Being a highly sensitive person can bring additional challenges with relationships.
Elaine N. Aron, PhD is one of the leading writers and researchers on the personality trait of high sensitivity (sensory processing sensitivity) and how it affects us as highly sensitive people or HSPs.
She said in an interview about her book The Highly Sensitive Person In Love that people with more sensitive and excitable constitutions and personalities “need help with intimacy.” She explains:
“Maybe we are afraid, have been hurt, and can’t forget it.
“Or we have trouble being known and appreciated for who we really are. Or we have trouble in relationships because of our different needs, so that we always feel ‘too much’ or ‘overly sensitive.'”
She also says highly sensitive people are “more likely to find sex to be mysterious and powerful, to be turned on by subtle rather than explicit sexual cues, to be easily distracted or physically hurt during sex, and to find it difficult to go right back to normal life afterwards.”
The photo at top is Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia in the TV series This Is Us (2016).
Mandy Moore has said, “I’m extremely-extremely sensitive. I can cry at the drop of a hat. I’m such a girl when it comes to that. Anything upsets me. I cry all the time. I cry when I’m happy too.”
Elaine Aron declares that HSPs “do cry more readily than others. It was a strong finding in our research.”
From my post: Mandy Moore on depression and sensitivity.
Moore divorced from musician Ryan Adams in 2015 after nearly six years of marriage, and now has a new relationship.
She commented in an interview: “Make sure you’re always prioritizing yourself before anyone else. Listen to your gut. Listen to your instincts. I think women aren’t told that enough.” (dailymail.co.uk article 24 Oct 2016).
Being exceptional and feeling like an outsider can impact our relationships
Billy Porter is a stage performer, pop singer, film and television actor and vocal coach. He won a Tony Award for his performance as Lola in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots.
In his interview in the Speakeasy TV series with singer, songwriter, actress and LGBTQ activist Cyndi Lauper, Billy talked about a feeling many artists have, of being an outcast as a teenager, and recalled being told he was “wrong” and needed to do something about it.
He said he looked up to Cyndi as a role model of an artist who could be very different, an outsider, and still be successful.
(Photo from Facebook/Speakeasy.)
Therapist Sharon M. Barnes works with creative, sensitive, intense, intelligent people, and addresses this sense of being an outsider, a misfit, or exiled, that so many people experience. She writes:
“Highly creative, acutely aware, super- sensitive, intense and/or gifted youth and adults, whom I like to call CASIGYs™, are often assumed to have an (unfair) advantage over others because of their higher observable abilities.
“Unfortunately however, it is not unusual for a CASIGY’s inner experience of life to stand in stark contrast to the privilege and advantage that they are rumored to be experiencing.”
She finds that most creative, sensitive, gifted people are able to “succeed in their relationships, school and work.
“On the other hand, many accomplished students and adults have confessed to me that they often ask themselves, “What’s WRONG with ME?”
She notes, “There may be hopelessness that one can ever be ‘normal’, whatever that is, and therefore may never belong anywhere.
“There may be despondency that one will ever find a way to like or feel good about oneself.
“There may be a sense of disconnection from others and alienation, both from society and from oneself, and despair over ever being able to have satisfying meaningful or intimate relationships.”
Follow the link to her site to read the article and learn about her multiple resources to help creative people.
Here is a page about one of her home-study programs:
“We designed the CASIGY™ (Creative, Acutely Aware, Super-Sensitive, Intense and/or Gifted You-s) Social-Emotional ACES Home Video Program™ to help you become ACES, that is, skilled experts in the Social-Emotional arena.
“You’ll learn to ride the intense waves of emotion in your life, instead of being pulled under by them.”
Having a great awareness of surroundings and other people
(Photo: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson in the movie Lost in Translation.)
Scarlett Johansson has said, “I think I was born with a great awareness of my surroundings and an awareness of other people. I know when I really connect with somebody… Sometimes that awareness is good, and sometimes I wish I wasn’t so sensitive.”
Intuitive Psychiatrist Judith Orloff writes:
“Loneliness gets to some more than others. But why it hangs on isn’t always apparent when read by traditional medical eyes.
“In my practice and workshops I’ve been struck by how many sensitive, empathic people who I call ’emotional empaths’ come to me, lonely, wanting a romantic partner, yet remaining single for years.
“Or else they’re in relationships but feel constantly fatigued and overwhelmed. The reason isn’t simply that ‘there aren’t enough emotionally available people out there,’ nor is their burnout ‘neurotic.’
