What is a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP)? Highly Sensitive Person is a term used to describe 15-20% of the population who are born with a unique sensory processing trait that allows them to notice more subtleties in their environment, resulting in both deeper processing (thinking & feeling) and a tendency toward becoming overwhelmed by stimuli more quickly. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of high sensitivity you can start here: The Highly Sensitive Person: A Form of Neurodivergence.
Isn't Everyone Sensitive?
All of this information was plainly laid out in the book, of course, but cultural conditioning and the low self-esteem it breeds is hard to cut through. I thought that being Highly Sensitive meant that I was doing something wrong, and if I could just figure out a way to do it “right” (like seemingly everyone around me) then I could be more normal, fit in, and life would be easier.
Keeping Up with the Joneses
So, like many Highly Sensitive People do, I tried my best to be “normal”— or, mimic the lifestyle and behavior of non-HSPs. Mostly, this looked like me packing more into my daily schedule than was actually good for me—school stuff, work stuff, friend stuff, family stuff. And when I wasn’t able to do it (I canceled plans a lot), I’d feel guilty and the familiar refrain of questions would begin cycling:
“What is wrong with me?... Why don’t I have the energy everyone else does?... Why am I so antisocial?... Why does staying up too late, or drinking a few beers, throw me off so much?... Why do changes in routine feel so stressful?... Why do I hate having lots of things going on at once?... Why do I feel overwhelmed by things that other people seem to enjoy?... Why am I such a killjoy?
But now I understand that nothing is wrong with me, my physiology just requires a slower pace and prioritization of self-care. And I’ve found that as long as I keep this in mind when I make decisions about my life, I thrive. As Elaine Aron says, to ignore these realities about myself “would be like owning a Porsche, but operating it according to the owner’s manual of a Chevy Truck” (Aron, 2010)
Advocate for Yourself
Because Sensory Processing Sensitivity is an invisible difference, it’s typically not acknowledged or understood by the people we interact with on a daily basis. That makes it all the more important that we understand it ourselves, so that we can understand what our needs are and how to advocate for them. Unfortunately, the people that care about us the most are the ones that often work the hardest to get us to fit in and toughen up.
But the bottom line is: no one can thrive and bring their unique gifts into the world if they are ignoring their fundamental needs. We can’t show up for the people we love if we aren’t taking care of ourselves.
Shifting From Imitation to Authenticity
1. Work to truly understand yourself and your specific needs, which will be different for everyone.
We can’t make informed lifestyle choices if we don’t understand what we really need to thrive. What would your ideal schedule be? How much do you like to socialize? What is your ideal amount of sleep? How often do you need to eat? How does caffeine and alcohol affect you?
Listen to your body, it will answer these questions for you.
Get curious, start paying attention, and take note of what works and what doesn’t. Also, note any judgment that comes up in response to your needs—these negative attitudes toward your sensitivity have to be worked through as well.
Understanding the physiological why behind the differences between HSPs and non-HSPS, along with understanding the very real benefits of being a High Sensitive Person, can do a lot to combat feelings of shame. See the list of resources at the end for good places to start.
Work with these judgments—through a journaling practice, or therapy, something. We have to work through our cultural conditioning that says “sensitivity is weakness.” Sensitivity is not a flaw, it is simply a different, less overt, kind of strength. This work takes time, and if you can find a therapist who understands Sensory Processing Sensitivity to walk that path with you, I highly recommend it.
Start small and simple. Maybe decline an invitation to a social gathering that you would usually go to out of obligation, or ask your partner to watch the kids so you can have an hour to yourself. Most importantly, start asking yourself “What do I really want/need?”
- The Highly Sensitive Person Website
- Take the Highly Sensitive Person Self-Test
- Five Common Misconceptions About Highly Sensitive People
- Self-care for Highly Sensitive People
- The Highly Sensitive Person: A Form of Neurodivergence
- Therapy for Highly Sensitive People
- The research on High Sensitivity
Looking for an Online Therapist in Kansas?
Would you like to turn your attention inward and deepen your self-compassion? My Lawrence, Kansas counseling practice specializes in providing therapy for highly sensitive adults, therapy for self-esteem, therapy for anxiety, and therapy for codependency, and grief and bereavement counseling.
Through counseling I help people overcome shame and the fear of being their true selves. Breaking the cycles of people-pleasing and self-abandonment is possible, and I'm here to help. I offer online therapy throughout the state of Kansas.
Reach out today to schedule your free 15 minute phone consultation, I'd love to hear from you!
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