Leah Burkhart from The Healthy Sensitive gives us some insight into what being a highly sensitive person really entails.
Howard Thurman said it best: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”
How did you come to realize that you were an HSP?
There were actually two incidents. The first time I realized I was sensitive was when I was about 8 years old, and after having had a dispute with one of my friends, his mother had labeled him as not sensitive enough, and myself as overly sensitive. Having no idea what ‘sensitive’ meant at the time, I rushed over to my mother to ask. She described it as being ‘easily hurt’.
The second really took place throughout my whole life. I was always conscientious and a high achiever in most fields, but I soon realized that I was averse to being in certain situations that other kids loved being in, such as slumber parties. I loved my friends but wanted to go home. Joining clubs and doing sports was something I ended up partaking in, so as to be strong and similar to the other kids, but I ended up developing anxiety, insomnia and other challenges that my peers were not experiencing. It was because of this that I became interested in Health and Wellness and stumbled upon Elaine Aron’s book on High Sensitivity. Only then was I able to put the two together.
How would you differentiate between an introvert and an HSP and are the two intrinsically interlinked?
They are correlated but they are distinct. To be a highly sensitive person really means that you have four distinct characteristics. These can even be mapped out in a brain scan:
- Depth of processing (deep thinkers)
- Over arousal (a more exposed and vigilant nervous system)
- Less sensitive to the Dopamine drive (HSPs are rarely thrill seekers)
- Sensory sensitivity.
Introversion is more about orientation when it comes to connecting with other people. Introverts would rather have one on one conversations or with small groups and who need time alone to recharge. This doesn’t mean they don’t like people, it simply means that spending time with people is more of an energy drain than an energy fuel. Finding a balance between the two is of the essence.
It can occur that somebody is a highly sensitive introvert or a highly sensitive extrovert. I believe that 70% of highly sensitive people tend to identify as being introverted and 30%, extroverted.
How do you feel you help other HSPs?
My aim in helping HSPs is allowing them to see that it is a neutral trait that can be advantageous in certain circumstances and challenging in others. Helping them understand how their central nervous system works, giving them the tools to hack the system so to speak. Creating a life that allows them to really thrive, using their creativity, depth of processing and consciousness. Teaching them how to back off when they notice they are flirting with burnout.
There are four practices which I use consistently with HSPs
- Physical health and wellbeing (a regular spiritual practice, meditation being the most common, time in nature, time to recharge, healthy relationships and boundaries, creative outlet, healthy nutrition program, physical exercise etc…)
- Healthy Relationships (they often enter into toxic relationships)
- Purposeful work
- Financial freedom
What advice would you give to parents of a highly sensitive child?
If parents know what to look for, it can be picked up very early on. It is interesting because, depending on where one grows up in the world, being an HSP can have a very different impact on a child. For example, highly sensitive children who are born and raised in China or Japan tend to have exceptionally high self-esteem because the common traits of HSP are revered in those cultures (being reflective, conscientious, quiet). On the flip side, if born in Canada or the US, they tend to have very low self-esteem because our culture honors and celebrates the extrovert types.
Therefore, the parents that come to me are usually from the extroverted side of life. What is important to realize is that highly sensitive children are able to engage and respond well to patient reasoning. Parents want their children to be successful. Highly sensitive children don’t need to be protected or barricaded from situations, they need to take their time and more often than not, they will go at it more slowly than others. They like to observe their surroundings before launching into something.
Parents should look at it as not trying to push the child out of his comfort zone (like a rubber band that snaps if pulled too hard and fast), but rather as trying to help the child expand his comfort zone (gradually stretch the rubber band until it expands). Parents should partner with their child as opposed to being the dictator of their child’s future.
20% of the population are HSPs. When did society start to understand this trait and give it a label?
Elaine Aron’s first book was published in 1991 and that is when a language was created around this trait, even though it has been around since the dawn of time.
What about your coaching program?
The Foundation Coaching Program I put together to help HSPs is called STRONGER, which is an acronym:
S-spiritual practice (something larger)
T- Time to recharge
R-Relationships (effective communication strategies, developing healthy boundaries)
O-Outlet (regular creative outlets)
N-Nourishment (developing a nutrition program)
G-Growth (professional or personal)
I work with people to develop a strength in each of these categories in this comprehensive program. It is a blend of coaching and consulting.
Beyond that, I can do one on one coaching which is more driven by the client, and this can come in various customised packages.
Would you describe being a highly sensitive person as being a gift or a burden?
It can be advantageous once you understand how it works and what’s going on behind the scenes. It can be hugely challenging to navigate if you don’t have the language. I like to compare it to the smartphone, whereby it can do many wonderful and magical things if treated with care and recharged often!
Are there varying degrees of sensitivity or generally speaking, do people display similar characteristics?
Most Highly Sensitive People blend in perfectly with society.
There are, however, varying degrees of sensitivity. Elaine Aron, after much research and collaboration with others, determined three groups of sensitivity and of course varying degrees of nuance within.
The analogy that is often used is that of flowers; There are dandelions which can grow and thrive anywhere, orchids, which are resilient but really require a particular environment to grow in and finally tulips, which show signs of sensitivity but may not be as highly sensitive as the others previously mentioned.
It is imperative for highly sensitive people to feel alive and I always refer to the famous quote by Howard Thurman cited at the beginning of this article.