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Curse of being a highly sensitive person

Still smarting over that nasty thing your mother-in-law said to you all those years ago? Do people always tell you to stop taking things to heart? And do you marvel at those ‘bombproof’ types who face down public disgrace or scandal and barge to the front of a queue without flinching?

There’s nothing wrong with you — it may be that you are just a HSP, or a Highly Sensitive Person.

That is, someone who processes emotions more deeply than others and often for longer. You may also be more reactive to environmental stimuli — feeling frazzled by crowds, bothered by loud noises or even flustered by fluorescent lighting or changes in the weather. Too much stimulation and you begin to feel overwhelmed.

Mel Collins (pictured) who is a psychotherapeutic counsellor and spiritual healer has written a new book for harnessing the power of being a highly sensitive person

One in five of us falls into this category, according to a new book by psychotherapeutic counsellor and spiritual healer, Mel Collins. Before training as a therapist, Mel worked as a prison governor and struggled with the intensity of her own feelings on a daily basis.

When she spoke about the personality trait on Radio 2 last year, the response, according to host Jeremy Vine, ‘was off the scale’. He, too, identifies as an HSP, explaining in his foreword to Mel’s book that he is ‘the one DJ at Radio 2 who constantly complains the headphones are too loud, so much so that the technicians had to work out a different way of plugging the circuits’ and ‘the one who cries when a pensioner calls the show and says she has never in her life had one real friend’.

And there are many more like him: the type of people who, as children, were called fussy, shy, shrinking violets — too sensitive.

The concept of ‘innate sensitivity’ was first discussed by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. More recently, U.S. psychologist Dr Elaine Aron has shown that high sensitivity is an innate temperament trait, not a disorder: HSP brains show a stronger activation of the regions involved in awareness and empathy.

Yet HSPs can end up feeling lonely and isolated, says Mel. The key to thriving as an HSP is to understand why you react in the way you do — and even to see your high sensitivity as a gift, not a flaw.

Do you recognise this in yourself? Here, MEL COLLINS explains how to harness the power of being an HSP, allowing yourself to feel valued, fulfilled and whole . . .

Mel advises starting each day with a positive affirmation to overcome a habit of comparing yourself to others  (file image) 

Mel advises starting each day with a positive affirmation to overcome a habit of comparing yourself to others  (file image) 

WHY CAN’T I JUST TOUGHEN UP?

Many people become more sensitive as they get older. But this is not the same as being an HSP, which means having the psychologically defined personality trait of ‘sensory processing sensitivity’.

Interestingly, an HSP is not necessarily an introvert — a third of HSPs tend to be extroverts.

ACTION: If HSPs have grown up in families where the high sensitivity trait is not valued, a ‘not-good-enough’ mentality can become ingrained. Stop comparing yourself with non-HSPs. Celebrate your unique and sensitive self.

One practical way is to start each day with a positive affirmation. Try: ‘I am unique. I embrace my sensitivity and I appreciate the gifts it brings to myself and others.’

FIX YOUR ONE-SIDED RELATIONSHIPS . . .

A number of HSPs have a history of difficult romantic relationships, due to a partner not understanding their trait or their need for space when they are feeling overwhelmed.

Many HSPs also tend to cover up who they really are, for fear of being judged as too emotional.

Mel suggests taking a step back from relationships that have an unhealthy balance (file image)

Mel suggests taking a step back from relationships that have an unhealthy balance (file image)

As a result, HSPs can end up with partners with whom they don’t feel a true connection, or in relationships with addicts or narcissists. HSPs are natural givers and can have friendships that are one-sided, too.

ACTION: Become aware of the sort of relationships you have in your life. For example, are you the one who runs around organising everything while the other person just gets waited on? Is there a balance between giving and receiving, and talking and listening, in your relationship?

If not, take steps to bring these back into better balance (starting with those I list below.)

. . . AND CUT THE CORD ON NEEDY FRIENDS 

Being highly empathic, HSPs often attract people in need, who feel so much better having spent time with their HSP friend. Unfortunately, the HSP can be left feeling exhausted.

Notice if you start to worry obsessively about the people you have just spent time with, or suddenly feel low afterwards. This can mean they have emotionally ‘hooked’ into you.

ACTION: Visualise anyone in your life whom you feel may be ‘hooking’ into you this way. Next, focus on what their ‘hooks’ or negative attachments look like and then, one by one, see yourself cutting these away. Remember, it is only the negative or needy energies you are unhooking.

Mel recommends expressing anger by either punching a pillow or screaming into it, she says ranting out loud can also be beneficial (file image)

Mel recommends expressing anger by either punching a pillow or screaming into it, she says ranting out loud can also be beneficial (file image)

EMBRACE YOUR ‘DARK SIDE’

HSPs often have difficulty accepting what is viewed as the ‘darker’ side of themselves. This can lead to them suppressing what they see as their more negative emotions, such as anger. Emotions can then come out in inappropriate ways.

ACTION: One healthy way of expressing anger is to punch a pillow or scream into it. My clients often feel silly doing this at first, but soon get to reap the benefits. Others like to go somewhere quiet and have a good rant out loud to themselves.

TAKE CONTROL AND MAKE AN ESCAPE PLAN

HSPs need to listen to their bodies or they risk burnout. This is usually because of the high level of the stress hormone cortisol being released by the adrenal glands, which can result in insomnia, weight fluctuations, anxiety, depression and lethargy.

ACTION: Try the ACE method — Avoid, Control or Escape — a simple, but effective, strategy adapted from the drug services department in the prison I worked in.

