For over a decade, a certain group of people have come into my office for therapy. They’ve sat opposite me and shown me how people judge them, and how it’s affected the way they judge themselves.
I see people constantly second-guessing their decisions, questioning their feelings and reactions. They didn't start doing this on their own; their upbringing contributed to these patterns of behavior, this way of being.
They doubt their right to ask for what they need in the workplace, at home, and in relationships because they worry they’re “too needy,” “too emotional,” or “irrational.”
I see smart, creative people immobilized by overwhelm.
People who’d rather “play small” than be themselves and be shamed for it, again.
These people feel deeply and often carry the pain of others.
What saddens me most is their deeply-felt sense that something is wrong with them; something shameful, something defective. But these wonderful, sensitive souls are not broken at all. In fact, their sensitivity is perhaps their greatest strength.
What Makes Highly Sensitive People ‘Different’
I’ve come to understand the commonality that binds this group of people together: They are, as Dr. Elaine Aron identified, highly sensitive people (HSPs). Dr. Aron's work describes a gene that causes 1 in 5 people to have a more sensitive nervous system than others. By definition, HSPs process everything deeply, experience emotional intensity and strong empathy, are sensitive to subtlety, and can be easily overwhelmed.
I’m a therapist, but my compassion for HSPs transcends professional interest. I understand these finely-tuned people, not only because of my training and experience but also because I, too, am an HSP.
As an HSP, my life was similarly peppered with self-doubt, shame, insecurity, anxiety, overwhelm, and self-criticism. I also grew up misunderstood and came to believe something was wrong with me; something shameful, something defective.
I, too, learned to numb, hide, control, and chastise myself to avoid the pain.
At the height of that painful time, I received a card with the Anaïs Nin quote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Those words reflected my truth at the time: It was no longer an option to stay stuck in my pain. It was time to begin the journey back to wholeness.
Over the next 15 years, I worked hard to understand myself and overcome my blocks to self-love. Eventually, I went on to become a therapist who supports highly sensitive people.
And I learned that other HSPs, too, have the power to overcome self-doubt.
5 Steps to Overcome Shame and Self-Doubt as an HSP
I love passing on the supports that helped me heal in hopes of saving others. I don’t pretend that these steps will work the same for every person, but if you’re an HSP, I believe they will help. Here are some of the tools I found helpful along the way that freed me from shame and self-doubt:
1. Understand what shame is and where yours came from.
Shame is a feeling stemming from the belief that something is wrong with us that makes us unworthy of love and belonging. For HSPs, that shame often comes from feeling different, weird, or broken.
Start by asking yourself where your shame came from (because you weren’t born with it!). Did parents, teachers, or peers communicate that your feelings were “too much” or silly? Were there consequences (physical, social, emotional) when your reactions differed from others?
2. Learn about high sensitivity as a trait.
One of the best ways to reduce shame is to learn more about your sensitivity. If you haven’t already, read Elaine Aron’s book on sensitivity. Understand that high sensitivity is a trait and not a defect or disorder — you are normal. In fact, you are amazing. Seeing this immediately starts to remove the stigma of being an HSP.
3. Identify and challenge critical self-thoughts.
Are you aware of the things you say to and about yourself? Write down what specifically goes through your head when you feel ashamed or insecure. It might be things like, “What’s wrong with you? You’re too sensitive. You need to have thicker skin.” Or it might be almost anything you think when you’re having those feelings. Just take the time to hear and recognize it.
Then, practice challenging those thoughts with truth and affirmation. Some examples are, “This is the way I’m wired. My tender heart is a gift; the world needs more empathic people like me. I love and accept myself exactly as I am.” Repeat these affirmations as often as possible.
4. Teach your loved ones about high sensitivity.
Do the important people in your life appreciate that you’re wired in a way that makes you respond to the world differently? If they don’t know about high sensitivity, they may have come to some (inaccurate) conclusions about you. Send them articles or talk to them about sensitivity. If they’re important to you, then it’s important that they understand your trait.
5. Heal old wounds.
When you spend your life being treated like you’re fragile/silly/too sensitive, it impacts the formation of your identity. If you don’t address this reality, it can fester and flower into relationship problems, addictive behavior, anxiety, or depression. If you’ve gone through challenging or traumatic life experiences on top of that, you may find yourself in a very dark place. Luckily, there are many places to find support:
By doing the above, my life became infinitely more fulfilling. It also allowed me to support other highly sensitive people in the process. (Check out my From Worrier-to-Warrior course for HSPs!)
Remember: You matter, and the world needs your finely-tuned spirit. And if you’re going to judge yourself, it’s okay to do it positively.
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT has dedicated over 10,000 hours to supporting Highly Sensitive People as a psychotherapist and global HSP consultant. She practices psychotherapy in Boulder, CO and specializes in working with sensitivity and healing of trauma (EMDR). She's also the founder of Intuitive Warrior, an online platform offering resources and support to Highly Sensitive People worldwide. An HSP herself, Brooke went years feeling overwhelmed and anxious before learning how to support her finely-tuned nervous system. She considers it a joy and an honor to get to pass that knowledge and support on to others.
You are a gift to the world. You aren't alone. We need you here.