Accept your high sensitivity: HSPs are known to be hard on themselves when they fail, for example. It’s important to always bear in mind that failures are opportunities for profound learning. In addition, having been criticized for being sensitive means many HSPs suffer from imposter syndrome. It can be a great relief simply to know you’re not alone in suffering from it.
As a part of our series about How To Survive And Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marshall Zweig.
Marshall Zweig is a relationship and intimacy coach who, against psychologists’ warnings, radically transformed two gaslighting relationships in his own life, with his wife and with his mother, armed with nothing more than the truth. His method, “Truth Empowered Relationships,” provides a structure and rules — much like a board game — for creating deep, fulfilling, intimate relationships. Marshall is a graduate of five years of advanced leadership and coaching training with Personal Growth University, holds diplomas in coaching and organizational psychology from Austin Peay State University, and is experienced with NLP, NVC, PQ, and many more of the world’s most transformational personal growth technologies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
Yes. I’m a relationship coach and resensitization therapist. I’m also a brand and creative consultant. Being a Highly Sensitive Person–I’ll use the acronym HSP from here on for brevity — was something I was constantly insulted, mocked, humiliated, and corrected for in my childhood. The term wasn’t coined until 1996 and wasn’t widely recognized until fairly recently. To my great relief, many qualities of an HSP that I learned to hate about myself are now considered gifts by the psychological community, and they’re gifts I rely on in both my personal and professional life.
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?
HSPs have increased emotional sensitivity, yes, but it’s more intricate than simply someone who is easily hurt — though I can’t count the number of times I was told I was “too sensitive,” ironically by people who often seemed to me to be insensitive.
Psychologist Elaine Aron defined HSPs as people who have a highly developed personality trait Aron called sensory processing sensitivity, or SPS for short. People who have SPS experience increased sensitivity in their central nervous system, so they experience life in deeper, more intense ways than others. They often have a rich inner life and are deep thinkers with powerful imaginations.
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 are on a sensitivity continuum, so not everything about HSPs will be experienced by every highly sensitive person. But yes, HSPs often exhibit a heightened sense of empathy and are very into understanding other people’s feelings.
I can’t verify that we are offended by hurtful remarks about other people, but when HSPs hear hurtful remarks about other people, we generally have a reaction and are aware of the potential for these people to be hurt by these remarks. I know when I’m in a business meeting for example, and one person is teasing another, even if it’s clearly in jest, it’s difficult for me not to say something protective toward the person being teased.
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?
It’s a common reaction, yes. I turn away from scenes of overt violence and generally avoid programming that will expose me to violence.
I remember in 2001, I only watched the attack on the Twin Towers once — the second plane. I couldn’t handle more. And while many of my friends, family, and co-workers, even my girlfriend at the time, watched the news constantly for days and even weeks, I turned off the news after one day. And I’ve never turned it back on. To this day, I only get news from articles on my phone. And even that is often difficult for me.
HSPs can be preternaturally attuned to physical pain, kind of like that fable of the princess and the pea. That can often lead to doctors not believing HSPs.
I had eye surgery several years ago which required tiny sutures in my cornea. I came to my follow-up exam and told the surgeon that one of my sutures had come slightly loose. The surgeon said, flat-out, “You couldn’t possibly feel that.”
I said simply, “I do feel it.” He repeated, “That’s not possible.” I said, as calmly as I could, “Why don’t you check it?”
He did, repeating, “It’s not possible, you couldn’t possibly — ” And with his face to the slit lamp, he murmured quietly, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
I said, “Now that you believe me, the other one is just starting to do the same thing.” And of course, it was.
Can you please share a story about how your highly sensitive nature created problems at work or socially?
Socially, like I referred to before, I was never comfortable with teasing, and I’m still not. When I was still in the dark about being a highly sensitive person, I used to believe that was something I needed to “work on.” Now, I believe there is simply never a reason to put other people down, and it will never result in a positive outcome.
At work, I remember I used to be crushed when an idea of mine would get, as we say in advertising, “killed.” Even the term connotes a violent end to the idea, and all my ideas were like children to me, so I was bothered, sometimes deeply so. My boss at the time, an unequivocally brilliant writer named Jeff Stocker, told me, “When they kill your idea, just walk away, and think to yourself, “No problem — I’ve got a million more where that came from.” I found his advice helpful not only to aid my pain in losing the idea, but in increasing my confidence in my creativity being boundless. To this day, I’m known creatively for possessing an endless supply of ideas.
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 came home after my sexual trauma at age 4, and tried to tell my father, himself a survivor of sexual trauma, about what happened to me by saying, “Daddy, I feel sad.” His response was “Don’t be sad, son — there are people in wheelchairs.” I was also sent to my room whenever I was anything other than happy, and I couldn’t come out until I was in a “good mood.”. In addition, I was repeatedly told by an uncle, “You’re too sensitive.” I got to the point where I loathed my own emotions.
