Highly sensitive? Here’s how to turn it into your greatest strength

Celebrate and embrace the compassion, kindness and creativity that comes with being acutely attuned to life's thrilling twists and turns, writes Anna Gaunt.

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Highly sensitive person with arms outstretched

‘Don’t be so sensitive’, ‘You’re overthinking it’, and ‘You care too much’ are phrases I’ve heard a lot throughout my life. I have often found myself easily overwhelmed by stress, replaying a scenario in my head for days, and feeling both my own and other people’s emotions deeply.

I thought there must be something wrong with me, as I just couldn’t understand how other people could be so unbothered by situations that I found so overwhelming. Then, a few years ago, I came across the book The Highly Sensitive Person (HarperCollins, £14.99) by Dr Elaine Aron, and each page I read felt like another light-bulb moment – this was me.

If you process information deeply, are sensitive to your environment, and have heightened emotions, then like me, you too could be a highly sensitive person (HSP). It is not uncommon – it’s thought that around 20 per cent of the population are highly sensitive, or have a genetic trait that means they process internal stimuli (thoughts, emotions, hunger) and external stimuli (sounds, smells, light levels) more deeply than others.

Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
It is not a medical diagnosis, or a disorder, and despite how you may have been made to feel, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you – you are not weak, you just experience the world slightly differently to other people.

However, this added sensitivity can have its drawbacks. HSPs are at a higher risk of common mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and stress-related issues.

This is due to some of the challenges that highly sensitive people can face when not aware of, or able to understand, their sensitivity, such as overstimulation, intense emotions, stress from competing demands, and people pleasing.

Further contributing to these challenges is the lack of understanding around being highly sensitive among others, meaning HSPs often feel like – or are told by people – that there is something wrong with them for feeling so deeply.

But it’s not all bad – if you’re highly sensitive, you may find that although the lows feel incredibly low, the highs feel even higher. Research shows that just as highly sensitive people are more sensitive to negative stimuli, they are also more responsive to positive stimuli. A healthy working environment, self-care practices and social support can all help you to flourish as a highly sensitive person.

And it can also mean you are more likely to respond to help; a study at Queen Mary University of London found that being highly sensitive was a significant predictor in how well you were likely to respond to depression prevention interventions, and I can agree that from my own experience as a highly sensitive person, we can benefit disproportionally from attempts to improve our wellbeing.

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Perhaps as a result of both this increased sensitivity to life’s challenges, but also a reflection of our increased ability to respond to input, around half of all individuals having psychotherapy or counselling are thought to be highly sensitive. I previously had cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and developed a toolbox for dealing with the curveballs of living with anxiety – but I still felt that I was too emotional, too sensitive, too much.

It wasn’t until last year that I decided to have coaching to increase my self-awareness. I was apprehensive, wondering if I was the right type of person to be a coachee. The same self-doubting thoughts occurred – was I too emotional? Would my coach understand me? Worries of being understood are common for highly sensitive people, particularly when entering a new relationship.

‘It’s important to recognise how we feel with a coach, as feeling safe and accepted is key in the coaching relationship,’ says coach and founder of Quiet Connections, Hayley Stanton. ‘Don’t be afraid to ask questions to see if you are a good fit. A good coach, particularly one who understands high sensitivity, will not position themselves as the expert – the coaching relationship should be an equal partnership.’

After each session, I felt lighter, having talked through and untangled my thoughts with the help of my coach. With space to reflect came clarity on my values, beliefs, and goals. I felt more confident in my abilities and more motivated to take action.

To my surprise, after three months of regular coaching sessions, I had gained a profound level of self-awareness, self-compassion and personal growth from coaching. The coaching space and relationship allowed me to become my most authentic self, which meant that I felt comfortable in my sensitivity, knowing that it is just a part of what makes me, me. There are many ways that coaching can help you move from surviving to thriving if you’re highly sensitive, too.

Sensitivity as a strength
Sensitivity, and other common strengths of highly sensitive people, are not always celebrated in society, so reframing these can be beneficial. Common strengths of HSPs include attention to detail, empathy, compassion, kindness, creativity and appreciation of art, nature and animals.

I had previously seen my empathy and kindness as a weakness, but coaching enabled me to see these as significant strengths that enabled me to work helping others. It also highlighted areas where it was important for me to implement boundaries, and to use my strength of kindness to be more self-compassionate.

Rachael Wyartt, coach and co-founder of Kiltti (meaning kindness in Finnish), agrees that coaching sensitive people often entails helping people to be kinder to themselves as well as others: ‘Often, sensitive people who come to coaching have a tendency to people please.

‘Being kind isn’t just being kind to others, but also to yourself, including standing up for yourself. Kindness is a strength that sometimes takes bravery.’

Living more authentically
Strengths and values are closely intertwined, and recognising and using your strengths means you are more likely to be living in alignment with your values.

As a HSP, you have probably grown up learning what you must do to feel accepted and like you belong – which can often be diametrically opposed to what you actually want to do. You may feel pressured to go out drinking in busy clubs, even though this environment feels overstimulating for you.

You may feel like you should apply for a job even if it doesn’t feel right. Now, you may want to undo this social conditioning and explore what is most important to you; what you truly want and helps you to make changes to live the life you want to live.

In turn, living authentically, especially as a highly sensitive person, can increase your self-worth, goal achievement and overall wellbeing. Coaching could be the tool you need to unlock this new inner self. Whatever it takes, ultimately, sensitivity is a real strength, and one that you should be able to embrace and celebrate.

Next steps:

  • Listen to Elena Herdieckerhoff’s TED Talk: ‘The gentle power of highly sensitive people’
  • Read The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr Elaine Aron (HarperCollins, £14.99)
  • Read Kristen Neff’s Self-Compassion: The Proven Power Of Being Kind To Yourself (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)

More inspiration: Anxiety relief: 7 management techniques to help you cope

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