As a Highly Sensitive therapist who works with Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), fellow HSPs often ask me, "How in the world do you do what you do? I could never be a therapist."
I know what they're really asking: "How do you not take on all the emotion of others? How do you empathize so deeply and not get overwhelmed or exhausted?"
I understand their question completely.
Anxiety used to run my life
When I learned I was a Highly Sensitive Person 20 years ago, I was just like many HSPs:
Being around too many people in noisy environments made me feel overstimulated, my mind spun obsessively with anxious thoughts and I couldn’t watch the news or certain movies without having my day ruined.
In fact, when I was in my early 20's and a mentor suggested I be a therapist, I thought, "Me? How in the world am I suited for that? I'm just trying to find some equilibrium in my own life, let alone help someone else."
The idea of joining a profession where I invited more emotion into my life seemed crazy.
I listened to my intuition instead of my anxiety
Beneath the roar of my fear, my inuition whispered something different: this is your calling. You’ll figure it out; just step forward.
Mustering up all my courage, I decided to pursue my degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. A decade into private practice later, I can't think of a better-fitting job for me.
I needed support for my sensitivity
While this story has a happy ending, I didn’t get there by accident or without effort.
To thrive as a highly sensitive therapist, I needed to start by seeing myself differently: not as a weirdo with too many feelings but as a valuable soul with a tender heart and depth.
I began to understand my finely-tuned nervous system and appreciating the gifts it brings. I even began calling myself and other HSPs by a new name: Intuitive Warriors.
I learned how to set boundaries and stop overthinking
As I listened to my inner voice, the changes I needed to make came into focus. Here's what I learned:
What I thought wasn't a sustainable profession for me turned out to be my dream job when I acknowledged my needs and learned skills to take care of them.
All Highly Sensitive People can learn self-care
I soon understood that what I was learning was applicable to all Highly Sensitive People: we can benefit from making adjustments that both honor the way that we're wired and also support us in environments that bring us meaning and joy.
If you’d like to learn how to do that, here are some of my favorite resources:
1. The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. This seminal book on the topic will give you a good overview of the trait and outline the various ways it affects your relationships, work, and life.
2. The Highly Sensitive Person Survival Guide by Tedd Zeff. This book gives practical suggestions for ways you can hone your habits to support your nervous system.
3. Online programs for Highly Sensitive People. This is a great option if you want to delve deeper than a book and get support from other HSPs.
4. Therapy with an HSP-informed therapist. The most personalized resource, therapy can help you get to the heart of the matter with someone who understands the way you're wired.
It's true that our sensitive nervous system creates some limitations that we can't ignore. And sometimes responding to those needs looks like reducing what we expose ourselves to. It's equally true, though, that many of our challenges can be mediated with the right tools. We are highly resilient beings with profound potential when we have the right support.
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT
Brooke Nielsen has over a decade of clinical experience specializing in working with Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). She is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist in private practice and the creator of the Intuitive Warrior Programs and Community.
You are a gift to the world. You aren't alone. We need you here.