Erin O’Neil of Mountainside Treatment Center: How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person
Know yourself. Every person and every HSP is different: How we respond, what our interpersonal relationships and inner world experiences are like, what is overwhelming, what gives us energy, and what we are attuned to. Knowing the nuances of our own experiences is amazingly powerful in being able to free us up to explore how this trait can serve us and how it makes us unique. Knowledge is power.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin O’Neil, LCSW.
Erin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) International Association-certified clinician, and EMDR Consultant in Training with extensive experience in the treatment of addiction and post-traumatic stress. Through modalities such as Motivational Interviewing, IPNB, Ego State Therapy, and Somatic Experiencing, she assists clients struggling with overwhelming emotions, trauma, and internal conflict. As Mountainside Treatment Center’s Outpatient Services Program Manager, Erin uses a trauma-informed approach to help clients develop coping skills as well as process and resolve the deeper issues that contribute to their addictions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
I am a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), specializing in trauma and addiction. Most of our experiences, if not all, are rooted in how we form relationships. Trauma, grief, addiction, etc. are all things that disconnect people. I work with people to reestablish (or establish for the first time) relationships with themselves and healthy connections with others.
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?
Being a Highly Sensitive Person, or an HSP, does not simply mean that one is more susceptible to hurt feelings. Officially, an HSP is strong in a personality trait called sensory processing sensitivity. Elaine Aron is the psychologist who came up with the term and included those who may be highly sensitive to emotions and different sensory inputs (e.g., noises, lights, people, etc.).
In my personal experience as an HSP, I feel emotions very intensely and am easily overwhelmed by both internal and external factors. These factors include being in large crowds (too much auditory and visual stimulation), family holidays where there are a lot of people in a smaller space, and long to-do lists. I’m easily over-stimulated and after being in these situations, I often need space and time to be by myself for my mind to reset. People often think I’m irritated or being antisocial, but if I don’t take that space, I notice myself shutting down and it becomes hard for me to engage with others.
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?
An HSP can have a higher degree of empathy towards others because we tend to feel emotions strongly. We do tend to have a harder time with criticism and hurtful remarks aimed at us, and our ability to empathize is reflected in how we take on others’ pain when hurtful remarks are aimed at them. It takes a lot of work to set emotional boundaries. The line between being emotionally available to someone else and making their experience our own is not an easy one to discern but is crucial to our wellbeing.
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?
Absolutely. We’re more sensitive to internal and external inputs, so, something as concentrated, emotionally charged, and dependent on the sensory experience, such as movies or the news, can be really hard for an HSP to process. I really struggle to watch dramatic movies or TV. I already cry (a lot) at Pixar movies (hello, Toy Story IV, Raya and the Last Dragon, Moana, Encanto, Coco…you name it…every.single.time.). I get very invested in the characters and experience a lot of anxiety about what will happen to them. I will feel intense sadness, anger, fear, devastation, hopelessness, and because of this, film ends up being the opposite of entertainment for me. So, I tend to avoid those types of movies and stick to what will provide me with some comedic relief and feelings of joy.
When it comes to the news, I have a hard time watching it. However, I don’t think it’s an option to not be informed about what is going on in the world and there’s more at stake than my sensitivity. So, I have learned to listen to and read it instead which allow me to better work through my sensitivity and still engage.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
In my family, I was often referred to as, “The mediator,” or, “The peacemaker,” in reference to how I engaged in and managed conflict with my siblings. Close friends often characterized me as, “easygoing.” I used to take these descriptors as compliments but as I got older, I realized I was never actually asserting myself or expressing an opinion. It was way too easy for me to understand and get wrapped up in the other person’s perspective instead of acknowledging what was going on for me. Oftentimes, I would invalidate my own argument and I’d use their side to undermine my own. This caused a lot of internal resentment for me, which I never really expressed. As I gained a better understanding of myself as an HSP, I realized how unfair I was in expecting others to understand me when I wasn’t even advocating for myself.
