How to Speak to Loved Ones About Being Highly Sensitive

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I scored 27 out of 27 on the HSP test. My dad scored a 3. 

If you’re highly sensitive, being in a family of less-sensitive people can leave you feeling like you are losing your mind. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) feel the world around them deeply, require more alone time than others, and can easily become overwhelmed in crowded, noisy situations. For family members who don’t experience life that way, it can be extra hard for you to feel understood. 

Once you have finally discovered and embraced the trait, you may well feel a rush of excitement to share it with your family and finally help them understand. Some families will totally identify with what you are saying and immediately get on board, making time to do further research and actively trying to modify their behavior to accommodate your needs. 

But others may not give you the initial reaction you had hoped for. This can lead to feelings of isolation and rejection, a recurring theme for HSPs all over the world. 

We can’t control how other people react to us revealing that we are HSP, but we can take steps to approach the conversation in a way that facilitates mutual understanding. Here are five tips to help you begin this important conversation with your loved ones. 

5 Ways to Talk to Family About Being an HSP

1. Take it in stages. 

As excited as you are to finally have your family understand your differences, all the new information can be hard for them to process if you attempt to tackle it all at once. If your loved ones have never heard of the term “highly sensitive person” before, it can be helpful to share the information with them in stages rather than one long blast. 

You could start off by sharing the Highly Sensitive Person Scale, a 27-point test (streamline version found here) you can take to determine if you are an HSP, or read through the signs of an HSP together. Tell them what signs specifically align with your experience, and ask if they can find out if they identify with any themselves. This will really help bolster mutual understanding as you can verbalize the fundamental differences that impact how you interact with the world around you. 

After doing this exercise with my Dad, our relationship became a lot easier. I scored “full marks” of 27 on the HSP Scale, whereas he came out with a score of 3. Now, when we start to approach a disagreement one of us can laugh and say “27” or “3,” reminding one another that we aren’t in conflict with one another, just different. 

By sharing the occasional article or video about HSPs with your loved ones and explaining that it resonated, you can slowly establish “HSP” in your family’s vocabulary and create a base from which you can continue to build on. 

2. Defer to the experts. 

Trying to explain your personality trait to your loved ones can be overwhelming. It can be difficult to know where to start and how to avoid slipping into old patterns of feeling like  you have to justify your existence. 

Sometimes, deferring to the experts can be helpful. Dr. Elaine Aron, who first proved the existence of the HSP trait, had to study and work for many years in order to perfect her theory. You could try giving your partner or parents her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, asking them to read it and encouraging them to ask you any questions that arise.

Or you can point them in the direction of this very site, Highly Sensitive Refuge, and highlight a handful of articles that really spoke to you about your identity and experiences. The more research they can do on their end to help understand being highly sensitive, the better.  

3. Try not to get too personal 

Whenever we talk about something that matters to us, it’s easy to come across as accusatory. This is accentuated by the fact that human beings are really bad at listening! As much as we try to hear one another, we are often hearing what we assume the person is going to say or what we think the person is hiding between their words, rather than deeply listening to the message they are trying to get across.  

This is totally normal and human, and HSPs and non-HSPs alike can be guilty of this. With that in mind, it’s important to keep the tone respectful and maintain safety throughout the conversation by trying to avoid judgment. 

For example, you could open the conversation by saying: There’s something I’d like to talk to you about to help us understand one another even better, would that be okay?

By choosing this non-accusatory question to open the conversation, you are removing any personal element that might come with a sentence like, I want you to understand me better. Keeping it neutral, rather than personal, helps support your listener to really engage with what you are saying without feeling threatened or attacked. A sense of respect and security is essential in order to establish a loving and nurturing conversation. 

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4. Write it down.

Having decided to talk to your loved ones about HSP, your brain is probably overflowing with ideas and concerns about how to broach the subject: Will they understand me? Will they think I’m being an attention seeker? Will they reject me? 

One way to help you organize your thoughts is to write down what you are feeling. The process is not only therapeutic in and of itself, but it may be useful for those who find it difficult to articulate their feelings without being overwhelmed by emotions. For some people, writing a short letter or email to their family members explaining the trait may be easier and more productive than talking in person, especially if your relationships have a tendency toward conflict. 

When writing it all down, we can take time to make sure our words are loving and non-confrontational, whilst still expressing what we want to say. 

Why not start out with: Hey Mum. I wanted to send you a few links to a personality trait that I discovered and see what you think. I feel like this could be very relevant to our relationship and help us to be even more supportive of one another. Could you please check it out and share your thoughts?

If you have a relationship with an established history of safe discussion about your emotions, you could try a more personal letter. Try to keep your message positive rather than accusing your family of not understanding, as this will be easier for them to receive and process. 

5. Practice self-acceptance

Although being understood and accepted by those around us feels extremely important, it is far more important that we understand and accept ourselves. Remember that being highly sensitive isn’t an illness, but rather a personality trait with many wonderful strengths. 

You don’t need anyone else to approve of you in order to be worthy. You were born being everything that you need to be! Unfortunately, some people will not accept us — ever. This isn’t because we are flawed, but for the very strengths that make us shine so brightly. We cannot teach other people to be more understanding, but we can teach ourselves to be more resilient to this lack of understanding. 

One way to find this self-acceptance is to realize that you are not alone! You can join the Highly Sensitive Refuge support group on Facebook, where you will find yourself among thousands of like-minded people who are rooting for you. Once you realize that you are not crazy and your feelings are valid, getting the understanding of every person in your life becomes less important. 

I hope that you find a way to speak about being an HSP with your loved ones. Whatever happens, remember that you are a wonderful person, worthy of all the love and happiness in the world!

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A version of this article has been published on Highly Sensitive Nomad.
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