“Personally and professionally, I’ve discovered that something more is going on.”
The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People by Judith Orloff, MD.
Here are some excerpts from the book:
10 Strategies to Love an Empath from The Empath’s Survival Guide
1. Value regular alone time to decompress and meditate
For an empath, having alone time in a relationship is about self-preservation. It’s not just a luxury. Balance alone time with people time. Regularly take what I call “a golden hour” to decompress.
Also get in the habit of having many mini breaks throughout the day. Tell your partner how vital this is for you because empaths need to think and process alone to regroup.
This time-out gives you space to internally work through issues about the relationship too, so you have more clarity later with your partner.
When you lovingly explain this to your partner, he or she is less likely to feel rejected or take it personally. Make the issue about you and your own sensitivities.
2. Discuss how much time you spend socializing
Non-empaths often like to mingle, but empaths (especially the introverted type) have a much more limited capacity and truly enjoy being alone in situations where others would prefer being social.
Try to compromise with a non-empath mate in these circumstances.
3. Negotiate and make adjustments in physical space
Breathing room is essential. Decide what kind of space you need and establish some ground rules with your partner. Ask yourself, what arrangement work best?
From article on Dr. Orloff’s site: 10 Secrets of Loving an Empath
Related audio program:
Essential Tools for Empaths: A Survival Guide for Sensitive People Audio CD, Judith Orloff (Author, Narrator). Follow link to hear audio sample.
Relationships – acceptance and rejection
Therapist and certified coach Karyn Hall, PhD comments about one of the aspects in some relationships – rejection:
“The need to be accepted by others, to have a sense of belonging, is a profound human motivation, one that is felt in some way from birth throughout life.
“Our natural state is to live in communities. Belonging to a community contributes to a sense of identity and purpose.
“When someone is rejected by members of a desired group, anger, loneliness, anxiety and depression often result.
“Rejection is not only painful but rejection that happens early in life is thought to reduce the person’s ability to cope with future relationships.
“When children are consistently teased and left out, they are more likely to develop interpersonal rejection sensitivity.
“Interpersonal rejection sensitivity is a hyper-alertness to the social reactions of others.
“When someone has rejection sensitivity, they anxiously expect and rapidly perceive and overreact to rejection.
“Because of their fears and expectations, individuals with rejection sensitivity may misinterpret and distort the actions of others.
“They then react with hurt and anger. The other person is confused, doesn’t understand, or sees the rejection sensitive person as too high maintenance.
“Individuals who are rejection sensitive often see rejection by others as a statement that they are unacceptable as people. They see rejection as being a judgment about their worth as a person.”
From her article Rejection Sensitivity.
Psychologist and relationship expert Margaret Paul comments about being highly sensitive and an introvert:
“I have rarely felt lonely when being alone – I love my solitude. My system is so sensitive that if I’m in a big box store like Target, I feel exhausted and agitated within five minutes.
“Same with being in an indoor crowded mall. I’ve wondered why so many people love going to a mall and even seem to regenerate in malls, while I get wiped out. Now I understand.”
(From her post “Loneliness versus Solitude” on her site.)
How does loving yourself affect your relationship with others?
The audio portion of this video is a brief excerpt from the free presentation with psychologist Margaret Paul: Fully Loving Yourself
One of many testimonials about the work of Dr. Paul:
“Since we have been doing Inner Bonding, we realized that whatever made us unhappy was ourselves, and that truly taking responsibility for our own lives in every way was the key to a successful relationship.
“We have become much closer emotionally, sexually, and in every other way. We have acknowledged to one another that we are happier now than we were in those first exciting months of dating.” — Art and Judy Ross
Here is another video on relationships:
Why Relationships Fail – And How to Change That!
“Dr. Margaret Paul, Dr. John Gray and other experts share their experience about the underlying causes of relationship failure.”
Learn about one of her Inner Bonding programs:
Intimate Relationship Toolbox.
Alanis Morissette on marriage
In an essay, she writes about her thoughts on relationships before marrying her husband Mario “Souleye” Treadway in June 2010:
“What I yearned for was a relationship that took into account that I was a female animal like any other: I yearned for security, protection, generosity and partnership like anyone else, and I yearned for babies too.
“I was also a spiritual being, yearning for consciousness-raising and the promise of wholeness through the committed relationship alchemy that was me and another with two feet in.
“I qualify two feet in because where I live, in Hollywood, it’s all too easy to be married for the infatuation of it all, and have it all come undone as quickly as it arose, rather than for it to be the sweltering sweat lodge of truth that I always yearned for marriage to be.”
