Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: May 2008.
In most families not everyone is highly sensitive. You might even be the only one. Mom, Dad, sisters, or brothers–no one sensitive but you. That was my family. It was hard. It can make you an easy target for teasing and an endless worry to your parents. Maybe they haul you off to a shrink. Now you really feel different. Or maybe you are just a disappointment for not being more like your mom and dad in ways that are important to them.
Getting Your Parents to Understand You
If your parents do not know you are highly sensitive, try to tell them. Show them this website. If they want “hard evidence,” let them see the scientific articles at the bottom of the home page. Tell them about The Highly Sensitive Child book. It has a section about sensitive teenagers.
You truly need the adults around you to understand that there is nothing wrong with you and a whole lot right about you. Then you need them to explain this to your siblings and maybe your teachers, too. They need to see that others appreciate you for who you are and definitely that you are not teased or picked on. They need to give you enough down time, not an endless schedule of soccer and music lessons. If you’re smart, you should not be saddled with absurd amounts of homework thinking they can make the gifted you into the world’s greatest genius.
Your parents may have terms for you that you will need to challenge. They may say you have always been shy. But no one is born shy. Shyness is the fear of social judgment, which is learned. (And being told you are shy does not help.) They may have said you are fearful, timid, fussy, stubborn, or insisting on having things your way. Yet all of these seeming flaws are just words for things that also have good sides to them–it’s how they are framed.
Here’s how to translate these terms, by reminding them of what they like about these very aspects of you.
If they say you “worry too much” or are “too afraid of things,” remind them that you also “think twice” and “look before you leap.” You are probably not a kid who keeps parents up at night, worrying about whether you are taking drugs or having ill-considered sexual experiences. You probably are less often injured in sports than your friends and if you drive you do not have accidents. You’re “wise for your years.”
If they say you are fussy, that means you have good taste, yes? Stubborn means you are also persistent. You get things done.
If you insist on having your way, it is because you have some rightful but unusual needs, just as others have theirs. You need quiet, others need the radio on. You need a kind correction, others need a strong reminder. You like a calm discussion, they love a “good argument.” Why is it that whatever the majority needs, that’s what always has to be? Sometimes it isn’t always even right for them. Sensitive people were bothered by second-hand smoke for years. It was there on airplanes, in restaurants, at home. Everyone laughed at them because breathing tobacco smoke was normal. Not now. It’s the same with everyone rushing around so much. It’s intolerable for you, and not healthy for anyone.
Actually, each person in your family has a unique inherited temperament.
They all deserve to be seen in a more appreciative light. Maybe your brother is “highly distractible,” but that also makes him easy to please, curious, and quick to take an interest in new things. Maybe your sister is “too dramatic,” but she’s also fun to be around because she expresses her good as well as her bad feelings freely, plus at least others know what’s going on with her. Maybe your cousin is “too impulsive,” but doesn’t everyone love him for his spontaneity as well?
Being highly sensitive, you are probably loved for being creative, conscientious, loyal, thoughtful, able to stay out of trouble, or however your sensitivity shows itself. But these go along with your worrying “too much” about global warming or not enjoying everything other kids do. It’s a package deal.
When Parents Will Not Listen about Your Sensitivity
Some parents simply refuse for various reasons to learn more about their children’s sensitivity. Then you need to look around for someone who might–a friend, relative, teacher, or high school counselor. You need someone who gets it. Often it will be a relative who inherited the same trait. Whoever it is, stay in touch with that person all that you can. Talk about each other’s sensitivity. Compare notes. Agree on what’s special about you. You need to escape some of that feeling that you are the oddball.
Of course not all highly sensitive people are wonderful or easy to be around. In particular, they may have histories that have warped their personalities in major ways. Do not let this confuse you about the nature of sensitivity. You did not inherit neuroticism, crankiness, anxiousness, chronic depression, or eccentricity, even if you see other sensitive people who are like that. It all has to do with their sensitivity and the difficulties they have faced in life.
This idea that all sensitive people are distressed and unhappy may also be part of why your parents do not want to think of you as sensitive. Tell them (and yourself) that the research is very clear that sensitive people with a good-enough up-bringing have no more problems than the non-sensitive, and in some ways are much better off.
Even Good Families Can Be Difficult
You might think it would be heaven to be in a family where the others are highly sensitive, and it generally is. Still, everyone’s different, in ways besides being highly sensitive. So whether sensitive or not, others in your family may make you miserable.
There are at least three kinds of families. First, there are those in which things get talked about in a way that makes things better. Lucky you if that is your family. If you are having difficulties in a family like that, chances are you are simply trying to protect your own privacy. It can be hard to have a life of your own with all these well meaning people trying to help you. You love them, but maybe you need time to yourself. You need to separate a little now.
