Heather Nardi of Empath Mama: How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person

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Setting Boundaries. You must know how to set boundaries and say “no” when you need to. The words “no” and “boundary” can sound harsh, but they’re helpful. They help you detach from people who don’t treat you well and toxic situations. They allow you to prioritize what’s most important in your life and help you assert yourself in the world.

As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Nardi.

Author, speaker, coach, and Empath Mama Heather Nardi dedicates her career to supporting highly sensitive and empath moms in living healthy, empowered lives. She draws from her extensive education as a Holistic Life Coach and spiritual practitioner to create specialized tools and programs for sensitive mothers. Her writing has appeared in The Highly Sensitive Refuge, Thrive Global, Elephant Journal, and Medium.

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’m Heather, a married mom with two children, author, speaker, and holistic life coach. I have dedicated my career to supporting other highly sensitive and empathic moms in living healthy, empowered lives.

I have built a community of sensitive moms with shared parenting experiences called Empath Mama. Based on my personal experiences as a sensitive empath raising a sensitive empathic daughter, I support other families by helping them to understand the trait and enjoy the same empowering shift I went through. I’m passionate about helping moms discover new ways to guide their children consciously and lovingly.

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?

A highly sensitive person (HSP) has a heightened awareness of stimuli. This heightened awareness can manifest in many ways, including feeling emotions intensely, sensitivity to light and sound, and being easily overwhelmed.

The term “highly sensitive person” or “HSP” was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron in the 1990s. HSPs make up about 20% of the general population and their characteristics are not a disorder but rather an innate personality trait.

It does not simply mean having your feelings hurt or offended easily — though that can be a symptom of being highly sensitive — it’s about how the brain processes information, which is why HSPs are particularly affected by certain situations or stimuli. It’s NOT just a synonym for “emotional.”

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?

Yes, a highly sensitive person is extremely aware of the emotions of others and feel what other people feel — they empathize. When an HSP walks into a room with happy people, they unconsciously match their mood. If they enter a space of conflict, they will feel hurt as if they were involved in the dispute.

HSPs find it challenging to ignore the suffering of others and are more likely to be empathic to hurtful remarks directed at someone else.

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?

As a highly sensitive person, certain aspects of our culture and entertainment can be challenging for us to handle. Movies that depict violence or emotional suffering can bring up strong feelings, and even if we know it’s just a movie, it can still feel like too much if we’re not prepared. Likewise, if a book or show features graphic descriptions of physical pain, we may feel uncomfortable.

I remember one occasion when I was about 10 years old — we were having dinner as a family and watching the news, and there was a stabbing on the screen. I closed my eyes and covered my ears, then walked out of the room and yelled, “Why do we watch this stuff while we’re eating?” I couldn’t stand the visual, emotion, and physical sensation.

Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?

When I was 18 and headed off to college, I had no idea what to expect. I went from living at home with my parents to living in a dorm with new people. In the large classrooms, I felt overstimulated by noise and fluorescent lights — it was hard for me to focus on my classes. And if you’re a highly sensitive person, you know that feeling of being overwhelmed by many different things at once. My grades were slipping, and it was hard for me to get out of bed every morning.

I thought I just wasn’t cut out for college life — that poor planning on my part was the reason for this struggle. But in hindsight, it’s obvious that my struggle had nothing to do with not being able to handle the workload. It turns out I’m highly sensitive!

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 knew at an early age that I was different from my peers. As a young child, I was often called shy or quiet. I would rather observe than be involved. Some of my earliest memories are feelings of not being understood or appreciated for who I was. Even at a young age, I was sensitive to other people’s moods. I cared more than others did, worrying about things that didn’t seem to bother other people. I think many HSPs realize we are different at an early age.

I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?

As a HSPs we have certain advantages over our non-HSP counterparts. We have extraordinary gifts of perception, sensitivity, and intuition. We’re so tuned into our surroundings that we tend to notice details other people don’t. We have an uncanny ability to read people and situations and know what they need. We are good listeners who care about other people. We also have a heightened sense of empathy and can quickly pick up on the emotions of others.

Our finely tuned senses allow us to feel and take in our surroundings with more depth and richness than most people. With heightened awareness, we can pick up on subtle cues like changes in tone of voice or mood in others, making us excellent listeners and friends.

Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?

As a parent and a highly sensitive person, I’ve had the opportunity to relate to my children in a way that other parents might not be able to. Since I can see things from their perspective and am attuned to their feelings, I often know when something is wrong.

There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?

The terms “highly sensitive person” and “empathetic person” are often used interchangeably, which leads to confusion. A highly sensitive person is a person who can be easily overwhelmed by stimulation like sounds, smells, and crowds. HSPs are often described as having high empathy, which means they can relate well to others and understand their emotions.

But there’s also a line between being HSP and being an empath. The difference is: highly sensitive people are more prone to overstimulation because of their heightened senses, while empaths can sense the emotions of others in a way that overly affects their own emotions.

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 difficult place for HSPs to navigate. It can be casual, callous, and impersonal — and that’s if it’s nontoxic. Sometimes it’s hard for an HSP to find their way in this type of environment. These tips can help you be intentional when using social media:

1. Make sure your social media settings are private

2. Don’t read negative comments (this will also help you avoid trolls)

3. Don’t share anything that you wouldn’t share with someone else in person

4. If something is bothering you, take a break until you’re ready to handle it calmly and rationally

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?

