Laura Giles of Surviving to Thriving On How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person

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It’s not your fault, and there is nothing wrong with you. Feelings are normal and natural. You wouldn’t be human without them. It’s okay to feel. If your feelings are overwhelming, you can learn to regulate them. It’s true. I had a client once who couldn’t get through a story without crying. It didn’t matter if we were talking about going shopping or someone dying. Everything was overwhelming because she had a painful memory or expectation associated with everything. It’s a year later and after healing her trauma triggers and learning healthier coping skills, she is speaking her truth. She’s able to hear other people without jumping in to rescue them or taking on their feelings. Her relationships are much more fulfilling and she’s doing a lot better at work. And she has complex PTSD. So, her way of moving in the world was a way for her to survive.

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

Laura Giles helps people have fulfilling lives by learning how to belong to each other. She believes that we are all here to connect. Her coaching, tours, and private community give people a way to safely experience ways to bring connection into their everyday life.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?

Sure. I was definitely the weird kid. I was interested in offbeat things. I was precocious and noticed things that other people didn’t. Since it was more of an internal experience than an external one, nobody noticed or said anything.

I didn’t realize that I perceived things differently until I became a therapist and got a window into other people’s inner experiences.

That’s when I realized that everyone doesn’t think or feel the same things or in the same way. I became very curious about why this was so and fell in love with psychology. My psych 101 class was the first time that I began to see that people make sense! There is order in what appeared completely random to me before.

I fell into trauma work because my undergraduate and graduate level internships were in trauma-specifically sexual assault and domestic violence. I loved it because my clients were so raw, real, vulnerable, and more than that congruent. When I looked at other people, their words, face, body, and energy were so conflicted. They weren’t congruent at all! It was very confusing and made people scary to me. And here in my office were these lovely people whose crisis ripped the mask away and exposed their amazing true selves. It was so refreshing.

I see my work as helping them to keep that wonderful truth outside the therapy office, and doing it with healthy boundaries and emotional regulation so they can have and share the awesomeness without the scary parts.

So many people are on a therapy or self-help merry-go-round because they have a problem and fixate on the superficial issue. For example, maybe someone gets into the same relationship with a different person, and this keeps happening over and over. They think they need relationship skills. Or maybe they keep arguing with their partner, and they think they have a communication problem. Dealing with the way the problem shows up can help, but if the root cause isn’t addressed, the problem will either recur or come back in another way. Trauma work targets that root cause. It paves the way for transformation.

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) is someone whose nervous system is on high alert all the time. They are very tuned in to their surroundings and notice things that others don’t seem to notice. There are a few reasons why someone might be this way, but three of the most common are trauma, a blow to the head, and exposure to environmental toxins, like mold or Lyme disease.

In the case of someone with trauma, the sensitivity is often learned because the person was in an abusive situation. Being on high alert can mean the difference between picking up on danger and not. If I notice subtle shifts in someone’s mood, I can do something to make myself safer. So, it’s a learned skill, an adaptation to the dangerous environment. It’s like throwing a baseball or drawing. If we do it mindfully enough, we get better at it.

One thing that people with trauma and their providers overlook is that there are three dimensions of HSP: sensitivity, reactivity, and hardiness. Every person is different in their levels of sensitivity, reactivity, and hardiness. However, most HPS that I see in treatment are highly sensitive, highly reactive, and not hardy. This means they notice things that others don’t, have a bigger response to them, and take longer to reset.

It’s great to be sensitive. It helps us to enjoy life more, but we also suffer more. If we can dial down the reactive part, and boost the hardiness part, we can have the benefits without the downside.

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?

Empathy and sensitivity are two different things that may not be related. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Sensitivity is the level at which you notice things. I may be very sensitive to sound or light, but low in empathy. Empathy is a component of emotional intelligence that can be developed. Sensitivity can also be developed.

Highly sensitive people may be offended by hurtful remarks made about other people if they don’t have healthy boundaries. I teach dialectical behavioral therapy, which is a really great tool for everyone who wants to learn how to deal with emotional overwhelm, have healthy relationships, and great boundaries. When you have tools like these, it’s a lot easier to hear offensive remarks, directed either to yourself or someone else, and shrug it off.

It’s all about self-control and self-governance. Just because someone is offensive doesn’t mean I have to be offended. Just because someone is sensitive doesn’t mean they have to be reactive.

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?

In most cases, yes. Speaking from my own experience, I can’t watch violence. It’s literally sickening. In my opinion, my reaction is normal and healthy. Violence, death, and bad news is sickening.

