The world feels harsh to us highly sensitive people. We do what we can to avoid feeling pain because it’s such a difficult sensation.
We absolutely hate disapproval, criticism, and disappointing others. So much so that we will do a bit of interpersonal gymnastics in order to avoid it.
How do we do this?
In short, we often learn to become very controlling about most aspects of our lives.
Ouch. I know that sounds harsh. The reason I can say this with confidence is because it’s the story of every one of my clients, and it’s the story of my first thirty-five years of life.
There are good reasons why you and I do this. When you are a highly sensitive child, you are vulnerable to the moods and emotions of others,
including your caregivers. While my parents did the best they could and in general were fantastic parents, they used a fairly authoritarian style of parenting.
Authoritarian parenting styles maintain that the parents are in charge and actually use their willpower as a force to keep children in line. Value is placed more on boundaries than on relationships. Rules are strict and to be followed.
For adults like me, who were kids of the eighties and earlier, this was the parenting style that was in vogue. It was recommended by doctors and parenting experts because it was a surefire way to get kids to comply.
From a nervous system perspective, an authoritarian parenting style uses the parent’s nervous system fight response to elicit a freeze response in the child. When someone fights with us and we shut down, it looks like compliance. In other words, it looks like this parenting style is working.
This parenting style is damaging for all children, but it’s terribly damaging for a highly sensitive child.
Because we feel disapproval and removal of affection so, so deeply, these authoritarian interactions can actually feel like pain in our tiny bodies. When we are in pain, we tend to act out because our emotions are so big, and this tends to get us in more trouble from caregivers. We are told to
stop crying, get over it, straighten up, chin up, or put on our big kid underwear.
(As a side note–whoever invented that phrase should be drowned in prune juice. It’s both an admittance of the lack of psychological development required to meet the parent’s wishes and simultaneously a big middle finger to a child who’s trying their best. Anyway. Onward!)
And, on a psychological-and-nervous-system level, we feel deeply unsafe.
We are always seeking safety as children. Psychological safety occurs when we are allowed to be who we are and taught to understand our emotions and reactions and work through them without judgment or removal of affection. When we are children in an authoritarian household, we learn
that the only way to have safety is by not having feelings, not having preferences, and tiptoeing around the needs of the adults in our life.
In other words, we become experts at meeting the needs of the most important people in our lives, our caregivers, rather than meeting our own psychological and emotional needs.
This is a pretty common scenario for early childhood, and you can see how it can be damaging and set us up to seek safety by pleasing others and doing everything we can to avoid conflict and pain. We control our environments, we try to stay a step ahead of what people in our life might need, and we become extremely pleasing.
In truth, we disappear.
But remember, we do this for a reason. It’s for safety and survival. You learned to do this in order to ensure you were taken care of and given affection. The great thing about having learned this is that you can now unlearn it as an adult. You are now in charge of your safety and survival, and you can learn a new way of getting your needs met and interacting with others.
You can learn the art of discernment. You can learn where to place your energy and where to withdraw it. You can learn to handle the disappointment of others by understanding the division of responsibility in interpersonal relationships. You can practice a new way of being. I’ve done it, and I’ve watched hundreds of my clients do it, too.
Want all my secrets for doing this? Check out more on this subject in my book, Embracing High Sensitivity: Your HSP Guidebook to Eliminating Overwhelm, Handling Difficult Emotions, and Becoming the Boss of Your Life. Get it here.