Superman is Super...AND is vulnerable to Kryptonite. Highly Sensitive People (HSP) have amazing superpowers, AND they come with some unique challenges. Here I discuss some of the great gifts HSPs have, how these can also be challenging, and what to do about them to stay SUPER.
(PS--No time to read? Scroll down for a video that recaps all of this!)
SUPERPOWER 1: Being hyper-aware of our environment and everything in it.
If I walk into an area for the first time, I get a rich collage of senses (smells, sounds, textures) as well as a taste of invisible energies (emotions, "vibes", etc.) This has served me extremely well with orienting myself in the world (I rarely get lost on foot!), presenting to crowds (I can read the room well), or finding "a jackpot" place to hide and relax (like quiet cafes, beaches or ponds).
HSPs make great designers as they can pick up on what their clients need both by the vibes they are giving off as well as the vibe they want to achieve in their home. An HSP designer can also easily design an entire house in their head--imagining color schemes and layouts, or moving furniture around--all with a high degree of accuracy simply because they can see/feel it all by memory.
THE CHALLENGE: Over-stimulation.
This is the most common challenge that almost every HSP battles with. Being completely aware of everything means taking in everything like a sponge. While absorbing lots of great environmental vibes (a quiet beach! a soft sofa!) can feel amazing, atmospheres with too many stimuli can be exhausting.
The interesting paradox with this example is that the same environments that are attractive to many HSPs because of the rich stimuli are the very same places that will cause overwhelm if you are in them for too long. This happens for me when I travel to a very loud and active place (I'm looking at you India... or Mong Kok in Hong Kong)-- I am in love with the whole-body experience of the space for about 25 minutes, but after that I need a quiet space to recharge or my engine "overheats" and I become anxious and tired.
WHAT TO DO: Rest and Recuperate often.
Regardless if you are an introvert or extrovert, HSPs need a lot of downtime to re-boot, re-charge, and re-start! Building it into your daily and weekly routines is vital.
Find your method of recuperation and make it non-negotiable aspect of your life! Especially if you know you are going to have an intense day/week, make sure to schedule in quiet, "me"-time and your personal brand of self-care. This doesn't have to be a bubble bath, but it does have to be stimulation-free to give your over-active nervous system a well-deserved break.
Also, don't ignore sleep! Because HSP’s have such an intense depth of processing, they typically need a bit more sleep than the average person. When we sleep, we reboot everything we experienced that day, so as an HSP you need to reboot a bit more. Don't worry if you find yourself going to bed at 8:30pm some nights, chances are you've earned it!
SUPERPOWER 2: Strong Emotional Reactions
Do you watch something sad or scary on television and feel as if it is happening to your own body? Like you just got dumped... or better yet, married? Perhaps you go for a hike and are completely struck by the beauty surrounding you -- and you feel as if you've become part of mother nature itself? Are you moved to tears by simply watching commercials, films--or even a great book? (Yep, me too!)
HSPs feel the world very intensely and when it is beautifully moving or rich, we are in heaven as all of our emotions light up. Having deep emotions lets us touch pockets of what I call the vertical dimension-- the mystery, divine, spirit, and soul. This dimension can be quite powerful, meaningful, and life-affirming, which is why HSPs tend to be the "visionaries", "oracles", and "creatives" of our culture.
Strong feelings can be quite the superpower when you are engaging in fun, dynamic, exciting emotions. But I am sure you can predict what the downside of this superpower is.
THE CHALLENGE: Emotional Overwhelm. Avoiding Discomfort/Confrontation.
These strong emotions can do the same thing as strong stimuli--overwhelm and overstimulate HSPs. Watching a film or television can also be quite unnerving when the scenes involve illness or violence (I personally CANNOT watch blood and gore ANYTHING). We feel the injuries in our own bodies, and even walk away from a film quite unwell if it was too upsetting (I had nightmares about "Hotel Mumbai" for weeks).
