HSP Living: Intense Feelings and Learning to Respond Instead of React
The Highly Sensitive Person and Deep Feelings
There is no doubt that it is part and parcel of being a Highly Sensitive Person-- HSP-- to "feel things deeply." HSPs really have no choice in the matter-- the 15% of the population that can be identified as "highly sensitive" are simply neurologically wired to experience life more intensely.
One of the challenges facing many HSPs is figuring out how to live full, balanced and rewarding lives when they are constantly feel like they are living at the edge of getting overstimulated by the inputs from the world around them.
In the course of some 20-odd years of studying this sensitivity trait of ours, I have come to realize that whereas we have no choice about having intense feelings, part of successfully "navigating" life comes through recognizing and embracing that we do have a choice in terms of how we respond to those intense feelings.
This article will explore the concept and importance of learning to "respond" to what we feel, rather than "react" to it.
Before we get started, if you're not entirely sure what a "Highly Sensitive Person" is, or you're not certain whether or not you are one, I'd like to recommend that you start by reading my introductory article about the HSP trait, which also includes a link to a free online test for sensitivity.
"Experiencing" vs. "Controlling" our Feelings
Whether we are HSPs or not, feelings are a natural part of the normal spectrum of human experience.
But when you're a Highly Sensitive Person, you may have been accused of "not being able to control" your feelings, or "not emotionally self-regulating" or maybe even of being "emotionally flaky" or "too touchy and high maintenance." Except in extreme cases of toxic behavior, such accusations probably feel somewhat unjust... but we can also do our part by learning to manage our feelings, while remaining completely open to having them.
It is important, for the purposes of this article, that I take a moment to make it quite clear that learning to manage our feelings is not the same thing as "controlling" them or "swallowing" them.
For most people "controlling" is a negative word that suggests that we somehow "stuff" or ignore what we're feeling. And that's rarely a good thing and actually can be damaging to your mental health. By learning to "manage" our strong feelings, we allow ourselves to experience them fully, but then can make a conscious choice to respond to them in a constructive way, rather than react to them, in often DE-structive ways.
In times long gone by, this was often referred to as "counting to 10" before responding to something that was upsetting.
An informal poll about HSPs and feelings
If you're an HSP, how would you describe your
"THE Book" about being an HSP
The term "Highly Sensitive Person" (or HSP) was coined by reasearch psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron in 1996, in her landmark book by the same name.
Whereas people have many "personal definitions" as to what it "means" to be sensitive, if you even remotely suspect you're an HSP, you owe it to yourself to read this book... which offers a thorough scientific background of the trait, as well as offering an assortment of tips for living, for HSPs.
This book has already changed the lives and self-perception of millions of people... HIGHLY recommended!
Feelings: What we can Choose... and what we can't
One of the challenges many HSPs face is managing overstimulation, as a result of experiencing strong feelings all the time.
In the course of talking to many HSPs about the ways in which they get "spun out," one of the most frequently heard phrases I encounter (usually when I have made a suggestion) is "But I have no CHOICE!" when it comes to being an HSP and "feeling things."
Let's take a moment to examine that statement, along with the ways in which it holds true, and the ways it doesn't.
It is absolutely true that we have "no choice" when it comes to feeling strongly. We're HSPs, after all. What's also true is that we will tend to experience negative emotions more strongly... pretty much everyone does.
But we do have a choice in terms of what we do with those feelings when we're having them. And one of the most important choices we can make is to "pause and check" (which incidentally is also a core characteristic of the HSP trait) what we're feeling when a feeling arises, rather than simply "reacting to it," in the moment.
Of course, that may sound easier said than done. And it definitely does require adopting and maintaining a conscious state of mindfulness to simply be aware of a feeling, without immediately acting on it. Yes it requires practice, and it's extra work, but well worth it, given the more "smooth sailing" in life we get as the "reward."
How Emotional Reactivity Can Disempower Us
How often has something like this happened to you:
You're in conversation with a friend, all is well and you're enjoying yourself, and suddenly the person you're with says something that feels like you just got emotionally stabbed.
In no time at all, you fabricate horrible scenarios in your head about how this person actually doesn't like you (in spite of their just having bought your lunch), and next thing you know you're excusing yourself from your lunch date and hurriedly leave with no intention of ever talking to that person again.
But later on you realize that your friend had absolutely no way of knowing that they'd brought up a topic you were particularly sensitive to-- your scenarios were centered on the idea that they would be "feeling things as you do," but as a non-HSP they clearly did not.
You're sitting at work on your lunch break and feel a slight tightness in your chest and a slight twinge in your left arm. In a matter of seconds, you're overcome by anxiety and fear that you're having a heart attack and you get a co-worker to take you to the emergency room... where you learn that you probably had a slight allergic reaction to something in your salad dressing, and the twinge in your shoulder was actually soreness from several boxes you carried into the attic yesterday.
When we constantly REACT (rather than respond) to our feelings, we actually disempower ourselves by not "pausing to check" to determine what we're actually feeling and where those feelings are coming from... and in the longer term, we disempower ourselves by actually becoming those "emotional flakes" our friends and family sometimes suggest we might be... assertions which really hurt our feelings.
Who "Made" Who Feel What?
The previously mentioned "But I have no CHOICE!" statement can also be inadvertently disempowering for those who feel intensely, and feel a lot.
Sometimes it ends up serving as a nifty "blanket excuse" that allows us to avoid taking ownership of, and being accountable for, our own feelings and emotions. It "allows" us to blame other people and events for feelings that are actually 100% our own.
