The Highly Sensitive Person in an Emotionally Immature Family

This week has been a busy and fulfilling one! We had the final session of the fall cycle of Walking on Eggshells, and celebrated our members’ accomplishments. I finished round 1 of edits on my super secret but very exciting writing project. And I listened to a great podcast about the life of a Highly Sensitive Person raised in an emotionally immature family.


Patricia Young, LCSW, creates and produces the Unapologetically Sensitive podcast. Young’s podcast speaks to the strengths, concerns, and experiences of the Highly Sensitive Person. In Episode 43, she interviewed Dr. Lindsay Gibson, PsyD. Dr. Gibson wrote one of my absolute favorite books to recommend to my clients, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. Her follow-up book, Recovery from Emotionally Immature Parents, is currently on my bookshelf awaiting a free minute. 


Emotionally immature adults are adults who are unable to interact in a healthy, mature, and mutually respectful way in close relationships. This term may resonate with those who aren’t sure their parent is a narcissist, but recognize problematic patterns in the relationship. Narcissism is essentially an extreme form of emotional immaturity.


We have previously explored the experience of being Highly Sensitive in a narcissistic family. Today, I want to touch on three points from the podcast that particularly stood out to me.


Fight me, reality!


Emotionally immature adults have what Gibson calls an “adversarial relationship with reality.” That is, they are unable to accept reality on its own terms. Like a very young child who has a meltdown over the word “no,” emotionally immature adults refuse to face truths they don’t like. They will deny, distort, dismiss, or oversimplify matters to avoid facing an unpleasant reality. They also expect others to conform to their expectations.


Enter the Highly Sensitive Child: Intuitive, empathetic, compassionate, and insightful. Highly Sensitive Persons are by nature very attuned to the emotional states of those around them. In an emotionally immature family, these children are often excruciatingly aware of their parents’ inability to manage their emotional state. And because they love their parents, they want to help. In emotionally immature families, this usually means taking on the role of emotional caretaker for their parents. 


For a Highly Sensitive child in an emotionally immature family, life is a tightrope walk. Being intuitive and compassionate means that Highly Sensitive children are vulnerable to their parents’ emotional instability. They understand that their parents need them to be the mature ones in the relationship, no matter how unfair that is to the child. Highly Sensitive children adapt to meet their parents’ needs. They become little grown-ups, mature beyond their years.


Shouting into the void


Emotionally immature parents struggle to regulate their feelings, and tend to be highly reactive. They can also be unpredictable and self-focused. Their difficulty caring for their own emotional needs makes it impossible for them to attend to those of their children. They depend on others to care for them emotionally – even when that means reversing the roles of parent and child.


Being responsible for the emotional well-being of an adult is overwhelming for any child. There is no room for the child’s emotional needs in an emotionally immature family. If the child tries to express their needs, the parents will override, gaslight, or flatly ignore them. Voicing emotional needs in these families is akin to shouting into the void. Just as sound waves cannot travel in a vacuum, emotionally immature parents cannot receive or respond to their children’s emotional needs. 


The purpose of your training


Being Highly Sensitive may feel like more of a curse than a blessing sometimes, but there is beauty there too. As a Highly Sensitive Person, you have a sense of reality, depth, and insight that others lack. Your intuition allows you to recognize emotional undercurrents in your relationships. You see what is really there, in all its ugliness and glory. You have the ability to connect to yourself in a deep and powerful way.


Your emotional maturity allows you to connect with all parts of yourself, even those you don’t always like. Connecting to those parts allows the possibility of healing them. Instead of shouting into the void, you can speak love into your life. You have an amazing capacity for growth and healing.


Your training as an emotional caretaker has ultimately prepared you to care for the most important person in your life: You! 


How can you channel your sensitivity into lovingkindness toward yourself this week?