The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort Zone November 2005: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Coping Corner:
Teaching HSCs And HSPs to Swim, Drive, or Anything Else

Recently I was watching a woman whom I suspected was highly sensitive as she was being taught to swim--or rather, I watched her being frightened, humiliated, and not taught to swim. It reminded me of how I didn’t learn to swim, for the same reasons, year after year. And then, I did learn, by a very special teacher. And that reminded me of everything I have learned about teaching skills to the highly sensitive, adults or children. I know I wrote about this in one of my books or newsletters, but I could not find where, and decided that if I could not find it, you won’t either, and it seems so important.

As a girl, I never learned to ice skate, roller skate, play an instrument, or even climb a fence. I did not learn to ride a bike or swim until age thirteen. Thanks to my mother’s insistence, I did learn to drive in my teens, but I know many HSPs who learned around thirty, or even later. My mother also insisted that I work and so I learned to use a cash register and make change, something I know often terrifies HSPs, since it involves working under the pressure of customers watching, and keeps them from taking the sort of short-term, part time jobs one sometimes needs.

A similar skill is typing. Learning to type--the timed drills, the counting up all your errors--was an awful experience for me, even though I am a great typist, now I know other HSPs lived through the same experience.

For some HSPs, the problems are all in the classroom, especially in courses with one right answer, such as math and languages, or in which one’s performance is made public, such as reading out loud or drawing.

HS men can tell you all about the horrors of ballroom dance classes, and being judged by women you hardly know as not only a poor dancer, but a klutz, nerd, oaf, and every other adjective there is for reject. Then there are all the sports that involve learning and performing in front of others. No wonder we like long-distance running!

All in all, the environments in which teaching usually occurs is completely wrong for us. That’s because we are easily overstimulated, which makes us overaroused, and no one learns or performs well when in that overaroused, flustered state. Given this fact, for us there are a number of things wrong with the typical learning situation that others find to be no problem. First, it’s usually highly stimulating--a new environment, new equipment, a stranger teaching. And there’s one’s own inner stimulation, the things you imagine could go wrong. Second, there’s usually a group involved, which adds the special stimulation and fear of being watched and performing badly and feeling humiliated. And even if it’s a private lesson, there’s a group of two, you and a skilled and therefore justifiably critical teacher. Which brings us to the third reason, which is that most teachers emphasize correcting mistakes. Lecturing about them. Comparing one student to another. Even teasing or goading.

And finally, fourth, the situation is often down right frightening, or at least uncomfortable. Swimming pools are usually not warm enough to relax in if you aren’t exercising hard. Driving a car is inherently frightening. Most HSPs also have a healthy--yes, healthy--fear of water, of falling, or of making mistakes in general. We were told over and over, “Be careful you don’t drown,” “Be careful you don’t fall,” or “Be careful and don’t make a mistake.” So we carefully obey these generic warnings given over and over--until the day when we are supposed to forget them and “relax.” No chance.


Under the right conditions, HSPs are quick learners. We observe carefully, then “do it once and do it right.” We sense even small mistakes and do our best to avoid them next time. We often have terrific fine motor coordination and rarely lack coordination in general, once we have the knack of a thing. So what are the right conditions that you can offer an HSP--as a teacher, parent, or an HSP wanting a teacher or teaching yourself?

Provide a familiar, low stimulating environment, or lots of time to get used to the environment, preferably by observing without anyone embarrassing the HSP about it. “Oh, Henry’s just watching us. He’ll do it when he’s ready.” It sounds fine but it isn’t, really. Now everyone knows Henry is a retard. How about, “If you want to know why Henry’s watching, ask him.” Then Henry might want to say, “That’s my business, Thank you.”

Provide quiet. I put this separate because I know from teaching and learning that HSPs need as little extraneous stimulation as possible. Keeping up a conversation is an extra task, and HSPs will try to be polite and involved (or become irritable and then feel guilty), so don’t force that on to them, too. HSPs should not be expected to “multitask” while learning. When you want to give feedback, stop the activity and wait until the HSP seems calm enough to listen.

Consider providing private lessons. This way you can control the conditions more and progress is often so rapid that it pays for the learner to do it this way. Yes, for most people learning in a group means people help each other, and a little healthy competition can speed things up. But it can also be so demoralizing when your friends learn and you can’t. It can subtly change a person’s social standing, too--especially relevant with children.

And by private, it may need to be very private, as in the teacher leaving the student alone to practice a task, or going off to do something at the other end of the room or pool, keeping an eye on the student but nothing more.

Deal with the fears creatively--don’t just require “be brave.” When I finally learned to swim, my instructor knew to take a sensitive child’s fears seriously. Putting your head under water for the first time goes against every instinct. I’m sure I believed that those body openings were going to let in water and drown me. So my teacher encouraged me to use ear plugs, nose plugs, and an eye mask.

