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When I was really little — I must’ve been around 4 or 5 years old — my parents had to call a tree removal service because a big tree in our backyard was leaning dangerously close to our roof.
I vividly remember sitting on the floor of our screened-in back porch, crying my eyes out as I watched the men cut down that tree. At the risk of sounding like a preschool-aged hippie tree-hugger, I felt strangely connected to that old, beautiful tree in our yard, and I was profoundly sad to see it cut down.
I also remember feeling slightly embarrassed for having such a strong emotional reaction. No one else seemed to think it was a big deal, so why was it affecting me so intensely?
In retrospect, I realize that’s the first memory I have of being a highly sensitive kid.
Looking back, there were lots more signs of this. I was extremely attuned to my friends’ feelings, I came up with elaborate, imaginative stories about my stuffed animals, and I made my mom (who’s luckily a nurse) save a sickly stray kitten with a tiny feeding tube.
All signs of a sensitive, super empathic kid.
But living in a society that tends to think that sensitivity is weak and vulnerable and something to “overcome,” at some point I started to believe it. So I tried to overcome my sensitivity by relying more on my logical mind, which seemed more socially acceptable.
Thankfully, I was never able to fully “toughen up” and stop being so sensitive, and the more I’ve embraced my sensitivity as an adult, the more I realize that it’s actually a superpower.
HOW TO TELL IF YOU’RE HIGHLY SENSITIVE
You might already be raising your hand saying, “Oh, I know I’m a sensitive person! No question.” Or maybe, like me, you’ve tried to separate yourself from your sensitivity because you have a negative perception of it.
Either way, if many of these characteristics ring true for you, you likely qualify as “highly sensitive”:
- You’re hyper-aware of other people’s emotional state. If someone is grumpy or stressed or excited or bored, you instantly know within a minute or two of talking with them (or maybe even just looking at them). Even small shifts in someone’s mood feel incredibly obvious to you.
- You might even take on other people’s emotions. You may find yourself feeling anxious or agitated with no idea why … until you realize, “Oh, I’m feeling my boss’ anxiety about this project.”
- You’re very affected by the weather. Your mood, energy, and productivity may depend greatly on whether or not it’s raining, how early the sun sets, or what season you’re in.
- You feel extremely connected to nature and/or animals. You may even (secretly) prefer nature and animals to being around other people sometimes.
- You’re overwhelmed by too much stimulation. Large crowds, blaring music, and bright lights may feel like nails on a chalkboard to you. Also, having too many “to-do”-list items or an overly packed social calendar can make you feel so overwhelmed that you just want to shut down completely.
- You’re highly affected by caffeine, junk food, too little sleep, or not staying hydrated. When you don’t treat your body well, you feel it … hard.
- You’re very sensitive to negativity. Hearing criticism or negative feedback can feel almost physically painful for you, and it stays with you for days and days. It may also be difficult for you to watch the news, see a horror movie, or be exposed to incessant complaining because it deeply upsets you.
- You have a strong intuition. You likely get frequent “gut feelings” about people, places, opportunities, etc., without being able to fully explain why you feel so strongly about them.
- You have a vivid imagination and are drawn to beauty and creativity. You likely spent a lot of time as a kid “playing pretend,” daydreaming, reading stories, or doing creative projects. And you still highly value creativity, storytelling, and imaginative thinking now as an adult.
I could go on, but you get the idea. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it gets to the heart of what it’s like to be a sensitive person.
You don’t have to have ALL of these traits to be considered “highly sensitive,” but if you have more than half, you’re probably pretty sensitive.
If you didn’t resonate with most (or any) of the characteristics on this list, I’m willing to bet that it made you think of of someone else you know (your child, sibling, partner, friend, coworker, parent) who does fit this description. Sensitive people are more common than you might think, even if they try to hide or dismiss their sensitivity.
YOUR SENSITIVITY IS A SUPERPOWER
I’ve had lots of highly sensitive clients over the years, and I almost always have to assure them that their sensitivity isn’t something they need to “fix.” Then I get on my soapbox about why their sensitivity is such an amazing gift, if they’ll let it be.
Highly sensitive people make for great coworkers, leaders, creators, friends, spouses, parents, change-makers, salespeople … I could go on and on.
Why? Because they so deeply understand and relate to other people.