We live in a society that is way overstimulating. If you hooked our brains up to equipment that monitors arousal, you would see that it takes very little stimulus to max us out and send our cortisol shooting through the roof. The everyday sound of traffic is enough to put us in a stress response.

I think that most people numb out to survive. So, they can watch violence all day long without feeling anything. I don’t think that’s the baseline that we should be striving for.

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

I was a very introverted child. I was so shy that I couldn’t look people in the eye or speak to them. I sat back and observed people for a long time before I would talk to them. I was (and still am) sensitive to people’s energy, so I would wait to see if their behavior and energy matched and stayed congruent over time before I would associate with them.

I wasn’t lacking in confidence. I kept my head up. I have been told that that could make people feel judged, and I suppose that is fair.

I still am very much a gut person. If I have a gut feeling about a person or a thing, it’s usually spot on. I’ve gotten a lot better at trusting that. That’s definitely a benefit of being highly sensitive. I have more to work with than sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

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 have a sister who is very emotional. She was called “too sensitive” because she is demonstrative. As I mentioned before, I think a lot of people equate reactivity with sensitivity. I was never reactive or demonstrative, so I didn’t get the “too sensitive” label.

I was a different kid for a lot of reasons. Being able to pick up on things that others seemed to not notice was just one of many things that was odd, so I didn’t really pay too much attention to that particular detail until I became an adult. When I started doing qigong and paying attention to energy, it became very obvious that I was having experiences that other people in the class were not having. I also realized when working with clients that I pick up things about people that they haven’t said and can intuit things that others don’t. I do think that we all have this ability, but some are either not tuned in or they are so reactive that they don’t have the space to savor it or use it.

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

I absolutely love mornings. I love the colors of the sun as it’s breaking through the night sky. I love the way the mist burns off the river as the day warms. Being sensitive gives me the ability to be still and see the life in everything.

It’s the same with music. I literally can’t drive and listen to music because I get so absorbed in it that I will either start speeding or driving way too slowly. I become the music.

I am great to have around in a crisis. When everyone is screaming and crying, I go super quiet and calm and can bring order to the situation. There once was a trespasser in my yard. It’s 3:00 a.m. and my dogs are going wild. I go outside and it’s pitch black because I live in the woods, so I can’t see anything.

The hair goes up on the back of my neck, and I just know someone is not too far ahead of me. I stopped, called the dog over to me, and went back to the porch. I could hear an electric car crunching on the driveway gravel, so they were right there, but my body said stop, so I stopped.

Stuff like that happens all the time-not potentially dangerous stuff particularly, but intuitive stuff. I am really in tune with my body and listen. The pleasure and sensuality of life are heightened, so it doesn’t take much to make me feel vibrantly alive.

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

You know how with toddlers everything is new? And they can get delighted with something so simple like a Yo-Yo? They will play with it for hours and hours? For me, being sensitive is like that. I can entertain myself with the subtlest things that other people really don’t notice.

Or if I am having a conversation with someone, I can tell if they are tired, bored, or need encouragement without being told. Our voices and bodies are so expressive. It’s so crazy that we limit ourselves to worlds when there are so many other things that are speaking our truth. When we tune into those things, I think it makes our relationships richer.

So basically, I think an advantage to being sensitive is that life feels more full. That means I need to take a break and get overstimulated. Too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing, but I do enjoy it.

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

I don’t know that we can be overly empathetic. If empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, I don’t think that can be overdone. We can give too much as a result of relating to their hardship. We can take on their feelings and burdens if we don’t have healthy boundaries, but I don’t think we can feel too much.

I think there is confusion between healthy boundaries, being able to notice things (sensitivity), and the resulting reaction. If my son is in withdrawal from opiates, I can see and feel that he’s in pain, and yet I may not want to do anything to help him for a lot of reasons. Maybe I want him to have consequences so that he learns. It could be that his solution is to give him more drugs, and I don’t want to do that.

Empathic people are more likely to help others. However, having empathy doesn’t compel us to help others-especially if it goes against our values or results in boundary violations. Life’s holistic and dynamic. Labeling things are right and wrong or good or bad can trip us up. We have to look at the entire situation to see what’s effective.

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?

Using social media is like opening your windows without a screen. Anything can come in.

Our society is so numb to violence and abuse that it’s become normal to see it anywhere and everywhere. I don’t think many HSPs are on social media, frankly. It’s too overstimulating.

But, if you’re like me and have to be on it, limit yourself to one platform, keep your page private, interact only with people you know, and block and filter the types of things you don’t want to see. Also, limit the time you spend on social media.

I do the absolute bare minimum. Social media is designed to keep us online for as long as possible by sending us more of what we respond to. It’s very stimulating. HSPs are easily overstimulated, so it’s easy for me to turn it off because it doesn’t feel good.

