Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person feels emotions deeply

Why It’s Both a Blessing and a Curse to Feel Everything So Deeply

It’s prom night for my 17-year-old son. He walks out in his tuxedo, his beautiful date following, taffeta dress swishing behind. They gather for pictures at a weathered bridge overlooking a babbling brook. I am simply there to view this spectacle, to capture the moment on camera. Looking through the lens, I’m transported into the body of my teenage son. I feel the pulse of his heart, the heat in his cheeks as he looks into his first love’s eyes. 

With a tinge of hurt as I click away, I also see the forced restraint in his posture, the apologetic look he gives me as he checks his watch, eager to end this moment for the coming magical events of the night. He doesn’t want to hurt me, yet I feel the beautiful bitter pain of a son leaving me step by patent-leathered step.

This ability to feel emotions so deeply — both one’s own feelings, and even those of others — is a core part of what it means to be a highly sensitive person (HSP). It can bring palaces of pleasure one moment, volcanoes the next.

Here’s why HSPs like me feel things so deeply, why it’s both a blessing and a curse, and how you can use this ability without getting overwhelmed. 

This is life as a highly sensitive person. Everything is heightened — the smells, the images, even the words of a particular moment in time.

Why Do HSPs Feel Everything So Deeply?  

In a Psychology Today post, Marwa Azab, Ph.D., explains the traits of a highly sensitive person and the biology behind their actions:

“An HSP’s brain is wired differently and the nervous system is highly sensitive with a lower threshold for action. This hyper-excitability contributes to increased emotional reactivity, a lower threshold for sensory information, and an increased awareness of subtleties.” 

In other words: everything hits us harder. From emotions to the environment around us. 

These traits can make life difficult for HSPs. Like a merry-go-round that doesn’t stop, the highly sensitive person’s emotions can struggle to reach equilibrium. 

The result? A dizzied rider who is physically and emotionally drained, and a sensitive soul in desperate need of a moment’s peace.

Which is why it’s so important for HSPs to be able to see their ability as a “blessing” as well as “curse” — and learn to draw on that blessing when needed. 


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3 ‘Blessings’ and ‘Curses’ of Feeling Things Deeply

1. When times are good, we ride on a rainbow of sensory happiness.

As an English teacher and aficionado of literature and fine liquors, I have a fascination with absinthe. Invented by Pierre Ordinaire, a doctor who discovered that distilled wormwood had healing effects, the drink known as the “green fairy” lured in many artists for its supposed heightening of sensory perception. One doctor describes the feeling that absinthe facilitates as “all sensations are perceived by all senses at once.” He compares the sensation to “breathing sounds and hearing colors.” 

This is life as a highly sensitive person. Everything is heightened — the smells, the images, even the words of a particular moment in time. 

In summer, for example, we soak in nature’s beauty like few others can: the fragrant smell of honeysuckle, the caressing breeze, the delicious heat of the sun. Each experience is magnified by the HSP’s acute internalizing of external stimuli, adding emotional color to moments that others see only in black and white. 

But it works both ways. In the grip of life’s metaphorical winters, the keen ability to feel can be as harsh as a freezing wind.

To find peace, an HSP must carefully tuck away the beautiful moments as a buffer against the uglier ones. When I find myself enjoying and savoring a beautiful experience, I try to take a moment to “memorize” the feeling. It’s funny how simply reflecting back on those warm moments can quickly soften my mood during harder times. 

2. We can appreciate the arts in a way that few others can.

In his book, No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton writes that “art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” This is especially true for HSPs, who tend to be creative and greatly value beauty around them.

Each chord in a musical composition, each stroke of an artist’s paintbrush, each perfectly chosen word speaks to us profoundly. Some of my greatest accomplishments are linked to this connection to the arts. Anytime I’ve had the courage to leap into the unknown or make a difficult change, it always started with being touched by a poem or piece of literature. 

For example, at age 46, I find myself fighting a mid-life crisis. With so many responsibilities, there are times I want to throw in the towel on my own self-advancement. Enter Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” In the poem, Thomas begs his father to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” This line speaks to me, moving me to keep fighting to achieve my goals.

But art also exposes the pain and suffering in the world. Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo “Struggling Girl” (*warning: very hard to look at*) tells an important story, but the cruelty it depicts sears my soul. It did the same for Carter himself, and ultimately led to the end of his own life (*warning: also very hard to read*). The image itself is one that occasionally conjures itself unbidden in my mind when the darker nature of the world has me in its grasp. Perhaps Carter was a highly sensitive soul himself, and the truth of his art spoke too loudly to his heart. This ability to internalize artwork can be both joyous and devastating.

To counteract this struggle, the HSP should heed the words of Nietzche, who states that “[one] must have chaos within [one] to give birth to a dancing star.” Only by feeling the brutal truths of life can you work to create change, to turn the artistry of this world into a canvas filled with more joy than heartbreak.

3. We may struggle with reason in the tight-fisted grip of our senses.

In The Great Pearl of Wisdom, Bangambiki Habyarimana says that “reason is the gatekeeper, but it cannot resist the rushing torrents of emotion.” As highly sensitive people, our “gates” can get scarred from sensory input and emotional overload. All too often, when we find ourselves in an emotionally stimulating environment, we have a very hard time controlling our reactions. Instead of thinking it through, we may react intuitively and spontaneously. 

Take speaking in front of a group of people. We HSPs feel each rustle of breeze as we wait to speak, we hear the murmured conversations echoing in the background and the scratching sound of the polyester we’re wearing. Our nervousness and fears can drown out all reason and ultimately affect our performance. In extreme cases, an HSP may be the one who simply leaves rather than “soldiering on” and giving the talk anyway.

It can also endanger relationships. In a romantic relationship, we may panic at the first sign that a partner isn’t as interested in us as we are in them, or start imagining someone else during a perfectly normal phase of monotony (yes, every relationship goes through these phases!). In our careers, likewise, a sudden emotional decision could cause us to burn a bridge rather than finding a graceful way to exit a job. 

There’s no way to stop feeling these emotions, but it’s possible to slow down rather than acting on them. Often, a highly sensitive person simply needs to step back and disconnect from the feelings of the moment before making a decision. You don’t have to deny what you’re feeling (nor should you), but I find it helpful to simply pause, breathe, and take time. Emotions tend to pass as mysteriously as they arrive, and the same decision may look very different when you’re in calmer waters.

And remember, even if we’re illogical at times, it’s also a gift we can enjoy. We can plunge into a pool fully clothed. We can blurt out a dirty joke. Heck, who needs logic? To HSPs, the world needs love and laughter more than straight-laced sobriety; the world needs to feel good, and we are more than ready to rock the boat to lighten a heart’s heavy load.  

Lifting the ‘Curse’

A highly sensitive person’s existence will always be a rollercoaster ride. Or, as Jane Eyre puts it:

“The vehemence of emotion, stirred by grief and love within me, was claiming mastery, and struggling for full sway; and asserting a right to predominate: to overcome, to live, rise, and reign at last; yes, — and to speak.” 

HSPs, we must learn to listen to our senses and gently guide them with the voice of reason. If we can manage that, the “curse” starts to disappear. The world becomes a magical place where heart and mind work together to make life the masterpiece it was meant to be.

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