Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are caring, empathic, and kind, but we can also struggle because of our sensitivity. In a world where all too many people shame us for being “too sensitive,” it’s vital we HSPs teach ourselves to recognize and overcome these pitfalls, and as a result, learn to thrive.
Here are four pitfalls that HSPs can stumble into, plus four ways to defeat them — and harness the peace and inner strength we are meant to bring to the world. Not every HSP will experience all of them, but they are common for those who tend to process and experience the world on a deeper level than others.
Pitfalls of Being a Highly Sensitive Person
1. Taking on intense emotions (that just won’t quit)
Like all humans, HSPs have emotions — and we really feel them. Whether we are sad, angry, happy, or anything in between, our emotions can take over our entire experience. Maybe we saw a sad commercial on TV, had a heated conversation with a loved one, or received less-than-positive feedback at work. We are highly receptive to others’ emotions, too, and can take them on as our own.
No matter what caused the emotion, containing it or dialing it down can sometimes feel impossible. After all, all human brains have a negativity bias, which means unpleasant news and emotions cling to us the strongest. And, as shown in studies like these, HSPs tend to experience negative emotions even more strongly than others. This can make us more prone to stress, anxiety, or depression. Our intense emotions can start to feel like an ocean we can’t swim out of.
How to defeat this pitfall:
First of all, PSA: There is no reason for HSPs to feel shame about having big emotions. It’s a trait that makes us incredibly empathetic and connected to ourselves and others; it also helps us in creative work. In other words, dear HSPs, your emotions are not your enemy — nor are they your master.
Working through hard emotions begins with acceptance. Accept that you feel strongly, and that your reaction to those feelings is real and valid. You can do this by saying out loud (or writing down), “I am feeling [name the emotion].”
Then, try to trace that emotion back to where it started. Negative emotions are born from automatic negative thoughts (or ANTs) — which can come quickly and without us even realizing — and lead to sadness, fear, or anxiety. It’s easy to feel that emotion and allow it to spiral, but much harder to identify where it came from.
So, think about what you were doing and thinking before the strong emotion came. Maybe you compared yourself to someone else, someone gave you a funny look, you watched or read something sad, or spent time with a friend who was deeply upset.
Once you know where your emotions started, challenge the negative thought(s) you had and ask yourself for a more positive — but realistic — thought to replace them. Many negative thoughts are irrational or overblown, so we can protect our sensitive natures by reframing them.
We can also recognize that all emotions pass with time, and we can use our sensitive natures to learn from them. When a strong emotion comes up, take some deep breaths and allow yourself to feel it, without judging, as if you’re watching it happen. Ask what you can learn from these feelings and what you might need at this moment.
2. Taking things “too personally”
Many HSPs are all-too-familiar with phrases like:
- “Stop taking things so personally!”
- “Why are you so sensitive?”
- “It’s not that bad — get over it.”
What people don’t realize is this is the natural result of the heightened nervous system we were born with. We pick up on the smallest changes in someone’s face, tone of voice, or texting style — and our minds may take them as a personal attack.
It can also come from a place of caring. As HSPs, we tend to want to please everyone around us. Since we pick up strong emotions from others, we don’t like to see (or rather feel) anyone hurting or upset. This can make us think everything that feels “off” is major, but it rarely is. And, in many cases, it doesn’t even involve us.
For example, I can spend a lot of time worrying someone is mad at me if they don’t use emojis or exclamation points in a text or email. My brain creates entire scenarios around what I did or said “wrong.” In reality, the person on the other end is usually just busy and sending a quick message.
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How to defeat this pitfall:
The first thing I tell myself when I find myself taking something personally is, “It’s not about you.” This is not to undervalue my self-importance but to remind myself that everyone is focused on their own inner world. If someone is short in their communication or seems upset when they talk to me, 99 percent of the time it turns out the person is dealing with their own problems that have nothing to do with me.
We don’t need to carry the world on our shoulders. We can be kind and caring, but we aren’t responsible for other people’s feelings — that energy is better spent on caring for our own needs.
Speaking of which…
3. System overload
An HSP’s nervous system processes all external stimuli to a much greater extent than other people. We also tend to have a very active inner world, thinking deeply about what happens around us. When everything is more “turned up,” it’s easy to become overwhelmed quickly — especially if we compare ourselves to non-HSPs.
And this kind of overwhelm can come in on multiple fronts — from emotional flooding, “overthinking” things again and again, and plain ol’ overstimulation from too much input. This is the natural cost of having a sensitive mind and system, but the pitfall happens when we don’t see it coming and take care of ourselves in advance.
Thankfully, being sensitive to how we feel and what we’re thinking also makes us amazing at recognizing when we need to take a step back and focus on self-care.
How to defeat this pitfall:
It will look different for everyone, so get familiar with what overwhelm looks like for you. It could mean you’re:
- More irritable or emotional than usual
- Feeling fatigued or exhausted by little things
- In a brain fog, having trouble thinking or communicating clearly
- Experiencing physical symptoms, such as nausea, a migraine, dizziness, or even pain
Now ask yourself: What does the first sign of those things look like? Do you get tension in your shoulders before you get a migraine? Do you start to procrastinate when you’re about to enter a brain fog?
This is going to be your cue from now on to do a little emergency self-care. That means having a couple of go-to things that you know can help you feel less overloaded. One of those things should definitely be removing something from your to-do list, because nothing solves overload like being, well, less overloaded.
Other options: taking 30 minutes to do something that relaxes you, taking a break in your HSP sanctuary, setting a healthy boundary, or journaling about what has you most stressed. (You can find other suggestions here.) The key is using these things at the first sign of overload, not waiting to completely crash.
4. Isolating ourselves from others
HSPs tend to need a lot of alone time. We can be introverts or extroverts, but since the world around us is often overwhelming, being alone in a non-chaotic environment gives us that pause we need to avoid overstimulation. It also allows us to be with our thoughts and process how we are thinking and feeling — which can be very healthy.
But that alone time can become a challenge if we isolate ourselves too much from the outside world. Too often, we use isolation as a defense mechanism to avoid potential conflict, stress, or a too-loud world. That’s when alone time stops being healthy and becomes a defense mechanism.
As an HSP, I see this firsthand. I love spending time with my thoughts, but too much of it can cause me to feel “trapped” in my mind and begin to obsess about small problems. We are human, after all, and humans need some connection to thrive. Our relationships and mental health may suffer over time if we become too isolated.
How to defeat this pitfall:
I think it can help HSPs to look at social connection as a crucial piece of their self-care puzzle — but one that they may not need as often (or in the same way) as other people. Think of small ways you can fit human connection into your week, such as a coffee date or movie with a close friend. Texting or social media can count too, as long as they don’t cause you stress or anxiety.
It can help to spend time with other people who are also HSPs. My goal is to have a couple of close friends who are fine with meeting up for a few hours before we go our separate ways. That way, none of us feel overwhelmed by social interaction but are able to catch up on each others’ lives and discuss topics that are important to us.
Sensitive souls, we can’t afford to let these potential pitfalls drag us down. We can have more peace and joy in our lives. We can feel confident showing our sensitivity to an often overwhelming world. We can take charge of any pitfalls that come with being highly sensitive, and we can learn that they don’t define us.
What pitfalls would you add to this list? And how do you deal with them? Let me know in the comments.