May 27, 2020

Sensitivity – Owning Your Superpower

Sensitivity – Owning Your Superpower 

By: Trish DiMaggio-Zander


“For the highly sensitive person, a drizzle feels like a monsoon.”  Anonymous


 “You need to grow thicker skin,” “you’re too sensitive”, “you’re so emotional”, “why can’t you just turn your feelings off?”  Those were things I’ve heard frequently throughout my life and most times they were not in a positive context.  But what if those attributes are actually positive and serve as huge assets in a world where things have become largely transactional vs. relational? Most people have moments where they feel strong emotion however, there are individuals like me, who feel emotions intensely, at a visceral level and often.  We can walk into a room and immediately pick up on the energy, we notice things that other people are oblivious to.  We are able to read other’s emotions through both verbal and nonverbal communication.  It might be a subtle change in facial expression or a slight change of intonation. Over and above that it’s not uncommon for us to actually feel other’s emotions as if they were our own.    


In the past, I often allowed the previous comments I mentioned to make me feel bad about myself. While I may still find them condescending I don’t always take them so personal any longer.  I know today they are just a reflection of the lens through which another person sees things.  Their perception is just one point of view of many.  Over the years I’ve learned more about my sensitive nature and have surrounded myself with other people who get it.  My journey into better understanding this part of myself, started with a book that my sister suggested. It changed my life.   


The name of the bookis “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You,” by Dr. Elaine Aron. Dr. Aron is a clinical psychologist and leading researcher who pioneered the study of sensitivity.  Through her research she has identified individuals that she classifies as highly sensitive people, also referred to as HSP.  


HSP individuals make up roughly 20% of the population.  I have been blessed or cursed depending on how you look at it, to fall into that 20%. After reading Dr. Aron’s book and listening to a few of her lectures I was relieved to find out that this wasn’t just all in my head, nor was I flawed because of it.  The truth is that my sensitivity has a lot to do with my physical makeup. According to Dr. Aron’s definition, “the highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.  But the key quality is that, compared to the 80% without the trait, they process everything around them much more—reflect on it, elaborate on it, make associations.  When this processing is not fully conscious, it surfaces as intuition.  This represents a survival strategy found in many species, always in a minority of its members.”


Dr. Aron’s research, is also supported by studying individuals who fall into the HSP population through functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI.  She and her colleagues found that both positive and negative stimuli produced stronger neural responses in the HSP study participants.


“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” Friedrich Nietzsche  



Of the 20% of HSP’s around 70% are introverted and 30% extroverted. Introvert and extrovert traits were first describedby psychiatrist Carl Jung.  Put simply, introvert and extrovert explain how you are energized.  If you’re an introvert you’re energized by spending time alone.  If you are extroverted, then you’re energized by spending time with people and being social.   


Although all HSP’s face challenges, extroverted HSPs can face additional struggles.  Because extroverts enjoy being social, those who are HSP, when interacting in groups are also often overcome with an onslaught of stimuli.  That can lay ground for criticism by others who view them as taking things personally or overreacting to overwhelming feelings.  In turn that can lead to feelings of shame and exclusion. For many years that is exactly what I felt.  I didn’t have many people around me who understood why I felt so intensely or was profoundly affected by my surroundings. 


Until I got into recovery I did what I could to numb feelings that often felt like they were going to kill me.  When I finally met other recovering people, who described feeling exactly how I felt, It was comforting to know I wasn’t alone.  I was even more relieved to know that not only did they encourage expressing their feelings they learned how to use them as an asset to help other people.  What’s more, is that instead of getting puzzled looks or questions as to why I was the way I was, they would listen, and give an affirmative nod to let me know that I wasn’t alone.  I hadn’t known a place existed where I could go tell people how messed up I felt and then get a hug and an invitation to hang out.  


As of yet, I have not been able to find research that connects the HSP population and substance abuse. However, from what I’ve heard in meetings and personal conversations, my guess is that if there’s ever research done, quite a few of us would fall into this category.  For those of us lucky enough to have gotten sober, our recovery is dependent on having safe and compassionate people with whom we can share our deep emotions without being demeaned.  Secrets, and suppressing how we feel for fear of judgement are not behaviors any of us can afford.  When that behavior resumes we risk relapse.  That is why staying honest, open and willing is emphasized upon so heavily in treatment and recovery programs.  



“I am still learning to love the parts of myself that no one claps for.” Rudy Francisco


When I express my intense sadness, frustration or even happiness around non-HSPs as I said some people respond to me with bewildered looks or comments.  This is especially common in the business world.  Although strides are being made within corporate culture toward understanding sensitivity as an asset, it is still looked upon by many as a weakness.  In fact, in the recent past a person at work told me I needed to watch how I was going to address a situation because in their words “you tend to get emotional.” 


When comments like that are made I turn to compassionate people who are mindful and have the emotional intelligence to understand that it takes all types to make the world go around. In my personal life my closest friends are HSPs so my support system there is strong.  People spend approximately 30% of their time at work so it has also been important for me to find other HSPs in my professional life.  I have two in the vicinity of where I am located.  I’m also fortunate to report to a woman who is an HSP.  Connecting with other HSP colleagues has been critical for me to grow professionally.  It is their empathetic nature that helps me stay grounded.  During times that I need a reality check they cite examples of notable work successes or assets that I bring to the team as an HSP.  I also read emails I’ve received commending my performance.  In the face of demeaning and critical people, doing those things anchor me and serve as supporting evidence of who I truly am.


HSP individuals are compassionate, have empathy and the ability to step outside of themselves into another person’s shoes.  Because we see things differently we are creative, flexible and responsive.  In addition to Dr. Aron’s studies more and more researchis being done to support this fact.  Still, there will always be people who view sensitivity as a weakness vs. a strength.  Ultimately what other people think and do is out of my control.


I have to focus on things I do have control of; and no, my initial reaction is not one of them.   My physiological make up is why I feel deeply and that isn’t ever going to change any more than the effect of sugar on a diabetic will change.  What I do have control over are my behaviors and the action I take to help me work through my initial visceral reaction;The physical reaction starts the moment the stimuli hits whether good, bad or otherwise.  I work on behaviors that help me recognize those feelings and associated thoughts with loving and understanding people.  Then, at a later time I can respond to the situation if that’s even necessary.  Sometimes it’s not.  I no longer try to defend who I am to people who have shown me they will never understand, that’s futile.  I am who I am.  Every part of me, is authored by the Divine and that fact alone, deems me worthy of love and respect exactlyas I was designed.  If you’re an HSP, while the world may tell you, that your sensitivity is a liability, it’s actually a gift.  Be proud of that and own your Super Power!  


Finally, while I have made a lot of progress in how I live life as an HSP, I have a few practices that are especially helpful to me. 


1.    Having self-compassion.  That requires me to reframe my thoughts about what sensitivity means and not buy into the notion that it is somehow a weakness.  Writing down instances where being an HSP has served me and other people around me is crucial.  Celebrating that about myself, celebrating it about other people and celebrating it often is also important. 

2.    Interacting with Safe People– I talk to people who don’t belittle me because of how I feel thereby adding to the already overwhelming emotions.  Anything short of respect is not part of my program of recovery, I promptly excuse anyone from my life who is in opposition of my wellbeing.    

3.    Sending the emotional email– But I send it to myself! I open an entirely new email make sure I am sending it to meand type away. What I write holds important information that helps me work through things in the future.  

4.    Using sensory tools that are calming – I am sensitive to scents and I have found several that are very soothing to me.  I also carry a worry stone, listen to calming music and I always add prayer and meditation when I feel emotional overload.



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