Sometimes the closer you have been with your parents up to now, the more you need to become yourself at this point, without them. They may have a hard time letting you do that, but deep down they know they must. And it is not forever–you will always be a close family. You will just all be close in a new, adult way.
Chances are that your family can understand your need for time alone, difficult as it is for them. Or they will understand if you say something like, “I love you guys, but I just need some space tonight.” If they are worried about you, just look them in the eye and tell them there’s honestly nothing to worry about. They just love you and need to hear that. But be honest, and if you need some help, ask for it. Needing help does not mean you are a child. A key part to being an adult is knowing when to ask for support.
The second kind of family is especially difficult for someone highly sensitive. In these, things are talked about all right, but the talking gets crazy. There’s a lot of yelling or rehashing. You and the others seem to get nowhere or everything feels worse afterwards. Your parents may be headed for divorce or already be there. There may be step parents or step children who do not fit in or are squabbling for a place. There may be wars between siblings. Or the whole family may simply have a style of yelling at each other.
If this is your family, you are probably trying to stay out of the line of fire and that may be the best that you can do. One way to think of it is that there are many emotions–anger, fear, sadness, happiness, curiosity, satisfaction, affection, shame, guilt, pride, and many more. Some families specialize in a few of these-for example, everyone can be angry and usually is. It’s good to be proud of yourself or your family. You ought to be guilty. The other emotions are almost illegal. No one can ever be curious, or affectionate, or satisfied. In another family, it may be normal and good to feel ashamed, but never proud of yourself. Or vice versa. Maybe you are allowed to be angry but never afraid, or happy but never sad.
Sometimes when an emotion is “illegal,” one person feels it for the others. After all, it does not simply disappear as something never actually felt. So one person gets to do the unthinkable and be almost always ashamed, sad, or angry. Often it is the sensitive member of the family who fills this role, since sensitive people cannot deny their feelings easily. So, you need to try not to take on the burden of feeling what others refuse to feel-afraid, sad, or whatever-beyond what you actually feel.
One thing you could try (good luck) in a family messed up by conflicts would be to point out how stressful it is on everyone and suggest weekly family meetings for discussing everyone’s issues. At those meetings, everyone should have a chance to speak without interruptions. That’s important. Raising your voice should also be against the rules. There should be some funny, light punishment for breaking these rules, such as having to sing a song for the others. The rule is applied to everyone, of course–not just the kids.
A goal of the meeting would be to air conflicts and come to some agreements. Many times it helps families to stop fighting by developing contracts with one another. All members state what’s bothering them, and who they think should be pitching in or changing. If the other agrees there’s a problem, they work out a contract about who will do what, with consequences for breaking one’s word.
If someone thinks it is silly to have something like a contract in a family, point out that life is full of contracts we hardly notice. Your parents signed on to provide for you. The mail delivery person has a “contract” with your family to deliver your mail. The grocer has one to keep food on the shelf. Life would not work without these contracts and the trust implied that people will do as they have agreed to do.
In your family, various people have agreed or been forced to take out the garbage, feed the pets, take the car in for repair, study, earn money for the others, and so forth. If people feel forced, of course they will argue. They need to see that they have a choice and that whatever work they do is appreciated and fairly distributed. Once people have agreed to do something and do not, they have broken their contract and the trust others had in them. They need practice at keeping their word, with consequences if they fail. (Mild ones, especially for you, given your sensitivity.)
Jobs should be rated by their importance–yes, the person taking care of small children or making the most money needs to be catered to a little. But jobs should also be rated according to their unpleasantness. The least pleasant ones should be fairly distributed, not just treated like other tasks. If someone loves their job, even loves working overtime at it, and then happens to make good money for it, they might think others should do all the chores. They have no time and they support the family. Others, maybe those around more or the youngest, should do the drudgery jobs. But no one should have all the drudgery jobs all the time.
Drudgery jobs can be rotated every week or month if that works best. But check to see if one person’s drudgery is another’s pleasure. So be sure the one who likes to cook does the cooking, the one liking cars gets the car fixed, and the one liking the little ones babysits most often.
Once you agree to everything, you write it down and sign it. It’s a contract. Written into the contract should be the reasonable, related consequences that all parties agree to if the contract is not kept. Forgot to do your own laundry? Do everyone’s for a week. Forgot to cook dinner? Cook a special breakfast for everyone on the weekend.
Contracts can be about things that make others angry as well. Your brother blasts the TV late at night and you have to get up early the next day. After some discussion by the whole family, he agrees he ought to stop doing it. If he forgets, the consequence he agrees to is that he will do one of your chores for a week, or whatever you both think is fair.