They can quickly establish genuine rapport with clients, coworkers, or a team of employees.
They can “read the room” in a meeting and adjust their presentation tone slightly to reengage a listless audience or ease mounting tension.
They’re loyal, compassionate friends who will listen deeply to your problems and offer insightful, intuitive wisdom.
They ask thoughtful questions and offer innovative ideas that can transform a project, company, or entire culture.
Their deep empathy and desire to help others can lead to passionate work that brings more positivity, acceptance, or beauty into the world.
Not to be overly dramatic, but without the highly sensitive among us, the world would be a darker, sadder, less beautiful place.
STAYING SANE AS A HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON IN A CHAOTIC, LOUD, FAST-PACED WORLD
Like all gifts, sensitivity can become a curse if it goes unchecked. You can quickly get burnt out by too much stimulation, overwhelmed by everyone else’s emotions, and depressed by all of the negativity in the world.
So to protect your sensitivity, without letting it run wild and drain all of your energy, here are a few ways to stay sane as a sensitive person in a crazy world:
- Stop judging yourself for your sensitivity. Hopefully this blog will help you recognize why being sensitive is freaking awesome. Come back and re-read it whenever you need a reminder.
- Establish clear boundaries. When you’re highly empathic, it’s particularly awful for you to be around negative people or “energy vampires” (clingy people who suck the energy right out of you). You’ll need to get good at saying “no” and minimizing contact with people who continually bring you down.
- Remind yourself not to take others’ emotions personally. Because you can feel people’s stress or frustration or sadness so acutely, you might tend to take it personally or feel responsible for making them feel better. Repeat to yourself as many times as you need to, “Their emotions aren’t about me. It’s not my job to make them feel better.”
- Don’t expect yourself to have the same level of energy every day. Because you’re sensitive to so many factors — the weather, how much sleep you got, how everyone around you is feeling, what you ate yesterday — your energy and productivity is going to fluctuate from day to day. Stop beating yourself up about this, and start going with the flow of your natural energy shifts.
- Take extra good care of yourself. Self-care is important for everyone, of course, but especially for highly sensitive people. Make sure to take care of yourself in all of the ways: physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.
- Seek out beauty in your day-to-day life. As a sensitive person, you have a natural eye for beauty, and it can significantly lift your mood (especially if you’ve got some negative people or situations in your life right now). So pay attention to beauty all around you and find ways to bring it into your home and office.
- Have a creative outlet. Write, paint, dance, sing, make music. If being artsy isn’t your thing, then give yourself space for creative thinking, innovative problem solving, or just daydreaming. But find some way to express your creativity and reengage your imagination.
I’d love to hear what you think of this. Do you consider yourself to be a highly sensitive person? Or do you know someone who fits this description? Share your experience with me in the comments below!
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Kristen (& Rachel)
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I have known that am sensitive and I have spent all my life trying to fight these emotions because I thought they make me weak.
Thank you for sharing this.
Isn’t it so sad that our society has made us believe that sensitivity is weak, when it’s really a HUGE strength? I hope this post made you view your sensitivity through a new lens and see it for the gift that it is! Thanks for reading, Monica.
Totally nailed me on the head. It’s hard to know when my feelings/moods are mine or that of others. And I’m telling you, being a Firestarter (learned that by taking your personality profile quiz), and being tied to a computer and a time clock, makes it hard to give myself the self care and time with nature/animals that I need. Further, the nature of my job makes it hard to create boundaries as so much falls in the “all other duties as assigned” category. Wonder how long it is before I have to start making the office coffee…
I’m going to sign up for the Passion Profile Short Course so you ladies can help me figure out what to do with my life!
Thanks for this!
Wow, being a highly sensitive Firestarter in an office setting like you described sounds like a REAL challenge. No wonder you’re ready for a change! Can’t wait to see you in our Short Course so you can get clear on what might be a better fit for you! 🙂
Oh man, this is me. It has become even more so since my wife died 2 and half years ago. Im drawn to nature a lot. Often hike alone to connect. I seem to have a closeness with animals. Growing up with 4 brothers, I knew early on I was not like them.
By the way, I too am a Firestarter.
Aaron, I’m so sorry to hear about your wife’s passing. I can only imagine how that level of heartbreak and grief must have amplified your already innate sensitivity. I’m glad you give yourself time alone in nature or with animals to find solace and connection.