We also tend to avoid uncomfortable scenarios (the dreaded mandatory work function) or confrontations because of the shared discomfort by all parties involved -- not just ourselves. HSPs tend to be non-confrontational because we are protecting YOUR energy as well as our own, (because if you get upset we will feel it too), so we tend to stay under the radar as much as possible and try not to "rock the boat".
HSPs are known to enjoy small gatherings over large crowds, due to the heavy emotional weight these can bring with them. Because Highly Sensitive People prefer getting into deep conversations with people, sometimes they will be at a party and having a great time for 95% of it as they open up about deep matters with many people -- but then suddenly they will need to "escape" because they have reached their emotional limit.
WHAT TO DO: Asking "Is this mine?" and Creating Win-Win Scenarios
Because HSPs are so receptive of other's energies, it is helpful for them to understand where their emotions end and another's begin. A helpful skill to use is when you notice a strong emotion in you, is to check-in with your body by asking "Is this mine?" Usually your body will give an indication if it is yours or not, and if it's foreign: let it go.
If gatherings and events CAN be avoided, be as honest about your reasons for not being able to attend as possible (the more transparent HSPs are about our tendencies, the more acceptance can come. A simple "Thanks, but I am not up for a large crowd at the moment"). If it CAN'T be avoided, finding a quiet space to regroup or escape (my favorite is the bathroom! Or looking awkwardly at someone's book collection!) to give yourself mini-breaks.
If confrontations and difficult conversations are unavoidable (and when are they NOT?), use your other superpower for understanding another's needs to your advantage and create a win-win situation. Be sure to know the best case scenario for both parties and do your best to LISTEN enough to make the conversation bring to light how each person can walk away better off. Sentences like "I hear that you need x... I can offer y, how does that work for you?"
SUPERPOWER 3: Understanding other's needs without them telling you.
Being an HSP, you are intuitively aware of other people’s needs. This can be super helpful in most families and careers: Highly Sensitive People make great nurses, teachers, service providers and parents. Because of our sensitivity to subtleties, we pick up on the slightest change in body language and vocal tone, which can almost feel telepathic when we translate that into: "This person needs space...I am going to give it to them".
Sometimes HSPs fly under the radar because they know exactly how to help others without taking the attention from them as we do. We make great parents because we are able to feel our kids' needs and (depending on our energy levels!) respond to them. (In fact, another term for HSPs is often "Highly Responsive Person").
THE CHALLENGE: People pleasing. Trying to solve everyone's problems.
HSPs make good servers, but this doesn't always SERVE US. When placing others' joy before ours, we tend to deplete our own energy, leaving little for our own recuperation (which we so desperately need!). A Highly Sensitive Person may become a "People-pleaser" because we are naturally good at helping, but it is important to notice your intentions while helping: are you doing it out of obligation or do you really want to? If not, it is important to practice healthier boundaries.
When you are aware of other's pain, it feels natural to want to help them. But it also common to begin carrying around others' issues and burdens (mostly without knowing it), until the emotional burden becomes a physical one -- and you begin experiencing actual pain.
WHAT TO DO: Practice Healthy Boundaries
Everyone needs boundaries, but HSPs will burn out much quicker without them. First understand when you say "yes", but really mean "no" (Highly Sensitives hate disappointing people) and begin being honest about your needs. Hate volunteering for your kid's school? Begin taking on less and being honest about why when you can, ("Sorry I can't chaperone this time, these events tend to overwhelm me and that wouldn't be helpful for anyone!")
When you are communicating your needs, it helps to create a list of your needs that looks like "I need X because it helps me Y". For example, "I need space in the morning, because it helps me be a better mother". When you understand why certain self-care practices help you, you can begin to communicate them without guilt or shame. (I have a two videos (#1 and #2 )on this as well as FREE worksheet to help you practice healthier boundaries).
SUPERPOWER 4: Deep thinking.
Highly Sensitive People LOVE to think. Our minds are not only our best friends, but they are our entry point into the world. We not only enjoy thinking deeply and philosophically about an issue, but if you give us a problem, we are already using more areas of our brain to solve it before you are finished describing the problem (!). Because we think deeply about an issue, we are also more likely to give solutions that are more cooperative, and less exploitative -- offering positive systemic change if our ideas can be enacted.
