Set Healthy Boundaries. Many people who come into my coaching program are there because they were never taught boundaries and don’t have a clue where to start. Because we have different sensory needs than others, if we are not honouring them, we will burn ourselves out. We have to set boundaries with our time. This means that we have to set limits with how long we will stay at social gatherings. We have to schedule alone time after socializing so we can recharge our social battery. We have to set emotional boundaries so we don’t take on the feelings of others as if they are our own. When we don’t have emotional boundaries we think that other people’s problems are ours to fix. Healthy emotional boundaries means that we can still be caring toward others, but we don’t carry their problems. We learn how to “hold space” for them, which means we can listen and offer compassion, while putting faith in them to figure out problems on their own.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fraya Mortensen.
Fraya Mortensen is an Intuitive Empath, Healer, and Transformational Coach. Highly attuned to the emotions of those around her, she has developed her own enlightened approach to training those who are ready to overcome their inner challenges and move forward into their highest self. With a following of over 500K followers across social media platforms, Fraya has become a leading voice for the masses, offering real and raw advice, personal anecdotes, and comical content to enlighten and educate. By inspiring self-awareness, Fraya’s practice boosts self-compassion and helps individuals set healthy boundaries without guilt, fear, or judgement. Fraya is known for hosting workshops to serve the community, in addition to serving clients in her private practice, Free To Be You Coaching. Most recently, she has been featured in Oprah Daily and is a frequent guest on podcasts like On-Call Empath, Authentic Calm, and Empaths and Narcissists.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Of course! I live just outside of Toronto, Canada and I have always been very interested in understanding and studying human behaviour. For 20 years I worked in the Criminal Justice System as a Probation Officer where I monitored and helped to rehabilitate the most vulnerable and also the most hostile individuals. I left the Ministry 3 years ago and am now a certified life coach that specializes in mindset and personal transformation where I have been helping highly sensitive and empathetic people to develop self compassion and healthy boundaries.
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 term Highly Sensitive Person was coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the 90’s. As a highly sensitive person the way your 5 senses are processing information is more heightened than others. So it’s not so much that your feelings can be hurt easily, it’s more so the impact of sensory overload that results in an emotional response of anxiety or feelings of overwhelm. Take for example a HSP attending a social event, where there’s a lot of people, loud chatter, bright lights, maybe loud music, this can be too much for our nervous systems if we haven’t been taking care to set healthy boundaries for ourselves. So we might appear cold, or disinterested and leave early. We may even respond with irritability or anger when we’ve placed ourselves in situations that are too overwhelming.
My daughter and I travel a lot and while I enjoy the sun, she prefers the shade. We were having a beach day and she was very irritable and upset being there. I saw that she wasn’t wearing a hat or any sunglasses, so I offered these things to her and immediately her mood changed to being more pleasant and relaxed. She loves to have her room dark, lights off, shades closed, while I prefer mine open and bright. Being a HSP mom, I was able to notice this and help her to regulate and restore her energy. It’s important to know that not all HSP’s are going to have the same sensory issues, but what is key to know is that whatever our specific set of sensitivities are if not recognized and honoured will lead to changes in our mood and over the long term can lead to serious health issues, and burnout.
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?
It is true that HSP’s are also empathic. Many of us feel the emotions of others as if they were our own, making it very easy for us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. We are also the ones who will gravitate toward the animals or plants in a room to balance our energy and calm our nervous systems.
It’s interesting to look at how HSP’s can be offended by hurtful remarks toward others because we are also very compassionate. So when someone is acting or speaking in a way that lacks compassion this is confusing for us and will often have us either stepping away from these people, or feeling a need to stand up for those who are being misrepresented. We are also very much justice seekers in this way.
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! Typically we do not like to listen to the news, and cannot watch violence in movies or on TV. I recall sitting down to watch a very popular movie that had just been released with my partner, and about 10 minutes into the movie I had to turn it off. Any kind of abuse that is portrayed in a very real way is too much for me to handle. I’d say that as I’ve gotten older this has become worse and I don’t even own a TV anymore. Also movies that have loud sound effects, like guns shooting, cars screeching will also put me off. I recently went to the new Avatar movie and left after 40 minutes because there was so much shooting and violence that it became too intolerable to wait it out. Another factor you have to consider is our sound sensitivity which for some can fall into the category of misophonia. If someone is sitting next to you in the movies and is breathing too loud, or crinkling their popcorn or candy bags too much, we’ll have to move or leave altogether.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
Sometimes I’d have a hard time concentrating on my work, or in meetings with clients whenever there would be other conversations coming from the other offices beside me, or if there was too much chatter going on in the hallways. I’d often have to work with my door closed, and even then I would be distracted easily by outside sounds. When I worked for the Ontario government they were very good at providing accommodating work places so I had them take out the fluorescent bulbs in my office and got a white noise machine to drown out the voices in the offices beside me.
