The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneAugust 2005: Comfort Zone ONLINE
With Depth:
The Shadow Side To High Sensitivity

To balance all of this praise of ourselves, what about the shadow side of being highly sensitive? I raise the question not so much because I think reading about your good points might make you start to feel superior, but because you are probably starting to think that the other article was too one sided, unfair to non-HSPs, or unrealistic. You want to know the rest of the story, the shadow to all of this. By shadow I do not refer to the problems we are all familiar with, but rather those that might be stuffed out of sight--as if seeing them would be too painful. It won't be. You'll see.


So what might these shadow aspects be? Well, first, we can see into anything with such skill that we can't help noticing the flaws (as I am doing now!) Since we also want to be kind, we often keep our critiques to ourselves, but in certain situations we let loose. Some might do this with their spouse or their children. I do it when I am listening to something intellectual--a lecture or talk.

Just because I enjoy thinking deeply about things, "processing," I inevitably find holes in an argument. The exceptions. My family added to this natural tendency, as everyone was encouraged to be "objective" and criticize or question everything. That led to long arguments, of course, which I stayed out of as a child. My feelings would be hurt. But I certainly heard how it was done.

With my husband I can have long intellectual discussions that always involve "improving" each other's ideas and there's no conflict (after years of practice). But very often in public I do upset a lecturer or teacher with my comments that tend to sound like an attack. So I have to remember to think about the speaker's feelings--that I really do affect that person up there at the podium. I try now to couch my "suggestions" within much praise for what is good about the work, and there's always plenty or I would not even bother to speak up. The point is, those who know me as an exceptionally kind person are always surprised to see this other side of me, which I don't like to be aware of myself. That's what I mean by shadow aspects.


What other shadow aspects of being sensitive might be found in HSPs? Remember, whatever I mention may not be an issue for you at all. These are just possibilities, given how we are. One that comes to mind is giving in too easily. Or being easily defeated. Accepting a position beneath our worth. Being obsequious, submissive, subservient. Weak. Not physically, but socially. We may call our giving in a matter of just being nice or showing our empathy, or we may say we don't care or it isn't worth the hassle to get our way, but this feeling inferior keeps us from speaking our mind or being treated fairly. We don't take up space, so to speak. Our boundaries are whatever the other's boundaries are--for example, we might habitually talk on the phone until the other person wants to hang up, even if we wanted to end it an hour ago.

Just becoming aware of this particular shadow aspect is not if it arose in childhood because of having been bullied, dominated, ostracized, criticized, used, abused, or ignored, by siblings, friends, or parents. But often it is the result of other people's opinions that we can learn to ignore. Maybe others see our thorough processing as a sign of weakness--when we pause before acting, they imagine this hesitation is due to whatever they dislike about themselves or were taught to reject. They think we're afraid, indecisiveness, withdrawn, shy, not expecting to succeed, or a push over. Or if we have a strong emotional reaction, again thanks to our thorough processing of the meaning of an event, they see our tears, trembling, anger, and so forth as weakness, cowardice, lack of control, and so forth. No wonder we begin to feel it's all true.

I know many of you are getting over this sense of weakness, feeling more "empowered," just by understanding your worth. You are dragging that shadow of I'm-weak into the light and perhaps transforming it into something more useful--humility, for example, and a knowing-from-experience how hard it is for others who are being a doormat and need some support.


Another shadow that can result from the treatment we receive for being highly sensitive might be the ways we compensate for feeling one-down and ashamed. One way might be to seem indifferent, which can look like or become arrogance. Coldness. Striving to always be on top, the best, can look like or become ruthlessness, one-sidedness--again a loss of feeling for others. Or trying to prove our worth, we may just work ourselves into the ground, caring nothing for our own body's feelings. How can an HSP do any of that? Easy. Shame and rejection are horrible, horrible feelings. They arise in us and hurt us even more than they do others. So quite involuntarily we may make it our highest priority to avoid this agony.

Or we resolve our sense of weakness by calling it something nicer, like devotion to social justice or choosing service as a spiritual path--being Christ-like or Buddha-like or living in strict accord with God's laws or nature's laws. But it can also be yucky old codependence, if you give up your entire self for someone because you fear their anger or that they'll reject and abandon you. Neither Christ nor Buddha did that. There's no eleventh commandment that calls for becoming another's slave. One reason is that it isn't a true spiritual path, but one that could easily lead to immoral acts if you obey someone mindlessly.

So there's being selfless as a choice and selfless as no choice, because it's the only way to feel save and to be loved. It can be hard to distinguish between them sometimes. I would say that embarking on a spiritual path of service ought to be done under the wise guidance of someone who does not stand to gain personally. Or at least think about whether a wise person would look at your life and ask, "Why are you demeaning yourself for these ungrateful jerks? You do them moral harm by allowing them to mistreat you."

