How to Survive and Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person: An Interview with Phil LaDuke of Medium
PL: Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
SM: I like to keep my career interesting and varied, dividing my time between writing, collaborating, speaking, and treating psychotherapy clients in my private practice. I love to read, learn, follow my curiosity, and share what I discover. I am a huge believer that with simple, ongoing small shifts in habit we can all create lives that light us up. I am a wife and mom to two kids, ages eight and eighteen.
PL: Can you help define for our readers what is meant by a Highly Sensitive Person? Does it simply mean that feelings are easily hurt or offended?
SM: The Highly Sensitive Person (or Sensory Processing Sensitivity) is an inborn trait affecting fifteen to twenty percent of the adult population. As with all traits, sensitivity exists on a continuum. Easily hurt feelings are just one aspect of many. Because the brains of HSPs process and reflect on their internal and external worlds more deeply, they are also more easily overwhelmed and overstimulated. They tend to observe before acting, preferring to analyze their experiences more profoundly. HSPs are also creative, conscientious, and notice details others may not. According to research, about seventy percent of HSPs are introverts, which means that, counter-intuitively, a full thirty percent of HSPs are extroverts.
PL: Does a Highly Sensitive Person have a higher degree of empathy towards others? Is a Highly Sensitive Person offended by hurtful remarks made about other people?
SM: Yes and often. HSPs have a strong sense of empathy and emotional reaction, which leads to the high level of sensitivity — emotionally, mentally, physically, and behaviorally. Because they empathize so strongly with others, they also experience others’ pain and hurt more acutely as well. HSPs can definitely feel offended on others’ behalf.
PL: Does a Highly Sensitive Person have greater difficulty with certain parts of popular culture, entertainment or news, that depict emotional or physical pain? Can you explain or give a story?
SM: Whereas many non-HSPs might watch a film and imagine how the characters feel, HSPs strongly experience in their own bodies how they imagine the characters feel, negatively or positively. The upside is that HSPs experience happiness, joy, and awe more keenly. The downside, of course, is their acute personal unpleasant experience of the observed physical and emotional pain as well.
PL: Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
SM: Sarah, a recent college grad, has been in therapy to treat feelings of anxiety for the past year. Identifying her HSP nature with the help of her therapist, Sarah learned to intentionally establish and protect self-care habits designed to recharge her over-extended batteries. Recognizing how vital this is to her well-being and ability to cope with life on a daily basis as an HSP, Sarah meditated, took long outdoor runs, and read copiously, spending plenty of time in solo pursuits.
That is, until a few months ago, when Sam came along. Sara was introduced to Sam at a colleague’s party, where, connecting instantly, they stole off to a quiet corner to discuss their shared love of music, books, and the outdoors. From that moment on, the two were nearly inseparable. Before long, though, Sarah started to feel irritable when too much together-time elapsed, and found herself craving increasingly more solo time.
At first, Sam became offended when Sarah grew quiet, wanted to be alone, or yearned to flee a party just as it was getting started. Sarah struggled with how to ask for what she needed, finding it difficult, even for herself, to reconcile her need for time alone with her deepening, smitten feelings for Sam.
Sarah’s therapist urged her to share her experience as an HSP with Sam — how it affects her thoughts, emotions, and behaviors — allowing Sam to better understand and respect their differences. Instead of personalizing Sarah’s solo cravings, Sam learned to encourage her to attend to her own needs, including regularly spending time alone.
Had Sarah not been as self-aware and openly communicative with Sam, her need to recharge would have likely lead to an eventual rift between the two. Though partners without HSP qualities may not completely understand the inner life of their beloved HSP, they can, with a dose of healthy communication, be educated and adapt to the needs of their partner, both living happily ever after — together. (And Sam and Sarah are still going strong.)
PL: When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
SM: A trait rises above the societal norm when it impacts one’s functioning at work, home, or life in general. By the time HSPs recognize their sensitivity for what it is, they will often have been told many times throughout their lives that they are “too sensitive.” One’s barometer of sensitivity also depends upon culture, upbringing, and how sensitivity has been framed by influential figures over their lifetime.
When a person’s sensitivity continues to negatively impact their personal or professional life, it may be time to seek guidance with a therapist — not so much to train the sensitivity out of them, but to learn how to adapt and cope in a world not always conducive to the challenges of an HSP.
PL: I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
SM: HSPs are more intuitive, caring, empathetic, and, therefore, driven to act on others’ behalf. They are imaginative, creative, and deep-thinkers. HSPs are also keenly observant, sense nuanced emotions and voice intonations, and are adept at reading non-verbals. (That is, what is not said, but is communicated through body language, by others.)
PL: Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
SM: At the end of the workday, Tara, an HSP psychotherapist, was heading out to pick up her kids from school. As her office phone began to ring, she briefly considered letting the call go to voice mail, but spontaneously answered instead. On the other end, a man inquired about an upcoming class she was hosting. Tara felt herself quietly sigh, regretting her impulsivity. I could have returned the call in the morning, she thought. Now she would be late for her kids.
Ready to wrap up the call, something subtle in the man’s voice made Tara pause, sit up straight in her chair, and keep talking. She would later recount that nothing about his words themselves conveyed distress; it was the deeply sad intonation in his voice that alerted her.
