The Damned if you do, Damned if you don't dance

Understanding Healthy Highly Sensitive vs. Unhealthy Highly Sensitive People


I like to assume the best about people. And, while extending the benefit of the doubt is important, paying attention to behavioral patterns is equally important.

Sometimes people will dress up their poor behaviors, unresolved trauma, and/or insecurities as being "introverted or highly sensitive." I am an ambivert, in that I require regular solitude and down time. Yet, I also enjoy socializing and presenting in public. However, generally my energy is restored when on my own, vs. a crowd of people.

I am also an empathetic person, therapist and coach who is sensitive, encouraging and compassionate by nature. Sensitivity, while a lovely trait to nurture in self and others, when combined with a lack of insight, or some other emotional challenge, sometimes works to a person's disadvantage and becomes a box which prevents growth.

We don't grow as individuals simply from the sunshine and butterfly's of life. In order to evolve, we need to understand and own our shit, seek out healing when needed, and lean into the challenging bits of human interaction at times, and not personalize or make up a story about the others intentions based on our own wounds. It is hard work, but possible work.

I find it interesting these days when I overhear a person at an event, or read on social media someone declaring, "I'm a very highly sensitive person", and then witness (or sometimes experience) that highly sensitive person get in their own way by choosing unhealthy, shaming or blaming, or reactive behaviors. These unhealthy HSPs often want people to experience them as kind, approachable and open, yet expect others to carefully tip toe around their feelings.  Or they expect others to magically read their mind, and/or know just exactly what to say and how to perfectly lay your cautious words at their feet.

If they feel insecure, a secure person will activate their defenses. And they will sometimes use silence as violence, or passive aggression in communicating that you have inadvertently offended them somehow.  Sometimes, HSPs assume the very worst about a person's intentions. You may be coming from a genuine place, but their own insecurities or former trauma injuries project that you are criticizing or correcting them.

When I work with clinical clients or coaching clients who are "highly sensitive" people, one of the very first things I ask them to do before we jump into their goals is to explore how they experience anger or rage. Why? Because eventually this will be directed toward me. Unhealthy HSPs are rarely in tune with their inner asshole. Instead, they have worked very hard to cultivate a "good girl or nice guy image." Or they use sarcasm as a way to distance and control emotional intimacy, and then are surprised when others do not experience them as "highly sensitive" but rather as insensitive. These HSPs will then state that they are often "misunderstood" without having insight, or taking ownership for what they have done to set up this misunderstanding.

Sometimes highly sensitive people do not have insight that they are not actually all that sensitive, instead what they are is wounded and reactive. This is the person that requires everyone around them to walk on eggshells, or loves to make jokes, or appears to be lighthearted, or believes that they can take some gentle ribbing....but in reality, humor must be done on their terms or there will be a quiet hell to pay.

Sometimes the HSP leads with their trauma or anxiety right out of the gate, every single time, so that people understand that they are to be treated delicately. For the HSP reading this right now, it is important to state that this is not intended to minimize the very real struggle of individuals who deal with emotional challenges or personality disorders. I create compassionate space for my clients, and my friends and loved ones who suffer this way, and for those who have insight into their behaviors, and for those who are working hard at healing, and for those who take ownership for their own unhealthy contributions, with the understanding that even with all of their hard work and insight, they can sometimes still place others in a double bind.

Are you walking on eggshells?

What I am talking about is the unhealthy HSP who lacks self awareness, resists reaching out for healing, and then requires that folks around them watch every single word they say with very little insight into their dance. When you are the other person, this becomes exhausting as one finds himself or herself straight jacketed, fearing that one may inadvertently offend the "highly sensitive" person with one wrong move or word.

And...guess what, you will.

