Set up your life as best as you possibly can to honor your HSP while also realizing that you can’t live in a bubble. Many HSPs just want to escape the hustle and bustle and business of life, but that’s not always possible. You can have good boundaries and self-care, and you can rearrange your life to honor the HSP as best as you can, but you can’t live in a bubble. You will need to participate in society and relationships, sometimes, despite not wanting to. That’s OK and the best way to get through that is to set some limits and understand that certain situations are only temporary and you’ll have a chance to rest soon.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Brandon Santan.
Dr. Santan is a licensed and triple board-certified professional mental health and relationship counselor focusing on holistic mental wellness and specializing in addiction recovery, anxiety, stress & burnout, spiritual wellness, HSP, financial wellness and romantic relationships. He has over 16 years (at the time this content was written) of experience in the industry and has worked in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Dr. Santan now owns a flourishing private practice in Chattanooga, TN called Thrivepoint and enjoys helping people heal and thrive. You can visit Dr. Santan online at: https://drbrandonsantan.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
My name is Brandon Santan. I’m a Highly Sensitive Person and take great interest in the growing body of research related to this topic. I grew up in the great state of Pennsylvania in the South Philadelphia area. I’m a diehard Philadelphia Flyers fan and have been since I was old enough to know what hockey is. I was the second person in my family of origin and my extended family to attend college and the first to get a masters and PhD. My undergraduate degree is in exercise science and sports medicine. I also have a master’s degree and a PhD in mental health counseling. I’m currently a licensed and triple board-certified mental health counselor. I own a private practice in Chattanooga TN. I enjoy helping people with all kinds of mental health issues and specialize in addiction recovery, anxiety issues, stress & burnout, HSP, spiritual wellness, financial wellness and romantic relationships. When I’m not working, I’m enjoying time with my family, playing my all-time favorite sport of hockey and reading.
Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I understand how hard this is. Can you help define for our readers what is meant by a Highly Sensitive Person? Does it simply mean that feelings are easily hurt or offended?
The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is actually a term that describes an innate, immutable and (maybe even a) genetic trait in certain people who have sensory processing sensitivities. It involves sensory processing sensitivities which includes high empathetic awareness, or what we would consider the 6th sense. HSP is a blend between a personality trait and sensory processing sensitivity. In this context, empathy is considered a 6th sense that is extremely strong in many with HSP.
Although HSPs can experience a heightened sensitivity to pain and offense, HSP is much more complex and involves all sensory data not just that 6th sense of emotional data. The HSP’s brain processes much more information about the environments they are in, but this unfortunately leads quickly to overwhelm which can then lead to heightened emotional states and emotional sensitivity. This doesn’t mean, though, that the HSP is “easily hurt or offended”. It simply means that the HSP is more vulnerable to emotionality and/or offense because of the way that their brain processes sensory information. That could lead to extra sensitivity to pain and offence, but it doesn’t mean that it always will.
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have a higher degree of empathy towards others? Is a Highly Sensitive Person offended by hurtful remarks made about other people?
Essentially yes, but not in the way that most people think. What I’ve noticed over the years is that when most people refer to a “higher degree of empathy” they are referring to the deliberate behavior of empathizing with others. The HSP, by contrast, experiences empathy as a part of their involuntary sensory information that they can’t turn off, much like hearing or touch. It’s always on, always perceived and always experienced and it can be felt quite intensely by the HSP. A better way to describe this is with the phrase “empathetic awareness”. HSPs are constantly aware of their own emotions and the emotions of other people.
For this reason, yes, the HSP can be easily offended by hurtful remarks made about other people. Pain and offense of self and others resonates deeply with HSPs. It’s difficult for us to experience pain and offense because it sticks in our minds and brings up strong discomfort. The empathetic awareness not only applies to the HSPs personal interactions with others but also to the HSPs observation of people interacting with each other. Even a distant memory of someone being hurt can produce strong empathetic emotions in the HSP.
Does a Highly Sensitive Person have greater difficulty with certain parts of popular culture, entertainment or news, that depict emotional or physical pain? Can you explain or give a story?
Yes. Most HSP are extremely sensitive and vulnerable to the pain of others. The HSP is deeply affected by certain parts of popular culture, entertainment or news that depict emotional or physical pain.
As an HSP, I’ll use myself as an example. I don’t typically watch the news because there is so much negativity and emphasis on the pain of others. News organizations do this on purpose, by the way, because they know it will draw in viewers and keep ratings high. This is predatory in my opinion, but that’s for a different article. Violence depicted in the news and entertainment is extremely difficult for me to watch and I try my best to avoid exposure to such things.