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 don’t socialize with people who invalidate my thoughts or feelings. I respect that others may not see things the way that I do. I respect our differences. We can agree to disagree, but if someone were to imply that my feelings were wrong, we couldn’t be friends.

I may or may not speak up about it. It’s not my job to educate people about the way that I see the world. We’re all adults and can figure things out for ourselves. If they lose enough people, they learn from experience that invalidating people isn’t the way to have healthy relationships.

I wouldn’t get upset or defensive. I would just see that we are not an energetic match, and we have a different understanding of what healthy relationships are. Consequently, I’d probably let that person go or move them to the outer circle.

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 have a Cancer moon which makes me all gushy and people oriented on the inside. My inside doesn’t show on the outside most of the time because I am an introvert with really good boundaries. I don’t get demonstrative if it’s not a safe place, or I’m not with a safe person. I absolutely do care, very deeply, but I don’t push it on people, so I don’t feel pressure to dial back the care or empathy.

Life is relational. If I am in tune with the environment around me and read it accurately, I have enough information to make my next move balance resonate in harmony with that. As long as all parties are doing that, it doesn’t matter how sensitive, reactive, or empathic anyone is. Nobody gets judged or is perceived as “extra” because we’re all moving with healthy boundaries. We’re all being accepted as we are.

I find that having healthy relationships goes a long way in being accepted with all my faults and quirks. If I make a misstep, it’s easily forgiven. If I say the wrong thing in the wrong way, the response is more like, “What did you mean by that?” rather than jumping to the conclusion that I meant to be insulting.

I work with HSPs all day long, and they are rarely triggered in my presence. HSPs are reactive in high-stress situations where there is no safety. All it takes to create safety is for one person to be grounded. I would advise that it be you, so you always have that one person with you.

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

One myth that I’d like to expel is that HPS don’t have the ability to regulate their emotions. Some are internally overwhelmed, but you never see it on the outside. Some are sensitive, but not reactive. You don’t see it on the outside because the inside isn’t in turmoil.

Another myth is that HPS were born this way and that it will always be this way. Most of my clients have Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They are all highly sensitive, highly reactive, and not hardy when they start treatment. As they learn healthy boundaries and coping skills, the reactivity goes away. They are all still sensitive, but not reactive.

So, if this is something that causes you problems, you don’t have to tolerate it. You can heal it. The difference between a symptom and feeling or behavior is whether it bothers you. If not being able to sleep bothers you, it’s a symptom. If you love it because you get a lot done, it’s a lifestyle choice. If you are bothered by your sensitivity, it’s a symptom. If you appreciate the benefits, it’s a perk.

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?

It’s really important for all people to know that emotional outbursts indicate that the person is out of control and they don’t know how to regain control. It’s not a maturity issue, an act of willfulness, or drama. I had a client who was arrested for creating a disturbance because she was having a panic attack. When she couldn’t calm down on command, an officer was called. This escalated the situation and my client was taken to jail.

A similar situation happened to a different client. He went to the hospital for help. When he was invalidated there by staff who didn’t understand trauma, he escalated and was kicked out of the hospital. Both of these situations are common.

People aren’t exploding or imploding on purpose. They don’t know how to help themselves. Expecting them to “snap out of it” is naive and insensitive. They need help and compassion. All you have to do is listen, be quiet, and hold space for them to calm themselves down. This will create the safety that they need to self-regulate.

If someone is expressing feelings in a way that is bigger than expected, there is probably one of two things going on (or perhaps both). There is either a trauma issue or a skills issue.

Triggers are things that set off emotional reactions that are larger than are objectively called for in the situation. Road rage is a great example. If someone doesn’t signal when they turn in front of me and I respond by cursing, laying on the horn, and maintaining my anger for an hour afterward, most people would say that’s over the top. That anger is probably misplaced. If I can release that unresolved trauma that triggers the road rage, my road rage will likely disappear.

If I grew up in a family where I was ignored unless I was crying, that’s probably how I learned how to be seen and get attention. That’s a skill. If I learn skills that help me to get my needs met in healthier ways, I have other options.

More and more people are living with unresolved trauma. More and more people are growing up without the emotional skills required to have a stable, happy life. Educating people about trauma can help everyone see that “snapping out of it” is not realistic. Perhaps that would lead to more compassion from the public and to more people seeking help rather than thinking that there is something wrong with them and thinking that big emotional displays are part of who they 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.

