5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive If You Love Or Are In A Relationship With A Highly Sensitive Person, With Carrie Mead of Curiosity Life Coaching
Create a nurturing environment. Dim the lights, lower the volume, hold the fragrances. Your loved one gets overstimulated easily. Overstimulation can occur when his or her senses get attacked from all angles. While you may love loud music and scented air fresheners, your HSP does not. Creating an environment that is comforting and nurturing for your loved one shows them that you understand them and care about their needs. Nothing says “I love you” to your HSP like a room with low lighting, warm blankets, and unscented candles.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Carrie Mead MS. Carrie is a Professional Life Coach, Psychotherapist, and Reiki practitioner based in Maryland. Carrie created Curiosity Life Coaching to help men and women successfully navigate major life transitions such as retirement, divorce, career changes, and loss. Carrie provides guidance, support and empowering exercises to help her clients redefine and enact on their life’s mission following a major life transition. Carrie combines the action-oriented tasks of life coaching with the rejuvenating practice of Reiki to offer her clients a holistic approach to mind-body-spirit development. Connecting authentically and compassionately forms the basis of all of Carrie’s personal and professional relationships. Carrie holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling from McDaniel College and a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Gettysburg College. When not working, Carrie enjoys gardening, swimming in the ocean, and spending time with her family.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
My official title is Professional Life Coach and Psychotherapist but I have a diverse work history. My entire career has been steeped in helping others. I began as a top-level Executive Assistant in the United Kingdom. Although this may not seem like a traditional helping profession, in fact, it is. I continued in this line of work supporting C-suite executives for many years before pursuing my Masters in Counseling. Upon graduating, I worked as a mental health therapist in both public and private settings until I came to this next juncture in my life as a Professional Life Coach. Life coaching melds together many of my personal and professional experiences in a meaningful way. As a coach, I assist my clients in identifying, clarifying and reaching their goals through value alignment. Coaching with a counseling background forms the foundation for the powerful work we do together. I relish the opportunity to create a safe space for personal empowerment, confidence, and authenticity to flourish within the client.
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 or HSP is someone who feels and connects to the world’s pain on a much deeper level than his or her peers. Being a highly sensitive person is a beautiful gift to the world- they are our kindest co-workers, most compassionate neighbors, and overwhelmingly loving family members. However, HSPs have difficulty processing the intensity of their feelings and therefore they can become easily overstimulated. When this happens, they need to withdraw in order to reestablish internal balance.
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 HSP definitely has a higher degree of empathy and connection than the average person. Not only do they hear you, they feel your pain, and sometimes even experience it somatically in their own body. Once you have left the conversation, the HSP is ruminating on the negative words they heard or the scary images their mind has created as you told them your story. They often feel ‘stuck’ with other people’s feelings after an encounter. Because highly sensitive people feel so deeply, they are much more prone to being emotionally hurt by rudeness, apathy, or criticism. Whatever the average person experiences as offensive, the HSP feels this pain more deeply and holistically for many more hours (or possibly days!) later.
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?
HSP attune to the feelings, thoughts, and emotions of others innately. This is part of their DNA and this why we are drawn to our highly sensitive friends after we have experienced a trauma or a negative encounter. Our highly sensitive friends are fantastic listeners and they make us feel heard, validated, and understood with just a simple nod of their head and an empathetic smile. In addition to their amazing listening skills, HSP are often visual thinkers. This means that even if they did not witness traumatic event themselves, they easily and automatically visualize it with great detail. If the HSP happens to watch the news on TV or catches sight of a gruesome event in their news feed, they are likely to be traumatized by the images and they may feel unable to break the cycle of seeing this in their mind’s eye.
As a highly sensitive person myself, I have great difficulty enjoying TV shows such as America’s Funniest Videos. Although many people find the clips of people falling off roofs or crashing into trees on sleds funny, I do not. I find the images highly disturbing and painful to watch. As much as I would like to be able to laugh, I cannot.
Can you please share a story about how a highly sensitive nature created problems for someone at work or socially?
