See your sensitivity as a superpower & others will too. Owning your sensitivity is the best way to encourage others to appreciate it too. Make a list of all the things your sensitivity helps with in your life, your work & your relationships with others. When you stop apologizing for how your nervous system has reacted & start seeing it as a rare gift your mindset around your sensitivity will completely change, for the better.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emma-Louise Parkes.
Emma-Louise is an Online Business Mentor & Mindset coach for Ambitious Introverts, Empaths & Highly Sensitive entrepreneurs, & host of The Ambitious Introvert Podcast. She works with new & established entrepreneurs & helps them grow & scale successful, sustainable online businesses. With 10+ years experience she has personally coached over 100 individuals. She is a strategic life coach, trained facilitator, NLP master practitioner & holds accreditation in EFT/TFT & the Law of Attraction.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
I’m an Online Business Mentor & Mindset Coach for Ambitious Introverts, Empaths & Highly Sensitive Entrepreneurs. As someone who ticks all three boxes myself I understand the challenges my clients face in online business, such as overwhelm & overstimulation. I also feel strongly that sensitivity is a superpower which needs to be shared — so I help them create successful, sustainable businesses that enable them to stay energized at the same time.
Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I understand how hard this is. Can you help define for our readers what is meant by a Highly Sensitive Person? Does it simply mean that feelings are easily hurt or offended?
HSPs make up around 20% of the population, & are sometimes referred to as having Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). This means our nervous system experiences a stronger-than-average reaction to various stimuli, including noise, light, temperature, smells, caffeine & even other people’s emotions. It’s a very real biological trait — fMRI brain scans show higher activation of the anterior insula in HSPs, which processes emotions & other sensations related to empathy. Part of this can be feeling things very deeply, because we have such strong reactions.
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have a higher degree of empathy towards others? Is a Highly Sensitive Person offended by hurtful remarks made about other people?
I believe so. Our sensitivity means we pick up on many slight subtleties & nuances that often go unnoticed by the majority. We can just tell if someone’s energy is ‘off’, so seeing another person get hurt is more like ‘feeling’ their pain!
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have greater difficulty with certain parts of popular culture, entertainment or news, that depict emotional or physical pain? Can you explain or give a story?
Very much so. Modern society as a whole is designed to stimulate, & the way news is reported these days is extremely sensationalist. Not only this, but the ’24 hour news’ culture, along with the use of social media, means our senses are constantly bombarded with information — much of it depicting suffering or inciting fear. I actually avoided all news for around 7 years — I discovered that if something major happens in the world someone will start a conversation about it & I’ll find out! I only tuned in again at the start of the pandemic as I was overseas at the time & needed to be aware of travel rules to get home. I immediately felt the effect on my energy & mood from consuming that type of negative ‘push’ media.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
I spent 17 years as an air traffic controller, working on radar in a large, open plan operations areas with a number of others. My sensitivity gives me particularly astute hearing, & oftentimes I’d be trying to concentrate during a particularly complex traffic pattern while automatically tuning in to conversations across the room. This background soundtrack went unnoticed by most people — they just tuned it out — but for me it could be a huge distraction. In social settings where the music is particularly loud, or the lighting is very bright & on the blue spectrum, I can become severely overstimulated & uncomfortable very quickly. Non-HSPs have accused me of being ‘fussy’ or ‘high-maintenance’ — they just can’t understand how these seemingly innocuous surroundings affect me so much.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
I always knew my tolerance for stimulus was lower than average, just by observing how things that would trigger a strong reaction in me seemed to go unnoticed by the majority of people. I’ve never considered myself ‘too sensitive’ in an emotional way, though I appreciated that my depth of processing & feeling was stronger than most.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
I have extremely high emotional intelligence, as do many HSPs. This is essential in my role as a coach, & being able to hold that kind of space for my clients is something I’m extremely grateful for. Noticing the small details of life is a great advantage which offers us a beautiful, vivid experience of the world. We are also excellent at knowing when people are being dishonest — the famous HSP ‘BS’ warning never fails!
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
As an air traffic controller I worked behind a radar screen, communicating with pilots thousands of feet in the air via radio frequency. We had very structured, standard phraseology that was used at all times for clarity. However my sensitivity meant I could ‘know’ something was wrong just from an unusual pause, or a certain intonation in their response, even though the words were no different. A few times when a ‘mayday’ emergency was declared I was already prepared, as my sensitivity had alerted me from these small clues that others may miss.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
As HSPs we are very aware of energy around us, while empaths also absorb & internalise that energy, taking it on as their own. The problem can be recognising which emotions are ours & which have come from others.