At the intro to my first personal growth workshop, in 1999, the facilitator told me the result of the workshop would be more connection to my emotions. I remember saying, “I don’t need to feel more. I already feel too much.” But what I really needed help with was understanding and accepting my hatred of my high 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?
They haven’t always felt like advantages, but there are a lot of them. Let’s see…
- I can accurately pick up on and understand other people’s emotions. I believe this makes me a better friend, parent, and husband.
- I’m very aware of my thoughts and feelings, which aids me in being fully honest in my relationships.
- I’m very aware of nuances and details in stories and events; as a relationship coach, this gift helps me create deeper conversations when my clients share their lives with me.
- I have a powerful connection to my creativity, which has fueled a successful career as a writer.
- As a project manager, I can anticipate where things might ‘go wrong’ in a project, and be proactive about avoiding those potential pitfalls.
- In addition to being an HSP, I was also carefully and repeatedly taught to care about others’ feelings, but never my own — which is a recipe for codependent relationships. As a result, I often went overboard to be careful about upsetting people. What I’ve found in life is the cost of never upsetting people is greatly diminished intimacy. I’ve come to realize that, though I am not in control or charge of people’s reactions, and I need to be myself regardless of other people’s reactions, my high sensitivity still warns me about people’s potential reactions before they even occur.
Can you share a story from your own life where your great sensitivity was actually an advantage?
My current wife, the love of my life and also a highly sensitive person, was once highly triggered by an otherwise innocuous disagreement, to the point where she had retreated into a closet, shaking and crying. I felt into her from ten feet away and told her what her deepest soul’s question was in that moment. Not only was I correct, but it was also a question she didn’t even realize she was asking herself. So in that case, my sensitivity led to significant healing, both for her and for our relationship.
There seems to be no harm in being overly empathetic. What’s the line drawn between being empathetic and being Highly Sensitive?
What I can tell you is that empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and at least where I am on the HSP continuum, I’m able to do that both easily and effectively. Some HSPs can lose the boundary between themselves and another person because of their heightened ability to empathize. So if there’s a line, that’s where to draw it: another person’s experience is not actually your experience. It just might feel that way. As I often say as a coach, the feeling and the fact deserve equal weight; discussing the feeling, however, needs to come before discussing the fact.
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?
I believe social media presents two challenges to HSPs. One is the false version of life that many participants often present. Just because someone is smiling on their family vacation doesn’t mean they’re actually happy. I call that the Facebook Facade. As an HSP, it’s important to remember that what people are posting is not necessarily representative of their true inner world. I suggest you never compare your life to the lives you see on social media.
In addition, be very careful about reading comments. I think that’s what you meant about casual callousness. For an HSP, social media is a brave act, and HSPs have to be aware that online commenters are much more likely to say hurtful things than those same people would ever say to a person’s face. Notice your reactions, and if the comments are simply too much for you to handle, disable comments.
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 simply say, “It sounds like we see it differently, and neither of us is wrong or right about the way we see things.” And if it helps, secretly I believe that the people who criticize me for my reactions have some version of the same reactions I have, but either aren’t attuned enough to realize them, or brave enough to express them, or both.
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?
The toughest challenge for me is being myself — meaning being fully sensitive — in a professional environment. It is constantly tempting to stay silent versus speaking up or making jokes instead of being authentic. So my strategy is simply to remember that when I hide my authentic self, I’m denying the situation the gift of my heightened sensitivity, and I’m diminishing my own enthusiasm for the project.
That’s professional. Personally, I have cultivated friendships and relationships that appreciate and honor my sensitivity. I call these connections my “family of choice.”
In my family of origin, meaning my biological family, I have curated the relationships I want to maintain carefully. That means, for example, that there are relationships I’ve ended like that uncle I spoke of who used to frequently call me “too sensitive.” I’m fortunate, though, to have multiple family-of-origin relationships that not only accept my sensitivity but to some degree share it.
Almost all of the members of my family of origin with whom I maintain relationships exhibit signs of being HSPs themselves.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Highly Sensitive Person? Can you explain what you mean?
To me, the most damaging myth is that sensitivity is a choice. It’s not. For example, research suggests that sensitivity has a substantial genetic component. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine levels are processed differently by highly sensitive people, especially under stress.
Simply put, the nervous system of an HSP functions differently. Highly sensitive people show increased activity in multiple brain regions, enhanced neural receptivity, and heightened neural responsiveness. That’s why an HSP is classified as neurodivergent.
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?
Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) are neurodivergent, much like individuals with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, or Tourette’s. Just as we recognize the importance of allowing individuals with autism to be and express themselves, it is equally vital to embrace HSPs for who they are, granting them the same acceptance and understanding that we extend to other neurodivergent individuals.
What needs to be done is embrace sensitivity. As I tell my coaching communities, the advantage humans will always have over AI is our sensitivity, our ability to perceive our worlds through sensory input and emotional responses. No matter how advanced a computer gets, it cannot feel. So is sensitivity a curse? Or a superpower?