From Alanis Morissette: I’m Glad I Didn’t Give Up on the Idea of Marriage, iVillage, Nov 23, 2011.
Alanis Morissette has also worked with Sheryl Paul, M.A., who “pioneered the field of bridal counseling in 1998.” Here is a brief excerpt from a conversation about transitions including marriage:
Sheryl Paul notes on her site: “While my writing and counseling work have primarily focused on the specific transitions of getting married and becoming a mother, in recent years I have felt called to broaden my practice to include the transition of life in all its beauty and complexity.”
Home Study Courses by Sheryl Paul include:
Break Free From Relationship Anxiety E-Course
The Conscious Weddings E-Course: From Anxiety to Serenity
Open Your Heart: A 30 Day Program to Feel More Love and Attraction for Your Partner
Trust Yourself: A 30-Day Program to Help You Overcome Your Fear of Failure….
Learn more on her site Conscious Transitions.
Actor Kristin Kreuk – a “self-described introvert” according to some writers – made comments you may relate to if you are highly sensitive:
“I am shy and I don’t start relationships with people normally.
“I guess I have a way that can seem aloof and sort of cold. They didn’t like me that much, but I never resented it. I was different than they were.”
[Interviewer: “Did you ever have a high school boyfriend?”]
Kristin Kreuk : “No one worth mentioning — it just wasn’t something I found. I got a lot done that way!…
“The friends that I surrounded myself with — we didn’t talk about boys and clothes and makeup; we talked about world issues and philosophy and the meaning of life.
“I had friends who were dealing with major issues, like abuse.”
[Many sensitive and creative people experience abuse and other forms of trauma – see my post Creative People and Trauma.]
“A lot of my friends found their strength when they were young. Being able to be a part of their healing process means a lot to me; it makes our friendships even stronger. I only had a few close friends [in high school], but they are still my closest friends.” [Seventeen.com interview March 2003]
Should You Tell Others?
In a post of his, Tracy Cooper warns there may be some difficult reactions from other people when we talk about having the trait of high sensitivity:
“You have embraced what it means to be a highly sensitive person within your own self and now feel you are comfortable enough in this identity to tell others.
“Here’s the scene: you’re with a friend having lunch and the conversation is going well. She seems to be hitting on several points that tie in closely with your personality trait. You think she might even be an HSP!
“What better time to tell another person your newfound ‘secret?’ You blurt out ‘I’m an HSP!’ Quickly following that up with ‘That means I’m a highly sensitive person,’ as your friend assumes a puzzled look on her face you’ve never quite seen before. ‘What does that mean? Are you gonna cry every time I say something?’ ‘Are you easily offended?’
“OOPs! This has all gone sideways in ways you never imagined and you quickly try to explain how being a highly sensitive person simply means you have a specific personality trait that encompasses a depth of processing of all experience (you prefer to thoroughly process all stimuli before acting); a tendency toward overstimulation in certain, highly individualized situations; you may be deeply empathetic and emotionally responsive (more so than those without the trait); and you notice subtleties others may overlook.
“Your friend now seems a bit more interested, but you realize there may be a problem in divulging this ‘secret’ to others.”
Cooper continues, “To better examine this phenomena let’s look at a few of the complexities that may be causing us to misinterpret how revealing such an intimate aspect of our personality may be perceived.
“When we divulge a major detail about ourselves to others we are separating ourselves from them. This is especially true if the person we reveal our trait to does not have the trait, or if the person is not self-aware or knowledgeable about personality traits.”
Read more in his post: Should You Tell Others You Are An HSP?
Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is a researcher, author, and educator, and appeared in the documentary movie “Sensitive – The Untold Story” with many other people exploring the personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
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The comments by Kristin Kreuk remind me of others by Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”; “Interstellar” and other films):
“I was the girl who cut school to go to the park, and the other kids would be smoking and drinking and I’d be reading Shakespeare.”
Being highly sensitive may include or even encourage social isolation, and involve more than usual challenges with friendships and romance. True peer relationships can be rare and more demanding.
Of course, highly sensitive is not the same as shy, but a majority of HSPs may be also introverted, which can mean you don’t seek out friends or other relationships as easily as most people seem to do, and you may at the same time experience the social anxiety of shyness.
People who are highly sensitive may also find they need emotionally protective separation, even from well-meaning family and friends, and likely romantic partners, to protect and more fully realize themselves.
Emotional reactivity may be part of the challenges of any relationship, but can be particularly acute for HSPs.
