Have you ever cried while listening to a moving piece of music? Ever looked at an interesting piece of art and found yourself getting goosebumps? Or do you sometimes just know that someone is upset just by standing near them, without them needing to say a word? If this sounds familiar, you might be a Highly Sensitive Person.
As I discussed briefly last week, Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP/HSPs) are estimated to make up about 15-20% of the population. HSPs receive and respond to sensory input at a much more subtle level than most. They are also very skilled at sensing the intangible, like the overall energy of a room or another person’s emotions. All adult children of narcissists develop a Spidey Sense to some degree, to protect against their narcissist’s explosive anger. HSPs, however, take this to a whole ‘nother level.
Sensing what’s really there
In many ways, HSPs are a narcissist’s dream. Narcissistic behaviors are heavily focused around meeting the narcissist’s emotional needs with little or no consideration for anyone else. The drive to relieve their own pain, to feel important and loved, and to feel in control override any sense of others’ needs.
Highly Sensitive Persons, on the other hand, are acutely and uniquely aware of the physical, mental, and emotional state of people around them. They will often – consciously or unconsciously – work to make the other person more comfortable. It’s a match made in heaven for a narcissist, who gets to enjoy being taken care of and attended to.
Unfortunately, it’s less heavenly for the HSP in the relationship. One of the challenges of being highly sensitive is that you can’t really turn it off. HSPs are the first to notice the “black cloud” that always seems to hang over a narcissistic home. They can often tell when there’s trouble brewing just by stepping into the room, even if things appear outwardly calm. For the HSP, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” is not just a Star Wars quote but a prophecy. Being so aware of those vibes can weigh on the HSP, causing distress and pressure to somehow fix everything.
An impossible expectation
Sensing another person’s needs can create the expectation that the Highly Sensitive Person should be able to do something about it. Both the HSP and the narcissist may come to believe that the HSP’s job is to take care of the narcissist and meet all of their emotional needs. It is an unrealistic and unfair expectation, but a common one. Because they are so aware of the needs of others, HSPs often assume caretaker roles in their relationships. These roles require a great deal of emotional energy, wearing down and exhausting the HSP who can’t say no.
When an HSP becomes overwhelmed by sensory stimulation or depleted from caretaking others, they often need to withdraw in order to recover. Narcissistic parents or partners may misinterpret this withdrawal as the HSP abandoning or rejecting them. They perceive this withdrawal as stemming from laziness, lack of love, or selfishness and punish the HSP accordingly. Guilt-tripping, gaslighting, and projection are common strategies that narcissists employ to pressure the HSP to return to their post as carer-in-chief. HSPs, who tend to be overly hard on themselves, may take these messages to heart and believe them. This spurs them to work harder, burn out faster, and the cycle continues.
The spoken and the unspoken
Another tricky spot comes in when the Highly Sensitive Person is led by their intuition to notice discrepancies, see through misleading double-talk, and hear what isn’t being said through the spoken words. HSPs are excellent at discerning the truth in the lie, or finding the subtext that most would miss. Unfortunately, most narcissistic people will deny or gaslight anyone who questions their version of reality.
This creates a conundrum for the HSP, who must decide whether to pursue their intuition or accept the narcissist’s version of truth. Pursuing the HSP’s truth puts them at risk of rejection, gaslighting, and having their sensitivity used against them. “You’re too sensitive,” or “you’re reading into things that aren’t there” are two common phrases narcissists use to silence and confuse Highly Sensitive Persons. It is a form of gaslighting with a nasty edge, as it denigrates a core personality trait for the HSP.
Balancing compassion with self-care
Finally, Highly Sensitive Persons often struggle to balance empathy with assertiveness – generally erring on the side of empathy. As deeply caring, intuitive, and empathetic individuals, HSPs genuinely want those around them to be happy and healthy. They are also very aware of the pain that most narcissists try to hide and avoid at all costs.
HSPs can often see how trauma affected their narcissist and turned them into who they are. Seeing the trauma makes it harder for many HSPs to feel like they can assert themselves to set boundaries. They know the narcissist will feel angry and rejected, and they have a hard time saying no to someone that they know won’t understand their reasons.
Turning that care and compassion inward
Being highly sensitive in a toxic environment can leave deep wounds. Fortunately, even the most highly sensitive of HSPs can learn to gently place boundaries and practice self-care. Highly Sensitive Persons have a rich, complex inner life and a deep capacity for compassion. When they give themselves permission to turn that compassion inward, healing becomes possible.
If you are a Highly Sensitive Person who struggles to separate your feelings from others, feels deeply selfish for tending to your own needs, or feels overwhelmed by the needs of others, take heart. Your sensitivity is not a curse, and it can be a wonderful gift. You can’t turn it off, but you can learn to care for and nurture yourself, just as you do those around you.
You deserve the compassion you so freely give to everyone else. It’s your time now.