Because HSPs are people-pleasers, it’s easy to “blame” yourself for being “too sensitive.” But it’s time for that narrative to change — now.
As a 17-year-old, I wanted nothing more than to become a writer. Yet instead of pursuing it, I started Med School.
Eight years passed before I finally found my way back to writing. I carried tremendous guilt around this life – and career — detour… that is, until I learned that I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). Understanding my sensitive nature helped me make sense of some of my choices. And, as a result, I was able to let go of any guilt I’d been hanging onto. In essence, I also learned to stop blaming myself for being sensitive.
7 Ways to Stop Blaming Yourself for Being Sensitive
1. Recognize that it’s okay not to succumb to pressure.
Sitting in an examination room back in college, I had a decision to make: I could either tank the medical entrance exam and fight my way into an arts college… or I could give the test my best shot and see the pride on my family’s face.
No matter what I chose, I knew there would be challenges with either decision. The first route would disappoint my parents, but I would get to pursue my dream. If I walked the other path, my heart might sink, but I would not cause anyone else heartache. It took me over a decade to forgive myself for the choice I made — med school. We HSPs are people-pleasers, and this is a perfect example of that. I didn’t want to disappoint others, yet I ended up disappointing myself instead.
Sensitive people hate conflict, and when the pressure gets too high to bear, they tend to cave. When I looked back at the decision I made with this information, I was able to cut myself some slack. It had not been an easy decision to make. I felt like a lot was riding on me. And I chose what I thought was best, given the circumstances.
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2. Taking up space does not mean being a burden to others; it is your right.
A month later, the results of that exam were announced — and the college accepted me. A family friend came over, congratulated me, and took me on a walk. “If you’re not really keen on doing medicine, don’t,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are desperate to get in. If you accept, you’d be taking away their opportunity.”
In all fairness, when I entered the medical field, I wanted to give it a try. I figured that if my family was so sure of it, there had to be a possibility that I would fall in love with it, too. Plus, I thought I’d be able to bring my creativity into it.
In all honesty, there were parts of studying medicine that I enjoyed. For instance, I couldn’t wait to become one of the people who shared medical knowledge with the world through research and the written word.
It was only after I started interacting with patients, and seeing their suffering firsthand, that I knew I really wasn’t cut out for being a physician. Eventually, I left clinical medicine to become a full-time writer. At this point, my friend’s words began to haunt me. If only I had made this decision as a 17-year-old, I thought, someone else could have gotten to study and practice medicine in my place.
Understanding that I am an HSP helped me appreciate why her comment affected me so much. HSPs are quick to internalize criticism. On top of that, when someone suggests that what we are doing is detrimental to someone else, it makes us feel bad. Really bad. My friend’s words made me think I was “stealing” what belonged to someone else, and the HSP in me couldn’t bear the thought of wronging another person.
Thankfully, some of my other HSP traits, like deep thinking, empathy, and self-compassion, helped me through this. Seeing that I couldn’t just brush away her comment, I decided to lean into her statement and think it through carefully. I understood that she meant well, but didn’t really know how I was buckling under the pressure within. I also reminded myself that it wasn’t my intention to take anything away from anyone else. I’d meant well, too.
3. It’s alright to not “fit in,” and instead, appreciate your true (sensitive) nature.
By the time we started working with patients, I could tell that my classmates were enjoying the process more than I was. They were jumping at opportunities to work on cases and fighting for the chance to cut and stitch people up. Meanwhile, I was hiding in the corner, reading a well-worded textbook. I felt guilty that I was not a “good” doctor like the rest of my class.
Years later, the remorse shifted when I had an eye-opening conversation with an older couple. They, like many others, wanted to know why I left such a lucrative job behind. I didn’t know the term HSP then, so I explained how I felt: “I have this visceral reaction whenever I witness blood, injuries, or people in pain. I feel I’m so empathetic, it’s as if some of their pain is transferred onto me. It hurts me.” They then asked me why I didn’t just “get over” that feeling. I thought for a while and admitted that I actually didn’t want to.
I liked being observant, intuitive, and sensitive. I liked that when people were hurting, I could empathize. I loved the connectedness and camaraderie I felt. “Getting over” that would be changing who I inherently was. I did not want to do that.
So I chose to be myself. I later realized that much of what I loved about myself were aspects of being a highly sensitive person. I stopped blaming myself for not fitting in and began savoring my individuality.
