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Highly sensitive adults
or, navigating the benefits and challenges of sensitivity in parenthood and at work
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This is the second article in a two-part series on highly sensitive people. Click here to see last week’s article on raising highly sensitive kids.
Does this sound familiar?
In her book The Highly Sensitive Parent, Elaine Aron provides quotes from several highly sensitive parents:
“I could feel my children’s emotions, and it allowed me to nurture them exquisitely.”
“My highly sensitive nature means I know exactly how my son is feeling and can anticipate issues before they arise.”
“The mess that two kids create makes me stressed, and I don’t feel calm until the house is clean.”
“Each time I went to the school to participate in some event, the noise level, the kids, the constant worry and being on guard always felt like too much.”
“I seem to feel the need to introspect on the whole [parenting] experience a lot more [than others].”
Do you identify with the situations above? When you were a kid, did you often feel overwhelmed by big emotions? Maybe you read last week’s newsletter on highly sensitive kids and thought, “this may or may not apply to my kid, but WHOA does this apply to me!”
If any of the above resonates—good news, this week’s newsletter is for you! And if it doesn’t sound like you, there’s a good chance it applies to a colleague, employee, our friend.
What does high sensitivity look like in parents?
Last week, I identified what the four characteristics of high sensitivity looks like in kids. Here’s how these four characteristics can look in parenthood:
Depth of processing: According to Aron, “Highly sensitive people simply process everything more”—they notice nuances and draw connections that others might miss. For example, on a survey, highly sensitive parents were more likely than non-highly sensitive parents to agree that, “Decisions about parenting (school, child-related purchases, etc.) have driven my crazy”. This is likely because they tend to consider multiple dimensions before making a big decision.
Strong emotional response: As I mentioned last week, highly sensitive people are uniquely attuned to their own and others’ emotions. Because of this, highly sensitive parents tend to be highly empathic and know what their children need even before they have verbalized it. At the same time, highly sensitive parents can feel their child’s disappointments, anxieties and stress very strongly, which can be overwhelming—to both the parent and the child.
Greater awareness of subtleties: By the time a highly sensitive person reaches adulthood, they have probably learned to cope with everyday sensory inputs (I’m guessing most of you don’t burst into tears if you eat a food with an unfamiliar texture 🙃). However, highly sensitive adults are still attuned to subtle stimuli on both the emotional level (i.e., they can “read” emotions well) and on the sensory level (i.e., they may become easily frustrated by annoying stimuli like someone chewing with their mouth open, tapping fingers, etc.)
Prone to overstimulation: This is the domain of high sensitivity that tends to cause the most friction for parents, because—even in the best of circumstances—parenting is often overstimulating! Highly sensitive parents can be particularly susceptible to the effects of sleep deprivation, loud or constant noises, and the stress of a home office that has been infiltrated by messy kids. Additionally, highly sensitive people need a lot of downtime, which can be hard to come by when parenting young kids.
Managing sensitivity and leveraging it as a strength
Maybe because I consider myself to be highly sensitive, I see this trait as a real strength (for the most part). Highly sensitive people tend to be very conscientious, insightful, and self-aware. There’s no doubt my deep empathy and strong intuition are huge assets in my current work as a coach and former role as a psychotherapist.
At the same time, the world was not designed for highly sensitive people, so some adaptation is necessary. Here are some recommendations for managing sensitivity:
Know your triggers and mitigate them as best you can. If loud sounds bother you, tell grandma not to purchase the fire truck with the annoying alarm on it. Does excessive clutter drive you crazy? Institute a toy rotation system to contain the chaos.
Schedule downtime (especially when kids stop napping and your built-in alone-time evaporates). Institute an hour each day of quiet time—kids can read or play independently while you relax.
Manage your energy in new social situations. As Aron points out, parenthood brings an “ intensified social contract”, meaning the number of new relationships in a parent’s life multiplies when a baby is born—there’s the pediatrician, day care providers, and lots and lots of other parents. These new relationships require energy and may be overwhelming or draining for highly sensitive parents. Give yourself grace when you approach new social scenarios.
Accept feedback as an opportunity for growth. Because highly sensitive people feel things so deeply, they often struggle with receiving criticism. When someone is giving you constructive feedback, it can be helpful to remember that people generally give feedback because they want you to succeed.
Use rituals to transition between work and home time. Most people need some time to decompress at the end of a long work day, but it’s particularly important for highly sensitive people. If you’re working from home, consider instituting a “commute”. Even if you end your last meeting early and spend 4:45-5 walking around the neighborhood, it will help you decompress before jumping into parent-mode.
Finally, remember that sensitivity is just one aspect of temperament. It’s not a sole defining characteristic, and how it manifests differently in each person. For example, a highly sensitive extrovert may thrive in team settings because they are able to pick up on emotional nuances and modulate their own behavior accordingly, while someone else who is both highly sensitive and a strong introvert may find team-based projects to be overstimulating.
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