We make great creatives because we use all aspects of our mind, body, and soul to find unique solutions. Our imaginations are so powerful, we are able to do nearly all of our planning in our heads-- which means HSPs make great project managers, designers, artists, and event organizers.
We also are great at reflecting about what is important to us and understanding the "big picture" concepts (love, trust, loyalty, etc.) that influence us. We love philosophy and playing with ideals, archetypes, symbols because they can represent a deep way of understanding the world that may or may not be able to be expressed.
THE CHALLENGE: Thinking too much. Overanalysis.
Because our minds are our best friends, we tend to rely on them too much! It is very common to try and "think our way out" of a problem, when in reality we need to DO something to keep from getting overwhelmed. Personally, I become my most depressed when I am thinking about about global, "big picture" issues (climate change, poverty, inequality), but don't have an immediate course of action to help.
HSPs can also use their sharp, analytical mind to their detriment when they "overanalyze" a scenario. We tend to carry on conversations into our mind and create false narratives that can waste a lot of time and energy. Or, in a less stressful -- but equally as tiring situation, HSPs will become so excited about a new project they may lose sleep over the potential creative solutions they will come up with!
WHAT TO DO: Get in your body. Make space for creativity.
Relying too much on your mind? Get in your body. Begin asking all of your questions to your body first, and pay attention to the reaction it gives: relief or dread? Use your body's wisdom to lead you. Make plenty of time to move your body in ways it wants as a thank you! This may not be exercise per se, but could be as simple as dancing, embodied movement, or even stretching.
Those nights that you are busy solving the world's problems instead of sleeping: make some time before you go to bed to work it out instead! Use time to write in a journal, draw, or even paint the solutions that just MUST be acknowledged by you before you try to sleep! Creating our way out of deep thoughts helps bring us closer to the ideals we hold so dear, but can have a hard time communicating.
SUPERPOWER 5: Knowing ourselves very well.
HSPs know themselves so well, it can be fascinating to watch (from a non-HSP's perspective). We not only know what makes us tick, what are interests are, and WHY we like what we like -- we even tend to know the moment we first began to be that way! (For example, I can recall the exact moment I no longer felt comfortable hanging out with groups of girls who prefer to gossip over bond deeply).
HSPs are so in touch with our feelings, that we can even identify the string of emotions that are tied together in a complex "emotional knot". We are OK with the paradoxical feelings that happen at the same time (It blows my friend's minds when I say I am both "disappointed and relieved"--or "excited and dreading it"). We are super comfortable talking with anyone we trust (if we have them!) about our deep personality traits, drives, and dreams.
THE CHALLENGE: Feeling misunderstood.
Feeling misunderstood starts as early as HSPs can communicate. When we explain how we are experiencing the world ("It's too busy", "That makes me itchy", "That hurt my feelings") we are told “you are being too sensitive” or “don’t take things so seriously”. This leaves us feeling alone, ashamed, and afraid of showing our true character.
This conditioning can then expand into our adulthood where we fear describing the depth of our experiences to others for fear of hurtful comments. (Side note - nothing hurts me more than someone furrowing their brow when I am explaining myself! I shrivel inside when I recognize the person I am telling either has no idea what I'm saying OR is judging me...)
WHAT TO DO: Find your people.
"Find the others".
Find your tribe of like-minded people and go deep with them (and only deep with them). Sure, you can still be friends/close with others who are not, but recognize where your 'energy leaks' are and patch them up by no longer attempting to make anyone understand you.
It's OK to be authentic in the world, AND as HSPs are well aware, there will be non-HSPs that are just never going to "get it".
Talking to other HSP’s who experience life in the same way is incredibly helpful. There are groups. There are coaches. And when you live authentically, you might discover friends or family members who possesses strong traits of an HSP (but didn't even know it!) who you could talk to as well!
(Want to watch a video on this same topic? Click below!)
Want to chat? Reach out for a complimentary call with Dr. Larson here.
Want to learn even more? Check out Dr. Elaine Aron, PhD's talk on HSPs here.