Much as many people (and HSPs, especially!) don't like to look directly at it, making others accountable for how we feel can become a really toxic pattern. For the most part, other people don't "make us" feel anything... we make ourselves feel things. Our emotional reactions are our own internal processes taking someone else's words and giving them a specific (and often hurtful) meaning based on our own experiences and contexts... that may have absolutely nothing to do with the present situation.
When we adopt a mindfulness practice, it gives us the opportunity to pause and examine why we feel what we feel, before we respond. For HSPs, this can be a very important and useful tool because it also offers us the benefit of reducing emotional overstimulation in our lives, before it becomes a problem.
For example, when our friend Bob "hurts our feelings" by saying he doesn't like white cars (and we drive a white car), pausing to consider WHY this hurts our feelings not only keeps us from making a snippy response, but may allow us to uncover that Bob has owned three white cars in a row that broke down all the time, and his opinion about white cars has nothing to do with our choice of car and everything to do with his experience.
An Excellent Book about the Nature of Emotions
Judy Orloff is, herself, an HSP and many of her writings are particularly appropriate for the highly sensitive person. This is a really excellent book for those who'd like to have a better "grip" on their emotional life... without losing sight of the fact that we ARE HSPs.
HSPs, Mindfulness and "Observing" Our Feelings
I must confess that I was a "slave to my emotions" for many years-- most of them before learning there was such a thing as "high sensitivity" as an actual trait. I was basically a pretty reactive sort of person, even if I wasn't always very expressive. What I mean by that is that I may not always have been outwardly reactive (confrontational) but I was highly internally reactive (brooding and making snap judgments based on flimsy information), often leading to emotional pain and misunderstandings.
It also took me a number of years to truly grasp how to fully "have" my feelings without "reacting" to them.
The thing I had to learn is that there is a significant difference between trying to completely "ignore" a feeling, and fully experiencing a feeling... without feeling compelled to "immediately ACT on it." I also had to learn how to be personally accountable for my own roles in situations... leaving behind a tendency to "blame" external circumstances for my inner emotional states.
I'm not suggesting that life and people around us do not affect us-- quite the contrary. We just have to stop blaming them, which in turn gives them power over us.
Metaphorically speaking, if we don't like stripes, or are offended by stripes... it doesn't make sense to "blame" zebras for having stripes that offend us-- we are accountable for choosing to not hang out in places where there are likely to be zebras.
Learning to "observe" and simply experience our feelings without immediately "acting" on them also brings us more in touch with ourselves.
For some (myself included) the learning process can be challenging, time consuming and even a bit painful, because it may bring us face-to-face with things about ourselves that we don't really like very much, or perhaps old unresolved issues. Maybe these are the result of old wounds from childhood, from a past relationship or friendship, or perhaps we have to come face to face with one of our (hidden) closely held beliefs we don't generally admit to.
The way I personally learned the process of "observing my feelings" was to always keep in mind that there was nothing I needed to DO, just because I was having a strong feeling. Of course, in the beginning, that felt counterintuitive... and I just wanted to react to whatever had triggered the emotion, and often I wanted to either lash out, cry or run away. But with practice, I was able to simply note "Wow! That REALLY hurt" and then experience and examine where and why the pain had arisen. And I came to realize that I often treated people unfairly because I judged their words based on my own past negative memory, rather than the current situation.
You, too, can learn to stay with what you're feeling and not "react." It just takes some practice and awareness... at the end of which you'll come to see how we DO "have a choice" with our strong feelings as HSPs... and with a little mindfulness, we can learn to handle overstimulating words and situations more readily.
And given how challenging life can be for an HSP, that's a very worthwhile thing to strive for!
Postscript: Emotional Sensitivity and the HSP Trait
There is some debate as to whether "feelings," hereunder "easily hurt feelings" are even a defining characteristic of being a Highly Sensitive Person. Many experts on the trait believe the answer is "no."
Whereas such assertions may offend some who identify as "Highly Sensitive," it bears keeping in mind that Dr. Elaine Aron's 1996 definition of the trait speaks more to sensitivity as a physiological characteristic, and not so much to is as being "about emotional sensitivity." The latter is ultimately a psychological condition, which usually has roots in experiences, rather than genetics. The HSP trait is about "biological hardwiring," not about "psychological preferences."
In more recent years, Dr. Aron has used the acronym "DOES" to describe the core aspects of the HSP trait. The "E" stands for "Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy." Note again that the term is "responsiveness," not "reactivity."
My personal viewpoint is quite similar to Dr. Aron's, but I like to add the observation that since HSPs experience everything more intensely, they also experience "hurt feelings" and "emotional sensitivity" more intensely... but that doesn't mean that these are the defining factors of the HSP trait, just contributing aspects.
My primary purpose in writing this article was to address the fact that wherever people who have self-identified as "highly sensitive" get together, the conversation invariably turns away from Dr. Aron's definition, and towards lengthy discussions of emotional sensitivity and easily hurt feelings.
There's nothing wrong with that, on the surface, but we can do ourselves a disservice by dwelling excessively on-- and overidentifying with-- "hurt feelings" as the heart of what it "means" to be a Highly Sensitive Person.
As such, I felt the topic deserved to be addressed.
If you'd like to read more, you may also be interested in this article I wrote for OM Times Magazine, exploring the differences between being an HSP, an Empath and a psychic "Sensitive."
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I hope you'll check out some of my other articles about living as an HSP. I try to cover a wide range of life situations that seem particularly important for us... some of the most popular topics include HSPs and the Challenges of Friendships, HSPs and Meaningful Work, as well as a favorite with many: Understanding the Challenges of Highly Sensitive Men.
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