As a kid, I felt like the Ugly Duckling—chronically awkward and self-conscious. If you had asked me why, I’d have been puzzled how to answer. Aside from not being popular or athletic, I was reasonably “successful” by the cultural standards I knew: I got good grades, I was reliable, I was musical, and and by sheer genetic luck I was slender, so I was spared that source of teasing. But I still felt “not quite right.”

The absence of any good explanation for my awkwardness just made me feel even weirder. I didn’t understand that growing up sensitive in this culture, I really was weird. I was exactly like the Ugly Duckling, stuck feeling different from other people but having no idea why.

The “differentness” of sensitivity is not a positive in our culture

Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling was blessed with a duck mother who loved him despite his differences from the rest of her offspring. You have to give her a lot of credit, since she strongly suspected he’d grow up to be—literally—a turkey (I find that hilariously apropos!)

The other ducklings were not so kind: they saw “different” as “bad,” and and they bullied and ostracized the Ugly Duckling. Likewise here in the U.S., where being sensitive is not highly valued as it is in some other cultures. There is a movement happening to change that: if you haven’t seen the movie Sensitive: The Untold Story, I recommend it highly.

But in the meantime, the “differentness” of sensitivity is too often judged in negative terms here, especially if you are a sensitive man. Whatever your gender, if you cannot look to your culture for acceptance and support, and possibly not even to your family or colleagues, where can you look?

The company of other sensitive people is essential, but on the most fundamental level your well-being depends upon your own ability to accept and value yourself and your trait. Research shows clearly that for sensitive persons, low self-acceptance correlates closely with anxiety and depression. Accepting yourself, if you haven’t yet been able to do that, is the central life task which will affect every area of your life, because sensitivity affects every area of your life.

Test your self-acceptance level: the five-stage model

You can assess your own level of self acceptance as a sensitive person using this five-stage scale developed by licensed professional counselor Jacquelyn Strickland. Jacquelyn has done groundbreaking work with sensitive people, including the co-creation with author and sensitivity researcher Elaine Aron of the annual HSP gatherings. Thanks to Jacquelyn for her permission to share this valuable resource, which I’ve condensed for purposes of this article (for the full PDF version, click here):

Stage one: disparage

In this stage, you actively berate yourself for being too serious, too emotional, too weak, too intense. You believe there is something wrong with you, leading you to feel powerless, vulnerable, depressed, ashamed, or overwhelmed.

Stage two: deny

In the denying stage, you refuse to acknowledge your sensitivity. You deal with it by telling yourself to pull it together, toughen up, suck it up, etc. You believe you are weak and that your needs are not important. You lack trust in your own judgment and may turn to perfectionism to compensate, leading you to feel stressed, irritable, heavy, resentful, or guilty.

Stage three: acknowledge

In this stage, your stance is, “Help me to understand you so I can help you to understand me.” You believe that you can be yourself; you can get what you need; and that you have choices. You feel relieved, inspired, intrigued, even absorbed.

Stage four: affirm

Here you move from merely recognizing your traits as an HSP to seeing them in a positive light: as Jacquelyn puts it, you recognize that “HSP’s have a unique way of being in the world, we have a more finely tuned central nervous system, and we process things deeply and purposefully.” Believing this, you feel proud, relaxed, hopeful, optimistic, even passionate.

Stage five: promote

In this fifth and final stage, you see yourself as neither better nor worse than non-HSP’s, but as having unique gifts and contributions to make to your relationships, your work, and the world. You believe that you deserve love; that you are fine as you are; that you can trust your own judgment; and that you have the right to choose who you can trust. Believing all this, you feel appreciative, grateful, inspired, empowered, excited…

Do you recognize yourself in one of these stages?

What does this tell you about yourself? What resources and support would you need to move to the next stage of self-acceptance? If you find yourself spending time in Stages One and Two, please take action to get support:

  • To be with the parts of you that feel ashamed, depressed, or anxious, Focusing is the most powerful tool I know.  If you are in therapy, Focusing skills will enhance your therapy…and you can augment your therapy with Focusing partnership: once you know how to Focus, you have it for life, and partnership is free.
  • And if you are in the stages of accepting, affirming, or promoting/celebrating your sensitivity, Focusing is the best skill I know to clarify, nurture and act on your goals and dreams and to transform blocks that arise along the way.

I’m excited because I’m working on creating a new Focusing partnership training especially for sensitive people. If you’d like to know more, respond to this message with “Focusing training” in the subject heading and I’ll keep you posted! In the meantime, I offer 1:1 Focusing sessions that are a powerful support for moving past shame, anxiety and depression.