For example, do you find yourself doing the following with an unhealthy HSP:

1. Watching everything you say to the HSP;
2. Crafting and editing every single word you write to the HSP;
3. Monitoring yourself around the HSP;
4. Minimizing yourself so that you do not inadvertently upset the HSP;
5. Apologizing for things that you have not done simply to appease the HSP;
6. Defending or explaining your intentions over and over again with the HSP;
7. Swallowing your laughter around the HSP;
8. Stifling your opinion around the HSP:
9. Afraid to answer the HSPs question honestly - feeling entrapped;
10. Feeling frequently misunderstood or set up by the HSP;
11. Feeling as if you are in an emotional straight jacket around the HSP;
12. Feel unappreciated and used by the HSP;
13. Feel as if you have to minimize your own success or happiness;
14. Feel as if you are trapped in a corner;
15. Feel as if you are being blamed for their anxiety, stress or unhappiness.

If you answered yes to 4 or more of the above questions, it may be time to reevaluate your relationship with this person. For example, you might choose to let the unhealthy HSP know how you experience them in a calm, kind manner and then do your best to remove yourself from the attack zone. Or you might choose to walk away from a friendship where it has become completely impossible for you to be yourself. Or you may share that while you will continue to interact with sensitivity, you are no longer willing to walk on eggshells. Or you may require that they seek counseling support before moving forward.

Healthy Sensitivity

Healthy sensitivity is a very different story. I honor and embrace that in myself and appreciate it in others. Healthy sensitivity is, well, healthy and is very different than insecurity, or assumptive or competitive reactivity packaged as being highly sensitive.

Remember, with an unhealthy HSP you will twist yourself up into a pretzel trying to be of encouragement and support, yet there will always be something that you did or did not do or say "just right." You may find yourself trying to meet their needs, but what you are not understanding is that they may have a very different agenda all together - sometimes rooted in unresolved trauma, emotional challenges that they refuse to address, or rage and/or competitiveness.

There is nothing wrong with a little healthy competition now and then. But, make no mistake about it, for the unhealthy or wounded HSP, this becomes an internal battlefield of resentment in watching your star rise. Every time you experience a success, they will see this as highlighting a lack in themselves. And, sadly, they will project that insecurity on to you as you being insensitive.

They may smile, nod, be agreeable on the outside, lead with their insecurities, they may seek out your support, ask for your opinion, and so forth, all the while seething with envy on the inside, or cutting you down behind the scenes for not responding in a particular or "sensitive enough way."

They may even ask for your support, or request "honest feedback (the trap of the unhealthy HSP), and then receive your feedback as assumptive ("why would he/she assume that about me?") when what you are doing is anything but. And, for unhealthy HSPs who lack insight into their motives, or do not understand where their trauma wounds lead them, they will always require your support, yet would sooner cut out their own tongue than offer praise for your achievements, or chop off their own fingers rather than extend support promoting your projects. These folks position themselves to be the one who needs help in every single arena, yet when you attempt to help, they resist, argue with, or resent you for it.

HSP and Boundaries

For those who are nodding in agreement, I feel your pain. My suggestion: Do you, don't doubt yourself, operate from a place of goodness, to thine own self be true, and then when (not if) the unhealthy reactive HSP assumes the worst motives in you, be kind, but best to move on if possible. Don't get caught up in explaining or defending yourself. You will only be seen as highly insensitive and you will be punished.

If the unhealthy HSP reacts to your support in a way that sounds defensive, you might say, "As I have demonstrated with my support, compliments and encouragement over the last several weeks/months/years, I am very excited to see all of your great accomplishments, and I have been happy to have supported you when asked to do so. I wish you well on your journey forward, and am confident that you will do a great job."

If, for whatever reason you can't or choose not to move on (e.g. the unhealthy HSP is a family member, a boss, a spouse, a colleague, a client), then setting clear boundaries combined with managing their expectations is a good thing. These people regularly look for exterior reinforcement when they have interior work to do. Sadly, they do not see their own entitlement and insecurity present in their high sensitivity. As such, if you do not hold good boundaries, eventually they will suck the life out of you... and then feel highly sensitive because your last breath interfered with their day.

Healthy Sensitivity = an important human attribute.
Unhealthy hyper-sensitivity = an area in need of healing.

Have you experienced the "damned if you do, damned if you don't dance" with an unhealthy HSP? If so, you are welcome to share below. The good news is that though I am an empathetic and sensitive person, I have done and continue to do my own healing and growth work, and keep my inner asshole in check. I will not look for a hidden meaning or agenda in what you share here.

Kindly and in support,