You’re a sensitive person, and you’re not particularly proud of it. You’ve probably been told oh-so many times that you’re too sensitive and too emotional. You’re delicate and fragile, and you need to toughen up. You need to build thicker skin—or you’ll never survive in this world, or get anything done.
Maybe you grew up believing that you’re also too picky, too serious and too quiet. You’re too hesitant with making decisions. And you’re high maintenance on top of all of that.
“We live in a culture that doesn’t tend to value qualities associated with the trait of sensitivity, so I think many of us grow up thinking there’s something wrong with us,” said Laura Torres, LPC, a holistic mental health counselor who specializes in working with sensitive individuals, and gave the above examples.
Many sensitive souls also grow up in families or around peers where they’re the only sensitive person, she said. Which often leads you to dismiss and bury aspects of your sensitivity in order to fit in. You pretend these qualities simply don’t exist. You find yourself regularly apologizing for who you are—and resenting it.
And you end up internalizing your “differences as deficiencies or weaknesses versus competencies and strengths.”
We also start to perceive our sensitivity as problematic because of the way environments and workplaces are set up, which naturally caters to the majority in our culture. So there usually isn’t an emphasis on taking breaks when needed, quiet spaces, natural lighting, minimal stimulation, and understanding sensitivity as a valuable trait (versus some liability), Torres said.
That means “we’re forced to accommodate and adjust to a lifestyle that’s not as conducive for our sensitivity, which often leaves us feeling under-resourced and over-stressed.”
So what can you do? Do you deny an integral part of yourself? Do you stop listening to your sensitivity? Do you make it your goal to grow thicker, tougher skin?
What you do is you honor yourself. Below, are five tips on how.
Focus on strengths and benefits. In her workshops, Torres asks individuals to list all the strengths, benefits and things they love about being sensitive. For instance, maybe you’re able to read the energy of a room and know exactly how to make it more comfortable. Maybe you’re a teacher who knows when her students need extra support. Maybe you’re able to really savor a delicious meal. Maybe you’ve used your deep appreciation for art, music and nature to connect with your children.
It’s also helpful to get super specific, and identify the situations where your sensitivity has supported you or someone else. Torres shared this example: “Empathy is something I love about being sensitive, and here’s a time it was helpful: I could tell something was wrong because of his tone so I asked a little bit more and he ended up opening up and really appreciating my support.”
“Like anything, what we focus on grows so the more we can focus on the qualities we love about ourselves, the easier it becomes to notice and continue to live into a person who fully embraces and appreciates their sensitivity,” Torres said.
Meet your needs. Notice the early signs that you’re feeling drained and overwhelmed, and give yourself what you need in that moment. “One of the huge benefits of being highly sensitive is that we are very aware so it tends to be pretty easy for us to notice what we need in those moments”—though it’s not always easy to follow through, Torres said.
For instance, maybe you need space, and thereby need to set a firmer boundary. Maybe you need to ask for more time to complete a project. Maybe you need to say “Let me think about it,” when someone requests your help (instead of automatically saying, “absolutely!” and realizing you’ll need three days to recover).
Carve out downtime. Torres noted that sensitive individuals usually require more downtime than less sensitive people. Consider building downtime into your schedule before you drastically need it. Think about your own definition of downtime. What genuinely relaxes you? What rejuvenates you? What helps you shut out the noise of the world and tune into yourself?
For instance, maybe you schedule 20 minutes of reading time after your kids have gone to bed. Maybe you eat your lunch at the park, while savoring your food and your natural surroundings. Maybe as soon as you get home, you take 10 minutes to put on your headphones, close your eyes, listen to classical music, and let your mind wander.
Channel your sensitivity into speaking up. Torres noted that sensitive individuals tend to hold back from expressing their needs and their truth because they anticipate that the other person will be disappointed and upset. But not speaking up ensures that the other person never really gets to know you—the real you—and you start to get resentful, she said.
When you do speak up, any of the outcomes are beneficial. According to Torres, the other person ends up being receptive and appreciative, which deepens your relationship’s security; or they become upset and disappointed, and you’re able to work through it, also deepening the relationship; or they get upset and disappointed, and you’re unable to work through it, which helps you “move on from the relationship so that we create space for someone who is able to be receptive and loving when we show up fully. “
You can use your sensitivity to express yourself with empathy and compassion. You can start your talk on a positive note: “You’re a great friend and I’m telling you this because I care about you…” You can be vulnerable, share your feelings and take responsibility. (Learn more in this piece, along with specific examples.) You can be genuinely curious about the other person’s feelings and perspective, and listen fully when they speak. And you can remind yourself that your heart is important, too.
Find comfort outside your comfort zone. Your sensitive soul isn’t a hindrance that stops you from pursuing your desires and goals. You can still honor yourself as you try new, intimidating things. According to Torres, “going beyond your comfort zone is only helpful if you’re still in your resiliency zone or window of tolerance, meaning that you’re not so far out of your comfort zone that your body is going into fight or flight.”
As you push past your edges, she suggested considering the resources that help you stay in your resiliency zone. For instance, you’ve decided to attend a networking event for podcasters. But you don’t know anyone. So you “bring a friend, reach out ahead of time to the organizer to know what to expect [and] brainstorm some easy conversation starters.” In other words, you prepare in a way that aligns with and is respectful of your sensitive nature.
Again, your sensitivity isn’t a problem or burden or obstacle you need to overcome. Rather, your sensitivity helps you notice things that others don’t, Torres said. Which is vital for both your profession, and your family life. Your sensitivity creates “space for others to be vulnerable and show up more fully.” You may notice that a friend is struggling with something that goes beyond baby blues—and support her in getting the help she needs. You may pick up on a client’s need, and find a creative way to accommodate it.
Your sensitive soul is a beautiful strength. It might take some time for you to realize it, but focus on respecting it anyway, even if acceptance isn’t a reality just yet. Act as if it is, and your thoughts will eventually follow.