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 tried not to let too many people see my level of sensitivity and prided myself on being known as the “easygoing” person for a long time. My realization that I was an HSP came not because I was comparing myself to a societal norm, but because I started noticing what was impacting my ability to function. I was losing myself for the sake of others. I was always the one who everyone came to talk to because I could make people feel heard and understood. For a long time, I didn’t realize how much emotional labor went into this work and how depleted I felt. I spent a long time analyzing what someone meant, what they thought about me, trying to understand their perspective, and exploring what I needed to change. I would freeze. The thought of engaging with others would be just too overwhelming. When I realized how much it was impacting me professionally and personally, I knew this was not sustainable.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
Empathy is referenced a lot as part of an HSP’s personality. In my own experience as an HSP, this has translated to being approachable and building relationships easily. I don’t have to fully understand what someone else is going through to respond appropriately. The ability to hear and understand others and build quality relationships have been strengths in my personal and professional life. Additionally, HSPs tend to be very creative. This creativity is not confined to one category. Some HSPs are amazing artists. For me, my creativity manifests as the ability to problem solve, find solutions, and be resourceful.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
I look at my sensitivity as more of a strength than an advantage. In my experience, being highly sensitive has evolved to where I’m not taking on someone else’s emotions, but I can tap into my own just enough (without making it about me) to help someone feel heard. This translates into strong relationships. In a professional setting, I have found that this trait has helped me establish good rapport with the people I am working with, and it is especially relevant to my clinical work. From an attachment perspective, there are instances where I’ve modeled what a secure relationship can look like, which has allowed my clients to build trust in me and, in turn, helped the clients to build the supports (internal and external) they themselves need to be able to engage in, and facilitate, their own healing. Connection makes up a large part of what I do, and relating on an emotional level, and feeling what someone else is feeling when they’re sitting across from me, has led to better collaboration.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
When we overly empathize, it blends into the experience of being Highly Sensitive. Being overly empathetic causes harm depending on how it affects oneself and how it impacts relationships. For instance, if we experience someone else’s emotional pain to the same degree that they feel it, how are we able to offer them support and be present? We would most likely get overwhelmed and look for some relief ourselves. It’s in our best interest, and the best interest of those we care about, to be able to separate ourselves just enough so we can be available to them when they need us.
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 can be a wonderful tool and connector. However, we’re seeing the evidence of the massive negative impact it can have on our mental health. If an HSP struggles with criticism, social media will be a hard landscape because self-worth and validation are often tied to likes and comments. In the same vein, the buffer that is the internet has really emboldened people to be extremely cruel, commenting on all aspects of our existence. People use social media to engage in collective processes like grieving and community support. This can be an amazing outlet, but for an HSP, it’s another space filled with emotional pain. When trying to engage in social media and protect our mental health, self-awareness and balance are key. Set time limits on certain platforms, be mindful of who you follow and who you allow to follow you (maybe keep certain accounts private), and remember the purpose of engagement. This will help set boundaries when we do experience the negative effects of social media.
How would you respond if something you hear or see bothers or affects you, but others comment that you are being petty or that it is minor?
This is where self-validation is important. If something bothers me, I need to be able to identify how I know (physically what is going on in my body) and why it is bothering me. For me, that gives me the personal evidence I need to advocate for myself or for others. If someone comments that I am being petty or that something is minor, I can then choose whether it is worth my time and energy to support myself further or know that asserting myself in the first place was enough. I understand that for most of us, being called out is not a comfortable experience and our first instinct is to defend ourselves. However, intention is irrelevant if hurt is still the result. In the end, I cannot control someone’s reaction, but I can discern when it is important for me to speak up for myself or others.
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?
This question is difficult to answer because we can only do so much to overcome others’ perceptions of us (if that work is worth our energy at all). Being perceived as, “overly sensitive,” can be just as much someone else’s responsibility to overcome, as it is made to seem ours. Someone else’s perception of me does not define me.