Then there was the fear of sinking. I’d spent all those years with an inner tube around me for a reason--without it, I felt heavy and seemed to sink. Now I was supposed to put my head under, but my instinctive fear said, “Stay up. Don’t go under.” So to get me over my fear of sinking, my instructor put coins on the bottom of the pool for me to try to pick up. (With younger kids, let them keep them if they can get them.) When I tried to put my head and shoulders down to grab the coins, I discovered my bottom went up, It was actually hard to get down to the bottom of the pool. I’d found I had the same natural buoyancy that everyone else had. But I had to feel that in my own body. Seeing others floating didn’t help.

Never violate a scared learner’s trust. I’d been held up in the water more than once, only to be let go of when my instructor thought that I’d sense my buoyancy better without being held. But that meant I could never trust those arms. My successful teacher let me float on my back with her arms around me or close by for what seemed like hours before I chose to float alone, and it was always up to me to tell her when to let go of me. It was never her decision, ever.

Give lots of praise for doing it right. And say very little about mistakes. HSPs know what they did wrong, often better than the teacher does. Even if they don’t, they will learn better by imitation and doing more of what you praised instead of desperately avoiding doing what you criticized.

I come from a very musical family, on both sides, and I know I should have been musical too, because in college a music major tested me and found, HSP that I am, that I had a sense of pitch that was off the charts. I think now that when I tried to play the piano and later the violin, and always when I sang, that hearing my own mistakes was so grating and distressing that I could have only gone on with the greatest encouragement, which I didn’t get.

Make corrections as gently as possible if they do seem necessary. Make them one at a time and preferably one per lesson. Make several sincere, positive comments first. If the lessons goes down hill after that, see if the student feels criticized--that is, ashamed for being so bad. Heal that feeling before going on.

If your student isn’t trying or gets mad at you, find out why. Don’t assume it’s the student’s personality that’s the problem. I was often criticized for being lazy and not practicing, or I was told I was bad tempered when I got mad. I was just so frustrated that I couldn’t bear trying any more. Sometimes just shorter lessons and practice sessions are the solution. And sometimes the person is having a bad day in other ways.

If a student cries, just wait for the rain shower to pass. Don’t feel guilty, or make your student ashamed. If you don’t know why the student is crying, you can ask gently. Then say, or only say, something like, “Yeah, I cry too when I get really frustrated (or embarrassed, or whatever). Lot’s of people do. Don’t worry about crying.” If he or she wants to take a break or stop, accept that.

When the student is discouraged, describe a similar experience of your own when you were down, ready to quit, or angry, and how you got passed it. Shame goes away when we stop feeling like we’re the worst person on the planet.

Keep the student in his or her optimal level of arousal. Nothing will be learned when a student is overaroused. It’s easy to see–-shaking hands, flushed face, tremor in the voice, being on the verge of tears, or being irrationally angry. Take a break when it happens, or stop for the day. Sometimes it just won’t work to wait until ending on a good try. And remember that emotional upset is usually the biggest source of arousal during a lesson, and is the one most under your control as the teacher, so learn how to calm and reassure your student. When things are going badly, it is always the teacher’s problem to resolve. Don’t get all defensive about it, though. Demonstrate that you, too, can make mistakes and admit them and still go on.

End each session on an up note, and talk about the general progress and process of learning. Again, it may not be possible to push on until the student does it right once. But you can end by explaining why things seem bogged down. It’s just that fatigue has set in. It happens to everyone. And point out how well things were going mid-lesson.

In other words, teach about the ups and downs of learning. HSPs often have such a strong sense of the goal, perfection, that they are easily discouraged by the process. They need to learn in general to be kind to themselves while they are learning and in general when they make mistakes. But, there’s no point in being hard on themselves for being hard on themselves, either! Every HSP has difficulty tolerating making errors-–it’s just part of the trait, but one that has to be balanced with the reality that learning takes time.


Be careful about yourself or others interpreting the above as having to give special handling to someone with some huge emotional problem. Even the most emotionally healthy HSP will learn better this way. With time, HSPs are generally very good at everything they do. But they do need to be taught differently. You would not train a thoroughbred like a draft horse, a border collie like a blood hound, or a ballerina like a square dancer. Each are talented, but in different ways and need different handling. You wouldn’t handle a Porsche the same way as a Jeep, or a computer the same way as a bulldozer. Get it?

Now, next time you have to learn something, see that you have these conditions provided for you. If you are paying for lessons, find someone who teaches this way (usually another HSP) and don’t accept anything less. If it’s on the job, you might have to be more careful about dictating how you should be trained, but you should be able to motivate most trainers to listen to you if you tell them you know some ways to get better results with you (and you can also imply, a better evaluation from you when the time comes for that).

Happy teaching and learning. It’s wonderful to add a new skill to one’s repertoire.

November 2005 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Sensitive Spirituality: The Highly Sensitive Person and the Numinous
Coping Corner: Teaching HSCs And HSPs to Swim, Drive, or Anything Else
Sensitive (Mental) Health: HSPs and Burnout

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