Here’s a perfect example that’s more specific. During a time when I was more active on my personal social media accounts, a few years ago, a friend posted a video of a car accident. It was extremely violent and the driver of the car was killed. I had a hard time sleeping after seeing that and still, to this day, I remain very emotional about it. I think of it almost daily as I’m driving, especially when I drive on a road that was similar to the road that I witnessed in the video. Even writing this brings tears to my eyes, a shudder to my spine and increased stress and anxiety because of that memory. This is typical for HSPs and, as a result, we typically tend to avoid watching violence such as news stories, horror films, and TV shows/movies that depict violence and/or abuse.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
In general, most HSPs tend to avoid social and occupational situations that represent the vulnerabilities HSPs have to the pain of others and sensory overstimulation and as such, social settings, such as social media and social activities with certain social groups, need to be limited. This can cause the HSP to isolate from others and can limit social and occupational choices. Some social and occupational settings can be difficult for HSPs to thrive in as a result. Occupational settings that are too busy or loud can distract the HSP from performing work duties and responsibilities well. Interacting with certain friends, who are more active and busier, produces the same type of distraction which can hinder connection and enjoyment of those relationships and activities.
A personal example from my life is when I was working at the hospital. I didn’t understand why at the time, but I always came home exhausted after working a shift at the hospital even though I loved my job. I realize now that I was drained from so much activity that happened around me during my shift. The noises of health monitoring devices, people talking, conversations between patients and staff, phone calls, doctors doing rounds, patients seeking my attention, hearing stories of the difficulties people were facing, talking with families and feeling their pain and confusion, etc., all took its toll on my energy and personal resources. It didn’t negatively impact the work I did at that time (although it would have if I stayed in that environment), but it sure did prevent me from being available for family and friends after work. I was drained and didn’t have anything left to give until after I got some peace and quiet and was able to recharge some. I’m grateful for a patient and understanding family.
When did you suspect that your level of sensitivity was above the societal norm? How did you come to see yourself as “too sensitive”?
I want to be careful here because no one can really be “too sensitive”. I don’t mind thinking of it in terms of “above the societal expectation”, but I think that phrase “too sensitive” can be shaming for a lot of people. As an advocate of HSPs, I would prefer it if HSP was referred to in the same was as other characteristics that are on a spectrum. There are people who are very sensitive and people who are not very sensitive, but no one can be “too sensitive”. That phrase could put this in a negative light that could come across to some people as shame, so I think we need to be careful here.
In hindsight, I realize that was always a very sensitive person. Looking back, I remember, as a child, having HSP characteristics. I always felt different and ashamed because I wasn’t as social as others. People would comment that I was “too sensitive” and inadvertently cause shame in my mind about this trait. As I grew older and more mature, I came to accept this part of me but always suspected that my level of sensitivity was above the societal norm.
More recently, it was about 10 years ago that I came across an article explaining HSP and for the first time I finally understood what was happening. It was like a light bulb turned on in my mind and the dots finally connected. Since then, I’ve immersed myself in understanding the nuance of HSP and even became a trained provider from Elaine Aron (the leading researcher and author on this topic) in helping other HSPs.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Yes, the sensory processing sensitivities can give the HSP a distinct advantage over non HSPs. When the HSP can learn to gain some control over the sensory data and learn to filter, sort and prioritize it, the sensory information can be like a superpower in certain settings. The sensitive nature of HSPs can help them connect deeply in relationships, excel in many different areas of life, provide excellent care in the helping and service professions and produce excellent results in life tasks that require extreme attention to detail such as what an investigator might need (think Sherlock Holmes). HSPs are also often very creative and contribute tremendously to the arts. HSP artists know how to stimulate the emotions through their craft in a way that’s second to no other.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
The biggest advantage from my life is professionally. I pride myself in the empathy and care I can provide to patients as a result of being HSP. I can easily step into someone else’s shoes and that becomes tremendously advantageous for connecting with patients and for the patient’s healing. Knowing that they are understood at a very deep level is very healing for people. I don’t know that I have a story around this, but just a consistent experience of sharing with my patients in the emotions that they feel.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
I would like to say here, again, that one can’t be “overly empathetic”. Some have a stronger sense of empathy while others have a sense of empathy that isn’t as strong. Try to think of HSP much the same way you would a magnet. Some magnets are really strong while others are somewhat weak. In this way, some HSPs have a strong “magnetic force” for detecting other people’s emotions and needs. One of the risks that HSPs contend with is that those with a strong sense of empathy are easily overwhelmed by other people and often over analyze people and situations. It can consume a lot of their time and energy. With time and patience, however, the HSP can learn to harness this and use it for good.
