Jean Fitzpatrick: How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person
Practice empathy. It’s easy to be empathic when you naturally “get” what another person is feeling. For example, when someone trips, or when you’re watching a game and they miss a shot, you have an idea what that feels like. Your highly sensitive partner may remind you of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Why is she or he so upset at your suggestion you get together with friends tonight at the end of a day with family? It’s hard to empathize emotionally with your partner. Instead learn to practice cognitive empathy, deliberately thinking through what this situation must feel like for your partner in light of her or his high sensitivity.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean Fitzpatrick.
Jean is a licensed relationship therapist in New York City, an author, and a Highly Sensitive Person herself. She read The Highly Sensitive Person from cover to cover as soon as it came out, recognized herself and many of her patients in its pages, and became one of the first therapists in New York to complete Elaine Aron’s HSP therapist training.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
It’s hard to think of a more interesting place to practice relationship therapy than midtown Manhattan, where people come from across the globe to live and work in entertainment, medicine, finance, and fashion. Many of the people who come to me for help with their relationships could be described as intellectually gifted, creative, or highly sensitive. I love helping partners learn how the HSP trait can add depth and richness to their relationship.
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?
A Highly Sensitive Person is aware of subtleties in her or his surroundings, feels things deeply, and is easily overwhelmed in a stimulating environment.
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?
A Highly Sensitive Person can often empathize, or recognize and feel moved by, the feelings of others. That same capacity to be touched deeply does make HSPs vulnerable to hurt when others are unkind.
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?
Violence and horror on video and in movies, and certainly in the news, can overwhelm a Highly Sensitive Person. In the past few years I’ve found with couples that when one partner is highly sensitive, that person is often deeply upset by the U.S. political situation and wants to talk about their anxiety, sometimes more often and more intensely than a partner can tolerate even if they both agree.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
Often it’s helpful for a person to understand that high sensitivity is a kind of superpower others don’t have. One man — I’ll call him Brian — was chronically disappointed in his life partner. Brian had a gift for choosing the stylish brunch place or off-Broadway show in previews that his partner, George, would love. When it was George’s turn to choose, Brian complained that they’d end up going to a show only his grandmother would enjoy.
Brian had the ability to sense a lot of what others were feeling, and he assumed George could do the same. When I pointed out that George, who was not an HSP, probably wasn’t going to “read” him but needed to hear directly about what he enjoyed, Brian recognized he needed to change his approach. He and George started texting each other online reviews and planning the weekend together. Brian learned to be more assertive about his preferences, and George began to tune into him more accurately.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
Most Highly Sensitive Persons were told as children that they were “too sensitive.” It’s practically a diagnostic tool. But in relationships, “too sensitive” is a way to dismiss and ridicule a person. It’s emotionally abusive.
That said, a Highly Sensitive Person often needs to learn to be assertive and to calmly stand up for what matters to her or him. Expecting other people to be mind readers and then blaming them when they aren’t leaves everybody unhappy.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives one certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Highly Sensitive People are often talented at putting others at ease. They know how to design environments and talk in ways that help other people feel comfortable. They can read a room effectively, and can often intuit what partners, children, and others need or want.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
A man came to see me because he was putting in long hours in a corporate job, feeling depressed and trapped. Once he realized that he was a Highly Sensitive Person, he decided to use his savings to give himself a trial period as a freelance writer. Before long, leveraging his abilities to pick up on nuance and to connect with people in interviews, he was writing for major magazines and launched a highly successful podcast.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
Think of an empath as a Highly Sensitive Person on steroids. The HSP picks up on nuance, processing emotions deeply, and is aware of environmental sounds and textures and easily overstimulated. The Highly Sensitive Person may or may not be an empath, but the empath is an HSP. The empath is a sponge for emotions. She or he viscerally feels the emotions of 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?
Use social media to your advantage, because it gives an HSP lots of opportunities to find your people and avoid overstimulation. Join a Facebook HSP group, and follow #HSP on Instagram. Limit your screen time. Block the haters.
How would you advise your patient to respond if something they hear or see bothers or affects them, but others comment that that are being petty or that it is minor?
Remember that we all have different nervous systems. Other people may genuinely be puzzled at your reactions, just the way I used to feel about our family dog. Sometimes Toto would start barking like crazy for no apparent reason, and then five minutes later we’d be in the middle of a thunderstorm. He always heard thunder before I did!
