“You’re too sensitive.”
“Stop being so dramatic!”
Those words followed me around as I developed from a child to a young teenager. Why couldn’t I stop crying? Why did I get so overwhelmed at social gatherings? Why did I feel everything so intensely? Why couldn’t I be like everybody else?
Being a highly sensitive person — someone who processes information deeply and feels emotions acutely — in a not-very-sensitive world can be traumatic. Not the sharp trauma of death, but the slow and drawn out trauma of your authentic self being slowly chipped away through endless rejections and misunderstandings.
I didn’t realize that sensitivity was strength: That I was naturally creative, empathetic, and intuitive. That I was the first to notice when someone needed help and the last to judge someone for being different. All my HSP gifts were smothered in my attempts to be like everybody else, and to hide the parts of me that made me different. Instead of learning to embrace my sensitivity, I learned to lie.
I Forced Myself to Be Someone Else
I learned to go to lots of loud parties and drink lots of vodka, even though I found the lights and noise overwhelming, while the alcohol pushed my already delicate emotional system out of balance. I learned to hide in bathroom stalls when I needed to cry, then redo my makeup and walk back into the room like nothing happened. I learned to watch horror films with popcorn and pretend I enjoyed them, kept awake with nightmares for weeks afterwards with sweaty palms and a fluttery heart.
I learned to ask way too much of myself, diving into social situations at every opportunity: Brunch with the girls before class, a workout before dinner plans, and cocktails with my coworkers. I learned to keep busy all the time because if I stopped my constant race of work, gym, study, and party then I’d have to face the wounds that were forming beneath the surface.
I didn’t know I was highly sensitive — or that that was even a thing! I just knew that I was different from the people around me, and that I had to keep it hidden at all costs.
I faked my way through much of my early life, terrified of people realizing I was different and saying those same words that had haunted me as a child. I didn’t want to be emotionally inferior, too babyish to cope with the world like a proper adult could. I didn’t want to be a failure.
Living Inauthentically Manifested as Depression
For a while I thought I was depressed, so I started taking medication, which helped for a while. I told the doctor about the rising sense of panic that followed me at every step. How I lay in bed short of breath and startled at any sudden noise. Someone sneezing in the next room was enough to make me spill coffee down my shirt. He prescribed the antidepressants, which I took faithfully for the next six years in the hopes that it would fill the holes that had been gaping in my chest since birth.
Then one day, with my fingers stuck in my ears at a nightclub, I found help in an unlikely place. A young man approached me slowly, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, with the sleeves of his red checked shirt rolled up over his tattooed arms. I thought he was going to ask for my phone number, but instead he rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a pair of disposable ear plugs.
“Here,” he said, the cigarette jumping up and down in his mouth a little. “You’re probably highly sensitive — you should check it out.” It turned out the boy was a sound technician for the DJ booth and also an HSP. I took the earplugs gratefully and the world got a little bit softer.
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Embracing My HSP Helped Me Learn Honesty
What I learned about being highly sensitive helped me more than years of antidepressants and counselling ever did. Suddenly everything made sense. I wasn’t emotionally inferior — I was emotionally complex. I wasn’t broken — I was beautiful. I didn’t have to hide who I was because some people didn’t understand my different qualities.
Having spent my whole teenage life pretending to be something I wasn’t, I had to learn to be honest and authentic. To say “no” when I didn’t want to do something, to reject an invitation to a party that I knew would overwhelm me.
I learned to bring the earplugs in my backpack for hectic journeys, and avoid scary movies and violent TV shows. I learned to go easy on the caffeine and be careful with the whiskey. I learned to spend time by myself, walking in the forest and listening to the birds. I learned to recognize the signs of overstimulation and take myself into a quiet room to breathe slowly.
That’s also when I started working with horses and found my sensitivity was a strength. It was easy for me to understand the problem horses, and see how they could be supported to improve their behavior. In the evenings, I painted wildlife onto blank postcards and sent them to the ones I love.
I learned to love my quirks and laugh warmly at my differences. I learned to surround myself with the kind of people who would accept my authentic self and who would respect my emotional boundaries. Slowly, I weaned myself off antidepressants and made meditation part of my daily ritual. I found my creativity begin to flow where it had been cut off before and started writing poetry and singing in the shower.
I still feel things deeply and cry easily — after all, being highly sensitive isn’t something you can change. But I’ve learned to embrace who I am. Having learned to treasure my sensitive parts, I could never go back to denying my authentic self.
Stop Lying, Start Living
Sometimes being a highly sensitive person can feel like a lot. When people don’t understand you, it can be especially scary. The automatic reaction is often to hide your differences and protect yourself from rejection by being someone you’re not.
In the long run, you are only hurting yourself. Just like a pressure cooker needs to let off steam, if you start forcing your emotions into a deep place inside of you, they are going to force their way out eventually.
By learning about my personality trait and making small changes in my lifestyle, I found a sense of peace and self-acceptance I never thought possible before that night when a pair of earplugs changed my life. You don’t have to pretend to be something that you are not. You don’t have to lie. There’s beauty in being you — sensitivity and all.