Highly Sensitive Refuge
a flower represents the sensitive nature of a highly sensitive person

Why This Highly Sensitive Person Has No Desire to ‘Toughen Up’

I only recently learned that being a highly sensitive person is actually a thing. But even before I knew the term for it, I was aware from a very young age that I was different from most other people and quite sensitive.

Things seemed to affect me much more deeply than they did the people around me. Any little feeling — from pain to joy — hit me hard, and I did everything I could to shield myself from things I knew would hurt. But I couldn’t. I grew up in a family that knew the harsh realities of the world and wanted me to be prepared for them.

At the age of six, my mother placed me in a karate class so I could learn self-defense, and I did that for six years until I moved on to other sports. In general, it was a lot of fun, and as a six year old, it was quite different from anything else other kids my age were doing.

But there were times when the class and what was expected of me clashed disastrously with my sensitivity. For one, the adults were constantly complaining about my lack of aggression. I could never bring myself to attack anyone, even for a simulation, and my defense skills were weak. Unlike the other kids, I didn’t seem to have whatever it took to tap into that violent, survivalist side of myself. So I distinctly remember the teachers saying things along the lines of:

“You’ll never make it if you really get attacked.”

“You need to toughen up.”

“You’re not aggressive enough.”

‘You’re Not Aggressive Enough’

I can’t tell you how many times I heard that criticism. When I couldn’t respond to a simulated attack with as much aggression as the other kids, I was seen as a failure.

In addition, part of our homework after self-defense class was to go home and watch TV shows like America’s Most Wanted. Our instructor wanted us to know how violent people could be and what we might be up against one day. That might seem a little extreme, but my karate instructor was a woman who’d been attacked by an intruder and badly injured. Learning self-defense and teaching it to others became her passion, and she wanted to prepare her students for the worst.

Cruelty is only “the way it is” if you just accept it without question and move on. That’s how it becomes the way it is — because you’ve done nothing to make it stop.

I’m not sure if the other students in the class took the “watch true crime shows” assignment seriously, but my family sure did. They agreed with the instructor’s “you need to know the harsh realities of the world” sentiment.

Honestly, it was very rough for me. I couldn’t stand the descriptions of violent crimes or the horrible things complete strangers would do to others. (It turns out getting very bothered by violence or cruelty is a common problem for highly sensitive people.) I knew by now that these things happened sometimes, but I didn’t think I needed all the details.

I Felt Every Little Thing So Deeply

There were many other facets of life that rubbed harshly against my sensitivity. Being an introvert, I was a quiet child in school, which often led to me being scolded by teachers for not participating. This made me feel ashamed and embarrassed, which were both things I felt very deeply as an HSP.

I cried a lot as a child over one thing or another, but I learned to wait and do so in private. Most of the adults around me were not sympathetic to my strong feelings and only made things worse. I heard things like:

“You need to suck it up.”

“You’re just crying for attention.”

“Other children have it worse than you.”

But I wasn’t crying for attention. As an introvert, I hated attention. And I wasn’t crying because I didn’t get my way or just because I could.

I was crying because I felt every little thing so deeply, and I had no healthy way of processing or understanding my emotions. I felt ashamed and weak for being sensitive, and I didn’t know what to do.

Why I Don’t Want to ‘Toughen Up’

Of course, as an adult, my sensitivity is still very much a part of me. It hasn’t ever gone away, and I don’t expect it will. I still have to shield myself from “little” things that other people breeze through (like violent TV shows), and certain things still cause a very strong emotional reaction in me.

The difference in me today, though, is that I am fine with that. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to “toughen up.”

Everyone knows that the world can be a hard, cruel place. Bad things happen, and we often don’t treat each other with as much compassion and understanding as we should.

These are the reasons that people usually give for why I should be tougher. It’s as if they’re saying, “You’re going to have to face that, and you’ll never survive it the way you are. You need to develop a thicker skin.”

Ironically, though, those are also the reasons I give for wanting to stay like I am. With all the nastiness around, I want to remain something good.

I don’t want the world to be one big karate class. The truth is, I want to keep on being unable to stand the world’s cruelty, because as soon as I develop a thicker skin and can withstand more, that means I will start to accept it. And accepting it means it won’t change.

No One Should ‘Get Used to It’

Of course, there are times when it’s healthy for us HSPs to manage our emotional reactions, set boundaries, and stop taking on emotional baggage that’s not ours to carry. That’s not what I’m saying. My biggest frustration is the person who just shrugs and says, “That’s the way it is. Get used to it.”

I don’t believe that. This is only “the way it is” if you just accept it without question and move on. That’s how it becomes the way it is, because you’ve done nothing to make it stop.

I know that one person can’t wipe out all the bad things in the world, but I also know that good deeds are contagious.

Whenever someone witnesses another person doing something kind and completely selfless, just because they want to, it inspires people to pass it on. That’s all you have to do.

My high sensitivity is like a pair of goggles. It allows me to see things that need to change. I can’t just turn a blind eye to pain and suffering and pass by as if I’ve noticed nothing. As a highly sensitive person, I’m simply not wired that way.

So, developing a thicker skin and a tougher persona has never worked for me, and it probably never will. I don’t think it will do the world any good if I start blending in as another uncaring bystander. I want to keep being the person who speaks out, shares my emotions, and lets others know when something is not okay.

And if you’re a highly sensitive person, I hope you will, too.

A version of this post originally appeared on Introvert, Dear.

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