Inside: Find out if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person, why this REALLY matters, and learn how you can honour wiring if you are. This post may contain referral links.
As a child and teen, I struggled with feeling like I wasn’t cut out for this world.
My parents walked out their values by serving hurting people, adopting kids, and trying to teach us to live with compassion for those in poverty or other inequity. This means that I was very conscious of suffering in the world. I cared deeply and it all felt oppressively heavy. I didn’t know how to process what I was feeling and my parents didn’t know to teach me; in my younger years they didn’t model processing emotion or emotional vulnerability and although I knew I was loved, I didn’t feel safe being vulnerable with anyone.
Though I didn’t have language for it until much later in life, I lived with heightened anxiety from a tender age and that contributed to struggling with suicidality as a teen.
I had my first drink in grade 6 and started doing drugs in grade 7 (while my parents were at prayer meeting) not to get high but because I was looking for something to calm my anxiety. When at 21 I decided to ditch drugs and alcohol and choose better for myself, I started binge eating. When I got that under control I moved into over-exercising and rigid eating and trying to order my home with perfection.
For years, I moved from one coping method to another trying to help myself feel safe and to calm the storm inside of me. I was looking for freedom but kept picking up another set of chains.
ANXIETY, OVERWHELM AND CHRONIC STRESS ARE COMMON FOR HSPS WHO HAVEN’T YET LEARNED TO HONOUR THEIR WIRING
On top of this, my childhood was marked by love but included upheaval caused by adopting/fostering two young girls who’d been abused and were added to our big family when I was 10 years old, without any counselling or support for them or the rest of us. I started hiding and masking my pain to avoid rocking the boat. I wanted to keep the peace because my parents already had their hands full.
When I was in grade 6, or 11 years old, one of these sisters burned our house down on purpose. The other packed a big green garbage bag and hatched a plan to run away with one of my little siblings by jumping on a train as it passed through the hills that ran behind our home. Fortunately, her plan was uncovered and foiled before they got hurt or killed on the tracks. This is a tiny sampling of what life looked like in that season.
I watched my mom start to unravel as she tried to love these girls, preserve her mental wellness, and keep the rest of us safe and cared for. I lived in fear that something bad would happen. Later I learned that my mom was suicidal for a while during my teen years and these days I wonder if she too was a highly sensitive person.
Because I was an honour student and a “good kid” it was easy for me to begin to quietly slip away.
“Highly Sensitive People have particular brain differences that make us more susceptible to high stress, overwhelm and even anxiety. Thankfully, there is a way to train your brain so you can navigate the challenges of high sensitivity, access your gifts, and live your fullest life!”
In my early 20’s my mom had her first cancer diagnosis and my dad his first of many heart attacks. I felt afraid all of the time, waiting for the next shoe to drop. This exacerbated my perfectionism; there was so much in life I had no control over so I tried to order my world in ways I could control.
At 25, when my first beautiful child was born (after being told by a doctor that he was deformed and had a heart problem – he wasn’t and didn’t) I risked vulnerability and bravely asked for help for intense anxiety from the pediatrician who I trusted. I was struggling hard. But she didn’t get it and she downplayed or maybe “couldn’t hear” what I was trying to share with her. I didn’t ask for help again until 15 years later, at 40.
My survival has depended in part on learning to trust what I’m feeling and experiencing even if others don’t understand or the medical community has not yet caught up.
I turned my pain inward. I expended enormous amounts of energy and life on self-criticism and self-loathing, beating myself up for being who and how I was, trying to be better. Trying to find the one right path or the seven perfect steps to wholeness. I struggled to trust my husband’s love because I didn’t love myself.
But my primary dream in life was to build a family and I loved my babies fiercely; I was determined to pursue purpose, wholeness, and joy so I could lead from example and love them well as they deserved.
I dove wholeheartedly into deepening my understanding of learning styles and introversion, perfectionism and personality types, anxiety, depression, and eventually about the trait of high sensitivity.
