The first step in reaching your potential as a highly sensitive person is accepting that you are one — from there, you’ll embrace it rather than shun it.
Growing up, I remember my father — a joyful, highly social man — playing with me all the time, making me laugh but also being very confused by my behavior. He couldn’t understand why I wasn’t as talkative or loud as other kids. He was concerned I was perfectly content playing by myself. He’d be unnerved that I was the only girl who wouldn’t fight for a turn on the slide, and instead, waited for it to be offered to me (which never happened). My shyness, my lack of multiple friends, and my sensitivity to loud sounds (and sensitivity in general) — it was all a puzzle to him.
Of course, I was a highly sensitive person (HSP), yet didn’t know it at the time.
With my father, the one thing that would make him go from funny-dad mode to full grumpy-dad mode was to see me crying. Why? That was the million-dollar question from my parents: There never seemed to be a “good enough” reason for my tears. Not to them anyway.
Him raising his voice at me, a petty argument between my parents, being picked on by a classmate — situations like these were all it took for me to become emotionally overwhelmed.
“Why are you crying?” was one of the phrases I heard most growing up. This would make my father go into full-on lecture mode: “The world is going to eat you up alive if they see you cry,” “No one is hurting you, stop,” “You look weak; kids and people are going to target you,” and so on. Suffice it to say, hearing things like this didn’t make me embrace my sensitivity.
Learning More About Being a Highly Sensitive Person
Fast forward to 13 years later: I’m a young adult who’s been to therapy, which is important for HSPs, by the way, and has a much better understanding of herself. I learn that it’s okay to feel things more than most, to absorb others’ emotions as though they’re my own, and to cry at a moment’s notice. I also learn that the way I’m so in tune with all the little things around me is part of my sensitivity, from appreciating lyrics in a song to the beauty of a tree I walk by. And, as a result of my self-discovery, I’ve been able to share what I’ve learned with others, like my dad.
Case in point, I’m talking to him in the kitchen one day. He is remembering my grandfather, who passed away a few years prior. “It’s okay to feel bad, Dad,” I tell him. “Right. Yes, I know,” he says, sighing and looking at the stove. “Seriously, I mean it,” I say. I place my hand on his back and continue, “You don’t have to hold it in. It’s okay. You can cry.”
Little by little, he ends up sobbing on my shoulder.
Over the years, my father has become a lot more informed about emotions, mental health, and highly sensitive people. If he sees me crying for whatever reason now, he’ll offer me a hug and be in fun-dad mode to cheer me up instead of making me feel bad for my tears.
Fighting My Sensitivity vs. Embracing It
Although it took many years for my father and I to go from point A to point B, he confessed along the way that he was worried sick that I was “overly sensitive.” He was certain people would take advantage of me since not everyone in the world is kind or understands sensitivity. Since he was raised the “tough love way” — and he believed that made him strong to face the world — he thought he could toughen me up and protect me that way. He genuinely believed he was taking care of me, not hindering me.
I understand where he was coming from now. However, for the longest time, I believed those “tough love” words: “weak,” “weird,” “fragile,” “boring,” and “lonely” were all adjectives I made part of my identity. I thought I was deeply flawed, broken even.
As a result, I faked and hid many parts of my personality to fit in. I taught myself to pretend I was bored instead of anxious, tired instead of sad. I’d even prepare conversation topics beforehand so that I could keep conversations going even when I wanted them to end. I desperately tried to desensitize myself, repressing tears and intense emotions and turning them into something “tougher,” like anger. Of course, this emotional buffering didn’t benefit me — I’d still have the weight of all the emotional layers I kept under wraps, and they were stronger than ever.
I thought it would always have to be that way, that I’d have to survive in the world in spite of those “flaws” — and in spite of my emotions and myself.
So, after reading many books and having countless hours of therapy, can you guess who became a child psychologist and now helps children make sense of their feelings and emotions? Yep, I did. I constantly strive to help them find gentler, more genuine and supportive ways to feel understood.
If I could travel back in time, I’d tell myself that every person has a place, and there isn’t just one path, there could be many! If you are an HSP, you’re very needed by this society, even if some people don’t know it (even those closest to you!). The truth of the matter is, a lot of people will recognize the deep and unique perspectives you possess. That said, here are five ways to reach your potential as a highly sensitive person.
