Boundaries in your relationships are essential. HSPs tend to make excellent friends, due to our ability to listen, empathize, and feel deep compassion for others. This means we sometimes attract people who need a lot from us, who are codependent, or who tend to take more than they give. If you notice any of these patterns in your own life, it’s important to set stronger boundaries and begin putting yourself first. I’ve had to end a few friendships where I felt more like a “therapist” or constant support giver rather than a friend in a two-way street. Setting clearer boundaries will also help you to not take on other people’s feelings and protect your own well-being.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josephine Hardman, PhD.
Josephine Hardman, PhD is a certified intuitive healer who has been working with highly sensitive and empathic women for over 7 years. As a highly sensitive person herself, she understands firsthand the challenges and gifts that come with heightened sensitivity. Josephine’s purpose is to help her clients and students awaken the healer within, take their power back, and learn how to live in integrity with their truest selves — without burning out in the process.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Thank you for this opportunity! I’m an intuitive healer and spiritual mentor, working primarily with highly sensitive and empathic women. In my healing sessions, I focus on helping people rediscover (or sometimes discover for the first time) who they really are, underneath their social, familial, and cultural conditioning. My purpose is to help my clients and students awaken the healer within — the highest aspect of themselves that is powerfully intuitive, connected, wise, and at peace. The aspect of themselves that carries a deep knowing about what really matters to them and how they can live in integrity with their own truth.
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?
Absolutely, I’m happy to be open about this if it can help someone else feel less alone. A Highly Sensitive Person, as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron (who first coined the term “HSP”), has a sensitive nervous system, is unusually aware of subtleties in his/her/their surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed by external stimulation — which can include sounds, sights, scents, and other people’s energies. The trait of high sensitivity is present in about 20% of the population. Additionally, HSPs process everything around them much more deeply than people without this trait; they tend to reflect deeply on events and situations and make associations or discover insights that others might miss.
Being highly sensitive does NOT mean that our feelings are hurt or that we are offended more frequently than others; it means that we tend to feel things more deeply and take a longer time to process emotions and situations.
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?
HSPs do tend to exhibit high levels of empathy, though being an “empath” is different from being highly sensitive (they are two different traits). Being an empath means being able to feel or even take on others’ feelings, whereas being highly sensitive is more about feeling things deeply ourselves. However, due to their ability to feel things deeply — and sometimes the emotional suffering that arises out of that — HSPs are easily able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and have a deep sense of empathy or compassion for what others are feeling. Being highly sensitive doesn’t necessarily mean being easily “offended”, though of course HSPs tend to feel hurt or upset when in the presence of someone who is being insensitive, callous, or judgmental.
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?
Each individual person has their own level of tolerance for depictions of violence or emotional pain. I know some highly sensitive people — myself included! — who grew up watching horror movies and enjoying the feeling of adrenaline. We can sometimes refer to these kinds of HSPs as “sensation seekers”, meaning that they have a tendency to pursue new and different experiences, feelings, and sensations. Other HSPs tend to recoil at depictions of violence and physical or emotional pain, so it becomes almost impossible to watch the news or take in violent forms of entertainment, including gory movies, shows, and video games.
Moreover, our level of sensitivity tends to increase as we age, so we might no longer enjoy certain activities or pastimes. For me, this means that I can no longer tolerate the horror movies I used to watch as a kid or teenager. And watching the news can be a very stressful endeavor, so I try to limit that for my own sanity and well-being.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
My highly sensitive nature means that I need significant amounts of rest and downtime to recharge after socializing, activity, and lengthy conversations. This is common for HSPs, as our sensitive nervous systems take longer to settle down after activity. As a self-employed business owner, I’ve had issues with pacing myself and not taking on too much — this happens when my highly sensitive nature collides with my type A overachieving tendencies. These two aspects of myself tend to have opposing agendas, with the highly sensitive aspect of me needing rest and silence while my inner overachiever wants me to keep going, no matter what. At work, I’ve had to learn how to balance these different parts of me and not push beyond my limits. I learned that lesson the hard way after burning out and becoming physically sick, because I wasn’t listening to or honoring my highly sensitive needs.