It still evokes grief and gratitude to think about the hope that was planted and watered inside of me with each new layer of discovery.
My life changed in a powerful way.
I was beautifully knit-together, needed, wise beyond my years in some ways, and on purpose.
I was not bad, wrong, or broken – I was simply wired differently in a world not skilled at honouring diversity. I was a highly sensitive soul working incredibly hard to find my way, without help, in a culture into which I have never fit easily.
HOW DO I KNOW IF i’M A Highly Sensitive Person?
15-20% of the population is born with the trait of high sensitivity or sensory processing sensitivity. Of HSP’s, about 70% are introverts, 30% extroverts, and it’s experienced equally across genders. Like many traits, we can think of this one on a spectrum. It’s not all or nothing; however, if you land really high on that scale as I do, learning about this trait may feel akin to life and death.
All HSPs, introverted and extroverted alike, possess four main characteristics as identified by research psychologist, Dr. Elaine Aron. They are depth of processing; overstimulation; emotional responsiveness & empathy; sensitivity to subtleties (source).
E-HSP’s (extroverted HSPs) can be mislabeled as introverted; This article speaks to some of the confusion and explains what it looks like to be an extroverted HSP. Sensitivity might also be confused with being shy, nervous, socially anxious, or inhibited (source).
HSPs process sensory data more thoroughly and deeply due to biological differences in our nervous systems. This is an incredible gift and can make navigating life quite challenging though when we understand the trait there are tips we can use to stay calm and rooted as we engage in the world. HSP’s might experience sensory overload at times but so might Autistic people or those with Anxiety, ADHD, or PTSD. This means that curiosity, staying open to learning in a non-judgmental way, and getting support where appropriate are all important as we explore how the trait of sensitivity might be operating in our lives. Read this article and this one about sensory overload and note examples from your life.
An HSP might also be high sensation seeking. For this person, “being under-stimulated can be just as anxiety-producing as being overstimulated.” This means that it’s important that we find our own optimal and sustainable level of stimulation. I am not an HSS/HSP but an example of this for me was realizing years ago that when I don’t have a learning curve in my life, I slump into depression. I need brain and soul food to feel well. This article was a fun, sort of related read.
The trait of sensory processing sensitivity is believed to be an evolutionary adaptation that serves species survival: Deep integration and memory for environmental and social information foster well-being and cooperation (source); greater empathy, awareness, responsivity, and self-other processing lead us to advocate for or work towards building a kinder, safer world.
take a few assessments to see where you land on the sensitivity scale!
You can take a few assessments to determine if you are a Highly Sensitive Person – have fun with these different tests: take these three tests, this one, and this one. You can also take this test to determine if you might be a High Sensation Seeking HSP in which case it might feel like you have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake at all times.
“Who looks outside dreams, who looks inside awakes.” ―Dr. Carl Jung
Why Understanding your Sensitivity Matters + how it will change your life for the better
It is my hope that in sharing this part of my journey to wholeness, you will feel seen and heard and realize that you are not alone.
There are so many ways that life can change for the better when you deepen your understanding of self and learn to honour your wiring. I can make no guarantees, of course, but based on my lived experience and work experience, it’s likely that you’ll experience many or most of the following benefits if you discover that you are a Highly Sensitive Person and learn to work with the truth of how you’re knit together.
10 ways your life will change for the better if you learn that you are a highly sensitive person
- You might for the first time in a long while or forever feel a spark of hope.
- You are more likely to stay alive and to live fully. It will help you learn to thrive in school, doing the work you love, parenting, adventuring, or just being the real you whatever that looks or sounds like.
- You’ll shake off the shame and judgment you’ve been wearing most of your life and learn to walk in greater freedom and permission. You will stop rejecting yourself or condemning yourself or harming yourself or allowing your vicious inner critic to bully you.
- You will understand that you are not wrong or broken but a Highly Sensitive Human navigating a messy world. You think, see, feel and experience the world differently than the majority and the world needs your vision and point of view.
