I was bullied as a kid.
I don’t remember the specific things I got teased about, but I do remember turning to my friends and family for support, and them responding with this one particular phrase—a phrase that infuriated me, a phrase that crushed me, a phrase that made me feel like something must be terribly wrong with me:
“You’re too sensitive.”
Life didn’t get any less challenging for me as an adult. For one, I was deeply ashamed of how difficult it was for me to keep an in-house, 9-to-5 type job longer than a year.
But who could? Constant interruptions, ringing phones, high-energy meetings, weird smells from the break room, overlapping voices, buzzing fluorescent lights—how does anyone endure that five days a week? Isn’t everyone a little overwhelmed by all that sensory stimulation?
Or is it just me?
Actually, it’s not. According to Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person
, high sensitivity is a trait found in up to 15-20% of the world population—and it’s not all about being hyper-emotional or crying all the time, either.
The brains of highly sensitive people are just wired a little differently. While we do experience emotions with somewhat greater intensity, we also have a much more acute sensory experience. A softly buzzing light bulb to you might feel and sound more like a jet engine to a highly sensitive person.
(Are you highly sensitive? Take the quiz here
I didn’t realize there was a name for my experiences until I was much older, and I spent a long time feeling ashamed of myself for not being able to tolerate the same levels of stress, enjoy the same entertainment, or take criticism the way everyone one else seemed to.
But the moment I realized I wasn’t alone as a highly sensitive person, I started feeling a lot better about myself knowing there were others out there like me who were thriving happily in a loud, busy, and brightly-lit world.
Here’s how I learned to flourish as a highly sensitive person:
I checked my self-esteem.
This was a great starting point. I realized that being highly sensitive wasn’t bad at all—it just meant that I had some special talents that were absolutely of value in the world, like being really attentive to detail, and emotionally in-tune with others. My high sensitivity makes people feel comfortable opening up to me, and everyone needs a shoulder sometimes.
I learned to work with it rather than against it.
I’ve been a teacher, a bank teller, a wedding photographer, and a librarian. All of these careers were difficult for me because I had no control over who entered my space when, or how my workspace would be set up. Still, I knew I had something to offer the world. Writing provides me an opportunity to use my skills in a sensory environment that I can usually control.
I learned to take criticism.
Highly sensitive people soak up others’ emotions like a sponge, and we don’t like confrontation. This makes a lot of us people-pleasers, which means we’re at risk of sacrificing things that mean a lot to us in order to make someone else happy or gain their approval. Once I got a grip on my self-esteem, I learned how to analyze criticism a lot better. Today, I allow myself to feel uncomfortable if I need to, but once I’m done, I’m careful to use criticism constructively, and take it with a grain of salt if need be.
I started managing my expectations of others, and stop feeling ashamed for being me.
I used to beat myself up for ditching plans with friends because I’d had a long day and just needed an evening in silence at home. I used to blame my co-workers or students for my stress levels, or whine when my friends insisted on us watching a horror film together. As soon as I realized that it was my responsibility to bear with my high sensitivity, things got a lot better for me. I quit being embarrassed about shutting my eyes or ears during violent scenes in films, and allowed myself nights in when I needed them—my real friends always understood. I decided what an ideal working environment looked like for me, and worked hard to achieve that.
I always made sure I had a healthy emotional outlet.
When you’re highly sensitive, your feelings can get intense. I quickly realized that a lot of people wouldn’t understand this, and over-sharing on social media would annoy everyone pretty fast. Still, I knew my feelings were valid and needed to be expressed. I found one or two very close friends who understood me, and kept my venting and self-expression to them. I also never stopped writing music or journaling.
I made sure to use my sensitivity for good.
My keen senses make me great at providing feedback for all my artistic friends. And as a parent, it’s easy for me to get down on my preschooler’s level and figure out what she needs when she’s struggling to communicate. Rather than feeling bogged-down by overstimulation, I try to remember that being highly sensitive means I can help people in a special way.
I love being highly sensitive and getting to experience the nuances of the world the way I do, even if it means I have to take special care of myself sometimes in order to keep from feeling overwhelmed. Learning to work with my sensitivity has given me confidence in myself, and has been a key element in creating a life that I can be proud of— even if I am “too sensitive.”