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 grew up with people around me — not just adults, but also peers — saying things like, “you’re so sensitive!” and “don’t take things so personally.” This always made me feel different and strange, as though I was abnormal in some way and did not fit in. I felt like I couldn’t do as much socializing and going out and just “being in the world” as others; or, at least, that I needed a lot more downtime to rest and recover afterwards. This is a common experience for HSPs growing up.
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! We have many advantages. For instance, HSPs can be powerfully intuitive and aware of their inner states of being. This is helpful in making decisions that are truly aligned with our truth and that resonate at the deepest level of who we are. HSPs can also sense when other people are being deceptive, or if they’re saying one thing but really feeling another (for example, if someone smiles and says they’re fine when they’re actually having a hard time). In addition, being so in touch with our own emotions helps HSPs to develop deep, meaningful, and rewarding friendships and relationships with others. And we make excellent listeners because we tend to be non-judgmental and compassionate.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
My heightened sensitivity is a great asset in my healing work — perhaps even my greatest asset. It’s this quality that allows me to really listen to, be with, and empathize with my clients. It also enables me to hear everything they’re saying and pick up on the subtleties of what they’re not saying or haven’t uncovered for themselves yet. I use my high sensitivity and intuition to guide my clients towards the most aligned, helpful, highest-level solutions and insights.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
People actually can and do get into trouble being overly empathic, especially if they take on everyone else’s feelings and begin to lose sight of who they are and what they feel. It can be a confusing, overwhelming, and painful experience to feel everyone else’s feelings, fears, disappointments, anger, and so on. Empaths often need help in delineating clear boundaries of where they end and someone else begins, and which feelings and thoughts are theirs — and which are not. We can be highly sensitive without getting lost in other people’s emotions; it’s a matter of setting those clear boundaries and becoming aware of what’s ours versus what doesn’t really belong to 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?
Absolutely, social media can be an overwhelming source of stimulation not just for HSPs but for everyone! And, yes, HSPs can be particularly affected by what others post or say on social media. I typically recommend to my clients that they use social media in a highly discerning and detached way, becoming aware of any patterns or tendencies to scroll mindlessly (which drains our energy). As HSPs, we can use social media to connect with others in meaningful ways, to explore useful content, or to create our own content. The key is to use social media from a place of empowerment and inner centeredness, rather than being consumed or overwhelmed by it. Setting boundaries around which times of day to use social media can be helpful too, since each of us have particular times throughout the day when our sensitivity is at its peak. If you’re already feeling stressed, overstimulated, or overwhelmed, it’s best to turn your phone to airplane mode, shut off any other screens, and take some time in nature or in a bath or doing a quiet activity to settle down.
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?
This has indeed happened to me many times — as it has for most HSPs!
Given where I am now in my life, I tend to not take things like this personally. I also don’t rely on others to tell me whether what I’m feeling is real or not. I trust my gut and intuition, and if there’s something that bothers or affects me, I do whatever I need to deal with it. For example, if the TV is turned on too loud in the evening, I will ask my less sensitive husband to turn the volume down — something I wouldn’t have done in the past because I didn’t want to “inconvenience” anyone.
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?
I don’t think it’s necessary for me — or any highly sensitive person reading this — to overcome others’ perceptions of us or convince others that our sensitivity is a gift, rather than a weakness or flaw. Others can think we are “too sensitive”, and that’s their own business. We have enough work to do in accepting and embracing our sensitivity ourselves! It’s not our job to convince anyone else of its value.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth is that highly sensitive people are weak. This couldn’t be further from the truth, since being highly sensitive requires us to feel everything deeply — which takes a lot of courage and inner strength. The more vulnerable we feel, the stronger we have to be to face the world every day. So, actually, HSPs are incredibly strong, resilient, and resourceful.
Another myth is that highly sensitive people are just “too sensitive” and need to grow a “thicker skin.” Although becoming more emotionally resilient and able to experience more things without overwhelm is often a goal for HSPs, this doesn’t mean we need to get rid of or “tone down” our sensitivity. In fact, it’s not possible to get rid of our sensitive nature, no matter how hard we might try. Rather than trying to grow a thicker skin, it’s much more useful to begin seeing your sensitivity as a unique asset you were given at birth, and to explore how you can use your sensitivity to create deeper meaning and purpose in your life.