- You will be more likely to live free of addictive coping or numbing patterns (you may also require deeper therapeutic support!).
- You’ll be more able to ask for help from medical professionals, therapists and coaches who understand this trait (and preferably who are themselves HSPs) and if you encounter arrogance or someone who discounts your experience, you’ll be equipped to walk away, head held high, knowing that you are the expert on your body and life.
- You will know the truth that while being a Highly Sensitive Person carries with it unique challenges, it also comes bearing gifts. You will learn to lean into your vast inner resources and many strengths. Realizing your sensitivity as a gift instead of a flaw will open up energetic and emotional space in your life that can be used for fun, adventure, laughter, connection or walking out your core values.
- This will open the door for you to learn to balance your sensitive nervous system, tend to yourself well and set appropriate boundaries. Learning about high sensitivity will lend to better physical health. Our immune system is impacted by living in constant arousal which causes a flood of adrenaline and stress hormones. It’s common for HSPs to end up living with chronic conditions or physical symptoms of our deep emotional stress.
- Learning about the trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity will encourage you to boost your emotional literacy, resilience, and sense of capacity to do hard things.
- And because, as Willow McIntosh, author and HSP facilitator says, “High sensory intelligence is a gift; deep feeling is a catalyst for change.” As you are empowered, you will naturally shine your light into the world or your circle of impact.
“Sometimes I think I need a spare heart to feel all the things I feel.” ―Sanober Khan
16 Ideas for How to Love Yourself Well as a Highly Sensitive Person
- Gather information about yourself and the trait. Curiosity shifts us away from judgment and opens us up to new, joyful possibility. Read, take quizzes and courses, listen to podcasts, work with a coach/educator who can guide you in the process.
- Find your HSP people. The journey is best made in brave community. I highly recommend seeking a community where the leader is an HSP and understands the trait and where you can build friendship with other sensitive people doing their own growth work.
- If you’re struggling with your mental health please ask for therapeutic support earlier rather than later. You deserve care. You matter. There is NO SHAME in needing help – we all need help in various forms but we struggle in different ways. I know it can feel scary at times but light will come again. Dr. Chris Bjorndal is my naturopath and author of this book; she has personal experience with serious mental illness, suicidal ideation, and learning to thrive again.
- Shift your self-talk. Institute a no-bullying policy and practice speaking to yourself with kindness. You do not have to be perfect to deserve compassion, acceptance, and encouragement. Learning to practice self-compassion is one of the most positively impactful choices anyone can make. Think about what it could look, sound, or feel like to become your own best friend. This worksheet can help.
- Order your environment in ways you are able. Wear noise-filtering earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, dim the lights, tidy your space, infuse your space with pleasing non-distracting scent (ex. essential oils you like or a beeswax candle), move the TV and radio out of your main living space, bring in bits of nature if that calms you or otherwise make your home feel safe and honouring to you.
- Track your cycle. Whether you menstruate or not, you might want to practice cycle tracking or lunar tracking to notice how your mood, hunger, energy, creativity, need for rest, etc., all ebb and flow throughout the month. Not only will you deepen self-awareness but you’ll learn to tune into and trust your inner voice and take action on what you hear. I love the Lunar Abundance model by Dr. Ezzie Sencer; it’s a gentle guide that helps me build regular self-check-in times into my month and tell the truth about what I want and need. My Seasonal Mindfulness Journals can also guide you into more mindful awareness and help you mine for the beauty and wisdom in your life.
- Decide who deserves space in your inner circle. Cull the rest or push them into further “circles of intimacy” (a term one of my Brave + Beautiful Members coined) where they have less access to and influence on you. Similarly, get clear on whose voices you’re listening to and why. Release, delete, mute, unsubscribe as needed.
- Spend regular time in nature and bring nature indoors. This is one of the fastest ways to fill our cups and feel renewed. “Time in nature — as long as people feel safe — is an antidote for stress: It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood” (source). I love to work near natural light, keep houseplants, walk the wooded trails in my town several times a week, and holiday near water when I am able.
