Friday, August 26, 2011

HSPs and Accountability for Our Feelings

For most of us, a substantial part of being "a Highly Sensitive Person" revolves around the fact that we are... well... sensitive. Although the HSP trait covers a lot of territory... from physical, to environmental, to sensory, to psychic sensitivities, most people hear the term highly sensitive and immediately go to a place of "gets their feelings hurt easily."

Indeed, this is part of being an HSP.

So, when you're emotionally sensitive, you're typically deeply affected by people and situations where you encounter rudeness, a basic lack of compassion, unconscious action, cruelty... even outright meanness. We find ourselves in these situations, and "it stings." We are deeply moved... but how do we deal with these feelings? How do we handle it when we feel hurt-- and sometimes (often?) feel an extreme response where most folks around us just seem to "take it in stride," or even "blow it off?"

Many psychologists will argue that nobody can "make you" feel anything... another person may trigger feelings, but they didn't "make" them.

Of course, this is a difficult to understand-- and usually unpopular-- concept. It asks us to be accountable for our intense feelings. I know only too well just how easy it is to slip across a line into the land of accusations and blame; a place where we no longer think "I felt hurt," but instead move into thinking "You MADE ME feel... (whatever)."

But we're highly sensitive, right? We can't deny what we feel... and I'm not suggesting that we do-- I believe our strong feelings are perfectly valid, within our paradigm of being HSPs.

What matters is what we do with them...

Personally, I have had to learn a lot about letting go of blaming others, and dwelling on "external causes" for my hurt feelings as something I'm not responsible for; something "separate" from me. A dear friend-- who's also a therapist for HSPs-- pointed out that we (as adults) often slip into patterns we were in as children. Think about it: When quite young, how often do kids say "But he/she MADE ME DO IT!" to somehow excuse themselves from "owning" bad behavior and negative reactions? There are "versions" of that for adults, as well.

One of the great benefits of being an HSP is the fact that we have a natural inclination to "pause and check." This behavior-- by extension-- translates into a natural tendency to "respond" to situations, rather than "react." However, we still must be careful and mindful... and try to stay away from passive-aggressive "blame games," in which we set out to subtly "punish" others for how they made us feel hurt.

Again, nobody's saying that our feelings (in this case hurt, anger, or whatever) aren't real. The question is, HOW do we process them? WHO do we "make responsible?" Ourselves? Or someone else?

Of course, there's most likely not "ONE right answer." In most cases, the authentic answer becomes "some of each."

Talk Back: How do you respond, when strong (negative) feelings arise? Do you find yourself able to respond, or are you more likely to react? Do you look for an external source to blame? Do you look inside, to examine where the feelings arose from? Do you believe other people "make you" feel negative things? Or do you see negative feelings as "simply arising?" Once an intense feeling arises, are you able to let go again? Or does the feeling stay with you, and continues to "color" your day/week/month? Leave a comment! Remember, there's no "right" answer.


  1. I think HSP's have a harder time managing their emotions and thinking clearly in the face of them simply because they are more intense. It probably takes longer for an HSP to "master" their emotions and reach the same emotional developmental milestones of less sensitive people.

    Not to devalue the feelings themselves. There is an incredible amount of cruelty in the world that HSP's tend to notice more and absorb. We are also more likely to question our own moral integrity which can be deeply alarming...

    I think it is generally accepted to be healthy "spiritually" or psychologically requires taking full responsibility for your own actions and feelings =) This could be related to the fact that people tend not to like the feeling of being "out of control". Putting your emotions at the mercy of others guarantees this unpleasant existence ;)

  2. My own HSP has caused me to be finely attuned to other's feelings. For that reason, I'm actually less likely to blame others. I "feel their pain." In fact, I have to be extra careful not to blame myself for making them sad or angry.

  3. This area is complex for me. I'm sitting here now trying to summarize my emotions.

    When strong feelings arise, I can get caught up in an ocean of emotion - happiness becomes elation, anger is more like rage, sadness turns into despair.

    It wasn't always this way. Because I was a sensitive but smart and I grew up in an abusive home, I learned some might strong defense mechanisms. I had learned to distance people who often hurt me with words and neutralize some of my feelings with intellectual superiority. There were also other slightly maladaptive coping strategies, so that in addition to the childhood trauma, I have to deal with the emotional fallout of my choices in adulthood.

    I would tell my stories to my friends as if the things I went through happened to someone else. I became a great storyteller, and remained unaffected by the actual events. I processed a lot on an intellectual level, virtually none on an emotional level. I even chose a clinical laboratory setting - a career choice that helped me practice my method of intellectual detachment - at least with colleagues and friends. I was never quite able to achieve detachment with my abusive family.

    To complicate matters, I repeated a pattern from my own childhood. As an adult child of an alcoholic father and step-father, I ended up marrying a man with a drinking problem and having three beautiful children daughters. We've been dealing with some of these issues too. We've made some significant progress in this area, but it took a very long time.

    When I left work to raise my daughters 7 years ago, I was left with a lot of time on my hands and switched gears from emotional detachment to one of attachment. The transition was not just difficult, but incredibly overwhelming. Because, as I soon discovered, I was not only an HSP, but I had given birth to HSP daughters as well. It has made for quite an educational journey as I try to understand their personalities and guide them.

    I think in the past couple of years, I've been emotionally processing all that I denied before.

    I don't believe in blaming, but I do believe in taking on only the guilt and the responsibility for MY choices and MY responses. I spent so long taking responsibility for OTHER people's choices and responses and my own as well.

    The reason to make an attempt at differentiating responsibility is to 1) reduce feelings of guilt and 2) to reduce feelings of persecution.

    The truth is, some people do make thoughtless, critical and/or cruel statements/actions. And while I can take responsibility for how their words impact me, I'm not going to add extra guilt or shame in assuming I must have done something to deserve what I got.

    I can now see where I have contributed to some of the difficulties and I can see the areas I'm NOT responsible for. I can only work on my stuff.

    It's like the Serenity Prayer - God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

    That's absolutely differentiation of responsibility.

    For me, the "wisdom to know the difference" is the best, but most difficult lesson to learn.

    Btw - I appreciate reading your blog.

    Best Wishes, Casey

  4. @ K

    You articulated that very well; differentiation of responsibility. That's a perfect summation of the serenity prayer and resonates with how I feel/think. I too have used an intellectual approach to coping with emotional stress, and when I do 'let myself be more emotional' it's hard to keep it under control. So, it's easy to seek refuge in the intellectual safety.

    Btw, I really enjoy analyzing things to minute detail JUST for the fun of it. It's so calming and relaxing.


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