If your mother has agreed to pick you up somewhere and is more than twenty minutes late, your contract with each other might be that she owes you twenty minutes doing some task of yours. Same if you hold her up by being late.
If anyone yells, is rude, or calls someone a name or gives them a label (“you’re a liar”), there can be a consequence for anyone who does it. In fact, the whole family can have a contract with itself. For example, it can agree to these meetings, or to regular family dinners or whatever. If you do not all do what you agreed to do, you can agree that the consequence is that for a week no one can watch TV unless everyone is present and agrees on the program.
If no one buys your idea of family meetings, then you probably cannot do much to help your family as it shouts its way through life. But you still need some people to be close to. And some of them should be adults. So keep looking around for adults who can be a help to you. This may even be a friend’s mother, or a teacher, or counselor, or another relative.
Families that Do Not Act Like Families
The third type of family besides the good talkers and the useless arguers is the one in which members do not talk to each other. Maybe they say they are too busy. Then you can strongly suggest that this family needs family meetings, meals, trips, movie watching, or other times together. Someone has to lead in this way, and often it will be you, the most sensitive person. You notice the need or the lack sooner than others. They may grumble, but remember that they will be glad in later years for the time they spent together. That time is really so brief. Families do not actually all live together for very long compared to all the years each one of you will live without all of the others being there.
In another type of non-talking family, it can seem that things are best left as they are. You can feel everyone is perched on the edge of a volcano. Talking would set off an explosion. Being highly sensitive, you may especially fear having that tension released. If nothing else, others’ fears warn you that there must be some danger here. If this is your type of family, maybe it can get some help. With a professional family therapist present, sometimes the volcano turns into a quiet, helpful lava flow.
Of course, it may work well for a teenager to live in a family in which everyone goes their own way. You may want to be more separate yourself. But you should still feel you can talk about important things with each other and rely on each other’s support.
If that’s impossible for you in your family, accept things as they are and find other people with whom to be close.
Finding People with Whom You Feel Close and Safe
You can see by now that I think it is important to have close relationships. It is for everyone, but especially for you at this point in life. You need at least one with another person your own age and at least one with an adult. The right people to be close to are around. The world is full of people. But you may have to work to find them.
If you are shy, what I am asking you to do will be difficult, I know. Again, shy means being afraid of social judgment and sensitive people naturally fear social judgment. We feel different. And we notice that people actually do judge others negatively. It happens all the time. Above all, we take criticism very seriously–we are designed to do that. Thus we can become shy, even if we are not born that way.
These are all problems you will have your entire life, however, so now is the time to try to find ways around them. To find an adult, think about whether there are any in your life now who have already shown an interest in you. Maybe you like an adult at school or one working with a group you belong to. Maybe you get along well with an aunt, uncle, or grandparent. If your favorite relatives live far away, drop a hint that you would love to spend more time with them. And there is always email or phone.
The same ideas apply to making a close relationship with someone your own age. You may already know the right person. You just need to ask this person to do something with you.
Getting closer always requires some talking. Some people are better at it than others, but you have thoughts worth sharing, so open up a little. If your life is a struggle, let the other person know with a brief comment. When asked how you are doing, answer with “Okay, but, well, not all that great.” Let the other draw you out if they want to. Just talking about what’s bothering you can help enormously.
If you cannot find anyone to talk to, keep a journal. There’s scientific research showing that it truly helps people feel better. (It even makes you less likely to get a cold.) Keep in mind as you write that someday you may be able to show some of what you write to someone you trust.
Who Can You Truly Trust?
Being close requires each person risking saying more about themselves than they would normally. In doing that, we can all make one of two mistakes–trusting too much or too little. Mostly we make mistakes about people rather than mistakes about saying too much or too little. We think someone is okay and we’re wrong about them, or we think they are not and they would have been very safe to talk to. Mistakes are bound to happen. Everyone has trusted someone and found it was a mistake.
To avoid this mistake, do not rush to tell anyone in one day everything you feel. Share a little bit and wait and see their reaction. If you want something kept private, always say so before you start talking. Wait for the person to agree and promise. (Even then, people do forget.)
Mistakes about trusting others can also have nothing to do with being mistaken about the other person. It can be our own habit not to trust anyone. Highly sensitive people are careful by nature, but sometimes too careful. Like the sensitive deer that does not go out and eat the grass because of the danger of a hunter, sometimes we are right to be cautious, but sometimes we are wrong and miss out on the good things out there. So watch and listen carefully, of course. Don’t get shot by a hunter. But don’t starve yourself either. We are all fed by our close relationships, so connect as often as possible.
In the next issue I will write about the intense emotions felt by all highly sensitive people and how to deal with these.