Many highly sensitive people struggle to understand and accept this part of themselves. They tend to undervalue the positive aspects of this sensitivity and instead keep wishing to be less emotional, less reactive, less hurt. Learning to understand and embrace your highly sensitive self is the key to emotional freedom. When we befriend this part of who we are, we can feel so much better about ourselves, our relationships, and our world.
Understanding the Highly Sensitive Person
We must first understand the common qualities of the highly sensitive person. We often assume that everyone thinks or feels the way we do. So it’s important to understand that all of these qualities run on a continuum. Each person experiences sensitivities in different ways and to different degrees. In fact, you may find these traits vary within you on different days or when under different stress levels.
Sensitive to Oneself:
- Highly aware to physical changes in the body such as muscle tension, poor sleep, stomach upset, or headaches.
- Difficulty letting go of negative thoughts or feelings.
- Being easily moved by beauty and joy as well as ugliness and hurt.
- Tendency to be your own worst critic, ruminating on your personal flaws or perceived failures.
- Passionate feelings about events in the world that seem wrong, unjust, or simply annoying.
Sensitive to Others:
- Attempting to read others’ emotions, anticipate their needs, and feeling responsible to manage these.
- Worries about what others are thinking about you and tendency to take things personally, even when not intended this way.
- Negatively compares self to others.
- Tendency to feel judged, rejected, criticized, or offended by others.
- Tries to hide emotions for fear of being vulnerable or seen as “too sensitive.”
Sensitive to the Environment:
- Feels uncomfortable with loud noises, bright lights, pungent smells, or strong flavors.
- Irritated and distracted by physical sensations such as too hot, too cold, tight clothing, or scratchy fabrics.
- Overwhelmed in large crowds or when a lot is happening simultaneously.
- Need for downtime to get grounded, relax, and reset.
- Highly upset when watching the news or disturbing tv shows and movies.
- Startles easily to loud noises or being surprised.
Embracing the Highly Sensitive Person
In order to begin embracing the highly sensitive qualities in ourselves, we must recognize all the positive aspects this brings. Highly sensitive people have wonderful traits that create an enriching life, improve the lives of others, and benefit the world. Learning to appreciate these strengths is the first step to befriending our sensitivities.
Benefits of the Highly Sensitive Person:
- Ability to feel deeply and experience the full range of emotions more intensely, including joy.
- Great capacity for empathy and compassion which allows others to feel safe and understood.
- Highly responsive caregivers who excel in roles that involve nurturing others.
- Generous givers who often volunteer and work passionately for social causes.
- Ability to pick up knowledge and skills more intuitively, utilizing those attuned senses.
- Awareness to details and subtleties that others may miss.
- Excel at tasks that require accuracy, speed, and noticing minor differences.
- Ability to focus and process ideas and material deeply, synthesizing information and allowing opportunities for creative problem solving.
- Highly conscientious and considerate of others.
- Capacity for creativity and artistic expressions.
Building Emotional Tolerance:
Once you’ve begun celebrating your strengths, you can then learn to ride the waves of emotions without fear of drowning. This means building emotional tolerance. We must learn to recognize our experiences and practice sitting with these sensations without judging them. Feelings do not need to be given a valence of either “good” or “bad.” All feelings are normal and important. Our sensitivity helps us gather information and understand the world.
When we allow ourselves to curiously notice our feelings, we can more thoughtfully process and safely express them. We no longer need to immediately dismiss, numb, or avoid them. We no longer need to brace ourselves and try to resist the sensations or make them go away. We also don’t need to immediately explode and vent our feelings all over those closest to us.
First, notice what you’re feeling and give it a name. “I’m feeling hurt.” “I’m worried.” “I’m getting overwhelmed.” Next, allow yourself to notice how this emotion presents in your body. Tune into how your body may tense up with a feeling. Then shift your focus to acceptance. Remind yourself that this feeling may have a message for you. Let yourself honor your own experience. You can tolerate this feeling without needing to react immediately or getting overcome by it.
You might imagine riding a wave of feeling in a way that is more relaxed, accepting. You don’t need to enjoy this feeling, you only need to allow space for it. Every feeling does not require a reaction. Accepting and owning the feeling is meaningful work. And often the feeling passes more quickly when we stop resisting it and simply accept it as part of who we are. Feelings change. Each emotion is temporary.
Challenging Unhelpful Thoughts:
Finally, you may need to challenge some of unhelpful you’ve learned from growing up as a highly sensitive person in this world. Over the years, you may have had experiences of becoming emotionally expressive and crying in inappropriate situations. You may have been told that you are “too sensitive” or “weak.” As you learn to appreciate the positive aspects of being a highly sensitive person and tolerate the waves of feelings as they roll through you, you’ll find yourself more comfortable in your own skin. Using helpful thoughts like, “Being highly sensitive is both a gift and a responsibility,” or “It takes great strength to be emotionally vulnerable,” can help dispel the stigma you may carry about yourself.
You can also challenge your own assumptions that others are often judging or rejecting you. Feeling rejected does not mean someone intended to reject you. Remind yourself, “I’m highly sensitive to feeling rejected and may be incorrectly assuming the worst.” When you recognize your triggers and blind spots, you allow opportunities to correct these assumptions and feel better in relationships. Assertive communication and honesty can build bridges and reduce suffering.
Highly sensitive people often get a lot out of going to therapy. Therapy allows you to explore your emotions safely and develop healthy ways of tolerating and expressing them. It’s also an opportunity to explore assumptions you make about being criticized or rejected and develop healthy communication strategies to work through these experiences in your life.
Learning to embrace yourself with your highly sensitive qualities will allow you to move through the world with greater authenticity and grace. You can relish in the beautiful benefits of your sensitivity without getting stuck in the unhelpful resistance to feelings.
Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in additional articles about mental health, postpartum issues, wellness, relationships, and parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling a consultation with Dr. Smith, please reach out via the contact page or call 216-870-9816.