The Experience of Being a Highly Sensitive Person, By Julie Bjelland, LMFT
As a psychotherapist that specializes in the highly sensitive person, and as one myself I have come to realize that we share many similarities. Once I expanded my work and started to work with HSPs globally, I saw that no matter where we live we share such similar experiences. I also began to see such similar patterns that we all seem to experience with the trait. It made me want to understand why we are the way we are. If there are around 1.4 billion of us in the world with this trait, there has to be a reason we are the way we are and feel the way we do. Why did we make up to 15-20% of the population? Why wasn’t it 50%?
I imagined the past when we were living out on the land in a tribe, and it was HSPs who were likely the medicine healers, the guides, and the ones the tribe turned to for advice and wisdom. As I grew to understand the trait more, I learned that we need that 80% of Non-HSPs to be the ones that might jump out in front of that lion to protect the tribe and we would lose a lot of them because they might react first and think later. But the specialists were the HSPs, and we didn’t need as many specialists because we think first and act later. This depth of processing comes in handy when planning out the best options for our tribe. We were probably the people that could tell if a particular place was safe to stay. Was it close enough to water and food and far enough from lions? We had a type of brain ability to think through and organize so many options and angles and this would be important in survival. So we need both types of survival strategies, which is likely why we evolved the way we did with the 20/80 split.
I also imagined that HSPs were the medicine tribe healers in that time. When we think of healers, we might picture that they spent a lot of solo time in their own hut, preparing remedies, and medicines and after healing sessions would need quiet time to rest and restore. They would need silence for deep thinking and analyzing. They could feel what their tribe was feeling so knew what was needed. These extra senses also put out a lot of output, so would need downtime to recover and rest. We, as healers, probably wouldn’t hang out with the tribe regularly because we needed down time to be silent. If we are always giving, we run out of energy and need rest and restoration to offer our gifts.
When I imagined this experience, I began to reframe how I viewed myself. Instead of being weird and different I began to embrace my unique trait, knowing that it offered a special gift to this world that is needed. If I am different, I need to care for myself differently, and that is when I finally found my center and learned how to live in balance. I stopped trying to please everyone and started paying attention to what I needed for the first time in my life. I spent more time practicing self-care and giving myself alone time when I needed it to be well. It was the first time I paid attention to what I need, and slowly I began experiencing an amazing thing…My own authenticity! I stopped putting on my mask in the world trying to be what I thought everyone wanted me to be and I started being ME. What’s fascinating about that is that whenever I work with someone moving toward being their authentic version of themselves, they all describe the same feeling…They “feel free.” It feels like being let out of a cage and putting down about a thousand pounds of weight. Is it scary at first to put down that mask and be you? Absolutely! But once a taste of being truly authentic is sampled, it is one of the most blissful feelings you can experience. It makes you realize that if the feeling is that good, it must be what we are meant to do.
Taking care of our own needs is necessary to be happy, and we are still the same kind and compassionate beings. We just have to practice reserving some of that kindness and compassion for our own needs too. It’s one of the things I observe most about HSPs. We are some of the most compassionate people I have ever met, and yet most of us have trouble feeling that same compassion for ourselves. I hear over and over again that we feel it is easier to disappoint our SELF or give up our own needs than to disappoint another. But if we continually do that we are in essence continually bypassing our own needs, which leads to high stress, anxiety and being overwhelmed and over time this leads to burnout and often resentment. I also work with a lot of couples, and I often observe that HSPs have the most resentment. Resentment is also going to happen when we continually give up our needs. Giving originates from such a beautiful space, but if we don’t balance giving to ourselves we will not be happy, and in the end, our relationships, friendships, and even our work suffer. So what we seek is a balance.
Once we have balance and are tuned in to meeting our own needs, we blossom and start to thrive as HSPs. Once an HSP is thriving, then these incredible gifts of the trait start to become accessible again. I think it is our stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed that blocks access to those gifts. So, working on our precious self-care and balance will help us in so many ways, and it becomes a domino effect in our lives. If we are thriving, then those around us benefit too. As a mother of highly sensitive children, I know how easy it is to put all of our energy into what’s needed to care for children and all the other aspects of our life. It’s so easy as a parent to put our own priority at the bottom. But what I observe when we do that is that parents become irritable, less present, and then begin a spiral of shame and blame. We cannot be thriving parents if we do not practice our own self-care.
Self-care for an HSP looks different than what 80% of the population does. It involves a lot more quiet, down time than most of us get. We also need to make sure we are taking breaks throughout the day. Most HSPs tell me that they used to do their self-care after a meltdown until they learned they could do self-care to prevent a meltdown!
I’ve observed a big change in myself and my clients when we can give ourselves at least a half a day (preferably) one day of quiet, unstructured time. This quiet time allows for depth of processing and resets our nervous system. Without that reset we keep our nervous system wound up too high. It’s kind of like burning the car out by flooring the gas peddle of the car all day. We have these super computer brains that need a lot of processing time. If we don’t get enough of it and keep downloading and downloading we eventually freeze up and that’s that familiar overwhelming feeling. Once we have that reaction, we have activated our limbic system, and that means we have triggered our fight/flight/freeze response. It feels horrible in our limbic system. Research shows HSPs have an overly activated limbic system and I believe that shows up in depression, anxiety, panic attacks, irritability, anger outbursts, brain-fog, exhaustion, trouble sleeping, resentment, low self-esteem, etc. Once we learn how to navigate our HSP brain needs better we won’t trigger that system so often. This means we will have more energy, more focus, sleep better, and generally be so much happier! Our brains as HSPs are remarkable, but no one showed us how to take care of this amazing super computer brain. So most of us take care of ourselves in the way the majority does. But it doesn’t work for us, and that is one reason our levels of anxiety are so high as HSPs.
I understand this on a deeply personal level too. I had spent most of my childhood feeling like there was something wrong with me and the way I reacted to the world. I often heard the words, “Don’t be so sensitive,” and “what’s wrong with you, snap out of it.” I would feel everything so deeply. Many of these messages and negative labels only compounded as I got older and soon I found my anxiety growing. When my kids were little, I remember feeling like I could barely go to their school to pick them up. It felt like the anxiety was taking over my life. I just knew there had to be a better way to live. That’s when I decided to work on myself and found a great therapist. She offered a supportive, non-judgmental space for me to share my inner world. I hadn’t shared that with anyone deeply before and it was hard at first, but then I began the journey toward self-acceptance and self-care. My life changed after that completely. I was free and authentic, and I felt all these things inside of me that were called to help others through this. The more I work with HSPs, the more I absolutely know how special we all are. We share such beautiful and positive parts of this trait; we just need to take better care of ourselves and our needs. I truly believe we are meant to be here just as we are and then our authentic gifts emerge.
I think this is what drives me in my work. I feel so called to help HSPs discover those gifts. When I am working with an HSP who feels broken down and full of anxiety, I know how to help them, and that feels like a calling to me. When I get to witness them removing that overwhelm and anxiety I know I am doing exactly what I was called to do. It’s such a beautiful thing to be an HSPs guide to help them find themselves fully and witness their transformations toward thriving.
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~Julie Bjelland is a psychotherapist, global HSP consultant, and leader in the field of high sensitivity and has helped thousands of highly sensitive people around the world. As an HSP herself, Julie understands what it is like to live with high sensitivity and strong emotions. Julie teaches an online course for HSPs and is the author of several books. www.juliebjelland.com.