If ever my work has spoken to you– be it from the perspective of a client, a reader of my blogs or books, a follower of my social media, a watcher of my videos– then you are most definitely in the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) category. Over twenty years ago, Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., wrote a book titled The Highly Sensitive Person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you, and it became the user manual to my inner-life. How could anyone who has never met me know me so well, I marveled at the time… Turns out millions of others felt the same. Since then it has been determined that fifteen to twenty percent of the population is likely an HSP, defined by their tendency to be highly empathic, introverted, creative, intuitive, and extremely sensitive to environmental stimulation– loud noises, big crowds, rat-race demands.
I struggled trying to figure out why I was so faulty for years before I began to figure out that there was nothing actually wrong with me; I was just built differently. Rather than hate myself for being so uncool– in my early twenties I couldn’t tolerate going to bars or clubs, something my friends did for fun– I just learned to mostly stay home by myself. And then I met new friends who liked to gather in small groups, play games, compare personality inventories, talk for hours, or watch movies…a pace that felt more conducive to my sanity. (Thank you for rescuing me, Shari! Still besties after twenty eight years!)
The truth is, as highly sensitive as I was, I was good at faking extroversion when I had to. In my veterinary career I faked it well. And I’m not going to lie; I was professionally rewarded for masquerading as an extrovert for decades…until I had a massive, extremely complex, complete nervous breakdown after I made the incredibly courageous decision to step away from my self-destructive professional identity once and for all. This isn’t uncommon. When a person makes the decision to create an entirely new life overnight, the psyche occasionally melts down in overwhelm, especially when that decision is not supported by a transformation professional (a coach or psychologist).
There’s a lot more to that fantastical story, but I’ll save it for another day. The bottom line is… as scary as it was, my breakdown was a breakthrough. It was the absolute best thing that ever happened to me.
And though it took me months to recover, from that day forward I owned my authenticity completely. Never again would I pretend to be anything I wasn’t in order to fit into some system I wasn’t built for. Never again would I compromise my soul and psyche to be someone I couldn’t recognize when I looked in the mirror.
All of that meant I could unleash my intuitive gifts on the world, which meant living a life-long dream of helping others with their own journeys of authenticity and healing. Today I help Highly Sensitive People all over the country and world create the inner resources they need to safely express their innate powers and strengths, rather than hide them within. The world needs the empaths and the introverts. And they’re everywhere. The HSP’s I work with on a daily basis are artists, lawyers, doctors, computer engineers, writers, mechanics, police officers, entrepreneurs, physicists, government agents, yoga teachers, forest workers, college professors…the point is, they are fulfilling every professional role imaginable. And there are very few resources provided in the workplace for tending to their well being, despite the evidence that HSP’s are generally the organizational superstars.
It’s my mission in life to teach Highly Sensitive People how to thrive by creating the circumstances they need to function at 100%, rather than limping through life feeling 75% depleted, which was definitely my reality for my first thirty eight years. The reason I named my company Coaching To Come Alive is because for years I felt dead. Because the only way to deal with the pain and overwhelm of living this life as an unsupported HSP was to numb myself out, become lifeless in order to escape the hurt.
It breaks my heart when I know somebody else may be struggling with that same reality today. And I know millions do.
So today I’d love to share with you my own observations, 9 must-haves for the well being of the Highly Sensitive Person. If you’re an HSP, or know one– your child, your co-worker, your family member, your friend– please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.
1.) We need to be able to ground ourselves. So many Highly Sensitive People have a million creative ideas but they can’t seem to bring any to fruition. We need to be able to find a way to create the structure needed to organize and anchor that brilliant vision. HSP’s are big-picture kind of people. Sometimes we need help with the details.
2.) There is a strong need for Purpose and Meaning. Why we are doing something is important. Who is this helping? What bigger problem is it solving? We need to know that we’re tapped into something that’s making the world a better place, solving an important problem, advancing some need.