When working with or managing a highly sensitive person, it’s really important to know how to communicate effectively with them. The communication style you use may be very different than what you use with more robust employees. Difficult conversations and providing feedback are part of every working relationship, but for our HSP this must done in a delicate and supportive way. If the highly sensitive employee feels attacked, unheard, or abandoned by their colleagues, clients, or boss, they may retreat into themselves making them a less productive member of the team. The best advice I can offer here is to ‘sandwich’ the difficult news between praise and gratitude. Rather than focusing solely on what went wrong, offer some positive feedback first, then address the issue, and conclude by offering some coaching on how this might be handled differently next time. Draw on the HSP’s strengths and past experience where he or she excelled and it will be much easier for the HSP to process the feedback.
I worked with HSP who found herself crying whenever a discussion with a client or co-worker got intense. The person was a highly competent and skilled professional, yet, due to her sensitive and empathetic nature, negative feedback or perceived disappointment was truly difficult for her receive. These stressful interactions caused her many sleepless nights and unwanted intrusive thoughts during her career. Ultimately, she left her high-powered position for a more value-aligned position in a local school. However, had her co-workers and managers been able to communicate more effectively with her, she could have thrived in that position.
When does the average person’s level of sensitivity rise above the societal norm? When is one seen as “too sensitive”?
The truth is, being “too sensitive” is just a perception and label given from one to another; it truly doesn’t hold meaning. However, highly sensitive behavior may manifest in such a way that the person can no longer partake in activities of normal daily life due to their sensitives. For example, a HSP may not attend happy hours with their co-workers because the TVs oscillate between extreme sports and the news- these difficult images coupled together with the loud noises and the general low energy of the bar may be entirely too much for a HSP to handle. Another example of how this may manifest is often seen in children who have difficulty adjusting to a busy classroom setting. These children are often labelled as problematic trouble makers when in fact they are simply overstimulated by the lights, noises, and constant (and often conflicting) verbal demands of their teachers and peers.
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 innately wired to understand others so they make great listeners to friends and strangers alike. Also, HSP are traditionally hard-working, conscientious, and they often strive for perfection. They strive for perfect grades; the perfect presentation; or the perfect guitar solo- therefore they make incredible team members. Additionally, HSP are conflict avoidant which means you are unlikely to hear them complain or challenge a decision even if they don’t agree with you. HSPs can be great for morale, cohesion, and efficiency on your team. However, if the HSP is unable to balance their own person needs with the needs of others, they will be left feeling drained and depleted.
Can you share a story that you have come across where great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I have witnessed many HSP attune to the feelings, thoughts, and needs of others so quickly that the HSP is actually aware of the other person’s needs well before the person in need! I think this one of the huge advantages of being a HSP. This attuning process also allows the HSP to be prepared for whatever their friends, family, or co-workers need. The key, as always, is for the HSP to balance the needs of others with their own personal needs. While caring for others comes naturally to the HSP, caring for themselves does not.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
The line between being highly sensitive and empathetic is drawn when this beautiful gift of kindness and compassion becomes a burden to the HSP. In other words, when the HSP is harmed by their generosity. Because the HSP is conflict avoidant, they have great difficulty establishing healthy boundaries and this means they get burnt-out, compassion-fatigued, and taken advantage of, sometimes. In contrast, an empathetic person listens attentively and compassionately but when they have reached their emotional capacity, they know how to say no and they take the time to protect their energy.
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?
Social Media bombards the HSP with written words, sounds, and images at warp speed. Because the HSP needs time to process and make sense of what they see, hear, read, and feel, social media can be like a battleground for them. One minute, they might be watching adorable kittens playing with a ball but with the flick of a finger they can be thrust into images of war-torn country in the midst of humanitarian crisis. Without warning the internet becomes unsafe and unkind to this HSP.
I recommend HSPs create healthy boundaries and guidelines for themselves. For example, they should limit screen time before bed as disturbing images can disturb sleep. Limiting screen time is also particularly important when a natural disaster or traumatic event has recently happened as this will be covered extensively in the aftermath of the event. Lastly, limiting screen time during a contentious political season is wise advice for our highly sensitive people, also.
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?
I always advocate for my clients to express themselves, calmly and compassionately, even if their opinion is unpopular. This is particularly important for highly sensitive people because they are, by nature, people-pleasers. I would recommend that my client respond with a statement something like this: “while I appreciate that you may not bothered by this incident, it is extremely upsetting to me and it would help me greatly if you would acknowledge my feelings about this situation.”
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?