Learn how to express yourself in a way others can hear. If you’re sharing an office with someone who gets a nerve-jangling alert with every email, don’t talk to him or her when you’re feeling stressed out. Hit your mental pause button, focus on what you’re feeling, and soothe yourself. I encourage people to get up and walk around the office, focus on their exhale, listen to a mindfulness app, or write down their feelings in an encrypted space like my online practice portal. Then think before you act. Researcher John Gottman has found that when you want to raise an issue, leading with a feeling is disarming: “I find myself distracted every time one of your emails comes in.” Then state a simple request: “Would you mind silencing your alerts when I’m here with you?”
What strategies do you recommend to your patients to overcome the challenges that come with being overly sensitive without changing their caring and empathetic nature?
Nurture yourself. I always check with Highly Sensitive Persons to be sure they’re getting regular down time, at least one good chunk per day. Put it on your calendar — for you, it’s like oxygen. Pay attention to your body and notice when you’re getting overstimulated. Feeling trapped? Stressed? Irritable? Time to slow down. I find very often an HSP needs to learn appropriate assertiveness. Sometimes they try to endure overstimulation and then the stress comes out as anger. Learning to draw boundaries and to ask for what you want can make all the difference.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
HSPs are not weird. Often they think they’re weird because they feel things deeply. But usually they are feeling the same emotions as others — loss, sadness, joy, fear. It’s just that they feel these things more intensely.
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?
The more posts like this appear in the media, the better-educated the public will be! Movies like “Sensitive: The Untold Story” and “Sensitive and in Love” also help build understanding.
Can you share with us your “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive If You Love Or Are In A Relationship With A Highly Sensitive Person.”
- Trust your partner when she or he talks about being overwhelmed or stressed out by a day or week that’s too much. When my husband and I were first married, we both loved to travel but our trips weren’t always easy. I used to say he’d like to see a thousand sights in a day and I’d like to see one. By the end of a day out I’d be worn to a frazzle and usually pretty grumpy! Once I understood the trait, we were able to plan trips to accommodate our different nervous systems and make some wonderful memories together around the world.
- Practice empathy. It’s easy to be empathic when you naturally “get” what another person is feeling. For example, when someone trips, or when you’re watching a game and they miss a shot, you have an idea what that feels like. Your highly sensitive partner may remind you of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Why is she or he so upset at your suggestion you get together with friends tonight at the end of a day with family? It’s hard to empathize emotionally with your partner. Instead learn to practice cognitive empathy, deliberately thinking through what this situation must feel like for your partner in light of her or his high sensitivity.
- Learn to talk like a sportscaster. When you and your partner both get stuck trying to win an argument, you feel as though you’re on opposite teams. Take a step back and talk on a meta level about the dynamics you both create. So instead of saying, “You’re so touchy about everything!” make like ESPN and go to the replay: “Tonight when I had the tv on high volume, I know you didn’t say anything for a while, and then you went off on me, and I felt disrespected and got defensive. Next time I’ll try to remember that the loud tv bothers you. And it would help if you would just ask me to turn it down instead of getting mad. Otherwise we get into that toxic cycle, which we both hate. Easy for me to change the volume!”
- Sit down together and create daily rituals to create both connection and down time. Too often I find couples second-guessing each other (“He just wants to stare at his phone after work,” or “She never wants me to touch her”) instead of coming up with a plan that reflects partners’ needs and wishes for themselves and the relationship. Your partner may be very happy to see you at the end of a long day, but she or he will probably need time alone to find calm and ease after the stimulation of work. A ritual adds a rhythm to your day that you can both rely on. A kiss, or a few seconds holding each other, at the door gives you connection. Then five to fifteen minutes of after-work transition time to meditate, shower, or stretch gives your partner essential down time.
- Don’t try to be a mind-reader. Often a Highly Sensitive Person can intuit the needs of others and will expect you to do the same for her or him. Encourage your Highly Sensitive partner to make clear, direct, requests. Many couples find it helpful to sit down for a weekly check-in to discuss how things are going between them and what they need to work on.
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’m hearing many people these days upset about a lack of basic human decency in public life. But each of us has the capacity every day to choose decency and kindness.
How can our readers follow you online?
I have a website at therapistnyc.com. I’m on Twitter at Twitter.com/therapistnyc35, on Instagram at instagram.com/therapistnyc, on Facebook Facebook.com/jeanfitzpatricknyc.