Not accepting your sensitivity can feel “normal” if you grew up being criticized for being “too sensitive.” But HSPs pay a heavy price for trying to be “normal.”
As a kid, I felt like the Ugly Duckling: chronically awkward and self-conscious. If you had asked me why, I wouldn’t have known what to say. I wasn’t popular, and I certainly wasn’t athletic. I was reasonably “successful” by other social standards, though: I got good grades. I was reliable. I was musical. Also, by sheer genetic luck, I was slender, so I was spared that source of teasing.
Still, I felt “not quite right.” The absence of any obvious 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,” in the same way the Ugly Duckling was—different, but having no idea why. Now I know I was, and am, highly sensitive.
The “differentness” of sensitivity is not always valued 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.
The other ducklings were not so kind. They saw “different” as “bad,” and they bullied and ostracized the Ugly Duckling. Unfortunately, this has been true in Western culture, where sensitivity is not as highly valued as it is in some other cultures.
Fortunately, this is changing. Dr. Elaine Aron has worked tirelessly to educate the public about the sensitive trait, and books like Susan Cain’s Quiet (which really is about HSPs, though she calls us “introverts”) have reached an even larger audience.
In the meantime, though, sensitivity is too often judged in negative terms. This is arguably even worse for sensitive men, but no one of any gender enjoys being told they are “too sensitive.” Whatever your gender, if you are sensitive, you may need to be persistent to find acceptance and support. For this support, the company of other sensitive people is essential.
There is one catch, though. If you do not accept your own sensitivity, you will struggle to take in support from other people.
If you grew up feeling like the Ugly Duckling, you know all too well the effects of not accepting yourself. The fact is, low self-acceptance correlates closely with anxiety and depression in HSPs. So your emotional well-being depends upon your ability to accept and value yourself, sensitivity and all.
Test your self-acceptance level with this five-stage model
You can assess your level of self-acceptance as a sensitive person using the five-stage scale developed by licensed professional counselor Jacquelyn Strickland. Jacquelyn has done groundbreaking work with highly sensitive people, including the co-creation with Dr. Aron of the annual HSP gatherings. Thanks to Jacquelyn for her permission to share this valuable resource.
I’ve condensed the key points of each stage, followed by my commentary:
Stage One: Disparage
In the disparagement stage, you actively berate yourself for being too serious, too emotional, too weak, too intense. You believe there is something wrong with you. As a result, you feel powerless, vulnerable, depressed, ashamed, and overwhelmed.
Self-disparagement is the most isolating stage of HSP self-awareness. If you are convinced something is wrong with you, it’s hard to believe anyone else could truly love you. It’s also exhausting. You see yourself as an impossible project—fatally flawed yet doomed to keep trying to fix yourself in an effort to find some kind of peace or relief.
Paradoxically, the belief you are fatally flawed makes it even harder to engage in the practices that would actually help you find peace and relief. Shame, powerlessness, and overwhelm are so challenging to stay with that we will go to great lengths to avoid feeling them. In our efforts to numb the pain, however, we get even more cut off from our bodies, and from the inner wisdom that would get us back on track.
Stage Two: Deny
In the denial 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.
Notice that this stage implies the beginnings of awareness of your sensitivity. To be in denial, you have to have something to deny. The “something” in this case is your alleged weakness: your fatigue, your intense emotions, your sensory sensitivities, your tendency to get overaroused.
Perfectionism is the other half of a two-pronged effort to deal with your sensitivity in this stage. On the one hand, you try by sheer force of will to deny that you need what you need (plenty of sleep, down time, alone time, quiet, etc.) On the other, you try to be as perfect as you can in every way you can, to avoid feeling any more shame about yourself and your sensitivity.
Stage Three: Acknowledge
In the acknowledgement stage, your stance is, “Help me to understand you so I can help you to understand me.” You believe that you can be yourself, that you can get what you need, and that you have choices. You feel relieved, inspired, intrigued, even absorbed.
Simply acknowledging that you are highly sensitive is life-changing. The first time you say to yourself, “OK, I get it. I’m highly sensitive,” you enter a new world of possibility. You don’t have to feel thrilled about being an HSP yet, as long as you are willing to acknowledge it is true.
Once you’ve accepted that you are not flawed and not a hopeless project, you open the door for an exciting change to happen. You can now begin to turn your sensitive strengths towards yourself. You start to pay attention. You engage your keen powers of observation, which in turn activates a powerful inner feedback loop. As you notice what makes you feel better and what makes you feel worse, you make steady progress towards better self-care.
Stage Four: Affirm
In the affirmation stage, you move from grudging recognition of your sensitivity to a positive view of your traits as an HSP. You recognize that HSPs “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.
Once you can affirm your sensitivity, your self-care will improve by leaps and bounds. Up to this point, you’ve been reluctant or unable to admit you are sensitive. When you can’t clearly name where you are now—your “Point A”—there is no way to define and make steady progress towards your desired “Point B.”
Now, by contrast, you can candidly acknowledge what is and isn’t working in your life. Which aspects are sustainable? Which aren’t? Do you need more sleep? Better boundaries with friends and loved ones? Work—or an approach to your work—that is less overarousing for you? You can define your challenges and address them, rather than staying stuck in denial that they exist or judgments that they shouldn’t exist.
Stage Five: Promote
In the final stage, promotion, you see yourself as neither better nor worse than non-HSPs, 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…
If you grew up in an environment where your sensitivity was accepted and your unique needs were honored, you’ve been in this stage all along: seeking situations where you can thrive as an HSP, taking good care of yourself without apology or defensiveness, and trusting your spiritual intuition to guide you along the way.
Even if you were not accepted or supported, though, you can reach this fifth stage of promotion. You can earn a sense of yourself as fundamentally OK, acceptable, lovable, and worthy. You can learn how to take great care of yourself, both internally and around other people.
Do you recognize yourself in one of these stages?
What is it like to see yourself through the lens of these five stages? Do you recognize yourself in one of these stages? What resources and support would you need to move to the next stage of self-acceptance?
For Stages One and Two, close support is essential. Working 1:1 with a skilled (and preferably HSP-friendly) practitioner, you will begin to create a safe space inside yourself so you can heal the shame, anxiety, and depression you are experiencing.
As you continue your journey into Stages Three and Four, HSP-knowledgeable support becomes even more important. HSP self-care really is different, and it takes solid information, practice, and patience to create new self-care routines for yourself. Spending time with other HSPs will inspire and support you as well.
For all five stages, I recommend Focusing and Inner Bonding® as a particularly effective combination of HSP-friendly healing modalities. If you are in therapy, Focusing skills will enhance the depth and effectiveness of your therapy, and Inner Bonding will give you key skills and awareness for setting a healthy intent, creating boundaries, connecting to your spiritual intuition, and taking loving action.
Focusing training offers another key benefit for HSPs: you will learn how to exchange Focusing partnership sessions. In Stages One, Two, and Three, you can use your sessions to address old, painful patterns. In Stages Four and Five, you can use your partnership time for ongoing personal and creative growth.
In short, Focusing partnership is an ideal life-long support resource to meet your HSP needs for deep processing and meaningful connection. Once you’ve learned Focusing, it is free for life. Even better, many HSPs are attracted to Focusing, so you will find kindred spirits there. This is true in the Inner Bonding community, too.
Note: This article originally appeared on January 16, 2016. It has been substantially edited and updated.