When working with a highly sensitive person, I always like to focus on helping that person set healthy boundaries in their relationships. HSP have great difficulty discerning what constitutes a healthy boundary and they feel that saying “no” goes against their innate nature of compassion, service, and understanding. I like to help clients recognize how they can help others by taking care of themselves first. This is often a foreign concept for the HSP. I like to remind my clients that when they are flying on an airplane, they are always instructed to put on their own oxygen masks in a time of an emergency before helping others. This metaphor helps people understand the importance of caring for themselves before taking care of others.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
I think the biggest myth is that HSP are somehow ‘unusual’, ‘weird’, or ‘awkward’. Highly sensitive people are beautifully and uniquely made, just like everyone else. It is the balance of dark and light, introvert and extrovert, loud and soft, gentle and strong, that brings about peace in the world.
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?
Respect is key to any healthy relationship. When a relationship is littered with judgment and a desire to change the other person, the relationship is on a rocky foundation and headed down a treacherous path. In these situations, it’s important to have an authentic conversation with whomever is telling you to be someone different than you are. If you are unable to create a healthy balance of mutual respect and authentic conversation with one another, it may be time to consider why are you in relationship with this person. What draws you close in this relationship and how is it serving?
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 If You Love Or Are In A Relationship With A Highly Sensitive Person”. Please give a story or an example for each.
1) Create a nurturing environment
Dim the lights, lower the volume, hold the fragrances. Your loved one gets overstimulated easily. Overstimulation can occur when his or her senses get attacked from all angles. While you may love loud music and scented air fresheners, your HSP does not. Creating an environment that is comforting and nurturing for your loved one shows them that you understand them and care about their needs. Nothing says “I love you” to your HSP like a room with low lighting, warm blankets, and unscented candles.
2) Give your HSP space
Give your loved one space in all areas- physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Space is essential to a HSP. Offering your HSP all the space he or she needs will definitely set-up your relationship for success. Whether your relationship is romantic or he is your young son or she is your mother, you want to lay a strong foundation for this relationship. Acknowledging and honoring your HSP’s need for internal and external space allows you two to have the best time when you are together. Deliver this space without laying on guilt or expecting something in return and you are creating a healthy relationship.
3) Use kind words in difficult situations
Words are like medicine or poison to your loved one. You can lift-up your HSP with kind and gentle words but you can also tear them down quickly with the harsh words. Because your HSP feels everything deeply, he or she will respond fully and somatically to whatever you say. There’s no avoiding difficult conversation when you are in a caring relationship, so the trick is not avoiding difficult topics, but rather, addressing them lovingly. Set your intention towards kindness, compassion, and truth. If you are particularly charged on a subject, take time to digest and process this alone until the charge has dissipated. This way you can enter the conversation from a place of non-attachment and compassion.
4) Help them, help themselves
When you are in a relationship with HSP, you may find it very difficult to see them being taken advantage of or offering themselves tirelessly to others without caring for themselves. Because you love this person, help them to help themselves. Find ways to gently help your loved one say to no to activities or people who are not serving and guide your HSP towards activities and people who do nourish their spirit. Sometimes the HSP is unaware of their energy drainers, so if it feels right, help them recognize how they feel in the presence of certain people or after particular events. Creating this self-awareness is a gift that will truly help your loved ones help themselves.
5) Honor and respect your differences
While you may love the unique qualities of your HSP, you may be a very different creature. That’s okay! You do not have to be a replica of your loved one; in fact, you shouldn’t try to be just like him or her. Be your authentic self. Trust that when you are authentic, and your HSP is authentic too, that together you will bring out the best in each other. You will help your HSP leave their comfort zone occasionally so that you can listen to your favorite band or try the new trendy sushi bar. Your loved one will help you learn to chill and appreciate natural beauty and quite nights in. Your differences complement each other and that’s ideal. If you choose to resist your differences or see them as flaws, honor and respect will not be part of the formula, and that can spell disaster for your relationship.
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 people being authentic and truthful on social media. I tire of seeing the deception of the ‘perfect life’ portrayed in my news feed every day. If people were honest with one another about the easy and difficult moments in life, everyone would benefit. According to research, most people feel worse after interacting on social media although they engage on social media with the intention of feeling better about themselves! It’s an interesting paradox. I am not opposed to social media because I don’t think it’s going away. But, I would like us to develop a new way of relating to social media in an effort to promote authenticity and compassion rather than judgment and comparison.
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