HPS’s can also be scent sensitive, so creating scent free workplaces was also common in the government offices. Many of us cannot stand walking through the perfume department and won’t dare enter stores like Bath and Body Works due to the overwhelming smell.
We have to be ready to live in a world that is not created for people with sensitive nervous systems. Not everyone will understand your sensitivities and so that is often where most of the problems can arise.
Working with a vulnerable population that was often struggling with homelessness, mental health and addiction would pull at my heart strings and cause me to take my work home sometimes, thinking about these people before going to bed at night and what I could do to help them. One of my clients came into the office without any shoes one day, so before I brought him into my office, I ran across the street to the Dollar Store to buy him a pair of sandals, came back to the office, gave him the shoes, and then we had our meeting. I would keep snacks and bus tickets and other little things in my desk for them when they needed it. One of my clients was having a baby and my daughter had just outgrown her carseat and stroller, so I gave her my daughter’s old stroller so she didn’t have to spend money on a new one. Some coworkers would see that as overstepping boundaries, and it’s true that we do struggle with setting healthy boundaries and can be “people pleasers” given our overly compassionate nature.
I’ve heard from clients how their sensitive nature had led to serious problems when they’d allow people to stay with them rent free and end up being taken advantage of and stolen from. Others would give money to people to never have it paid back, and continue to give and give despite already being stabbed in the back.
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 would never tell myself that I was “too sensitive” and instead I was determined to validate my sensitivities. I knew there was something different about me as many HSP’s are labeled as “shy” or “introverted” while really we’re processing our environments on a deeper level than most. So I saw myself as a “curious observer” and didn’t care to be part of the mainstream. It has been documented that HSP’s make up about 20–30% of the population, so that’s about 1 in 5! When I first read Dr Judith Orloff’s book The Empaths Survival Guide is when I got the validation that I needed. She listed 20 traits of an Empath and I scored 17/20. Since then I’ve come to learn that people who are HSP are considered neurodivergent and many people on the Autistic Spectrum (ASD) as well as folks who have ADHD also have traits of high sensitivity and rejection sensitivity.
I’m sure that being Highly Sensitive also gives you certain advantages. Can you tell us a few advantages that Highly Sensitive people have?
The gift in being a highly sensitive person for me stems from being able to really FEEL things on a deep level, so hearing music will hit me differently, and I can pick up on the many nuances and sounds in a song. Seeing art, or watching a dance performance, can be a very moving experience for me. Many HSP’s will tell you that they have “rich inner worlds.” Being neurodivergent has given me a very creative mind as well as a passion for social justice. HSP’s are the ones who are standing up for those who don’t have a voice. Many of the clients that worked with me remarked on how they didn’t feel judged, noticed my compassion that they may have never received from anyone else before, and always left feeling better than when they had come in. I’ve also benefited as a parent to be emotionally available and present for when my child is expressing big emotions and help her communicate her feelings without judgement.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
Think of it like “spidey senses” . Sometimes we can be hypervigilant and react to things when there is no danger there and that stems from most of us having gone through some sort of trauma but when our senses lead us toward safety then this is the advantage. I would use this all the time as a probation officer to determine if someone was a risk to my safety. I can recall walking someone into my office and immediately sensing that something was off with them, so I’d keep the meeting short, quickly give them their next appointment and get them out of there. I’m also hyper aware of my surroundings so I’m always scanning my environment and looking for the best routes either in traffic or where to situate myself in large crowds.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
In my experience I’d have to say that they are very similar. As an empath who is so in tune with the energy around them and the feelings of others there is an intuitive ability that forms. While I’d say there can be harm in having too much empathy, which I’ve heard referred to as toxic empathy. Someone’s empathy becomes toxic when they tolerate unhealthy behaviours in others, make excuses for bad behaviour, and enable toxic patterns. Often they lack healthy boundaries in relationships and become enmeshed in other people’s lives. This is when we get into something called codependency. Codependency is feeling responsible for other people’s feelings and having an uncontrollable urge to fix them, whether they want it or not.