3.) There is a need for a sympathetic community. It’s true, the Highly Sensitive Person may not need an army of close friends around them, but it’s highly beneficial to be a part of something that feels nourishing in some way. And having a few close friends who get them is ideal for their well being. Open-minded, heart-centered people who don’t discriminate based on religion, race, sexuality, or culture are an absolute must-have.
4.) There is a desire to feel healthy. Many HSP’s have found they do best avoiding certain foods, and they know exactly what works for them nutritionally. If a person has food sensitivities, a Highly Sensitive Person is likely to know exactly what those are. I myself have an Ayurveda practitioner (herbal and food remedies) and am learning that I absolutely need her knowledgeable expertise for optimal functioning.
5.) We need to be successful, but hold the soul-loss please… An HSP has a very hard time enduring a job they hate. Many HSP’s hold very important positions and feel they can’t just bail on their life as it’s currently designed. Big changes aren’t easy for them. (As evidenced by the nervous breakdown I had when I made my survival leap.) They have children who depend on them (granted, I didn’t), mortgages to pay, responsibilities to uphold…but just know that if you are an HSP and are doing something you find meaningless, you are going to feel more worn-down than will seem bearable at times. When this is the case and I find myself working with somebody in this position, I have one objective– help them stay plugged in to their internal resources as best they can, so they can stay alive through it, rather than numb out and go into a tragic hibernation for years on end. Eventually, I know if they can stay resourceful, they’ll find a way out.
6.) They need to be able to express themselves safely. Many HSP’s have learned decades ago that the only route to survival is to repress their emotions. Because it’s too scary, painful, and way too vulnerable to actually own their feelings, speak them even, at the risk of total annihilation if they do. A Highly Sensitive Person has to learn the way out of repression, because withholding feelings, thoughts, cares…for years at a time is one reason why there is an epidemic of stress-related and auto-immune illness in this country. This breaks my heart, especially when emotional intelligence is so easy to learn.
7.) They need to be creative. An HSP is quirky, whimsical, unique. They have to be able to create the circumstances in order to foster those characteristics. Many mistake creativity for the creation of art, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about individual expression, authenticity, the building of a life of freedom. It’s about thinking differently, the search for truth and identity. It’s about living outside the box.
8.) They need a connection to their own spirit. For me, this also means a strong spiritual practice. But a person can be an atheist and this still applies. I’ve known atheists who have to stay plugged in to classical music (which ignites their spirit, or maybe they prefer different terminology, that’s okay too) or art or even sports in order to feel they’re alive. What is that one thing that makes a person forget time, forget they’re separate from all of existence? It’s that very thing we need to stay connected to. And don’t make the mistake of pushing your particular form of spirit on to another HSP because that is not going to go well. Many HSP’s reject a one-size-fits-all form of spirituality (like religion, for example). Myself, for example, I definitely believe in a God…but am not so foolish to pertain that I understand what that even means. Some things are unknowable. And that’s my truth. If you try to assume that your truth is my truth…I will have no choice but to reject that notion.
9.) HSP’s need inter-connection, we need Nature. A Highly Sensitive Person feels an animistic connection to all life forms. That means we can feel no real distinction between animals and ourselves. A vicious affront to another living being is equally egregious between species as it is within our own. This is mind-blowingly difficult for a non-HSP to understand. But we can feel a connection with a forest as clearly as we can another living being. That’s why the destruction of our environment is so excruciating for HSP’s to experience. We need to lose ourselves in the wilderness every now and then. We need to live sustainably. We need to know we’re doing the best we can to be the solution, not the problem.
If you are a fellow Highly Sensitive Person, please know that everything I do professionally, I do for you. Please know that I’m one of you. YOU are my Purpose and Meaning. I’m not exaggerating when I say I believe human beings are evolving to be more sensitive, not less. That’s why so many Millennials and Gen-Z’s are Highly Sensitive. I can guarantee those who categorize our young people of today as being lost, or drifting, or lazy, or entitled…are missing the bigger picture.
The HSP category isn’t going anywhere. In fact, in my estimation, it’s only getting stronger. I see it everyday, one beautiful person at a time.