The best way to understand a distinction between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive is to realize that HSPs are sensitive to ALL sensory information including empathy. An Empath would be sensitive to the feelings of others but would not necessarily be sensitive to other sensory information. HSP typically includes both strong empathy (sensing the emotions of others) and sensitivities with all other sensory data from their environment.
On a broader scale, I don’t think that there’s a way to easily draw a line here. Again, HSP and empathy can fall on more of a continuum. I would say that, on a very individual level, if being HSP and high in empathy causes some problems in social, occupational, spiritual or relational functioning then it may be time to explore where that line is for the individual. That’s where a therapist, such as I, could be beneficial to the HSP.
In general, I encourage the people that I work with to try and find a balance based on where they fall on the continuum or spectrum. People who fall more to the strong HSP side of the continuum will need to develop skills to help them filter strong sensory data and find a good life balance with self-care and boundaries.
Social Media can often be casually callous. How does Social Media affect a Highly Sensitive Person? How can a Highly Sensitive Person utilize the benefits of social media without being pulled down by it?
Social Media is much too stimulating for a lot of people who are highly sensitive. It’s fast paced and there’s so much activity to immerse yourself in. Social Media can easily overstimulate the HSP. Social Media can get overwhelming very easily for most HSPs. Also, the content could be potentially harmful to the HSP such as the violent content I spoke about earlier.
Many people don’t care about hurting people online, or at the very least they aren’t aware that people can be easily hurt by experiencing certain aspects of and interactions on social media. It’s easy for people to hide behind an electronic device and keyboard and say/do things that would normally be uncharacteristic of them. This leads to a more toxic environment for everyone but especially HSPs.
I would say that an HSP can participate in and realize the benefits of social media simply by being very cautious and selective in the way in which they use social media. Knowing and setting personal boundaries is a skill to develop based on your experiences with social media use and that will require some trial and error. If the HSP is willing to risk some exposure to over stimulating content, they can very quickly filter out content and friendships that aren’t suitable for them. The HSP should consider such things as:
- maintaining friendships only with people who are kind and affirming
- disconnecting with people who are mean and uncaring
- evaluating an influencer’s reputation and content before following or subscribing
- sticking to content that’s proven to be beneficial
- staying away from content that hints at toxicity, and
- limiting how much time you spend on social media
These can be great ways to utilize the benefits of social media without being too negatively affected by it.
How would you respond if something you hear or see bothers or effects you, but others comment that you are being petty or that it is minor?
I talk about this with my HSP patients all the time. This is a question of boundaries. HSPs need to be assertive and advocate for themselves. For me personally, the answer to this really depends on the situation and who the person is that’s making such comments and what kind of relationship I have with them. At a basic level, I would try to educate anyone who thinks I’m being petty or hand waves it as minor. If someone isn’t interested in or willing to understand more deeply, then I would set a boundary and ask that person to keep those comments to themselves and that I’m available if they have any questions or want to talk with me about it. I think clear communication and open dialogue can clear up most miscommunications. I try not to attribute to malice something that could come from a state of ignorance.
If communication didn’t work, then I would seriously consider if the relationship were one that I want to continue to expose myself to. Depending on the type of relationship I had with the person making that comment, I would continue to advocate for myself, or I might just distance myself from them if they refused to try and gain insight into why something bothers or affects me.
What strategies do you use to overcome the perception that others may have of you as overly sensitive without changing your caring and empathetic nature?
At this stage of my life, I care much less about how others perceive me so I’m able to effectively shrug off other people’s perceptions and ignorance without too much effort. This didn’t come without practice and hard work though.
More specifically, I maintain strong mindfulness about my strengths and my contributions to my relationships, my life and to society. I work to affirm myself regularly and I try my best to limit my exposure to situations and relationships that bring me down. When I can’t avoid situations or relationships that may be draining or toxic for me, I work hard at a mindset of gratitude and thankfulness. Thankfulness that I’m in a situation that will strengthen my resolve and build tolerance of disagreeable situations and people is a good mindset to have. In those moments I also practice good self-care, taking time to decompress and engage in meaningful rejuvenation activities afterwards.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
I discussed a couple of the myths about HSPs above, but I’ll reiterate them here along with a few other common myths about being a Highly Sensitive Person:
Myth 1: HSPs are “too sensitive”. You can’t really be “too sensitive”. That’s like saying you’re “too athletic” or “too extroverted”. Being HSP is an innate and immutable characteristic that people are born with. They’ve inherited it from their lineage and it’s part of who they are. There’s nothing wrong with it in the sense that it’s bad or unhealthy. The HSP may be more prone to emotionality and “sensitive” to sensory information, including empathic awareness, but the HSP can’t really be “too sensitive”.