4. Remember that some things take time, like finding your true purpose in life.
Some people who knew that I wanted to be a writer, and follow my true purpose, asked me why I didn’t quit medicine sooner. And let me tell you, training to be a doctor was difficult — the long shifts, sleepless nights, unpredictable schedules, and skipped meals affected me physically. On top of which, the need to perform under pressure, and witnessing (and sometimes inflicting) pain, took a significant toll on my mental health. I felt guilty thinking that, by not continuing in the field, I would not be helping others. I felt as though I’d be a “bad” person for stopping.
I let go of guilt, and stopped blaming myself for feeling this way, once I understood that my HSP nature might have had something to do with why I stayed put for so long. Highly sensitive souls often feel responsible for others and tend to be very loyal. I stayed in medicine for as long as I did because I didn’t want to break a promise I made: when I joined med school, I agreed to work at a rural hospital for two years. From a batch of 60 students, I would be the only doctor to join that hospital’s team. I felt that if I’d quit halfway, the hospital (and its patients) would be at a loss.
I stayed in medicine, and studied as hard as I could, in order to fulfill my obligation. Yes, I was thinking of others first. And this may not have been a good thing. But, as an HSP, breaking a promise seemed worse.
5. Think of yourself first instead of society at large and what others will think.
Ironically, I also blamed myself for not thinking of the larger good. When I completed my two-year obligation to that hospital, I decided that I would neither go back to clinical medicine nor do the exam to become a postgraduate student. People around me had a lot to say about this. The gist of their opinions was that, by quitting, I was letting all the patients in India who needed doctors suffer. All the patients! (Can you imagine the pressure?!) But I knew I needed to put myself, and my happiness, above anyone else’s.
Some of my mentors helped me change my false narrative. They helped me notice how, even as a writer, the themes I am drawn to and write about are related to suffering and healing. My work aims to help people heal, too, both physically and mentally. When I write, sharing my knowledge with the world, I am, in a way, working as a doctor. It’s just that the field of medicine that I am working in — the dissemination of medical understanding — is not yet fully developed in India.
So, as an HSP, I often think about the bigger picture, and I’m pulled to do work that helps others. I have embraced my desire to help others, along with the awareness that I don’t do it the same way others do.
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6. Nothing you’ve done is a waste of time — everything is a learning experience.
Switching from being a physician to becoming a full-time writer felt like going back to square one. I was 26 years old when I made the switch, but my intel on the literary field was based on what I had gathered at 17. I felt I was ill-equipped (and far behind) my writing peers. This led me to feeling guilty over having spent almost a decade away from writing. Of course, I blamed myself…
However, as I started writing, I noticed that things I had observed and experienced as a medical student — and later as a doctor — found their way into my stories, essays, and books. I realize now that no experience is wasted, especially for us HSPs. Because of my sensitivity, I paid attention to detail, noticed my surroundings, and engaged in deep conversations with people to help them find, and address, their worries. All this proved to be invaluable in my career as a writer. I now think of my time in medicine as a research expedition.
7. Accept, and embrace, any negative emotions that may come up.
I also used to blame myself for any negative emotions that would come up, like anger, sadness, and, interestingly, guilt. I felt that even though I had a difficult time finding my way in a profession I did not enjoy, I had “no right” to feel negative emotions because I had things that many others didn’t have. I had a loving family, great education, and all my basic needs were met. How could I complain, let alone be angry, upset, or ashamed?
I also had a misconception that if I was really an HSP, I should only have gentle, benevolent thoughts toward others. Right?
Learning more about what it means to be a sensitive person helped. HSP or not, as humans, we all are bound to feel some negative emotions. For HSPs, those emotions — and the thoughts that go with them — can get quite intense. Aware of this, I decided that rather than tell myself that I should not have those emotions, I’d channel my feelings into my craft. This has been cathartic and has resulted in some beautiful, raw poetry and prose.
The More You Understand Your Sensitivity, the More You’ll Stop Blaming Yourself for Being ‘Too’ Sensitive
Understanding that I’m an HSP has helped me shed much of the self-blame. As HSPs, looking at the events of our lives can bring up feelings of remorse. Of course, sometimes we feel guilty because we made a mistake or hurt someone. If that’s the case, apologizing to the people we hurt, and forgiving ourselves for our faults, would do us good in the long run.
However, I’ve realized — both through my experience and the conversations I’ve had with others — that much of the guilt and self-blame we bear doesn’t mirror nasty behavior on our part. We often feel guilty about the way we innately are or about the benign choices that we make. We need not apologize for these. In fact, we will greatly benefit from accepting, and embracing, them — and ourselves — instead.
You might like:
- 8 Ways to Really Embrace Being a Highly Sensitive Person
- Why Highly Sensitive People Tend to Be People-Pleasers — and How to Stop
- How to (Actually) Find Your Purpose as a Highly Sensitive Person
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