We’re told our whole lives there’s something wrong with us for being “sensitive.” So how do you learn to love yourself?
According to the David Bowie song Nature Boy, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” But what happens when we don’t love ourselves to begin with?
Oftentimes, it is easier to love everyone else than it is to love ourselves. After all, most of us are taught — encouraged, even — to do the opposite. Society endeavors to make us believe that we are not good enough, whether it be our physical appearance, intelligence, or personality. In some way or another, we will fall short of the ideals set in place for us. And when we don’t measure up, our insecurities are preyed upon.
This seems to be even worse for those of us who are highly sensitive people (HSPs). Indeed, as a psychotherapist, I have witnessed many of my HSP clients struggle with loving themselves. These negative messages that we receive — compounded by our sensitive nature and coupled with the unique struggles we face as HSPs — can make the prospect of loving yourself as an HSP into a difficult endeavor. Let’s get into why this is the case.
Why It’s So Hard for HSPs to Love Themselves
There are six main reasons why HSPs struggle to love themselves:
1. There’s a stigma around being sensitive.
When looking at traits that society tends to value, sensitivity is not only absent from that list, but it is considered to be a negative trait. While society celebrates traits like stoicism, impermeability, and being thick-skinned, sensitivity is equated to weakness.
Being called “sensitive” is to essentially be told, “There’s something wrong with you — change.” After all, how many times have you been told that you’re “too sensitive”? When such a core trait of ours is not just absent from being celebrated, but demonized all together, it’s hard to not take this personally. As a result, it’s easy to start to believe such misconceptions about the trait of sensitivity — and of ourselves as a whole.
We even might start telling ourselves that we’re “too sensitive,” try to repress our sensitivity, believe that our sensitivity makes us fragile, or internalize these shaming messages.
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2. Fewer than 1 in 3 people are HSPs, and we’re often misunderstood.
HSPs are estimated to make up only 30 percent of the overall population. In other words, HSPs are the minority.
Since our experience is not going to be the typical one, this means that we are likely to be misunderstood by others along the way. Chances are, this applies to not only to casual acquaintances, like classmates or coworkers, but also to close others, like family and friends.
This means that the people who are supposed to understand us, well, may not. As a result, we often receive messages that invalidate our experience, such as being told that we are “too emotional.” For instance, I became vegetarian at a young age because I love animals so much. Being the sole vegetarian, however, meant that I was the target for teasing. When I confided to my friend how upset this made me feel, instead of understanding my emotional experience, she told me I was “overreacting” and to essentially “just get over it.”
This only made me feel worse. Not only did I feel alone due to being made fun of, I also felt misunderstood and believed there was something “wrong” with me simply for feeling the pain of the teasing so deeply.
3. You are often compared to your less-sensitive counterparts.
We live in a world that simply was not designed with us sensitive ones in mind. Indeed, this is why HSPs are so prone to overstimulation and overwhelm. From busy back-to-back schedules to large crowds of people (and their energy) to the bright lights and loud noises that invade our senses, the world often feels like “too much” for HSPs.
Yet, since much of what overstimulates us falls into either the “normal, everyday life” or “fun” category for most, it can be all too easy to fall into that trap of comparing ourselves to our less-sensitive counterparts, those who seem to navigate such aspects of life so easily.
This often leads to self-blame and feelings of inadequacy. Why do I struggle with something that everyone else in my life can handle so easily?
For example, during my high school days, while all my friends eagerly awaited our school dances, dancing the night away, I just as eagerly waited for the dance to end, eyeing the clock in order to will it to move faster in order to get away from the overstimulating noises, lights, and crowd. I couldn’t help but compare myself to my friends, who looked so effortless on the dance floor. I negatively judged myself, believing there was something inherently “wrong” with me for not enjoying myself like I was “supposed to.”
4. The sting of rejection hits HSPs harder.
Although no one actually likes rejection, there are some people out there who seem to let rejection roll right off of them like it’s no big deal. However, for many HSPs, we have the opposite experience — for us, criticism and rejection often feel like a stab to the heart.
This is likely due to what researchers refer to as rejection sensitivity dysphoria, in which rejection is anxiously anticipated, easily perceived, and elicits a strong emotional response. At the time of writing this, rejection sensitivity dysphoria has only been studied in the context of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), not environmental sensitivity, which is the current scientific term for our trait.