- Dare to rest. As HSPs we require ample rest (more than you’ll likely want to allow for and than your ego might be happy about). Sensitivity specialist Julie Bjelland recommends resting 2 hours a day and one full day off a week. If you’re not an HSP but you are a strong introvert, this rule of thumb will likely serve you well. In addition to rest, you will likely need solitude. Time away from your favourite people (whether you take an hour alone in your bedroom or a weekend away) is an important way of guarding your physical and mental health so you can show up for them happy and willing.
- Give yourself permission to go slow. As HSPs we tend to thrive with a slower, simpler, sustainable pace of life. It might take effort to figure out how to put this into action if your life is currently full to the brim but slow and steady you can get there. First, though, you need to give yourself PERMISSION to choose a path that works for you even if it goes against the grain.
- Extend your exhale. When you’re stressed out or going about your ordinary day, trigger a “relaxation response” simply by extending the length of your exhale. Take 2 mins a day for 10 rounds of breathing at a 4:8 inhalation-to-exhalation ratio. Read this article to get started.
- Shore up leaky boundaries. Chances are you’ve tried to fit into this world by denying your own needs and desires a lot of the time. Relearn that you have a right to do what you need to protect your energy and health whether or not others get it or approve. I appreciate Jake Ernst’s important distinction between boundary building and boundary setting. Consider both internal and external boundaries that will protect your energy and open up more breathing room in your life. You might like Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab.
- Explore your routes of safety. To learn and grow we need to feel safe. We all have ways of trying to feel safe and this model by psychotherapist Jake Ernst offers guidance on different ways we try to access a felt sense of safety. You can also listen to an interview with Jake here as we chat about the Routes of Safety Model.
- Boost your emotional literacy. Being able to recognize, name, and understand our feelings has many benefits including calming the nervous system. I recommend Marc Brackett’s book Permission to Feel and his Mood Meter to learn more. You can also listen to this podcast episode as he explores this topic with Brené Brown.
- It is possible that you are sensitive to the environment. This can show up as food or environmental allergies or sensitivities (gut issues, allergies, autoimmunity). You might want to investigate with a health practitioner and lean toward natural, low-tox cleaning and body-care products. Lara Adler, Alexx Stuart, and The Environmental Working Group can support you on this leg of the journey.
- Establish simple, portable, and calming morning and evening routines (or dawn and dusk rituals). They should feel life-giving and that can come with you when you travel. How we begin and end our days can have a significant impact on our overall sense of wellbeing. For years I’ve incorporated my 3/2/1 exercise into my dusk ritual. An added benefit is that when/if crisis hits, these simple rituals help keep you rooted.
I want us to change our internal story from “there’s something wrong with me” to “I’m a person of strength and struggle like everyone else. Imperfect and beautiful. Weary and brave.” ―Click here to learn more
Extra Resources For The HSP Journey
In this interview, Sensitivity Specialist Julie Bjelland and I talk about befriending ourselves as HSP’s.
Sensitivity Specialist Julie Bjelland and I get together once again to talk about how self-awareness, self-compassion, and imperfect action can walk us to greater freedom as HSPs.
Today I like and love who I am as a Highly Sensitive Human. I witness the fullness of my strength and my struggle, shame and judgment-free. I joyfully pour all that energy I used to waste berating myself for simply being human in a messy world into loving people and putting my small light in the window to beckon fellow weary sojourners into rest, repair, and remembering the truth of who they are.
I want to help build a world that feels kinder and safer for my kids, for other Highly Sensitive People, and for folks who for all sorts of reasons don’t “fit” neat and tidy into the tiny, boring, unhealthy and damaging box that we’ve been handed.
Above all, I’m committed to walking in freedom and inviting others to journey with me.
NOW WHAT? If you want to learn how to reduce anxiety and learn to love yourself well, I invite you to join me inside the Brave + Beautiful Community or to check out Julie’s course “Brain-Training for the Highly Sensitive Person” — Click here to view course details.