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I am both a highly sensitive person (HSP) and a hardcore empath.
It took me about 26 years of blindly exploring the deepest pits of life to unfold the reality of who I’ve always been, with all the tragedy and great triumphs that came with having this personality. I am almost 30 now.
I have vivid childhood memories of my earlier experience as a highly sensitive person.
Growing up, I remember feeling too vulnerable, shielded, and easily hurt by harsh criticism and teasing from my parents, siblings, and other students in school. I was easily triggered by the simplest situations and for the most ridiculous reasons, which often led to tears streaming down my face, mostly in secret and away from the eyes of others.
One time during my childhood, I felt deeply bruised and unloved, as if my entire world had collapsed, after my parents refused to take me shopping with them and the rest of my siblings. I can still now taste the bitterness, the feeling of exclusion, as if it had just happened yesterday—even though I later discovered that the reason they refused to take me was because they were picking out a surprise gift for my birthday.
This pattern of taking external conditions in, internalizing them as part of my own identity, and reacting from an emotional state continued for the majority of my adolescent and adult life.
I never had a healthy relationship with either of my parents. So as a natural result of being an HSP, I immediately concluded that something must have been “wrong” with me to be so undeserving of the unconditional love I sought from my parents.
Elaine N. Aron, psychotherapist and long-term researcher on highly sensitive people, explains in her book The Highly Sensitive Person that one of the traits of being an HSP is feeling flawed.
Another trait is having a rich and complex inner world, which is often reflected in daydreaming and connecting deeply with nature. More traits include feeling overwhelmed by external stimulation, such as loud sounds and bright lights, being deeply moved by music, arts, and beauty, and absorbing people’s energies like a kitchen sponge.
Coming from a broken home and being highly sensitive is often a challenging combination. Our early interactions with our caregivers play an important role in shaping our identity, perception of the world, and how we relate to others.
But when we’re naturally inclined to believe that we are flawed for feeling too much, when we seek and don’t find love and validation that we are perfectly normal from our caregivers, we are left hanging. Feeling a void, we then seek that affirmation from friends, coworkers, and lovers—even when our relationships with these people are toxic.
As HSPs, our romantic relationships reveal a side of us that we often are ashamed of and work so hard to conceal from the eyes of the world.
We tend to romanticize fantasies of living the ideal love story, one where our deepest longing to be recognized, validated, heard, accepted, and loved will make us feel whole again. But what we eventually discover is that our partners cannot always fulfill our needs, especially if our relationship is unhealthy from the beginning.
Our lack of experience leads us to believe that everyone feels as intensely passionate about life as we do.
We believe that when we’re consumed by the ecstasy of being alive, when we lie on our backs and feel connected to the greater cosmos, with nothing but the stars and the moon in our gaze, our partners share our deep feelings. We’re confronted by the harsh reality that people don’t always share the complexity of our inner experience. They may not always relate to what we need from them—whether or not we express our feelings—especially when they’re not highly sensitive themselves.
But putting ourselves out there in our romantic relationships is essential for us to discover who we truly are, to navigate through our strengths and weaknesses, and to learn how to set the right boundaries between being there for ourselves and for others in a way that is healthy, less codependent, and less overwhelming.
We must also begin to lower the high expectations we often place on others—including our tight circle of friends.
I’ve always been selective with the type of friendships I have built, as I was too focused on attracting the right friends, the ones that allowed me to nurture how I felt as an HSP.
Just like in romantic relationships, I also sought validation from close friends through the ideas, thoughts, emotions, and interests I shared with them.
But what I learned by allowing myself to be open is that even the most amazing friends cannot always respond the way that my HSP nature demands. Countless times, I’ve refused to reach out to friends while processing difficult emotions, in fear that not receiving the kind of compassionate response I would offer myself would leave me feeling rejected.
“I wish I could meet someone who is as deep and intense as I am,” had been my wish for the longest time. But now I realize what a ridiculous expectation that was. For one, what a boring life it would be to date a carbon copy of my complicated, unapologetic self.
As HSPs, life is and will continue to be challenging and sometimes extremely painful. No sugarcoating here.
Because our emotions are in overdrive—and leave us feeling underappreciated, unaccepted, and maybe even ridiculed—it is our duty to take ownership of who we are.
One of my greatest and hardest learned lessons is that instead of denying the identity of my HSP self and concealing it from the world, I must embrace who I am and make space for my many wonderful qualities.
This is not to say that we should become a bunch of narcissistic creatures, or that we should look down on anyone we think is less sensitive.
But if we are unwilling to do the internal work of accepting who we are—not just saying it, but by truly believing our great potential—then how do we expect others to accept us, let alone to love our madness and complexity?
As HSPs, we are fire. We are desire. We are passion. We are compassion.
We are the infinite capacity to love combined with lust, flirtatiousness, and quirkiness. We are moved by the simplest of emotions and we get to enjoy this beautiful, one-hell-of-a-life time like no other. The pain may be intense, but the ecstasy we experience is a high that the best of drugs can never offer.
Highly sensitive or not, when we make peace with who we are, that’s when we begin to love from a place that doesn’t seek validation from others.
We already have enough people to shame us and label us: “Caution! Fragile human ahead.” So let’s not be another one who puts us down.
Let’s rejoice in who we are—along with the tragedies and the great triumphs—by holding enough space for ourselves to grow, to create balance with our emotions in a way that is nurturing, loving, and empowering to ourselves and to those we love.