I say the answer depends on the company you keep. As I said, I don’t associate with that uncle I spoke of anymore. Usually, people who lash out at sensitivity have been desensitized to some degree, and want others to be desensitized in the same way…misery loves company and all that. So I would caution any HSP: choose the company you keep carefully and deliberately.
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?
1 . Accept your high sensitivity: HSPs are known to be hard on themselves when they fail, for example. It’s important to always bear in mind that failures are opportunities for profound learning. In addition, having been criticized for being sensitive means many HSPs suffer from imposter syndrome. It can be a great relief simply to know you’re not alone in suffering from it.
My advice: don’t keep the feeling inside — talk about it. I remember being a new writer and telling my extraordinarily talented boss that I felt like a fraud, constantly fearful that I would get found out and fired for my pretense. My boss said simply, “That voice tends to get quieter with time.” I realized he experienced imposter syndrome as well. And he was right: that feeling subsides, with time and practice. So I humbly suggest you open to those feelings as often as you can.
2 . Listen to yourself: because HSPs feel so deeply, we often want to avoid our inner realities. The reality is, that your heightened sensitivity is not going away…and that’s okay because there are profound gifts in being highly sensitive. HSPS need to check in with themselves, to see what we’re feeling and what we need.
Remember: the strong feelings we have are there for a reason. Start and end your day with a check-in, and be okay with whatever message you get — feelings are not good or bad, they just are. Setting reminders on your phone throughout the day to check in with yourself can aid you as well.
3 . Expect respect: HSPs commonly struggle with setting boundaries and avoiding interpersonal conflict. Practice saying ‘yes’ when you mean yes, and ‘no’ when you mean no. I know for me, it feels literally painful when I tell someone who needs me professionally that I can’t work late. But I have to do it, because no one else will do it for me, and no one hears ‘no’ by magic. Remember: you are your only real advocate.
That goes for conflict too: if you’re uncomfortable in an interpersonal situation, you don’t have to argue. You can exit the conversation. You can leave the room. You can hang up the phone. For many HSPs, nurturing others comes naturally and easily. Remember to nurture yourself.
4 . Learn to regulate your nervous system: like I said earlier, HSPs have unique nervous systems. We can be triggered by stimuli that wouldn’t trigger other people. So we need to practice handling our triggers. I know after an argument (which thankfully is practically nonexistent in my life), I can feel like I want to die. What helps me most is focusing on my breath: remembering to breathe deeply. When I focus on my breath for a minimum of one minute — feeling the air going into my nostrils and into my lungs, watching my chest and belly rise and fall — I’m always calmer and more open afterward.
I also coach people to focus on their senses, one by one. So for example, take a minute to rub the tip of a thumb and first finger together until you can feel the ridges of your fingerprints. Focus on that for 60 seconds and you might be surprised at how much more present and calm you feel. You can do the same for all your senses: burn some palo santo, breathe the smell into your nose for 60 seconds, and notice the result. Take your shoes off and feel the ground or earth under your bare feet for 60 seconds, maybe wiggling your toes as you do so. These techniques can reset an HSP’s highly developed nervous system, reminding us that we’re safe.
5 . Prioritize self-care: the world we live in is not always kind to an HSP, or easy for us. Having a structured life is where we get to create our own world, which allows us to experience comfort and peace.
Watch your caffeine intake: HSPs are known to be highly sensitive to the stimulant. Take regular breaks during the day. Make time for exercise — a walk outside can be highly beneficial for an HSP. Have a regular bedtime routine, and make sure to get at least seven hours of sleep. HSPs are easily stimulated by light, so have a phone-off period before you go to sleep. Carve out alone time for yourself, which helps many if not most HSPs recharge. And find a supportive diet structure. Diet was long my weak point: I bounced from one prescribed way to eat to another, never feeling supported, never feeling understood. As an HSP, I find it comforting and nurturing to exist inside the structure of counting carbs. When I reach my daily number (50), I’m done eating for the day. That structure creates peace within me.
Structure is something that is in an HSP’s control, something we can regulate, which can be comforting to an HSP’s nervous system. And make sure you are choosing the structure because HSPs often will resist a structure that’s imposed on us. Adhering to a self-created structure gives an HSP predictability, which again can be soothing to our nervous system.
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.
The movement I’m behind, as my coaching community knows, is to empower relationships through sensitivity. I believe in absolute, total, complete honesty in relationships. Total honesty may be challenging at first to achieve, but the end result is a more relaxed nervous system. That’s why I coach relationships: to empower people to share their inner worlds with clarity and sensitivity, and to listen with sensitivity, curiosity, and appreciation for their partner’s honesty.
How can our readers follow you online?
The best way is my Linktree: https://linktr.ee/marshallzweig
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
It’s always an honor. I appreciate you giving me this opportunity to help HSPs live more fully realized lives.
Marshall Zweig of zant 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.