In his book The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide: Essential Skills for Living Well in an Overstimulating World, Ted Zeff has a chapter titled “Harmonious Relationships for the HSP” in which he offers strategies to help work with strong feelings and reactions.
Here are summaries of a couple of his suggestion :
“Practice the 1 percent apology. Because of their sensitivity to emotional turmoil it’s important for HSPs to develop conflict resolution skills that help them to restore harmony to a relationship with a minimum of emotional strife.
“Take responsibility for your part in the conflict – even if it is only 1 percent.
“Your expression of remorse gives an opening for the other person to apologize for their part of the disagreement… even if the other person doesn’t apologize, you have created peace of mind for yourself by opening your heart, not blaming anyone, and taking responsibility for your actions.”
He adds, “Silence is golden and talking can tarnish the metal. Since HSPs feel more peaceful in a quiet environment it’s important for them to reduce the time they spend in mindless chatter. They should choose words carefully to avoid overstimulation.”
[Also hear my audio interview with Dr. Zeff.]
Another book of his: The Power of Sensitivity.
Also see book Finely Tuned: How To Thrive As A Highly Sensitive Person or Empath
by Barrie Davenport – One of the chapters is “HSPs and Love Relationships.”
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Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D., head of the Gifted Development Center, has talked about another issue: putting a relationship ahead of your own emotional needs.
She comments in her article “Different Worlds at the Extremes”: “Gifted children and adults often try to repress the real needs of the Self in order to maintain connections with others.
“They feel they must choose between loneliness and the negation of the Self.”
In his “Learn to Be Lonely” lyrics for The Phantom Of The Opera, Charles Hart acknowledges loneliness, but also encourages:
Ever dreamed out in the world / There are arms to hold you?
You’ve always known / Your heart was on its own
So laugh in your loneliness / Learn to be lonely
life can be lived / life can be loved / Alone.
Most of us feel needs and pressures to be accepted and acceptable.
But being intellectually or creatively exceptional or gifted – and perhaps highly sensitive on top of that – often includes having temperaments and qualities such as divergent thinking, asynchronous development and introversion which make fitting in with others difficult, even if you want to.
And many of us never really wanted to fit in with mainstream people that much.
Not to sound too much like “socially awkward” physicist Sheldon (played by Jim Parsons, left) on tv show The Big Bang Theory, but intellectual and creative interests can be very highly valued by many of us – even more than relationships.
Elaine Aron has found in her research there are as many men born with this trait as women, despite the cultural ideal for men to be aggressive.
And in an article of his, Ted Zeff writes:
“Males are also taught that it is a sign of weakness to ask for help. This follows logically from the pressure to suppress negative emotions besides anger; after all, if you are not supposed to have distressing emotions, why would you need help for them?
“The result is that many men suffer in silence, which can have horrific effects for a male in his relationships, career, and health.”
From article: Sensitive Men Can Save The Planet.
He is author of the book The Strong, Sensitive Boy.
This photo of Thai football players is from the post: Ted Zeff on highly sensitive boys and men.
High sensitivity can be an underlying inner pressure for many to avoid relationships that could become more than casual friendship.
For many highly talented people, isolation or reduction in social contacts can be a way to better incubate self development, and creative thinking and projects.
But there can be problems with isolation.
A research study found, “Teens who spend more time watching television or using computers appear to have poorer relationships with their parents and peers.”
But there is no indication in the news story that teens were evaluated for giftedness or high sensitivity: Teens With More Screen Time Have Lower-Quality Relationships.
And if we choose to be in a relationship, there are special challenges, as both Elaine Aron and Ted Zeff write.
Anxiety can affect relationships.
One of those challenges may be anxiety, which can be especially intense for HSPs.
Mia Wasikowska (pronounced Vash-i-kov-ska) plays the lead role in TIm Burton’s movie “Alice in Wonderland.”
She has commented, “As a teenager I was very anxious. I had a lot of energy and passion that I wanted to channel into creative things, and I always felt like I wasn’t achieving enough.”
From post Mia Wasikowska on teen anxiety and energy.
For a variety of self-help and non-drug programs, see the Anxiety Relief Solutions site.
Related article: Sex and the Highly Gifted Adolescent, By Annette Revel Sheely.
For more resources, see my page Sites for Highly Sensitive People – which lists Facebook groups etc.
Turned-On Tears: The Highly Sensitive’s Sex Life by August McLaughlin, “international model turned award-winning health and sexuality writer, explores women’s lives and sexuality…”