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?
Perhaps the easiest way to dispel this idea is to put it like this: just as there are tall people and short people in the world, there are highly sensitive people and people who are less sensitive. In other words, sensitivity is an inherent trait — something we are born with. Just like blue eyes or brown eyes, which cannot be changed. Telling someone to “stop being so sensitive” is akin to telling them “make your eyes brown!” when their eyes are blue. It’s futile.
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.
- The first and most important thing you need to know to survive and thrive as an HSP is that you are NOT weak. In fact, being highly sensitive requires a lot of courage and inner strength. Rather than seeing your sensitivity as a character flaw or inconvenience, I’d like to invite you to see it as a source of power and strength — because it takes a lot to face the world every day when you feel things so deeply. My highly sensitive clients often speak about feeling vulnerable when they’re out in the world, or even feeling like a “raw nerve”. For one client, a successful strategy for this included writing “I am sensitive AND I am powerful” on a post-it and looking at it every morning. This reminded her that just because she is highly sensitive doesn’t mean that she’s weak or powerless or fragile. Eventually, she changed her affirmation to “I am powerful BECAUSE I am sensitive”, which was a beautiful reframe and a way of understanding her sensitivity as a gift.
- Second, knowing the statistics can help: 20% of the population, generally speaking, have the trait of high sensitivity. This means you are in an exclusive group! It also means that 80% of people are likely to be less sensitive than you, and so they will experience and look at the world differently. Sometimes, you’ll have to adapt or compromise with others who are less sensitive to get your own needs met. For example, in my own life, my husband tends to be far less sensitive to loud sounds and crowds than me. We’ve reached a compromise at home by him turning down the volume on the TV and by me wearing noise-reducing headphones (I highly recommend these if you live with other people!). You have to honor your needs, speak up for yourself, and work with the people in your life to reach a healthy, happy compromise.
- Third, you have a sensitive nervous system. This means you need more downtime, rest, and silence after activity and socializing to settle down. Whenever you’re fully engaged in an activity, it’s your sympathetic nervous system that is activated — the fight-or-flight, ready-for-action system. Once the activity ends, your nervous system — if given the proper time and space to settle down — will return to a relaxed state by kicking in the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest system). Remember to schedule breaks and pauses throughout your day, to fully allow your nervous system some important downtime to regulate itself.
- Fourth, you don’t need to match anyone else’s level of activity or pace. Sometimes, you might try to “compensate” for your sensitivity by keeping up with the pace and activity level of less sensitive friends. I used to do this all the time as a young adult, staying out longer than was healthy for me or going to crowded, overstimulating places like amusement parks or malls. And I’d pay for it later, because I would end up tired and wired. You don’t have to match anyone else or go anywhere that feels overwhelming for you; honor your own limits and be willing to ask for a change of plans if needed.
- Fifth, boundaries in your relationships are essential. HSPs tend to make excellent friends, due to our ability to listen, empathize, and feel deep compassion for others. This means we sometimes attract people who need a lot from us, who are codependent, or who tend to take more than they give. If you notice any of these patterns in your own life, it’s important to set stronger boundaries and begin putting yourself first. I’ve had to end a few friendships where I felt more like a “therapist” or constant support giver rather than a friend in a two-way street. Setting clearer boundaries will also help you to not take on other people’s feelings and protect your own well-being.
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 would love to inspire a movement of “taking your power back”. We give our power away in so many different forms every day — for instance, when you read the news and suddenly feel fear and panic and worry, you’re giving your power away to the news. When you listen to what someone else thinks of you and begin questioning your own truth and inner knowing, you’re giving your power away. When you make a career choice based on what your parents or co-workers or peers want you to do instead of what’s in your heart, you’re giving your power away. We must be mindful of all these places where we dissipate or drain our own power, and begin taking that power back so we can return to a state of wholeness and integrity within ourselves.
How can our readers follow you online?
I also host a weekly podcast, Inner Work: A Spiritual Growth Podcast, available on most podcast platforms.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Josephine Hardman: 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.