Highly sensitive people are often told they’re too emotional, but there’s nothing wrong with being passionate about what’s important to you. If someone says something that bothers or upsets you, speak up! Let them know how they made you feel and why their comment was hurtful. Then let go of it — you’re not responsible for other person’s feelings or reactions. Some find it better to take time to cool down and gather their thoughts before responding head-on — that’s okay too.

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?

Self-acceptance is the first step to overcoming the perception of others that think you are overly sensitive. You can’t control what other people think of you, or even if they will accept you. But, understanding that being an HSP is part of your identity is an excellent start toward accepting yourself and knowing that there’s nothing wrong with you.

When I feel the need, I explain the concept of HSP to others because it’s beneficial for them to understand the trait.

I take time throughout the day for myself — to strengthen my sense of self through activities like journaling or meditating.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?

There are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be a highly sensitive person. Some people think that HSPs are introverts, shy, or overly introspective.

HSPs don’t just love quiet time. We need it — or, instead, our brain needs it. We can get overstimulated by loud noises, bright lights, and many other environmental factors at a much higher rate than the “typical” (non-HSP) brain does. That doesn’t mean that HSPs are introverts — it just means we have a different way of processing sensory input than non-HSPs do. The truth is 70% of HSPs are introverted, and 30% are extroverted.

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 dismissive sentiment is one of the biggest challenges we highly sensitive people face. We make up around 20% of the population. That means one in five people you know are likely HSP. And that number could be even higher if we normalize HSP in society, allowing those with the trait to embrace — rather than hide — their sensitivity. It’s not something that should be seen as wrong or in need of fixing. Instead of asking why someone can’t “just stop being sensitive,” people should be asking themselves how they can make the world more accommodating for highly sensitive people.

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.

  1. Understanding Sensitivity. Accept your sensitivity and make it work for you instead of against you. Your trait is not something to be ashamed of or something you should try to change. Sensitivity is a strength! Learning about the trait and patterns of sensitivity can help you understand yourself better and feel more in control. Once you know what works for you, find ways to channel your sensitivity into something positive. Some HSPs struggle to find the positive because they have been told something is wrong with them or that they’re too sensitive. But there are many benefits to your sensitivity, too. Here are a few of the best parts of being an HSP: You’re a great listener, you notice the little details others don’t see, you’re in tune with your feelings and emotions, which can help you empathize with others’ feelings and overcome hurt feelings and so much more.
  2. Proper Self-Care for HSPs is critical. Highly sensitive people tend to put themselves last on their priority list. You deserve to feel good every day. Make sure to take care of your body and mind. Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and spend quality time with friends and family! When you are a highly sensitive person, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the feelings and emotions of others around you, resulting in a roller coaster of energy that leaves you feeling drained and out of sorts. It’s even more critical that HSPs engage in self-care to recharge their battery and focus on their wellbeing.
    Self-care takes many forms. For some, it means disconnecting from technology and spending time in nature; for others, it means leaving work early to make time for exercise; regardless of what form self-care takes, learn how to integrate it into your daily life. As an HSP myself, I know first-hand how much better I feel when I take time out of my day to nap or read a book — or even take a bath to relax after a long day at work.
    If you’re an HSP, think about the things that help you feel calm and energized. Then try scheduling them into your week — and stick with them!
  3. Setting Boundaries. You must know how to set boundaries and say “no” when you need to. The words “no” and “boundary” can sound harsh, but they’re helpful. They help you detach from people who don’t treat you well and toxic situations. They allow you to prioritize what’s most important in your life and help you assert yourself in the world.
  4. Learn to manage stress and overcome overwhelm. The key to learning how to manage stress and overcome overwhelm is a toolbox of coping skills. This toolbox might include meditation, breathing exercises, and grounding techniques. Going for a walk or getting exercise can also help you manage your stress. So can journaling, reading, or getting creative. Whatever it is that enables you to calm down when you’re feeling overwhelmed, make sure it’s in your toolbox, so you have an arsenal of ways to help yourself when stress and overwhelm strike.
  5. Find a Community It’s essential to have a community of people who get it — who understand what it means to be a highly sensitive person and can offer their support when reality becomes too much. Find a community of nurturing relationships with like-feeling individuals who can support you and offer advice. It’s difficult enough to navigate the world as an HSP without doing so alone. There are online groups, and if you live near a city, there may be local support groups to meet other HSPs.

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.

It would be a movement that encourages people to embrace their differences and feel comfortable with who they are. For me, that would be focusing on the highly sensitive person and normalizing sensitivity in our society. Our society often misunderstands highly sensitive people. This lack of understanding tends to diminish their gifts and potential contributions. If society took the time to understand and appreciate the unique qualities of highly sensitive people, we would all benefit. When we diminish their gifts and make them feel like they are not enough, we are hurting ourselves and them. The world needs more visionaries and deep thinkers.

How can our readers follow you online?

Website: www.empathmama.com

Instagram: www.instagram.com/theempathmama

Twitter: twitter.com/HeatherANardi

Facebook: www.facebook.com/EmpathMama

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Heather Nardi of Empath Mama: 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.