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?
Personally I have to curate my feed to serve my nervous system, so when I am scrolling through social media it’s showing me things that I’ve already told it that I want to see. Consuming social media in general however, regardless of how much you have control over it, can contribute to sensory overload. We need to take regular detoxes from our phone and from consuming content on the internet. We need to connect with nature, music and move our body.While social media can also be a helpful tool allowing us to connect with other like minded people who feel misunderstood, and struggle to understand what is going on with them, and give them helpful tools on how to cope more effectively. Many of us are very introverted and isolated, so if it were not for social media, we’d still be feeling like an outsider, misunderstood and confused about our sensitivity.
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?
Being invalidated as a HSP is a common occurrence and something that we experience every day. I’ve come to accept that something that bothers me, might seem petty to someone else. I would let them know that we all have our own perceptions and experiences and they are allowed their opinion just as much as I am allowed mine. We have to take care to not over explain ourselves, or get into debates with others. Unnecessary conflict is also a drain on our sensitive nervous systems.
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?
For me it’s not so much a strategy as it is a practice, and that is developing the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about being in the present moment on purpose without judgement. It’s about being in a state of allowing. So I allow whatever arises to arise, I am a witness to it, and as I witness it, I am also witnessing myself. I am noticing the response that comes up within me, and I offer myself compassion, and then I offer my compassion to those who chose to have a different perception.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
MYTH: Only Introverts are highly sensitive
FACT: Both introverts and extroverts can be HSP, and also a fact is that it’s rare that anyone is 100% introverted or extroverted. The majority of us are actually ambiverts. For example I’m 70% introverted, while also 30% extroverted. I get my energy from introverting, and extroverting drains my energy. While someone who is 80% extroverted and 20% introverted gets their energy by being around other people, and feels their energy drain when they’re alone.
MYTH: HSP’s can’t handle loud noises
FACT: We can tolerate loud noises when we are the ones making them! I love to blast loud music in my car, but if I’m in someone’s else’s car who’s playing loud music then it’s too much.
MYTH: Highly sensitive people are cautious and don’t like to take risks
FACT: We love to have fun and some of us seek sensory thrills like roller coasters, skiing, haunted houses, and concerts. Many will also seek out jobs that are highly rewarding and challenging of their creative and innovative skills.
MYTH: Highly sensitive people don’t like being in crowds or places like dance clubs
FACT: Many HSP’s will go to parties and concerts, events and festivals while they are honouring their sensitive needs. They are the ones hanging out in the back corners, and might dance in the crowd, but not for the whole night. They’ll bring their ear plugs just in case things get a little too loud, and make sure they practice self regulating behaviours to keep their energy in check.
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?
Gaslighting is something that many of us experience to shame us and make us feel like something is wrong with us. Until we learn how to embrace the different ways our brain processes information we will continue to be subject to this type of invalidation and psychological abuse. If someone were to ask me “why can’t you stop being so sensitive”
I would ask them why this is a problem for them? What is behind this statement to begin with? Are they being defensive because I’ve asked them to respect a need that I have? Are they uncomfortable with me expressing emotions? It’s very important for HSP to surround themselves with other caring and compassionate people. We have to set boundaries with people and choose who we spend time with wisely. This also applies to the workplace. I’ve coached many people who are working for bosses that do not provide accommodations and who do not respect time and emotional boundaries. If someone isn’t open to learning about my sensitivities then there is nothing that can be done to make them understand, so that’s why setting my own personal boundaries is of the utmost importance.
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 Set Healthy Boundaries
Many people who come into my coaching program are there because they were never taught boundaries and don’t have a clue where to start. Because we have different sensory needs than others, if we are not honouring them, we will burn ourselves out. We have to set boundaries with our time. This means that we have to set limits with how long we will stay at social gatherings. We have to schedule alone time after socializing so we can recharge our social battery. We have to set emotional boundaries so we don’t take on the feelings of others as if they are our own. When we don’t have emotional boundaries we think that other people’s problems are ours to fix. Healthy emotional boundaries means that we can still be caring toward others, but we don’t carry their problems. We learn how to “hold space” for them, which means we can listen and offer compassion, while putting faith in them to figure out problems on their own.
