I am a highly sensitive person.
And I come from a long line of highly sensitive people.
Until recently, none of us knew we were HSPs.
We were called shy, or picky, or difficult. Too sensitive, overly emotional, even antisocial.
All we knew was that things bothered us that no one else even noticed. Like strong smells. Or violent shows. Or an energy that felt “off.”
It felt like there was something wrong with us. Like we weren’t “made right.”
So what did we do?
We withdrew from the world.
My father withdrew into his work. My grandmother withdrew into her home.
And for most of my life, I withdrew, too.
It’s still my natural tendency. If I get overwhelmed, I want to go home and shut the door and be in my own space and read. Reading is my happy place. I go somewhere else where I don’t have to be here, I don’t have to be me, and I don’t have to think about anything else.
But I don’t want to lock myself away forever.
There’s too much I want to do.
I’m also the mother of a highly sensitive daughter. She’s looking to me to understand how to manage her sensitivity.
That’s why I want to share 3 of the most important lessons I’ve learned about being a high sensitive.
Being a Highly Sensitive Person
I only learned about this trait 5 years ago.
But I grew up hearing stories about my dad as a kid.
As a little kid, my dad didn’t like anything new. He hated the stiffness and scratchiness of new clothes. He was super-picky about food. He couldn’t stand strong smells, like the smell of onions or perfume or daffodils.
He was late to talk and even then wasn’t a talker. He preferred a few good friends over being the life of the party.
In that era, a kid who required extra care and attention because of his sensitivity was a burden. Parents had work to do; they didn’t have time to coddle. They needed their children to toughen up and get on with it.
It breaks my heart to think about it.
All those highly sensitive kids, learning that their sensitivity was a flaw. Being told they were trying to get extra attention by making a fuss over nothing.
Today, we know that high sensitivity isn’t “nothing.”
It’s a specific type of brain architecture. It’s a superpower possessed by about 15% of the population.
My father had a trait that his mother had (and perhaps her father before her), which he would end up passing down to his daughter and his granddaughter… a trait known as sensory processing sensitivity.
It has a strong evolutionary advantage, because people and animals with this trait can spot subtle signs of danger well before anyone else.
(Yes, animals can be highly sensitive, too. This trait has been found in over 100 other species!)
How would my father have grown up differently if his parents knew that his sensitivity was an evolutionary advantage? That knowledge would have changed his life.
Here are 3 lessons that I wish all highly sensitive people knew.
Lesson #1. Being highly sensitive doesn’t mean you’re broken.
Many years ago, I was dating a man that I would end up in a long-term relationship with.
On one of our early dates, he took me to a little arthouse theater that was playing a classic movie set during the Holocaust.
It was one of those heart-rending tear-jerkers, and after the movie finished and we walked outside, I was still so emotional. I managed to hold it back until we got into his car and he asked me what was wrong. It was too much, and I cried in front of him for the first time.
This would have been a lovely story if it had ended there.
He held me, I felt comforted, and it felt like this emotional moment had connected us and deepened our relationship.
But that’s not where the story ended.
When we broke up years later, he told other people the story of that night. He said, “I should have known something was wrong with her then.”
Today, I know that highly sensitive people often react that way to movies that feature a lot of violence or pain.
But back then, I didn’t know, and those words of his cut me deeply.
Being a highly sensitive person doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you.
It means you have access to deeper layers of experience that most people miss.
Which that brings us to…
Lesson #2. Being an HSP is not something other people understand, so you have to talk about it.
People who know nothing about high sensitivity will dismiss HSPs as overly emotional, hysterical, or demanding. They may even sneer, “You’re being such a woman!”
They’ll say you’re making a big deal out of nothing. That you’re reacting to things that aren’t there. That you’re making things difficult on purpose.
That’s their ignorance talking.
So learn more about the brain differences between HSPs and other people, and take it on yourself to educate people.
Once people understand that your brain can sense subtleties that most brains can’t, and that this increased sensitivity can overload your brain, they’re often more accepting.
Lesson #3: Learn to love your sensitivity and respect it.
This is the lesson I wish my father had learned as a boy.
And it’s the most important lesson I can teach my daughter.
It’s okay to get overwhelmed. It’s okay to need a quiet still place to calm down and recharge. It’s okay to not like violence.
I still prefer movies made for kids because at least I know there will be a happy ending and it won’t get too intense. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. It just means I honor my sensitivity.
Honor your sensitivity. Get comfortable setting boundaries. You don’t have to push through.
Don’t tolerate people who shame you for feeling the way you feel. Make sure you have a safe haven to retreat to, where you can center yourself and recharge.
Your sensitivity is a superpower, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
If you want to learn more about being a high sensitive, check out my interview with psychotherapist Julie Bjelland.