Yet HSPs’ high levels of emotion make rejection something that we can’t help but take personally. It becomes all too easy to internalize this rejection, interpreting it to mean that there is something inherently the matter with us, making it all the more difficult for us to love ourselves.
5. HSPs are more likely to be negatively impacted by negative experiences.
With environmental sensitivity, our entire experience is heightened, both with the good and the bad. Research, too, indicates that being an HSP makes one more vulnerable to experiencing depression and anxiety, both of which are strongly associated with low self-worth. It has also been found that certain factors, such as lack of adequate parental care, further exacerbate this risk.
Furthermore, it is believed that sensitivity interacts with environmental factors in a way that strongly contributes to our mental health, including difficulty loving ourselves. Therefore, all the negative events you have experienced manifests as internalized shame, contributing to low self-worth.
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6. HSPs fall into the trap of people-pleasing and emotional contagion.
The experience of close others in our lives greatly impacts us as HSPs. Indeed, our sensitive nature entails high levels of empathy. While this can be our strength, when not taken care of properly, this same empathy can lead to people-pleasing tendencies.
This becomes problematic because we then place our worth not in who we are, but rather, in our ability to make others happy. And when our self-worth is in the hands of others, this is a recipe for disaster. When we (inevitably) fall short, this is interpreted as us not measuring up, and therefore, not being good enough. When we define our worth in what we can do for others, this results in feelings of shame whenever we mess up, making it seemingly impossible to love ourselves.
HSPs’ high levels of empathy can also lead to emotional contagion, in which we soak up the emotions of others like a sponge. Not only is feeling others’ difficult emotions draining, if we are unable to distinguish which of those emotions are our own vs. which are from others, we risk taking on sadness, anger, guilt, and shame that does not belong to us. Being emotionally flooded so often with these difficult emotions makes it more difficult for us to accept — and love — ourselves.
How HSPs Can Start to Love Themselves More
Loving yourself, especially as an HSP, can feel like a daunting task. However, that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible one. Indeed, I have witnessed many of my HSP clients learn to love themselves. Here are some suggestions.
1. Start with self-compassion, which will lead to self-love.
While self-love is a great goal to have, it takes time. Especially for those with very low self-worth, it will feel difficult to climb out of that and perceive yourself positively. That’s why I recommend starting with self-compassion.
Because self-compassion is how you treat yourself, unlike self-love, you don’t need to believe anything in particular about yourself in order to engage in it. Simply start by treating yourself like you would a friend, whether that’s speaking to yourself in a kind tone of voice or writing yourself a heartfelt letter.
2. Educate yourself on being a highly sensitive person.
The cliché that “knowledge is power” applies here. Learning about the trait of high sensitivity can help you not only be more informed about this aspect of your personality, but also feel more empowered in who you are. Knowing that your sensitivity is biologically-rooted, for example, may help you give yourself permission to be sensitive instead of trying to change this fundamental aspect about yourself.
3. Keep a “nice” list.
Just as rejection and criticism can be poisonous to HSPs, words of validation can be medicine to our souls. So it can be extremely helpful to keep a list of all of the compliments and kind words other people have given you. This can be particularly helpful to return to when you are in a negative headspace in order to counteract some of the more toxic messages.
4. Describe your personal heroes — the more detail, the better.
Who are your personal heroes? And what do you admire about them? Do you appreciate a family member’s kindness? Your friend’s ability to support you without judgment? Martin Luther King, Jr.’s empathy and passion for making the world a better place? Emily Dickenson’s creative abilities?
Chances are, what you admire in your heroes are also personal values of yours. And these values — like kindness, compassion, and creativity — are common traits among HSPs. Notice how you align with, and are similar to, your heroes!
5. Work with a therapist since mental health is key.
Because self-love is a daunting task, it is not uncommon to need the help of a professional. Working with an HSP-knowledgeable therapist can help you challenge, and relearn, some of the more deeply-rooted beliefs you hold about yourself that are keeping you from being able to fully accept, and love, yourself for who you are. And you deserve that, to say the least!
You might like:
- Before I Realized I Was an HSP, I Hid My Sensitivity for Decades. Here’s How I ‘Coped’
- This Is How It Feels to Be Emotionally ‘Flooded’
- Why Highly Sensitive People Tend to Be People-Pleasers — and How to Stop
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