E052 – Why are you so sensitive?!

Aug 17, 2023

Are you sensitive? Do you feel things a lot? Maybe people tell you that you're oversensitive, or you’ve just noticed that you tend to take things in. You can sometimes feel what other people are feeling, or you take on criticism really easily, or bad vibes… you feel it a lot in your body.

Sensitivity is a beautiful thing. I think it's amazing to be open and connected, and to feel things—but it can also be overwhelming, and it can be a lot. I'm a human being with soft and squishy parts. I feel things a lot.

And today I'm going to explore this topic of being sensitive. If you’re sensitive or interested in this topic, watch the video below or read on. You can also download a handy worksheet at the bottom this post.

In this blog, I explore what it is to be sensitive and to feel things a lot, and how we can work with this beautiful strength but also offset some of the hard parts of it: sometimes feeling too much and being overwhelmed by those feelings, and having that really affect our day-to-day life.

Sensitivity goes by many names. Some people call themselves an empath, or just describe themselves as having a lot of empathy. Other people go by the term "highly sensitive person," a legit term that has been subjected to scientific research.

You could just have been told from when you were small that you’re too sensitive. (And parents and other adults potentially gaslighting us for our feelings is a whole other topic on its own!) But you are a sensitive person if you feel things a lot, if you have high empathy. In other words, you can feel what other people are feeling. When you walk into a room, you often feel the vibes that are there. You're perceptive, you notice things, and you can feel and track other people's emotions. You may also be quite adept at reading people's body language. Do they mean what they say? Are they friendly? Do they actually feel safe in the moment?

Many of us learnt these habits of perception as children around our parents, where we needed to learn how to gauge where they were at and how to adapt and be agreeable to a particular parent. It may be accompanied by feeling a lot, but also by deep thinking: sitting with what you've experienced and ruminating over it.

It can also translate into some really beautiful qualities, like an appreciation for aesthetics. This ability to feel also allows us to perceive and feel beauty, and to enjoy aesthetic pleasures like music, or art—or even just the sky, or human life with all its fragility and beauty.

But this sense of vulnerability or openness can also lead to intense reactions. In other words, when stuff happens "to you", in your environment, you may be very reactive emotionally, you may feel a lot. So what may seem like a small thing to somebody else will be a lot for us, and it can lead to big reactions.

Our big reaction may be something like, "Ah, don't do that!" Or a flood of tears, or withdrawal, shutting down. To some people, this reaction may seem out of proportion to what’s happening. But this is how someone who's sensitive manages these big feelings.

So welcome to all of us who feel a lot, who are sensitive or open and perceptive and empathic. These are beautiful qualities, and I just want to welcome us all. We're all just stumbling through this human life, doing our best.

This topic is important because if you are sensitive and open, you have some incredible gifts, but we often haven't fully opened up to and manifested these wonderful gifts. And the flipside of this gift is that it may sometimes feel like it's difficult to live like this.

This can result in maladaptive behaviors to just make it okay to be sensitive, and we can gear our whole life around our sensitivity. We might choose to never really see people, or to stay at home, or we could choose smaller career paths, or to never put out our creativity and art, because we're too sensitive to criticism.

So it can affect us and make us small in this world if we don’t work with it consciously; it's a big thing for all of us.

Let’s explore some of the strengths of sensitive people, which include intuition; creativity; compassion, empathy, and the ability to be with other people and feel their feelings and let them feel seen; conflict resolution; leadership; and really deep problem-solving skills, being able to see into the problem at a really deep level, and to see many people's opinions and feelings about it simultaneously. Also authenticity—being real, the ability to be authentic and trustworthy—and adaptability, the ability to keep growing and moving and changing.

Personal growth and the ability to keep growing and thriving and becoming healthier and wiser are all positive aspects of sensitivity. But there are downsides too, of course—let's just call them challenges. For one, emotional regulation can be an issue. Because we feel so much, it can be a lot, and we might not really know how to handle such big feelings. So we might become compulsive blurters, or compulsive freezers, or we might run away. These are examples of high reactiveness.

