I have always considered myself to be a very sensitive person—something I have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, sensitivity is a requirement for the work I do. Even outside of my career, this quality allows me to connect deeply with people, feel compassion and sympathy, and (hopefully) help others feel included and supported.
On the other hand, sensitivity has given me a certain amount of grief throughout my life. It has felt like an obstacle in my previous career as a journalist, my former years as a competitive dancer, and in my relationships with others. Even my mum tells me that disciplining me as a child didn’t take much; she simply had to look at me the wrong way and I’d burst into tears, knowing exactly what I'd done wrong and that I'd never do it again.
Today’s post is dedicated to all of my fellow sensitive friends out there who have gone through similar struggles so we can continue to live authentically, yet in a way that keeps us protected.
First Thing’s First: What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
In recent years, American psychologist Elaine Aron coined the term ‘highly sensitive person,’ which gained quite a bit of buzz. There are three main domains in which a person can experience heightened sensitivity, including (1):
Sensitivity about oneself:
Having trouble letting go of negative thoughts or emotions
Feeling physical symptoms when something unpleasant happens during the day (i.e. tension headaches, sleeplessness, loss of appetite)
Beating yourself up after falling short of your expectations
Feeling anger or resentment about situations that seem unjust
Sensitivity about others:
Often worrying about what others are thinking
Taking things personally
Experiencing difficulty “letting things go”
Feeling hurt easily
Having a hard time accepting constructive criticism
Feeling as though others are judgmental even if there isn’t much evidence to suggest this,
Having strong reactions to real or perceived provocations
Feeling worried about a partner’s approval in romantic relationships or feeling unreasonably afraid that your partner is going to judge or reject you
Sensitivity about one’s environment:
Feeling uncomfortable in large public crowds or in situations where too many things are occurring simultaneously
Feeling uncomfortable when exposed to bright lights, loud sounds, or certain strong scents
Feeling upset when reading/watching the news
Regularly feeling unhappy when following people’s posts on social media
As is the case with other mental health disorders, high sensitivity is partially considered to be a personality trait that you’re born with. The attachment you experienced with your caregivers can also be relevant, as can traumatic experiences you may have had in childhood.
That said, as Elaine Aron writes, “The hypothesis of ‘I am just born highly sensitive’ has a dangerous side. It can mean someone does not take the time to look at other contributing factors that can actually be effectively treated.”
What You Can Do About It
1. Identify the contexts in which you primarily experience heightened sensitivity.
Although your sensitivity might be provoked in a number of situations, it’s likely that there are a few domains in which it's particularly present. For me, it’s usually in close relationships. I might be minorly affected by people I don’t know very well, but if a loved one says something in a certain tone my mind starts scrambling.
It’s important to have this awareness for yourself so you can learn how to cope accordingly. The skill of depersonalization from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been a huge help for me. CBT is a model of therapy that says our interpretations of events cause emotions, not the events themselves. For example, if my friend was late for lunch and interpreted that as, “They don’t care about me,” I’d feel upset. If I thought to myself, “Perfect, I have some extra time to finish that work email I’ve been stressing about,” I’d feel fine.
Personalization is a flawed interpretation that involves thinking that what others say and do is some sort of direct, personal reaction to you. Depersonalization, then, is basically about reminding yourself that it’s not all about you. I distinctly remember being 22 and hearing my therapist at the time saying, “You are not the centre of the universe” and I’ve never felt more relieved to hear such beautifully harsh words in my life.
2. Put on your armour.
I like to describe being highly sensitive as being “spongey”; you go through life absorbing everything and everyone’s energy around you, slowly feeling weighed down by all of it. The antidote to this involves wearing some armour, which is basically a synonym for having boundaries.
Boundaries can be exemplified by: your stuff<—//—> my stuff. Setting emotional boundaries involves sometimes reminding yourself “it’s not my problem” or “it’s not all about me.” Most sensitive people think this sounds pretty harsh, but I think owning a tiny bit of harshness is actually a helpful skill if you’re sensitive.
I also like to help people experience boundaries in a physical sense in therapy by helping them visualize what their boundary looks like and how they feel when they’re surrounded by it. My personal boundary is a wall of plexiglass that surrounds me and every time something difficult comes my way, I imagine it splatting against the plexiglass like a water balloon. The important thing is to help your physical body viscerally feel what it’s like to be behind your boundary. This is your armour.
3. Set yourself up for success.
If you’re a highly sensitive person who frequently feels overwhelmed by other people, the environment, or your own mind, make sure that you’re taking care of your physical health. A sensitive person who hasn’t gotten enough sleep or isn’t eating properly is a recipe for disaster. Create (and stick to) some sort of routine, practice proper sleep hygiene, get at least 7 hours of sleep per night, and try to keep alcohol, caffeine, and recreational drug use to a minimum. Nutritional counselling can also help you learn what foods, supplements, and eating habits can help stabilize your mood.
4. Make down time a serious priority.
Being sensitive to the energies of other people can simply tire out the brain and body. Whenever I spend too much time with anyone, regardless of how much I love them or how close we are, I will inevitably burn out and even start feeling cranky. I’ve learned that it’s essential that I get enough solo time where I don’t have to worry about anything but myself. In such moments, I love painting, reading, sitting or walking outside, and other activities that involve getting away from my phone, people, and other stimuli. This is also why I don't mind a commute after a long day of listening to others as it allows me to decompress and have quiet time. Being alone can be a crucial part of self-care for sensitive people.
5. Have some appreciation for the up-side of sensitivity.
I’ve spent many years feeling embarrassed and ashamed of my sensitivity, which is something I’ve heard other sensitive people say. I think a lot of this comes from living in a society that values competitiveness, productivity, and more. I can’t recall ever hearing a single societal message about the importance of being sensitive, which has caused me to feel like this is something I should learn to mask or overcome rather than value. But I think it’s important for us sensitive people to own this part of ourselves too and have some gratitude towards it. After all, I think it’s part of our charm. And as a therapist, I must say that there’s something refreshing about the moments where people are just raw and honest about their feelings. They don’t rely on defensiveness, criticism, or blame when they feel hurt; they just admit that they’re hurt. How pure and genuine is that?
6. Learn emotion regulation skills.
Emotion regulation refers to the ways that we can influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express our feelings (2). Mainly, it’s about knowing how to take care of yourself when an overwhelming emotion arises.
One of the most important parts of emotion regulation is self-awareness. When you know where and when you’re likely to experience certain emotions—and how they tend to affect you or play out—you can learn strategies to cope in a healthier way. Working one-on-one with a therapist can help you learn such strategies, including: self-compassion, mindfulness, somatic-based tools, and more.
The Bottom Line
I know from experience how challenging it sometimes is to be sensitive in today’s world. While sensitivity is partly a personality trait, the good news is that there’s a lot we can do to influence the degree to which it affects us. Gaining awareness about what stirs up your sensitivity, putting on your “armour,” developing a solid self-care routine that incorporates alone time, and allowing yourself to be grateful for this part of you are all helpful places to start.
If you're also someone who has dealt with sensitivity, let me know how you've learned to cope in the comments below!
(1) Adapted from author Preston Ni
(2) Adapted from Gross et al., 1998.