It is useful for when you know a situation is likely to over-stimulate your nervous system.

If you can, Avoid it. Of course, there are situations, such as parties, concerts or family gatherings, that we can’t, or don’t want to, avoid.

Mel advises spending time reflecting on your skills and qualities using a list of all the jobs that you've had to date (file image) 

Mel advises spending time reflecting on your skills and qualities using a list of all the jobs that you’ve had to date (file image) 

So put in place strategies to Control the over-stimulation — such as taking regular breaks, perhaps by going outside for fresh air.

Work environments can be tricky to control, so I recommend that HSPs frequently disappear to the loo.

Finally, allow yourself to Escape when needed. Leave the party, find another job, change your environment. It’s OK not to constantly push yourself.

YOU’RE ALREADY IN YOUR PERFECT JOB

Many HSPs have a strong drive to make a difference. They believe if they don’t feel fulfilled in this way, they are in the wrong career and often spend a lot of time searching for what they are ‘supposed’ to be doing. In reality, however, any job has the capacity to meet an inner need.

ACTION: Make a list of all the jobs you’ve had to date. Spend time reflecting on the skills and qualities you developed and what you gained from each.

Then ask yourself how you can build on this to make a difference. Choose to view every job as a stepping stone towards a more fulfilling purpose.

BEFRIEND YOUR INNER CRITIC

Are you aware of an inner voice that often berates you? The ego has many sub-personalities and the inner critic is one of the most vocal in HSPs. Many try to ignore it, while others repress it with positive thinking, but the voice is only silenced temporarily.

Mel suggests taking regular breaks both at work and at social events rather than pushing yourself in situations that can't be avoided (file image)

Mel suggests taking regular breaks both at work and at social events rather than pushing yourself in situations that can’t be avoided (file image)

ACTION: A more effective way of dealing with your inner critic is to befriend it. Visualise it and give it a name, such as Moaning Minnie or Nagging Nora.

Whose voice are you actually hearing? For instance, was there a teacher at school who called you ‘stupid’? This can help you work out where these critiques began. Next, question their validity. If your critic says you’re stupid, how did you end up achieving that qualification?

Channel some self-love. Now change your critic’s name to reflect this, such as Messenger Minnie or Nudging Nora.

GIVE UP YOUR GRUDGES

Forgiving other people can be a challenge for HSPs. Due to the depth of their emotional processing, hurts, lies and betrayals can lie deep within.

ACTION: To forgive fully, we must allow ourselves to feel any emotions that arise. Identify when you have felt these feelings before.

For example, if you have been let down at the last minute by a friend, there may be an older, deeper hurt that resurfaces in a memory, helping you understand why you may feel disproportionately angry.

Now try looking at the situation with a wider view: if someone treats you with a lack of respect, do you need to put in place stronger boundaries?

NO, YOU’RE NOT A HYPOCHONDRIAC

HSPs are extremely sensitive to pain and can be susceptible to disorders such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or insomnia. Many often struggle with allergies, intolerances and digestive issues.

Mel recommends a self-care routine including regular exercise to enhance your life (file image)

Mel recommends a self-care routine including regular exercise to enhance your life (file image)

I have found that some HSPs also have a history of substance abuse as a coping strategy, from caffeine (for feeling drained) or food (comfort eating or as a layer of protection), to alcohol or drugs (relaxation or escapism).

ACTION: Create a positive self-care routine, including getting any significant health problems checked out. Relaxing measures such as regular exercise, or taking a pre-bed bath, can have huge benefits.

A good vitamin B complex and magnesium supplement can help you relax, too.

Whatever you do, please remember that being highly sensitive is not a weakness or a flaw. It is a gift that can enhance your life.

Are you an HSP? Take the quiz…

Tick the boxes that are at least somewhat true for you.

[] 1. You have often been told by those around you that ‘you are too sensitive for your own good’ or that you need to ‘toughen up’.

[] 2. You experience emotions to a much stronger or deeper extent than other people.

[] 3. You often feel like you’re overwhelmed when around large groups of people.

[] 4. You’re acutely sensitive to loud noises, crowds and/ or negativity and often feel the need to escape from these situations.

[] 5. You are highly intuitive and pick up on subtleties with people or environments. You can sense if something is wrong when others are unaware of it.

[] 6. You give great attention to detail or could be considered a perfectionist.

[] 7. You can always see the ‘bigger picture’.

[] 8. You ignore your body’s messages of being overstimulated and end up feeling frazzled, exhausted and burnt out, or the opposite: restless, anxious or unable to sleep.

[] 9. You tend to be affected by other people’s moods and can end up feeling drained, while others comment that they feel better after they have been with you.

[] 10. You can feel deeply hurt and find yourself ‘closing down’ when criticised, judged, betrayed, cheated on or lied to. You may even feel you will never fully get over it.

[] 11. You have experienced ‘going out of your body’ (dissociating) in difficult emotional times or you ‘space out’ or daydream on a regular basis.

Scoring (out of 11)

If you ticked between seven and 11 boxes, it is extremely likely you are an HSP. If you ticked fewer than seven, but those are ‘extremely’ true of you, you would be justified in thinking of yourself as an HSP, especially if you ticked boxes 1–5, 8 and 9.

Adapted by Emma Rowley from The Handbook For Highly Sensitive People by Mel Collins (£9.99, Watkins) © Mel Collins 2019. To order a copy for £7.99 (offer valid to February 4, 2019; P&P is free on orders over £15), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.

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