Why life can feel hard as a highly sensitive person (HSP)
A phrase my parents became all too accustomed to hearing during my teens was, "Why does life feel so much harder for me?" It's a phrase I’m sure my parents found melodramatic and which, upon reflection, a few days later, I did too. But, there did seem to be some truth to the statement.
A family gathering would leave my mind feeling frazzled. Making small talk was exhausting. After a day of school, I’d crave time alone. I struggled to let go of the passing comments my sister made. Certain noises that no one else noticed made my skin crawl.
All these simple, day-to-day things that didn’t seem to affect others, for me, were just too much. I felt like either life was harder for me or there was something wrong with me. Perhaps it was easier, more comforting even, to believe that life was harder.
Stumbling across Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person, I felt like for the first time, someone saw me. Someone actually understood what life had felt like for me all these years, and I wasn’t alone. In fact, nearly 20% of people are highly sensitive and experience similar struggles.
But (and this is important), being highly sensitive doesn’t mean being weak, or less resilient. It isn’t a flaw or a defect. Life can, at times, feel harder simply because the world hasn’t been designed for the sensitive person.
So, it’s important for the highly sensitive soul to understand their trait in order to create a life that works for them and not against them.
What is a highly sensitive person?
When we think of what it means to be sensitive, many people will conjure up an image of someone who is timid, emotional, and insecure. And whilst these things can stem from sensitivity, they are certainly not the trait itself.
An analogy I’ve always liked comes from the research of Ellis and Boyce, who proposed two categories: dandelions and orchids. The dandelions here represent non-HSPs, who make up 80% of the population. Dandelions are known to be sturdy plants, capable of thriving regardless of their environment. Orchids, on the other hand, portray us HSPs. They are more delicate and need the right environment to blossom.
Elaine Aron, who coined the term in the 1990s, defined the highly sensitive person as having a nervous system that is more receptive to the subtleties of its environment. This essentially means that they are processing their external and internal world on a deeper level.
So, whilst a non-HSP may walk into a party and head immediately to their friends, unphased by their environment, an HSP has already identified the texture of the chairs, observed the choice of lighting, recognised the temperature, sensed the energy of the people attending, noted the different tones of conversations and so much more before walking two feet into the room.
HSPs are used to being told that should be "less sensitive". But it’s impossible to change the reactivity of your nervous system. It’s like telling someone to be "less tall". Because of this receptivity, HSPs can experience unique challenges, that to others may seem silly, irrational or just plain bizarre.
10 reasons life can feel hard as a highly sensitive person (HSP)
This is a list curated from the experiences of my clients that reflect my own. I share these here in the hopes that you will feel seen, understood and validated in your own similarities.
1. You seek alone time
Before I learned about being highly sensitive I was certain there was something ‘wrong’ with me socially. Whether at the tennis club of my childhood, on school English trips or at weekend training programmes, I would seek time away from the group, even if that was in a bathroom cubicle.
There were other instances like how my friends could hang out for days without a break, or colleagues that wanted to go for drinks after work, where I just felt so confused and frustrated at myself for not being able to keep up.
Now I recognise that my social battery drains more quickly and I need alone time to recharge and feel balanced again. And that’s OK.
Tip: Be intentional with your planning and your time. If you know that three plans a week is your limit, stick to that. Use the time that you’ve freed up to recharge your battery through mindful activities i.e. not doom scrolling on your phone.
2. You get all the hangovers
I’m talking mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially! For many HSPs, feeling tired is a constant struggle. Remember, your brain is processing your environment on a deep level and that takes a toll. Don’t underestimate the impact of absorbing other people’s energy, ignoring your own boundaries and constantly being ‘on’ can have on your energy systems.
Tip: Prioritising self-care and sleep are of course essential here. But don’t forget to check in and ask yourself "Is this emotion mine, or am I carrying around someone else’s"?
3. Overwhelm is a constant companion
The touch of velvet, the screech of a fork against a plate, static on the radio, an itchy jumper, and tight jeans don’t just irritate me, they send me from 0-100 in a matter of seconds. At least they used to before I had any understanding of what was going on and why an innocuous sound or feeling triggered me so much.
Tip: Familiarise yourself with your triggers so that you can minimise them happening to you or around you. And for those you have no control over, practice deep breathing, with a long slow sigh for your exhale to regulate the nervous system.
