by Mely Brown
“And those who were seen dancing were thought insane by those who could not hear the music.”
Highly sensitive people are too often perceived as weak or broken. But to feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness, it is the characteristic of a truly alive and compassionate human being. It is not the sensitive person who is broken, it is society’s understanding that has become dysfunctional and emotionally incapacitated. There is zero shame in expressing your authentic feelings. Those who are at times described as being ‘too emotional’ or ‘complicated’ are the very fabric of what keeps the dream alive for a more thoughtful, caring, humane world. Never be ashamed to let your feelings, smiles and tears shine a light in this world.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, because it can be so confusing, right? … Why you get overwhelmed by run-of-the-mill tasks that others take in stride. Why you mull over slights that ought to be forgotten. Why subtleties are magnified for you and yet lost on others.
It’s like you were born missing a protective layer of skin that others seem to have.
You try to hide it. Numb it. Tune it out. But the comments still pierce your armor: “You’re overthinking things. You’re too sensitive. Toughen up!”
You’re left wondering what on earth is wrong with you.
I know, because I was in my mid-40s when I stumbled across the term ‘highly sensitive people.’ This led me to discover how delicious it feels to be one of thousands saying, “You do that? Me too!”
Since then, I’ve learned that many sensitive people feel isolated from others. They feel misunderstood and different, and they usually don’t know why. They just don’t realize that they have a simple trait that explains their confusing array of symptoms and quirks.
There’s even a scientific term for it: Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Dr. Elaine Aron, a psychotherapist and researcher, estimates that 15-20% of people have nervous systems that process stimuli intensely. They think deeply. They feel deeply (physically and emotionally). They easily become over-stimulated.
According to my research several successful historical figures were highly sensitive, such as Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, and Steve Jobs. I see this as great news, because it means us sensitive types aren’t inherently disadvantaged.
But when we don’t realize how to handle our sensitivity, we end up pushing too hard to keep up with everyone else. We try to do what others seem to handle with ease, and try to do it better than them. And this leads to problems.
For a time, we do a first-rate job of using our natural gifts: we’re creative students, conscientious employees, and devoted family members. But when we hammer on beyond our limits, doing so can eventually take its toll. It shows up in things like unrelenting health conditions, muscle tension we can’t get rid of, and being endlessly fatigued or on edge for no good reason.
If you resonate with any of this, here are 10 actions you can take to stop struggling and start thriving:
1. Quit searching for someone or something to fix you.
Sensitivity is a temperament trait, not a medical disorder. So nothing is inherently wrong with you. Sadly, though, many certified health practitioners don’t understand this because sensory processing sensitivity is a recent area of health research.
Sure, highly sensitive people are more likely to have allergies or sensitivities to food, chemicals, medication, and so forth. And they’re more prone to overstimulation, thus quicker to feel stress — which can lead to other health issues. But sensitivity in itself is not something that needs fixing.
Successful sensitive types realize that they’re not “broken.” If your mind is exhausted from busily researching yet another solution to take away your “flaws,” know that the answers to living in harmony with your sensitive nature lie inside you.
2. Tell yourself, as often as necessary, that you are not a fraud.
Impostor syndrome isn’t exclusive to highly sensitive people. Many conscientious and high achieving people fall victim to this nagging fear. But the simmering discomfort about being found out is often constant for a sensitive person.
Why wouldn’t it be, considering you’ve spent a lifetime of feeling different from others and trying to fit in? Maybe you blame your tears on dust in your eye during that cheesy TV commercial; or you sign up for the company fun run, even though you hate running and you know you’ll feel ashamed of how long your body takes to recover. But even if you grew up displaying your sensitivity with pride, it’s unlikely you escaped the cultural pressure motivating you to disguise your real self to fit the norms.
Successful sensitive types respect that their nervous systems are wired differently from 80-85% of people. If you’re constantly thinking about who you should be but aren’t, and what you should be doing but can’t, understand that valuing your achievements and signature strengths allows you to show yourself as you truly are, more comfortably — even when you’re the odd one out.