There could also be an avoidance of life in this patterning, where we build a whole life around feeling safe, because we're sensitive. So we do less, we explore less, we have less courage to be out in the world. We may be the kind of people who take everything, or too much, personally. When other people are expressing something fairly neutrally, we might feel it's all about us. So we really want to learn to regulate that and be able to see the truth of the situation. Because if our reaction is accompanied by a lack of emotional regulation and high reactivity, we can be quite difficult to be around. It can also lead to emotional exhaustion and patterns of shutting down the emotion because it's too much. Finding balance in this is key.

Another huge component of this is: How are your boundaries? Highly sensitive people should probably take a look at their boundaries and their sense of porousness in relation to the world. Are you taking on all the things from all around you—and if so, why? What will happen if you don't? If you say, “Actually, that funny feeling that's happening over there is not welcome in here.”

Let's explore some of the opportunities this presents, the methods we can use to find balance while remaining sensitive—to enjoy the gifts while not being taken downtown by the challenges.

Let me introduce you to a very sweet paradox, a seemingly contradictory set of behaviors. One of the things that's recommended when we've got these big feelings is to not run away but to go deep, to stay with the feelings. Most of us have a primary and a secondary emotion: the first big emotion comes over us, but it’s followed by a second emotion. It might be anger in the first moment, but behind that comes shame. On the one hand, we blurt out the anger, but on the other hand, we think, "I shouldn't be feeling this."

Multiple layers, or psychological parts, are acting simultaneously with the primary emotion—it's messy. So in that moment we want to pause, breathe, slow down, and make a space available to completely feel and be with that emotion.

Take a breath. Introduce grounding practices to move into your body, to slow down your breathing—not to avoid the feeling, but to make space for it and to feel it deeply. Be it disappointment, hurt, anger, or a combination of these things… slow down and feel. Our impulse is often to move away from the emotion, to fix it, blurt it out, shut it down: "I shouldn't be feeling this."

So the first key component is to feel it.

The second part of the paradox is to regulate the feeling.

In other words, work with the emotion and introduce some calm and space into it. Your regulation practices might initially involve, for example, taking deep breaths and pausing. You might begin to tap on your body or use EFT. You could even look around the room, breathe, and get perspective. It's really helpful to bring in a sense of mindful presence. There are a ton of techniques for this, so find the one that works for you and begin to regulate your body and emotions.

We don't want to just move to regulation, though; we want to do both at the same time. The paradox is to be with the emotion, to completely stay with it, even as you regulate it and work with it, allowing it to come into balance. Feel the emotion and regulate the emotion: we're holding a sweet balance between working on it and not moving away from it. These are absolutely key skills, known in some of the literature as distress tolerance and emotional regulation.

And on top of this, we want to add a few more important skills. The first is to keep very clear psychological and energetic boundaries, so that we are not taking the world on inside ourselves all the time. Develop a sense of "Actually, nothing comes in without my permission." It’s not always easy, but we can work at it over time.

Another aspect is to look and work on the level of the physical: Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating properly? Do you have any physical illness or disease that is making you much more sensitive? We're looking at any aspects in our physical life that might increase our sense of sensitivity or decrease our sense of balance.

Another key component is grounding, to develop an ongoing practice of getting into our bodies, feeling our bodies—moving out of our heads and into our bodies.

Another aspect that is also just modern-life best practice is to have a daily mindfulness practice, so you can easily move out of your conditioning into a sense of deep perspective and spaciousness. So even when we’re feeling sensitive, a part of us remains deeply calm and aware and can see the big picture. Allow that emotion to be there, but allow a sense of space around it.

I love the title of Gabor Maté's latest book, The Myth of Normal. The world out there is not the most psychologically healthy. You only have to look at your newsfeed or any other form of media to see the nature of the human condition; we are not a very healthy species.

To be emotionally healthy, to be happy and regulated and human, is actually the road less traveled, as M. Scott Peck called it. So the last good habit I want to mention is personal work, an essential component of regulating and balancing sensitivity. It behooves us all to do some kind of personal work, be it in the form of therapy, coaching, counseling, energy work—whatever suits you, but to be in an ongoing process of some form of support. 

Check out this worksheet for helpful tips on how to become a little less like a porous jellyfish feeling all the things and to move into being deeply, beautifully sensitive—but also courageous and even a bit lion-hearted in the world.