Social Media can often be casually callous. How does Social Media affect a Highly Sensitive Person? How can a Highly Sensitive Person utilize the benefits of social media without being pulled down by it?
I’m deeply affected by negativity & easily overstimulated. Intentional use of social media with boundaries is key — curate your accounts to only follow those who post content that positively affects you. Mute & unfollow where necessary to protect yourself. Never aimlessly scroll — go on there with a purpose, go directly to the accounts you wish to view & bypass the newsfeed. Always stop before you’re tired — often as HSP once we ‘hit the wall’ it takes time to re-energize, so quit while you’re ahead to preserve your precious energy for life away from the screen.
How would you respond if something you hear or see bothers or effects you, but others comment that you are being petty or that it is minor?
I ignore it — I know that their perception is very different to mine, so they can’t be expected to understand. I don’t make them ‘wrong’ for not caring as much, but I know that my depth of feeling is valid, & that I don’t need to justify it to others.
What strategies do you use to overcome the perception that others may have of you as overly sensitive without changing your caring and empathetic nature?
Actually none — I realise I can’t change others’ perceptions & I’m proud of my traits. As a coach I help others to embrace theirs too. Being an introvert I keep a tight circle & get to choose who’s in it, so I only surround myself with those who accept me as I am. In the words of Dr Seuss “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
That sensitive means overly emotional, constantly in tears or weak. While sensitivity can be expressed in this way, it’s not common to all HSPs. For instance I’m very sensitive to noise, but my reaction to that isn’t to cry — I feel very uncomfortable inside, but no one else would know unless I chose to verbalise it. Also the misconception that sensitivity is a personality trait, when we now know it’s a biological one.
As you know, one of the challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person is the harmful,and dismissive sentiment of “why can’t you just stop being so sensitive?” What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that it just doesn’t work that way?
A wider understanding amongst non-HSPs that our sensitivity is caused by our physiology. Non-HSPs nervous systems also react to things automatically, beyond their conscious control — realizing that our sensitivity is caused in the same way would be a great starting point. We aren’t acting that way by ‘choice’. Sensitivity is a gift that is valuable to society as a whole, & if people looked at all the wonderful things our sensitivity allows us to create — art, music, philosophy, social change — they may appreciate our traits more.
Ok, here is the main question for our discussion. Can you share with us your “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person? Please give a story or an example for each.
1 — Accept that non-HSPs won’t understand you (& that’s ok)
It’s easy to carry that childhood conditioning of ‘stop being so sensitive’ or ‘just get over it’ into our adult lives — the awareness that others don’t feel the way we do can help us go from feeling ‘wrong’ about our reactions to accepting that we all perceive things differently.
2 — Collaborate with non-HSPs
My best work in my business has come from partnering with someone who is non-HSP & very extroverted. Her broad way of viewing the world & speed at making decisions complements my slower, deeper approach. We both appreciate having the other there to provide a different perspective & energy to the project.
3 — Use the 80/20 rule
Always quit while you’re ahead in terms of energy — never get yourself so overstimulated by one task that it affects your ability to do what’s next, whether that’s work or play. Stop by 80% stimulation. I quickly realised that an hour on Clubhouse wipes me out for the rest of the day, so when I get invited to co-host rooms now I make it clear that I only do 45 minutes, meaning I get the benefits but still leave feeling refreshed.
4 — Have your go-to wind downs
Create a ‘Yes List’ of activities you know help you calm your nervous system down & do at least one of them daily. For me this includes fresh air, tech-free times, breathwork, baths & reading fiction. This is a case of prevention is better than cure — I used to have an ‘SOS list’ of measures to take once I was overstimulated, but in fact applying nourishing activities daily works much better in preserving my energy than trying desperately to get it back once I’m already exhausted.
5 — See your sensitivity as a superpower & others will too
Owning your sensitivity is the best way to encourage others to appreciate it too. Make a list of all the things your sensitivity helps with in your life, your work & your relationships with others. When you stop apologizing for how your nervous system has reacted & start seeing it as a rare gift your mindset around your sensitivity will completely change, for the better.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to see more public spaces geared towards the sensitive & introverted amongst us. I once visited a coffee house in Stockholm that intentionally had speakers at only one end, meaning you had the option to sit near the music or away from it in the ‘quiet zone’. I know many HSPs avoid certain restaurants or public gyms for this very reason — it would be incredible to see this significant percentage of the population feel calm & comfortable in such places, knowing they can avoid overstimulation, & instead relax & enjoy!
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.