This is definitely me and my husband. We pick up on eachothers moods as well as others. Its an especially interesting super power around the holidays!
So true, Michelle!! The holidays can be an emotional rollercoaster for highly sensitive people.
Wow! As I was reading through it all I was like yes that is me. Everything was spot on I knew I was an emotional person whatever emotion I feel I feel it always so strongly. I always thought being highly sensitive was not a good thing or made me look weak I never knew it was a good thing. I am a hustler always multitasking and overwhelmed. I am deeply emotional when it comes to animals that is why I always knew working with animals in anyway is my calling, I currently volunteer at my local animal shelter, and now working for an amazing dog psychology company working with animals is my joy. Reading this I finally feel like wow someone out there understands me. Thank you!
Erika, your sensitivity is SUCH a huge gift (especially to the people — and animals!! — who get to benefit from your deep empathy), so I’m really happy to hear that this post changed has challenged your perception of sensitivity as a bad thing. If you ask me, the world needs more sensitive, empathic people who feel called to bring beauty and healing and positivity to the planet. So I hope you’ll start to embrace and protect your sensitivity!
This is so great! Thanks so much for more words of wisdom. Totally appropriate for a situation I encountered yesterday at work that is typical of my desire to help struggling students!
Julia, I love that this post was so timely for you! Thanks for reading. 🙂
A therapist suggested to me years ago that I am a “highly sensitive person”, which is actually a personality type recognised in the psychology world now. She had me read a book called ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ by Elaine Aaron and I was blown away by how much it described me. A follow up/side note to this book would be ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain; she discusses Elaine Aaron quite a bit.
I’m still rubbish at taking care of myself most of the time, but I’ve definitely been easier on myself for needing alone time, taking events and emotions too seriously and being overwhelmed by city life. Four years on from initially reading that book, I’m finally starting to bring my lifestyle in line with my personality so that I can have more of my needs met. You two have really helped me along that road too, after I did the PPVE!
Great book suggestions, Christine! (As a PPVE grad, you must know that I’m always looking for new books to add to my reading list. 🙂 ) I recently read Quiet, and I agree that it was incredibly helpful in understanding my (and other people’s) sensitive nature. I haven’t heard of The Highly Sensitive Person, but I’ll have to check it out!
It’s amazing that you’ve been shifting your lifestyle little-by-little to align with your sensitivity, instead of constantly trying to fight against it (which is impossible and exhausting, anyway!). Those changes can definitely take time — years, even, like you said! — but it’s so worth it to be living life on your terms.
This helps explain my tendency to take (misplace) ownership of blame in so many situations through the years. My sensitivity to others’ moods and feelings, and the desire to “fix it” that follows, brings about false guilt. Thank you for better defining the cause!
The false guilt is REAL, Sara! I totally feel you on that one. It takes some serious self-awareness to pause and remind yourself, “Wait, this isn’t about me!” or “It’s not my responsibility to fix this.” It’s incredibly freeing when you finally let go of that misplaced guilt & responsibility!
My daughter sent me this post after a conversation we recently had about challenges I’m dealing with in my life. I just can’t understand why I struggle to keep my emotions “in check”. Feeling completely overwhelmed by everything is so exhausting! I’ve has people in my life say things like “What’s wrong with you? “You need to get over it”. When you don’t understand and can’t explain why you feel the way you do to people, you start feeling really bad about yourself. I sometimes isolate myself so the judgement of others is silenced. Your characteristics of a too sensitive person describes my life 100%. I couldn’t finish reading this amazing information without crying (good tears!). Thank you for giving us valuable ideas for a better life.
It’s hurtful when the people in your life (well-meaning as they may be!) don’t understand you and make you feel bad about your sensitivity. But I want to reassure you that there is NOTHING wrong with you for being sensitive! In fact, I bet your sensitive, empathic nature has served you well many times in your life. But it is important to protect your sensitivity so that it doesn’t feel like a curse. Hopefully the suggestions in this post will help you make some personal and lifestyle changes to work WITH your sensitive nature, instead of feeling like it’s taking control over your life. I’m glad your daughter sent you this post (what a great daughter you have! 🙂 ), and I hope it helped you accept yourself just as you are.