Many of my clients are highly sensitive women. They go through their lives hearing the same cliches:
"You're too sensitive. Lighten up."
"You always take things the wrong way!"
"Oh, she's just shy!"
"Why can't you go with the flow?"
What it Means to Be Highly Sensitive
My main goal in working with highly sensitive women is to help them realize they aren't terrible people or tragically flawed. They are simply part of the 15-20% of the population who are genetically predisposed to be more aware of and affected by subtleties in their environment, inclined toward deep reflection and rich inner-experience, and more easily overwhelmed by what's going on around them.
Being highly sensitive is not a personality flaw or a choice. It's in fact a genetically inherited way that the nervous system functions and it affects everything from the most important relationships to how much coffee it takes to become completely wired.
In a world where being outgoing, attractive, easy going, and open to new experiences is considered to be the most desirable of traits for women, highly sensitive women often feel shamed and isolated by their sensitivity.
Are You a Highly Sensitive Woman?
Highly sensitive women tend to have the following traits:
- Extremely in-tune and aware of the details and subltleties in her environment, especially those that affect the senses such as the smell of someone's perfume, the sound of a coworker crunching on carrots, or a minor shift in light or temperature in the room.
- Easily overwhelmed by a lot going on around you.
- Easily affected by other people's moods or energy.
- Feel re-energized by withdrawing or isolating yourself when you feel overly stimulated.
- Worry about making mistakes, being less than perfect, or forgetting things.
- Seen as sensitive or shy as a child.
- You are very intuitive.
- You love to research, think about options, and reflect.
- Physically sensitive to things like medication, changes in diet, caffeine, or alcohol.
More Alike Than Different
Being highly sensitive can make you feel like you're completely different than everyone around you, or that you'll never be understood -- by yourself or others. The truth, however, is that being overstimulated doesn't feel good for anyone.
Unrelenting loud noises, impossibly hot rooms or unruly crowds can make anyone feel uncomfortable.
Highly sensitive people just have a different threshold for where that point of discomfort begins.
All people take measures all day every day to maintain a comfortable level of input from the world around us.
We pick up our phones to decrease boredom. We end a conversation when it becomes too upsetting. We take a scratchy sweater off to decrease physical discomfort. We eat ice cream to feel the pleasure of coolness and sweetness in our mouths.
Though being a highly sensitive woman can be seen as a negative thing -- especially in today's culture which values hyper-masculinity, rationality, and logic -- being highly sensitive can actually be a huge strength and asset.
Highly sensitive women will fight for what they believe in. They are generally aware of and concerned with issues such as social justice, the environment, and human rights. They want to make the world a better place and put out ideas to make it happen.
They generally make choices and take action based on creativity, imagination, and conviction.
They tend to have a talent for sensitive language and making others feel safe and loved.
Because they like to look at all angles of an issue, they are insightful, able to see the connections between seemingly unconnected things, and able to get to the heart of the matter.
What Highly Sensitive Women Need
Highly sensitive women are like orchids: they can bloom with incredible complexity and beauty given the right conditions.
If you're a highly sensitive woman, it's crucial to create an environment that works for you and allows you to feel and be your best self.
Here's What That Looks Like:
- Learn what makes you feel overstimulated and then take steps to avoid it when possible.
Practice saying no without guilt to events or situations that you know are going to be too much for you. If your friend invites you to a bar and you know it's going to be loud and crowded, suggest another way to spend time together, like going out for coffee or meeting at your house, and let go of the obligation to be all things to all people.
- Learn to recover from overstimulation when it's over.
Sometimes overstimulation is unavoidable. If your baby is crying, you're going to stop what you're doing and figure out what's wrong. This may result in minutes or hours of screaming directly in your ear.
When that's over, have a plan already in place to decompress. That may mean sitting alone in a quiet room for a few minutes or calling a friend to vent or watching an episode of your favorite TV show.
Whatever works for you is fine, just know what it is and be ready to go and do it as soon as possible.
- Get information about your sensitivity.
Most highly sensitive women love information, and love to understand themselves more fully and deeply.
Books like The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive In a World That Overwhelms You by Elaine Aaron and Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain are great places to start.
Talk to friends or family who are sensitive like you, and if you don't know any, look for Facebook groups or even hashtags that will connect you with like-minded women.
- Look at your past with an understanding of your sensitivity.
That time you exploded at your partner at the mall: was it because you were being unreasonable or was it because you had been surround by noisy strangers for hours?
That time your teacher called you shy in front of the class: was it because you really didn't like talking to people or was it just that you preferred to spend your energy talking to people you felt a true connection with?
Counseling can help you look at your past actions with fresh eyes and a deeper, more compassionate understanding of who you are.
- Increase your sensitivity to your own needs and dial down your sensitivity to others.
Remember that our society tends to praise sensitivity in women mainly when it leads to "unselfishly" caring for others. But caring for others all the time while putting your needs second or even last will ultimately end in resentment or burn-out, and then you're of no help to anyone.
Be selective in who you give your time, energy, and attention to. Don't waste it on office gossip or your overbearing mother in law and then have nothing left for the people you really value, or even worse yourself!
While it generally brings highly sensitive women great relief to understand and define their way of experiencing the world, understanding is no substitute for therapy in identifying and healing the wounds that can come with it. Highly sensitive women can be at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and trauma due to the intensity that they experience both positive and negative events and emotions in their lives.
If you suspect this might be the case for you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 973-769-2401 to set up a free phone consultation.