Another shadow side of this weakness is that we can begin to expect to be treated as one-down even when it's not happening. For example, we start out generously offering to help our friend move on our day off. But halfway through, having been ordered around for hours, we may begin to feel we're being used. We've been too generous, "once again." Now you have to ask your imaginary wise person if you really are being mistreated, in the big picture of things? Has this person done or would this person do the same service for you? And since you did offer and now you wish you hadn't, whose fault is that? Shouldn't you keep your promise to help and make another promise not to promise next time unless you are very sure you want to do it? However you handle it, it's part of the inevitable shadow possibilities of being highly sensitive.


I believe the best decisions are made after one has pondered all the consequences, and I always hope to have time to gather the information I need in order to make at least the best educated guess. One reason HSPs evolved to be so reflective is that our strategy allows us to survive better when our environment is in a dangerous phase--for example, if there are more predators around this year (or we're in a "bear market"), or there's not much food until the rains come so, to avoid eating just anything and being sickened, you have to choose carefully (or pay attention to the nutritional contents on the packages). But eventually we have to act. Do something. Eat. We have to take a risk.

And it is a risk because we almost never can know for sure the outcome. What's healthy this year turns out to be bad for you next year. Or take buying a car. Every consumer rating organization says this is the best car for the money. You know it because you spent days at the library, then you talked to the people who service these cars, then you took test drives until the dealer mumbled something about not operating a car rental service. But it still could be a lemon, or you could find after a few months that the seats are not that comfortable, or next year a different car will surpass this one in every way that matters to you. You just have to buy one. You can't buy them all.

And that's a relatively small decision. Most important, it can be undone. And it's only money you lose. What if you decide to have a baby and it has a serious birth defect that will require full time nursing for the rest of its life? What if you finally decide your despairing friend is not really suicidal, and you can go home and get some sleep, and you're wrong. No wonder we can't decide what to do sometimes! But it's still a shadow side if we don't wake up to our fear, don't find the courage to trust the universe or accept our fate. Then we never have babies. Or we would never accept our intuition that we can leave a friend alone to face his or her moment of truth. A shadow indeed.

What to do? Become a bit of a fatalist. And try trusting, irrationally perhaps, that things will probably turn out okay. Figure out just how bad it will be if things go badly. Then go for it.


When we have processed until our processor is mush, we can get pretty irritable. Those close to us know we mean it when we say, "I want my milk and cookies. NOW." They deliver. What power we have. We better use it nicely.

Sometimes we just lose it when we don't want anything from anyone except maybe to be left alone. Do we try to control ourselves for just a little longer, until we can get into bed and pull the covers over our head? Or do we secretly enjoy dumping a little. Do we take responsibility for anything we did to allow this overarousal to happen? Or do we blame it on the person who delivered the last straw?

How about the times that we confidently declare that some stimulation--some music, scent, decor, or food--is "just horrible." "Unbearable." "How can you stand it?" "Let's get out of here." Well, that's your opinion. What about the others? It's difficult for anyone to understand that others don't feel and think exactly the same as one's self. But there's the very problem we have with non-HSPs--they don't understand how sensitive we are. We can be just as shocked and unforgiving when we find they are so Insensitive. Lacking in good taste. Or whatever.

In a similar vein, if you want to avoid irritability at home, learn to tolerate a little bit of messiness and discomfort for the sake of those around you, or just so that you can relax and enjoy yourself. Put the right value on your most prized possessions if you let others near them: "People are more important than things." Decreasing your fussiness will make you more human, in that most humans are not going to be as tidy, organized, and careful as you are.

By the way, the best cure is to have a child. Your closets will be a mess for the next twenty years and there will probably always be Cheerios under the couch. Or you can borrow a child. Or let yourself be a bit more of a child. That would be nice, wouldn't it?


On the subject of expecting others to be like us, I have found many HSPs just quietly do their jobs, expecting others to notice and appreciate them. Expecting the world to be just. Sometimes it works well. But more often, no acknowledgment happens and the person who "tooted his own horn" without doing half as much gets the praise and the raise. Then the HSP is shocked, bitter, becomes cynical, maybe passive aggressive, coming late to work and so forth. So the shadow of our conscientiousness and modesty is our secret belief that it should be rewarded.

We have to remember that non-HSPs do not notice subtleties! They do not respond to hints! And they can mistake conscientiousness for all sorts of things. So use your deeper processing to notice if you are not being noticed, and see that you are.


Finally, for all of our ability to sense what's going on around us, we can get out of touch with reality if we spend too much time alone, protecting ourselves from over stimulation. We have to remain part of society if we are going to do it any good, so find ways that are comfortable for you to stay in touch with the news, with the latest fashions in this and that, with the interests of other generations, other ethnicities. It will mean that your intuition in any given situation will be more accurate. You can't process what you haven't taken in, in some way.

That was not so bad, was it? And becoming more aware of even one aspect of one's shadow makes us a broader person, as well as one less judgmental of others.

August 2005 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Let's Review: The Benefits of Being Highly Sensitive, for Ourselves and Our World
Coping Corner: Strengthening Your Decisions Through "Cardiac Exercise"
With Depth: The Shadow Side To High Sensitivity

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