#2 Practice Mindfulness
Because the world around us can get pretty chaotic we need to be able to tune into ourselves on a regular basis. Tuning into our breath is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. I always say to my clients “breathing is a behaviour” and it allows us to slow things down, and tune into how we are feeling so we can honour our needs in any given moment. Sometimes we have a tendency to be anxious about the future, worrying about what’s going to happen and how things are going to work out. Instead we have to remind ourselves that in this present moment we are safe. Just by using our breath alone calms the nervous system so we can make healthy choices for ourselves. Some of us need more help than others to get us into the present moment, so we can put cold water on our hands or face. We can put on our favourite song and sing along. We can go for a walk and use our 5 senses to bring us into the present moment. One technique we can practice is called 5–4–3–2–1 — What are 5 things I see, 4 things I feel, 3 things I hear, 2 things I smell and 1 think I taste.
#3 Create Sensory Friendly Home Environments
Many HSP cannot tolerate certain sounds or too many sounds at once. For example, having the tv on, while someone else is playing music in the same room, while someone is trying to have a conversation with you will make you want to pull your hair out. It’s important for those who live with you to understand that for you to survive and thrive as a highly sensitive person means that they will need to listen to the tv with captions only, or will have to use headphones to listen to their music in the house. Otherwise you will be in a different room where it is quiet and they can come speak to you there. Living in a space that is free of clutter will also be highly beneficial because you notice every detail in your home, so if something doesn’t belong or have a purpose in the space then it has to go. Certain lighting and scents also need to be taken into consideration as well as who we allow into our space, such as unannounced visitors or guests.
#4 Practice Self Compassion
HSP have to understand that not everyone is going to understand their sensitive nature or be able to respect it, so we have to be the ones to show ourselves compassion. Catch yourself when you say “I’m being too much” or “They won’t like me if I speak up”. Take care with how you talk to yourself because if you’re not giving yourself compassion or valuing your own needs, then how can you expect anyone else to. Many of my clients struggle with self worth and confidence, and this comes from years of being told as a child “stop your crying” or “get over it” or “you’re being too dramatic”. If your sensitive nature has been invalidated it’s difficult to show yourself compassion while this is the key to thriving and reaching your fullest potential. Remember you have a gift of perceiving things on a very deep level which means you experience the world in a way that not everyone else does. The world needs your unique perspectives so don’t be afraid to shine your light because for every person who doesn’t understand there will be 5 more that do!
#5 Have a HSP toolkit (nervous system regulators)
This includes ear plugs for when those concerts get too overwhelming, or your partner’s snoring is keeping you up at night. Airpods for when you’re out and about and you don’t want people to talk to you, or you need to tune out the environmental sounds and replace it with your own music. Source out where your local Float Tank is. Float tanks also known as sensory deprivation tanks are a great way to recharge while absorbing all the benefits of magnesium. Sunglasses, even on cloudy days, are often worn by HSP’s to reduce the amount of light and sun that can be overstimulating for us. Comfort clothing and shoes. Many HSP’s are sensitive to textures and can get overstimulated if there’s a tag rubbing them, or clothing that is too loose or too tight. For HSP’s it’s not always about fashion, but more about the function of our clothing. Sensory objects, like a smooth stone, or a fidget toy can help soothe our nervous systems when we are in uncomfortable situations or need to bring ourselves back to the present moment. Aromatherapy, weighted blankets, eye masks, and white noise machines can also be helpful at bedtime, although some of us don’t like the sound of fans and need complete silence for us to sleep.
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’d propose a movement toward non-judgement and compassion. We are constantly being judged for our actions, our thoughts, our feelings and we judge other people in their ways of thinking, acting, and feeling. What is missing is acceptance, and compassion. Instead of apologizing and saying sorry for our actions all of the time, what if we expressed gratitude and said “thank you” instead. If making mistakes is how we learn, then why do we say sorry for them? If I’ve made a mistake and you let me know so that I can learn and grow to be a better person, then wouldn’t you want me to say thank you instead? In this way we wouldn’t have any victims and we would all be on the same path as students learning from one another. Some people behave in intentional ways that are not mistakes and in those cases compassion and nonjudgement is still helpful for us to learn and understand the thinking behind their behaviours. Compassion can also be given to those who do not admit their mistakes for they are still learning that lesson.
How can our readers follow you online?
@empathiccoach on IG and TikTok
Fraya Mortensen on YouTube
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Fraya Mortensen of Free 2 Be You Coaching On 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.