3. Seek out kindred spirits (and know that you are NOT alone).
You probably feel different and alone. But the truth is, you’re not. Many have experienced confusion in isolation before discovering that hordes of people have some idea of what it’s like to be you. They’ve felt the surge of power that comes from being supported by like-minded souls. And they want to pay it forward.
The key whenever possible is to hang out with sensitive people who are already flourishing, or at least open to those possibilities. They understand not only how to manage their sensitivity, but also how to wield its superpowers. They know what it’s like for you to feel endlessly under siege, and they can offer firsthand experience and wisdom to help you make your sensitivities work in your favor.
Successful sensitive types appreciate and relish the strengths of sensitivity, in themselves and others. If you’re feeling unsupported or misunderstood, find a sensitively knowledgeable coach, mentor, or community who gets you … and nurture that connection.
4. Look for the hidden positivity in every situation and soak it up.
The brain is a powerful filter that molds experiences and perceptions of reality. If you think the world is a dangerous place, your brain is wired to hunt for evidence of danger. If you believe it’s a loving place, you spot more loving opportunities. What you focus on, you get more of.
As a highly sensitive person, the more negative the environment, the more you suffer. But the opposite is also true — the more positive, the more you thrive (even compared to others).
Thoughts are stimuli for your nervous system. One of the most important things a sensitive person can do is acknowledge the negative (not ignore it — because what you resist, persists), but then let it go… immerse yourself in positive thoughts and situations that make you feel good, or at least give you a soothing sense of relief.
Successful sensitive types decide to see the world brimming with opportunities to feel grateful for, and to marinate in that positive vibe. If you’re feeling at the mercy of your emotions and circumstances, understand that your thoughts (and the emotional charges they trigger) are always within your control.
5. Find new spins on old flaws.
Your gifts of sensitivity include deep reflection and an instinct to see all angles and consequences. But by being so deeply tuned in to details, you’re easily overwhelmed and exhausted by unyielding stimulation. And when you don’t understand why you feel and behave in the ways you do, it’s easy to frame these as flaws.
In truth, these “weaknesses” are simply your unmet needs and unique gifts to nourish. In reframing your past and nurturing your present, you set yourself up for success in your future.
Successful sensitive types rethink old perceptions in light of their deeper understandings of sensitivity. If you’re weighed down by the hypersensitive and neglected (even, despised) parts of yourself, seek to discover the other side of the coin … where you’ll find some of your greatest strengths: intuition, vision, conscientiousness — and the list goes on.
6. Treat yourself with compassion.
As a highly sensitive person you are deeply compassionate. So much so that putting others’ comfort and needs before your own is second nature. On top of that, you’re often your own biggest critic. You push yourself hard, and then you beat up on yourself when you miss the mark. You criticize yourself in ways you’d never dream of judging others.
Controlling your nagging inner critic is essential to self-compassion. But contrary to popular belief, you shouldn’t do so by relentlessly ignoring it. Deep thinking is one of your gifts, so why not embrace that power? Take control by hearing your thoughts without judgment (after all, there might be gems of wisdom hidden deep) and then pivoting to thoughts that trigger kinder and more loving emotions in your body. From that better-feeling place, you’re better able to choose actions to care for yourself and others.
Successful sensitive types show themselves the same loving compassion that they’re naturally good at giving others. It may feel selfish or vain at first, but it’s not. If your critical inner voice is devaluing who you are, answer back with self-kindness … this is the antidote.
7. Create healthy boundaries, not rigid emotional walls.
We live in a culture that values “take a painkiller and push on” far more than it values sensitivity. We grow up hearing: “no pain, no gain; survival of the fittest; life isn’t fair — get used to it.” We admire those who show grit to prevail over their terrible plights.
As a highly sensitive person your reflex reaction may be to freeze up or struggle to toughen up. You build walls to shield yourself from hurt … Emotional walls, such as suppressing feelings or creating dramatic turmoil to distract from the real causes of pain. Physical walls, such as piling on layers of weight to hide behind. Mental walls, such as tuning out with alcohol or drugs.
