As a teenager, I spent most days in my room alone with my books.
My personality became a point of frustration because my family chalked it up to bad behavior — I was “moody” or “acting out.” Unfortunately for me, that negative perspective on my highly sensitive nature became the way I viewed myself.
As a highly sensitive person in an often not-sensitive world, I don’t think I’m the only one who grew up this way. Here’s what HSPs need from their loved ones — and what I wish my family knew.
What HSPs Need From Their Family
There was no doubt that my family loved and cared about me. But their method of showing that love clashed with my HSP needs. They expressed it the only way they knew: by providing for my immediate, tangible needs. In other words, I was always given nutritious food and new clothes, and got Christmas and birthday presents — privileges I understand not everyone gets and that I am grateful for. But, as a highly sensitive person, what I truly craved was deep emotional connections and validation for my HSP qualities. I knew I was “different,” and I wanted someone to say that was okay.
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I don’t think this is unique to my family. For many people, emotional needs are a lot trickier to deal with than physical needs. It’s easy to see what a child needs to succeed at a class project, but it’s not easy to see what feelings they have or what feelings they need in order to feel supported.
This is especially true when parents are not HSPs themselves. They know that any kid might be sad after losing a soccer game or happy when they make a new friend. But why does their sensitive child get upset at the texture of their jeans, and thrilled to have a collection of pretty pebbles they found? For parents who don’t perceive subtle details the same way or paint vast pictures in their head, these emotions can seem inscrutable.
The truth is that society doesn’t train us to hold space for emotions, much less care for a sensitive child with big and often surprising feelings.
And that’s in a healthy environment. When an HSP’s family is emotionally abusive or neglectful, they learn to bottle up their feelings because they learn that voicing their needs will be punished or rejected. In that environment, showing vulnerability in any way becomes unsafe, and the HSP internalizes the idea that their needs are unimportant. That’s toxic for anyone, but especially for HSPs who experience life in extreme highs and lows (especially in childhood). We need healthy communication and emotional expression in order to learn proper self-care techniques.
Which is why it makes such a profound difference when an HSP feels accepted and understood by those around them.
7 Things I Wish My Family Knew About Me as an HSP
1. I have a frequent need for solitude.
HSPs are deep, imaginative thinkers, because our very nervous systems are wired differently. Our minds involuntarily work overtime to meticulously process sensory input and other information. Without even thinking about it, we continuously work to connect different patterns, ideas, and memories to answer our big “life questions.” Frankly, all that cognitive work can leave us mentally fatigued.
In order to recharge our mental and emotional batteries, we need downtime away from social interaction because that, too, takes a lot of energy. I’ve often had family members complain that I neglected spending time with them in favor of hanging out in my room or going out by myself. I’d focus on solitary activities like reading, writing, and long walks — all the while feeling guilt balloon in my stomach as if I was doing something nefarious. But HSPs need this downtime and, if you love them, you should give it to them.
2. I hate busy schedules.
As an HSP, I can be meticulously detail-oriented or big picture-oriented, but I can’t do either one on a tight deadline. Being rushed causes a lot of anxiety because my mind starts working in overdrive trying to process, and HSPs process deeply. Many parents pressure their kids to succeed by overachieving, but having my mind engaged constantly with the added pressure to perform well only expedites my route to burnout. In our culture, it may appear like I’m lazy and underachieving, but truly, I’m just working at my own pace to take care of my mental health.
3. I didn’t respond well to strict discipline.
Growing up under a system of strict discipline only taught me to internalize feelings of shame and inadequacy. Those feelings then contributed to my low self-esteem as an adult. Being told off, shouted at, and harshly criticized can wreak havoc on anybody’s self-esteem, but HSPs especially take it hard. We may interpret criticism personally even if we rationally know it’s not meant to be that way. And we hate raised voices — the volume can cause our anxiety to skyrocket, because our nervous system interprets intensity as danger.
4. I absorb your emotions.
HSPs tend to absorb the emotions of the people they’re directly surrounded by, and we innately know when there is or isn’t harmony in any given environment. If there is constant conflict and tension at home, it can be emotionally draining to the point of causing the HSP to shut down and disengage entirely. Even if we’re not directly involved in the conflict, it’ll feel like we’re emotionally invested.
(HSPs: It is possible to learn to stop absorbing emotions when you need to.)
5. Sometimes I crave approval and validation for my big feelings.
When certain feelings arise that cause me to cry or withdraw, it’s not a bid for attention. It’s just the way my emotions naturally manifest. On top of feeling deeply, HSPs also tend to be an emotional sponge for the people around them, and it’s sometimes hard to tell which emotions are authentically mine. When I’m drained from processing so many feelings, getting emotional support means the world. Things like asking if I’m feeling okay, giving me space to talk out my feelings or calm down, and hugs are simple ways to show me that you accept and care about my “peculiar” HSP needs.
When I have emotional support, I feel safe in all these overwhelming, confusing feelings. When I feel like I don’t, I just feel lost, scared, and alone.
6. I have a “rainforest mind.”
It was difficult as an HSP child to find common ground with my family when I was interested in deep, complex life concepts and had a very active imagination. I wanted to tell my family about the fantastical daydreams and metaphysical questions I had, the different ideas I had about a new painting, or a brilliant new novel I’d read… but to my growing disappointment, it simply felt like no one cared. Deep, intense conversations were reserved for serious but practical crises like planning finances for college. In this family dynamic, I often felt lonely and outside of the “regular” world, which caused me to disengage more and more.
7. I hate messes.
…and it’s not just a question of personal living habits or hygiene. The real reason is that for HSPs, a messy and dirty home can be like the physical manifestation of our internal anxiety. If our external world is messy, our inner world can be reflected in the same way. This can be true of non-HSPs too, but because HSPs’ nervous systems are especially adept at picking up dissonance in an environment, we need peace in our safe space at home. It’s where we recover from engaging in the outside world.
HSPs, your idiosyncrasies and low tolerance for a conventional life may make you different, and your deep sensitivity may even be scary to some. But remember: That doesn’t mean you are any less than the amazing human being that you are.