Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person in therapy

Why Therapy Can Be a Nightmare for HSPs (But Doesn’t Have to Be)

Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders are realities for many highly sensitive people (HSPs) that we may come to accept as the norm. While seeking out professional help is a huge and necessary accomplishment, the initial experience of therapy can actually be traumatic and terrifying — especially if you’re highly sensitive.

It took several months of pleas from my desperate loved ones for me to see a specialist. For me, the very act of acknowledging that I needed help was difficult and scary. I was fine, I told myself. This was just a rough patch. A rough month. A rough year.

I’d get through it.

A lot of people have this reaction when they first consider therapy. But for highly sensitive people, it can be even harder to actually make that appointment, because we might see reaching out for help as a personal failure, a threat to everything we know about ourselves.

More than that, we fear judgement when we finally do open up, thanks to the criticism we’ve heard time and time again: “Stop being so sensitive.”

My psychiatrist diagnosed me with severe depression and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder within ten minutes. Although there was some relief in knowing this wasn’t something I’d have to deal with alone, it was also exhausting and draining to open up to a complete stranger — and shatter my facade of perfection, of “I’m fine.”

More weight crept onto my shoulders when she recommended that I set up a weekly appointment with a psychologist. That meant I’d have to go through the emotional process of “coming clean” and admitting my failures all over again — every week!

I wasn’t looking forward to it.

At First, Therapy Was Everything I Was Afraid It Would Be

The psychologist I found seemed perfect on paper. She described herself as empathetic, gentle, and compassionate.

But I should have known from our first meeting that we were a bad match.

Throughout my life as an HSP, I’ve become an expert at hiding my flaws for fear of criticism and judgment — even from myself. What I needed in therapy was somebody who would work hard to earn my trust and encourage me to share the parts of myself that I was so accustomed to hiding. Someone who would help me vocalize my fears, emotions, and deep-seated anxieties about never being good enough.

Instead, therapy appointments became yet another space for me to indulge my insecurity by criticizing myself. My psychologist told me I was “living my life wrong” and “needed to re-learn how to be human.” When I did vocalize some of my fears and feelings, she told me I was just “being silly” and I should “stop being so emotional.” She gave me mindfulness exercises to do at home, and gradually started postponing my appointments until I was seeing her once every two weeks, then once a month, then… not at all.

I felt completely invalidated. And if you’re a highly sensitive person, you know just how damaging that can be.

Ultimately, my therapy experience made me feel as though I’d been “faking it” the whole time. It was so easy for me to convince myself, once again, that I was entirely fine. I carried on with life, did my mindfulness exercises, and told myself I felt “whole” again.

If I had a “bad” day, where my emotions threatened to overwhelm me, I’d channel it into my work and try to ignore it. I was back to a life of pretending, of faking smiles and lying awake at night repeating the mantra that nothing was wrong with me.

Perhaps it was my fault for not explaining what I needed from her. But how was I supposed to know what method of therapy would work best for me?

Yes, There Is Such a Thing as HSP-Friendly Therapy

If you’re highly sensitive and you’ve had a bad therapy experience, you need to know:

This isn’t normal.

There are better options out there for you.

It’s only thanks to a different, brilliant psychiatrist that I was able to see that therapy is not supposed to be a quick solve, not sticking a band-aid of “mindfulness practice” on a problem that can be personality-deep. There are no quick solves when it comes to mental health.

(And to be clear, high sensitivity itself is not a problem — but for some HSPs, it comes hand-in-hand with anxiety or other conditions.)

She explained that, yes, my depression and coping mechanisms were “all in my head,” but that didn’t mean they weren’t real. “Your brain is still an organ,” she said, “and it acts like a muscle. We have to treat mental pain just like we would any other injury: sometimes with medication, but always with patience, care, and rehabilitation.”

In other words, therapy is supposed to be restorative, not destructive.

And when you find the right therapist, that’s exactly how it works.

How to Find a Therapist Who Understands Your Sensitivity

Although my first therapist left a bad taste in my mouth, I knew it was important not to abandon the process of mental healing. For an HSP, therapy is hard. Talking about your vulnerabilities is terrifying — even more so with a complete stranger (especially if you have a history of being judged as “too sensitive”).

Here are three steps you can take to find a therapist who is right for you — and to make the process of therapy itself easier:

1. Focus on the positive feelings therapy can offer.

Sure, opening up is tough. But it can also be incredibly freeing to know that you don’t have to bear the heavy weight of your fears and emotions alone. It helps to remind yourself of this — especially if you catch your inner voice talking negatively about the possibility of therapy.

2. Know what an HSP-friendly therapist looks like — and trust your HSP instincts.

We HSPs need somebody determined to earn our trust, patient enough to let us share at our own speed, and passionate about helping us navigate the labyrinth of a mental illness. We need somebody empathetic. Somebody who creates a safe space for us to express ourselves without letting us become too comfortable in our unhappiness.

As HSPs, we have a powerful ability to “feel out” people quickly. Use that ability when you first talk to a potential therapist (and trust it!).

3. Let your therapist know what’s working for you.

Therapists aren’t perfect, and chances are they’ll get a few things wrong from time to time. When something doesn’t feel quite right, we HSPs tend to blame ourselves. But it’s important to recognize this feeling and talk about it.

The easiest way to resolve this is to tell your therapist which of their techniques are helping you and which are harming you. A good therapist will be prepared to work with you to find the most comfortable way of approaching your mental illness and managing your stress.

(You can also find HSP-supportive therapists near you worldwide using this helpful index.)

The right therapist is out there. And if you, like me, feel disheartened by negative experiences, please keep searching. You deserve happiness and mental wellbeing. The journey will be hard, but you are worth it.

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