After a few minutes of gentle probing, the young man admitted that he was, in fact, feeling actively suicidal. Tara, compassionately coaching him along the way, remained on the phone until he made his way to the ER and was admitted for treatment, her highly perceptive skills quite likely saving his life. Sobered by the encounter, Tara realized just how invaluable her ability to tune into the emotions of others could be. Upon reaching her children and describing the precarious situation, her tardiness was quickly forgiven.
PL: There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
SM: Regardless of whether we are simply empathic or highly sensitive, problems arise when we don’t intentionally set healthy boundaries. Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries means that we can easily distinguish between our own and others’ thoughts and emotions. We recognize that we can’t fix someone else — that though we might guide and support them, they need to do the work themselves. Sometimes this entails accepting that the other person might remain stuck in their own unhealthy patterns.
Though HSPs are strongly pulled to help those in need, they may need to be reminded that they cannot single-handedly save the entire world and all of its inhabitants. Not everything can be solved and not everyone wants to be fixed. Choosing to help in clearly defined ways while also attending to self-care is an HSP’s best bet for preventing burnout.
PL: Social Media can often be casually callous. How does Social Media affect a Highly Sensitive Person? How can a Highly Sensitive Person utilize the benefits of social media without being pulled down by it?
SM: This applies not only to HSPs, but to all of us!
Keep in mind most people are only sharing the positive highlight reel of their lives. Everyone struggles sometimes.
When you recognize a pang of envy, reflect on what it is that tugs at you. More purpose in your life? Social connections? Adventure? Healthy lifestyle? What is one small change you can make toward that aspiration?
Stop comparing. Or, rather, when you notice you are comparing yourself to others, offer yourself a bit of compassion, then return your attention to your own life and what it is you are actually in control of.
Use social media in small doses. Pay attention to how you feel after you have spent time with it. Sad? Envious? Deflated? Demoralized? If so, take note, and adjust accordingly. Using a timer for a short daily check-in or periodic social media fasts can help.
PL: How would you advise your patient to respond if something they hear or see bothers or affects them, but others comment that that are being petty or that it is minor?
SM: First of all, your experience is your experience. It is not for anyone else to minimize or invalidate. Simply because someone else perceives it differently, does not make your perception any less relevant or real. Honor that and own it.
Choose your battles. Just because you feel hurt does not mean it is necessarily worth confronting. Instead, there may be times you choose to notice, name the experience, offer yourself compassion, and then let it pass. Note that this is not the same as condoning or allowing unfair treatment, but rather intentionally deciding when it is worth your energy and time to address it.
Use “I feel statements” to convey your internal world. I feel hurt when you talk to me that way. It feels like you are angry at me when you use that tone. I felt overwhelmed and exhausted when we were at that crowded event. Assertively communicate your perception.
Get an outside perspective. Share the situation with a trusted friend or therapist who can objectively assess your experience and offer alternative perspectives when appropriate.
PL: What strategies do you recommend to your patients to overcome the challenges that come with being overly sensitive without changing their caring and empathetic nature?
SM: Practice mindfulness.
One can learn to feel fully, and be triggered by, outside stimuli and not react. This approach is different than stuffing down feelings or pretending they don’t exist. A healthy way to cope is to recognize, name, allow (not resist or fight against), and then choose how to respond. Only then do we shift out of reactivity mode. In this brief pause, we can question the story we are telling ourselves about the situation and assess its validity, severity, and need for action.
Find a therapist who honors your HSP qualities and can help you leverage those attendant superpowers.
Practice self-care religiously.
Educate your loved ones about what it’s like to be an HSP.
PL: What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
SM: That HSPs are deliberately dramatic.
Sensitivity is an innate trait. HSPs take in and process stimuli more intensely, therefore their experiences are just as real and accurate as they are for non-HSPs.
That they will never change.
The good news is that highly sensitive types can kindly train themselves to shift more toward the center of the sensitivity continuum, learning to utilize some of the positive HSP attributes such as empathy, intuition, and conscientiousness as superpowers, while shifting their mindset to minimize the detrimental ones.
That being an HSP is negative.
As we have seen, there are plenty of admirable HSP traits.
PL: As you know, one of the challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person is the harmful, and dismissive sentiment of “why can’t you just stop being so sensitive?” What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that it just doesn’t work that way?
SM: Articles like this are a great start! We need to educate the public about HSPs, not only so they can better understand, but also to increase tolerance and appreciation for all of our differences, experiences, and reactions. Qualities considered deficits can almost always be reframed as strengths, if we are willing to be open-minded and curious.
PL: Can you share with us your “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person? Please give a story or an example for each.
Know thyself. Self-awareness is powerful and the key to managing life as an HSP. Start a daily meditation practice to boost awareness of your thoughts, body sensations, emotions, and behaviors. Only then can you seriously enhance your ability to self-regulate.
Honor your gifts. What are the upsides to those HSP traits that have been previously viewed (by you or others) as negative? What are the benefits and positive side effects of high sensitivity? How can you harness those as your superpower?
Educate those around you. Share this article with them. Let them know what it feels like to be you.
Put your gifts to use. What calls to you? You may need to reign in your desire to save the world, but by all means choose a cause that speaks to you, dive in, and get started.
Practice self-care. Meditation, exercise, solo time, healthy boundaries. Consult a therapist if you are struggling.
PL: You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
SM: I love bringing mindful empowerment to people so they can step off the hamster wheel of busyness, play bigger, and unleash their superpowers on the world. I believe that when we access a bit of calm in our lives, we open up the capacity for great accomplishments and contributions to the greater good. The world needs us!
*Reprinted with permission from Medium.com