Myth 2: HSPs can ‘toughen up’ and stop being so sensitive. HSPs can’t stop being “sensitive” any more than someone could stop any other sensory input. It’s involuntary and part of who the person is. The HSP can build some tolerance towards things that bother them, but it’s not about “toughening up” or being less sensitive. It’s more about learning how to filter and prioritize sensory information.
Myth 3: The “sensitive” in HSP means that the HSP is fragile or delicate. HSPs are very strong and resilient people. Most aren’t fragile or delicate. I’m sure there are some HSPs that are also fragile and/or delicate for some reason, but it’s not likely a byproduct of being an HSP. The “sensitive” in HSP means a characteristic or trait related to sensory processing. It has nothing to do with being fragile or delicate.
Myth 4: Men shouldn’t be sensitive or Only women are sensitive. I think this is an unfair stereotype rooted in cultural expectations where boys and men are expected, in some cultures, to be strong, independent alphas and women are expected, in some cultures, to be more subservient and emotionally sensitive. The research suggests that being an HSP is distributed pretty equally among the genders. There doesn’t appear to be anything that connects HSP to any one particular gender.
Myth 5: HSPs are just “shy” and “introverted”. While it’s true that the majority of HSPs are introverts, roughly 30% of HSPs are extroverts. It’s important to remember that HSP and introvert are two completely different characteristics and/or traits and should be considered independently. There are some very strong similarities, but they are very different traits. HSPs need quiet time to recharge after overstimulation. They often opt to be quiet, observers in life. They are known for taking roles that are behind the scenes and not in the spotlight, but those characteristics, by no means, equals “shy”. Again, HSPs can be very outgoing and confident.
As you know, one of the challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person is the harmful, and dismissive sentiment of “why can’t you just stop being so sensitive?” What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that it just doesn’t work that way?
I think HSP is very similar to other issues in life where deeper understanding, compassion and social awareness is needed. We need to bring awareness to what HSP is, reduce the societal stigma around it, normalize it and provide education that’s readily available and easy to access. Those who are in positions of power and influence can start having conversations about it (which is what Authority Magazine is doing which is great). General programs about being kind, considerate and compassionate to everyone can be really helpful. Corporations could include information about sensory processing sensitivities in diversity and inclusion seminars.
Renaming the phrase “The Highly Sensitive Person” itself could also help. I’ve never liked that label because it raises inaccurate visions in the mind’s eye and can be very confusing to people. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t have a good alternative at this time, but we need to think about recategorizing HSP in much the same way that we are moving away from stigmatizing labels such as “autistic” and “developmental disorder” to more clinical language such as “neurodivergent” and/or “neuroatypical”.
Ok, here is the main question for our discussion. Can you share with us your “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person? Please give a story or an example for each.
From my perspective as a clinician and an HSP myself, here are 5 important items related to surviving and thriving as a Highly Sensitive Person.
- Understand what HSP is and isn’t. In order for you to not only survive but also thrive, you need to be intimately familiar with what HSP is so that you can confidently move forward in life knowing who you are, why you experience life a certain way, what your limits are and communicate those things to others. It’s not enough to just know that you are HSP. You’ll need to know what HSP is all about. Read books, blog posts, engage in HSP communities, watch the documentary, find and read the research, etc. Know what HSP is inside and out. It’s been said that ‘knowledge is power’. Knowing what HSP is will give you the power you need to know your limits, set boundaries, communicate your HSP to others, practice self-care and thrive as an HSP.
- Set up your life as best as you possibly can to honor your HSP while also realizing that you can’t live in a bubble. Many HSPs just want to escape the hustle and bustle and business of life, but that’s not always possible. You can have good boundaries and self-care, and you can rearrange your life to honor the HSP as best as you can, but you can’t live in a bubble. You will need to participate in society and relationships, sometimes, despite not wanting to. That’s OK and the best way to get through that is to set some limits and understand that certain situations are only temporary and you’ll have a chance to rest soon.