5 Ways to Reach Your Potential as a Highly Sensitive Person
1. Be open to new experiences.
If you’re anything like me, you may find yourself mentally picturing an experience to decide if it’ll be worth the social or sensory input or stress. Even when you think you know all there is to know about what you’re considering doing (going to the gym, taking a class, etc.), it isn’t the same as being there. Not to mention, you could meet some like-minded people.
In my life, I thought I’d never want to work with children. I found them annoying, cliché, and simply not for me, even while getting my bachelor’s degree in psychology! In Mexico, things work a bit differently, and it wasn’t until I was required to have supervisory professional experience with children that I realized — in spite of knowing the theory and the procedures — it wasn’t the same as actually being there. I was very surprised when I found myself enjoying it, especially when I thought it was the last thing I’d do with my life. It turns out that highly sensitive people are well-suited to working with kids. Who knew?
2. Reconnect with an activity you used to enjoy as a child.
Our hectic lives can lead us to only do things we consider productive. And, as an HSP, you may find new ways to help you cope with your emotional regulation and expression. But if you ask yourself “why” you enjoyed a certain activity or task, you may find that it was, indeed, emotionally fulfilling.
For instance, many children enjoy playing video games for hours on end, not only because it’s fun, but because of all the control they have in doing so. They feel powerful, strong, and safe. As a child, I used to play with my dolls, making up all kinds of stories because I felt free to create whatever I’d wanted. When you think about it, this isn’t much different from my life now when I make visual effects videos or write stories to express myself.
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3. Learn to sit with your feelings and accept them.
As much as I love the idea of intentionally changing my own perspective to detect blessings in disguise or to identify as someone “strong,” there are times I certainly don’t feel that way. Self-love also means self-honesty, and if you need to cry, talk, or sit with those feelings to better understand and process them, you’re doing your mental health a huge favor. Repressing your emotions and feelings isn’t the answer, for they help you evaluate relationships and areas of your life that you may need to change or improve.
Highly sensitive or not, acknowledging that having negative thoughts is part of the human condition — and it doesn’t automatically turn you into a negative person — will cut you some slack and lead to valuable insight.
4. Remember: Even though not everyone will “get” your sensitivity, plenty of people will.
“The irony about loneliness is we all feel it at the same time.” The poet Rupi Kaur wrote this powerful line, and I remind myself of it constantly. So many of us feel the need to hide the vulnerable, sensitive, or “weird” parts of ourselves — when, deep down, so many of us want to share it.
This is a silly example, but I joined TikTok for fun. My videos barely got views — or led to followers — but I still did them for myself. However, once I started truly being myself and discovered the fun of inserting myself in movies, showing my poor, self-taught VFX skills, and sharing the embarrassing little scenarios in my head that I thought no one but myself would be interested in, I slowly made it to 7000 followers. It was refreshing finding out that what I thought was a simplistic, nerdy sense of humor (that even my closest friends don’t share) was actually enjoyed by a lot more people.
5. Give good therapists a chance.
Before studying psychology, I saw a couple of therapists as a teenager. As much as I loved being listened to, back then, I found them useless. I couldn’t understand why some of them made me do drawings and other activities, while others only gave me basic suggestions, like taking a walk if I wasn’t feeling well.
It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d learn there are different approaches to psychotherapy, and I had to find the one that fit me best. Not only that, but I had to make sure I was choosing a good therapist — good for me. It wasn’t until I explored gestalt therapy — wherein you focus on the present vs. the present’s link to the past — that I felt truly seen and understood for the first time in therapy. Even though some HSPs may think going to therapy is a nightmare, oftentimes, it’s just about finding the right therapist for you.
Don’t forget, your sensitivity is here to make a difference, to create a kinder, more nurturing world. Ironically, it could be that those who shamed us for our softness (think of my dad) weren’t allowed to express it either and couldn’t find it in anyone when they needed it the most. Remember: Your uniqueness is your awesomeness; your sensitivity, a synonym of hope and joy.
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