That being said, my strategy is to know what’s going on inside me. If the perception is that I’m being overly sensitive, then I need to know what I’m reacting to that is being perceived that way. For example, if I’m being sensitive to criticism, I identify where I’m feeling it in my body, what emotion(s) I am experiencing (e.g., hurt, confusion, anger, etc.) and then identify the thought and narrative I’m telling myself as a result. I can then distinguish what my responsibility is and choose to adjust (or not) accordingly. It all comes down to really knowing myself and knowing what I’m willing to take on in a situation. If my emotional response and hypersensitivity are causing my discomfort, then I need to look at my own response and make changes. But if I’m losing myself for the sake of someone else’s comfort, then it’s not worth the effort.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
The “myth” I’d like to dispel about being an HSP is that to be sensitive equates to weakness. To be highly sensitive does not simply mean I cannot handle emotion. It is not weak to be attuned emotionally and to be able to connect with others on that level. To feel does not mean you only feel the “negative” emotions deeply. You can also feel intense joy, love, connection, peace, and contentment with that intensity. It is amazing to have the capacity to be present for these emotions and in our experiences.
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?
This goes together with the question about overcoming perceptions. It starts with whether we even need or want someone to understand. It is not just our work or responsibility to have others understand; others need to want to understand too. If we have loved ones who are responding in a harmful way, engage them in a conversation about our own experience as an HSP. It may always be hurtful to have someone be dismissive about a trait that is an integral part of who we are. However, this is, again, where self-knowledge is so empowering. If we can identify how high sensitivity is a strength and work on those pieces that are impacting us in a less than helpful way, then we can stand more confidently, more unapologetically, and more powerfully in who we are.
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.
- Know yourself. Every person and every HSP is different: How we respond, what our interpersonal relationships and inner world experiences are like, what is overwhelming, what gives us energy, and what we are attuned to. Knowing the nuances of our own experiences is amazingly powerful in being able to free us up to explore how this trait can serve us and how it makes us unique. Knowledge is power.
- Reframe, don’t pathologize. To be highly sensitive is a part of who we are and does not need to be treated like the villain. Just because our emotions are experienced differently, we are more sensitive to different stimuli, and need more time to ourselves to reset, does not mean there is something wrong with us and that we need to feel pressure to change those inherent parts of who we are. Be curious and reframe HSP as strength rather than weakness.
- Respond rather than react. We tend to react when we’re not mindful and those reactions tend to make us feel out of control. This may be when we most often hear that we’re being too sensitive. However, if we are attuned to ourselves and the world around us, we will have an understanding ahead of time about how we may experience emotion in different situations and environments. When we’re mindful, we can set necessary boundaries before a situation feels out of control. We can incorporate our emotional and physical experience as a part of our rational decision making and respond thoughtfully and appropriately.
- Set and stick to boundaries. Having a higher attunement to the world around us will lead to overstimulation and feeling incredibly drained at times. When we know ourselves, we know which stimuli tend to trigger this response. So, make sure to set boundaries. If social situations are difficult, set time limits and have an exit plan. There is nothing wrong with protecting space.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes, additional support is needed in the process. If we are struggling to reset, feel constantly flooded and overwhelmed, notice personal or professional interactions are compromised, it may be time to get some help. This can come from the community, family, friends, and professionals (e.g., support groups, therapy). We are not able to give of ourselves if we are not giving to ourselves. Self-care is not selfish, it’s necessary.
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.
My belief is that there are already a lot of incredible, relevant, and crucial movements happening right now that are led by such extraordinary individuals and groups. At this time, my role is to align, listen, and act based on the leadership of those individuals, and I would encourage others to do the same.
How can our readers follow you online?
In line with being an HSP, social media can have quite the negative impact, as we mentioned above so I’m actually not active on any platforms except LinkedIn.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Erin O’Neil of Mountainside Treatment Center: How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.