- You can build tolerance and strength. There will be times that are impossible to honor your limits and boundaries but that’s ok. When you can’t stick to your limits or boundaries, know that you can build tolerance to overwhelming and stressful situations and you will grow stronger in your ability to be in, cope with and tolerate overstimulation. Coping with life as an HSP is very similar to other skill development. With practice and patience, you can mindfully live in the present and enjoy everyday moments no matter how taxing and overwhelming they may seem. These moments help you build a tolerance to being out of your comfort zone and strengthen your resolve and resilience.
- Know your limits and honor them as much as possible. It’s really important for the HSP to know what their limits are, abide by those limits as much as possible, learn to protect them, communicate them to others and stick to them as much as possible. If, as an HSP, for example, you get overwhelmed by large crowds, as many HSPs do, know that there will be a limit around how many parties or social gatherings you can tolerate. If you happen to need to attend a social gathering for some reason such as a work event, learn to excuse yourself as soon as etiquette allows or even before etiquette allows if you find it too overwhelming to tolerate.
- Set healthy boundaries around your limits and stick to them as much as possible. Surround yourself, as much as possible, with people who understand you or are HSPs themselves or are willing to understand HSPs. These will be people who will be more likely to understand and honor your boundaries. For people in your life who don’t or won’t understand you as an HSP, learn to be confident and assertive in your communication with others about your boundaries.
I’m going to share an example from my own life that will highlight these 5 Things You Need to Know to Survive and Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person. Once I realized that my sensory sensitivity was related to HSP, I picked up several books and a workbook about it. I watch the documentary when it came out. I talked with other HSPs about their experiences, commiserated with them for mutual support, encouragement and community and then learned about HSP from a clinical perspective. I dove into the research to understand it as much as possible.
Once I felt like I had a good handle on HSP, I worked to rearrange my life to honor my HSP. I resigned from the hospital and went into private practice, which is an environment much better suited to me. That added some stress at the time, but I realized that it was just temporary and that once I set up my practice, things would go more smoothly, and I would get into a good groove which is exactly what happened.
Having a wife who’s very extroverted and three children, I realized that I can’t get away from everything that overstimulates me, so I worked hard to practice patience and mindfulness, enjoying each moment and not allowing my overwhelm to steal my joy. This has helped me build a lot of tolerance and strengths and now I’m even able to realize decreased sensory sensitivity over the years.
As time went by, I began to understand my limits more deeply and I learned assertive ways to educate and inform my wife, friends and other family members about what my limits are. If we go out to do a family activity together, I will try to set a limit for how long we are out or what kind of activity we choose to do when possible. When I can’t influence that I try my best to move into that mindset of mindfully building tolerance and strength.
My boundaries really depend on the situation, but an example of a boundary for me is music. Music resonates very deeply with me so I, unfortunately, need to limit the amount of and type of music I listen to. Anything that has repeating rhythms, lyrics, beats, etc. (which is most of modern music) irritates me almost instantaneously. I only need to hear a song once and the rhythm and chorus will be stuck in my head for eternity and even disrupt my sleep. I use ear plugs when I’m in church because of the repetition in the praise and worship songs. I listen to talk radio in the car and unfortunately, I have strong boundaries with my loved ones about playing music around me. That’s a personal boundary I need to protect myself from overstimulation and overwhelm and practice good self-care.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I have lots of ideas for starting a movement, but if I had to pick one at this time, I would choose a movement centered around teaching more logic and reason in schools. I’ve watched our society devolve into emotionality and reactivity. We’ve developed a really bad habit, as a society, of make decisions and evaluating life issues, such as current events, politics, religion, relationships, school, career, etc. based on emotions which means we aren’t thinking through things logically very well. The emotional and the logical parts of our brain have a converse relationship. When one is activated, the other is diminished in activity. With improved logic and reasoning, we will automatically become less emotional and reactive. When we respond emotionally, we aren’t thinking critically about the issue or topic at hand and we are extremely vulnerable to indoctrination, manipulation, coercion and faulty evaluations of such big issues. I believe that if we taught more logic and reason in schools, people would be much more prepared to evaluate life issues on rational level leading to greater discoveries, better collaboration and less social volatility.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers should visit my website at https://drbrandonsantan.com where I will keep visitors up to date with my social media and practice changes. I can also be found on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/drbrandonsantan/ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dr.brandon.santan/ and YouTube: https://drbrandonsantan.com/youtube-bitesizementalhealth
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Brandon Santan of Thrivepoint: How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.