  1. It’s not your fault, and there is nothing wrong with you. Feelings are normal and natural. You wouldn’t be human without them. It’s okay to feel. If your feelings are overwhelming, you can learn to regulate them. It’s true. I had a client once who couldn’t get through a story without crying. It didn’t matter if we were talking about going shopping or someone dying. Everything was overwhelming because she had a painful memory or expectation associated with everything. It’s a year later and after healing her trauma triggers and learning healthier coping skills, she is speaking her truth. She’s able to hear other people without jumping in to rescue them or taking on their feelings. Her relationships are much more fulfilling and she’s doing a lot better at work. And she has complex PTSD. So, her way of moving in the world was a way for her to survive.
  2. Learning not to take on other people’s energy and moods is a skill. Everyone has an energy bubble. When we learn healthy boundaries, it’s like moving the zipper from the outside of the bubble, where others have control of what comes in, to the inside where you have control. It starts by noticing, “Are these my feelings or someone else’s?” If they are someone else’s, leave them alone. This is a way of practicing healthy boundaries. Your life will be lots easier if you are only carrying your own weight vs. everyone else’s too. I have a client who found this idea liberating. When she realized she was thinking other people’s thoughts, believing other people’s beliefs, and feeling other people’s feelings, she said it was like giving her the keys to let herself out of prison. So many things that were weighing her down were gone in an instant. She literally even looked lighter.
  3. A healthy lifestyle helps tremendously. I am talking about things like meditation, exercise, a clean diet, taking your medications as prescribed, healthy sleep, engaging in spirituality, and having a connected social life. Whenever a client returns to me for help after getting to a place of stability, my first question is always, “How’s your lifestyle?” 100% of the time, they have slacked on these things. When life gets stressful, they are the first things to go. We cheat ourselves rather than letting other people down, and you have to put yourself first. Healthy lifestyle habits help you stay grounded. If you’re not grounded, it’s easy to get blown away in the wind.
  4. You are the expert on your experience. Trust yourself. Everybody experiences the world differently. We can’t know what it’s like for someone else. They can’t know what it’s like for us. Don’t let someone else talk you out of your experience because it’s uncomfortable for them. I’m a professional with high sensitivity and I am always asking my clients, “What’s going on?” and “What’s that like?” Although I can intuit things, I don’t assume that what I’m sensing is correct. It may not be. I am not in their body. I have an HSP client who often tells her partner how he feels. She’s sensitive and intuitive. She’s often right, but in doing this, she’s invaliding him because she’s not always right. He’s invalidating himself because he believes her more than he believes himself. So, it’s a merry-go-round of negativity that produces nothing of value. Trust yourself.
  5. If you want stability, you’ve got to take control of your reactivity. This is the only place you have any power. You can’t control the outside world, but you can control yourself. So, imagine that you have a stimulation meter. If you start getting moody, angry, or irritable, you’re probably overstimulated. Pace yourself. Take breaks. Know your limits. Highly sensitive people often need a lot of down time. It’s okay. Do you. Sensitivity isn’t typically the problem. It’s reactivity. The reactivity hurts us and others. If we’re also not hardy, we have to take a lot of time to recover from the reactivity and get back to our baseline. It’s okay to take care of yourself. I am sensitive to some sounds, some smells-like chemical smells, fluorescent lights, electromagnetic stimulation like cell phones and microwaves, energy vampires, crowds, and things like that. I was in this trauma training workshop once that had a lot of people in too small of a space, fluorescent lights, and lots of sugary snacks. I’m sure everyone had a cell phone, and we were emotionally stimulating each other all day. So it was a room full of feels. I was exhausted at the end of the day, irritable, and had to throw up. That’s what I do when my body takes on too much. The next day, I was more aware of it and paced myself and created boundaries so that things didn’t get to that point, and it was much better. So, it’s up to you. I had no control over any of the things that were overstimulating, but I was able to make it better for me by taking breaks, sitting some things out, going out in nature for lunch, and things like that. You have that same power.

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 am always on the look out for ways to facilitate connection because I believe that is the secret to a meaningful life and I want everyone to have that. I recently heard about the chatty bench. A woman in England noticed that nobody was talking to each other. She wondered if they would chat if they had an invitation, so she made a sign and put it on the bench, inviting them to chat. They did! Now cities all over the world are doing the same.

We don’t have that here, but I have made some buttons and signs. Some people from my private community and I are going to the beach to try it out. Whenever I am at the beach, someone always sits beside me and starts chatting, so we will see.

I believe that loneliness is a huge problem. By talking to our neighbors, strangers, and co-workers, I think a lot of misunderstandings and fears would go away. I think people would understand each other more and see us for who we are. So problems like invalidating comments and emotional meltdowns would happen less because we feel safer with each other. Fingers crossed!

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

Laura Giles of Surviving to Thriving 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.