4. Saying "No" doesn’t come easily
In fact, it might just be the hardest word in your vocab. Highly sensitive people feel the emotions of others, which can make it incredibly hard to say no when you can actually feel that other person’s disappointment or sadness.
On top of this, HSPs not only dislike conflict but do their utmost to avoid it. Which again, can lead to saying "yes" even though they want to or need to say "no".
Tip: Practice establishing small boundaries with people you feel most safe with. Know that your needs are equally valid and necessary as those of the people in your life
5. You feel misunderstood
Highly sensitive people can grow up mislabelled as shy, timid, emotional, and dramatic. And if you’re not careful, those labels can stick to becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
Whilst high sensitivity is a misunderstood trait, it isn’t a defect or a flaw. It isn’t something that needs to be fixed or overcome. On the contrary, your sensitivity has many advantages, you may just not see that right now.
Tip: Connecting with other HSPs is a great way to secure validation for how you are feeling or what you are experiencing. Practising self-compassion and acceptance will help you to trust in your authentic self more strongly.
6. It feels like a bully is living inside your head
When I was younger, I became obsessed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder because, again, I was convinced I was different. I had voices in my head - loud voices picking up on every silly thing I said, every mistake I made. Turns out, this voice was my inner critic and something that plagues many HSPs.
Because sensitive people think deeply they tend to be their own worst critic, replaying situations in their mind over and over. They often struggle with imposter syndrome too.
Tip: Essential skills such as reframing your experiences, challenging your thoughts and building self-esteem are valuable practices to overcome the inner critic. If you struggle with imposter syndrome - feeling like you are doing something wrong or not good enough - download your free imposter syndrome workbook.
7. Criticism is the end of the world
At least it feels that way most of the time. Highly sensitive people feel more deeply. On the one hand, that means feeling more joy, love, compassion, and awe. But on the other hand, feeling guilt, shame and fear more intensely too.
Criticism can feel like a personal attack or judgment and can result in HSPs withdrawing or isolating themselves. As with the orchids analogy, HSPs thrive under positive instruction and struggle with negative feedback.
Tip: Take a step back and see the criticism for what it is, an isolated event that doesn’t define who you are or take away from all that you have achieved. Create a credit list in which you acknowledge your daily mini-wins to bolster self-confidence.
8. You’d rather keep anger in than out
Whether it’s messaging received about expressing anger as a child or wanting to avoid hurting another person's feelings, HSPs are experts at keeping anger bottled up…. Until they can’t any longer. But suppressing anger often means that it comes out in ugly ways or even to the wrong person.
Tip: The first step is to get comfortable identifying and then labelling your emotions. This helps you to defuse the feeling and see it as something passing rather than something that is who you are.
9. You wear a mask in romantic relationships
The idea of being too sensitive was never considered an attractive quality growing up. So I masked it pretty well (or so I thought). Problems arose when I expected the other person to know what I was feeling or what I needed. And times when I did retreat to my own space to recharge or reflect it was viewed as a 'passive aggressive mood'.
Tip: Sharing your experience of sensitivity with people you trust and when you feel ready supports a deep connection. You don’t have to tell them everything at once, they too need time to understand. But communication is the absolute key to a successful relationship.
10. You often feel like you’re not enough
As I said earlier, sensitivity doesn’t mean you necessarily have low self-worth. But it can lead to it if your environment doesn’t support or accept you. If a child, or even an adult, is mocked for their sensitivity, or repeatedly told to "toughen up" it can feel like you’re not enough as you are.
Tip: Embracing your sensitivity and all the gifts it offers you is a powerful step to take. Self-care practices such as meditation, affirmations, EFT, and journaling tend to resonate well with HSPs. If this is an area you struggle with, why not join my upcoming workshop designed for HSPs to heal past wounds so that they can accept who they are and thrive in this world?
Despite these challenges, I truly believe that being highly sensitive is a gift. As you shift your relationship with these challenges and cultivate an environment that supports you, you give yourself the opportunity to connect to your sensitivity and reclaim it as your superpower.
Want to go deeper? I empower women to fall in love with their sensitivities and create a life that allows them to not just survive but thrive. Let me show you how.