Or, you may let all your boundaries collapse at once, thereby unconsciously absorbing others’ energies and feeling devoured by unpredictable events and emotions. You try to escape the feelings by getting caught up in overthinking everything: endlessly planning and searching and analyzing, while completely losing touch with your intuition. And in the process you confuse conscientiousness with overwork, empathy with over-identification, compassion with over-tolerance. So you beat yourself up about how you know you should have better boundaries. It’s a vicious cycle.
Successful sensitive types embody gentle but firm personal boundaries. If you struggle to put your own needs first (which doesn’t come naturally to a highly sensitive person), make a conscious choice to practice the skill of saying “no” with love and grace, or carving out alone time to recharge … and decide to feel good about that.
8. Tune in to your body (to avoid seesawing between emotional extremes).
Many highly sensitive people learn to ignore the messages their bodies are sending them. They switch it off to avoid overwhelm or they tune in to others’ needs instead of their own to meet what’s expected of them. Does this sound familiar?
Doing so leaves you swinging like a pendulum. Too much, too little. Too fast, too slow. Too in, too out. Back and forth between being over-stimulated and mind-numbingly bored, dieting and then bingeing, or exercising hard and then needing several days to recover. And so on and so forth.
Successful sensitive types tune in to the physical sensations in their bodies; they accept that it’s not always comfortable, but they trust their bodies to guide them. If you have a habit of hiding from feelings or passing the point of overwhelm, learn to recognize your body’s subtle signs of overstimulation. You’ll spend less time being thrown out of balance, and more time swaying gently within your nervous system’s range of optimal arousal.
9. Design healthy habits that fit your unique needs.
Eventually, it all catches up with you. Grueling hours at work, followed by hard sweat at the gym and keeping on top of chaos around home — all fueled by crappy diets and minimal sleep or downtime. It’s an easy trap to fall into because you’re simply living the way you see most people get by on.
What’s more, some seemingly healthy habits hit hard on a sensitive nervous system — like “health” foods that are heavily processed and pumped with sugar and artificial additives, or intense exercise that’s not balanced with ample recovery time.
If you allow too much stimulation and too lousy replenishment, you run the risk of chronic illnesses (as many sensitive types have learned the hard way). At the same time, if you overprotect yourself, your genius goes unexpressed, and that also can lead to stress and ill health.
Successful sensitive types practice habits that truly nourish them. If you struggle with energy or well-being issues, prioritize habits that nurture these areas of your life (such as more sleep and alone time), and limit those that over-stimulate or drain you (such as too many high pressures activities — even if they are so-called healthy).
10. Stop smothering your sensitivity.
After a lifetime of being bombarded by stimuli, it becomes second nature to push sensitivity out of the conscious awareness. Tuning out from relentless sensations, for example, so you can pretend you don’t give a darn. Toning down intense feelings (good and bad) so you aren’t on a roller coaster. Suppressing emotions to get a break from feeling anything at all.
This self-protective mechanism might fool your conscious mind, but it doesn’t fool your sensitive body. This oozes into your health, your relationships, your career, every aspect of your life … or, it builds tension inside until something has to give.
Successful sensitive types let go of the grasp for control. When you free the energy used to hold yourself tight, you free the gifts of sensitivity that have been lost to you: empathy, creativity, and heightened joy, to name a few. And you allow your true potential to blossom.
As you’re working through the tips above, keep in mind that the key to thriving as a highly sensitive person, more than anything else, is to recognize that it’s perfectly OK to be sensitive — with its challenges and strengths.
Use your deep-thinking mind to recognize hidden understandings, and deliberately refocus on positivity and possibilities.
Use your deep-feeling body to tune in your emotions and sensations, and stay within your optimal range of arousal as often as possible.
Use your heightened awareness to dance to whatever beat you darn well please, even if that seems odd to a lot of people.
Because somewhere, others are dancing with you.