Navigating Life as a Highly Sensitive Person

My grandmother is the most gentle, loving and giving person I know. She nurtures the people around her wholeheartedly, without ever asking for anything in return. She gives, even when she has nothing left to offer. She feels so deeply, which is undoubtedly attributable to her huge heart. The first five years of my life were spent with my grandmother, during this critical period I watched her mannerisms, her way, her grace and strength. I watched how she would cry silently upon receiving troubling news, how she observed her grandchildren with loving eyes; she smiled and laughed when my cousins and I did, she frowned sadly if we looked to be distressed, and tears surfaced in her eyes when they left ours. A few years ago, my then 15 year old self returned to my grandmother after I experienced my first ever depressive episode. Struggling to cope with my own emotions, I had been “acting out”, hurting both my parents in the process. I sat next to my grandmother as a wave of embarrassment and pain engulfed me. With a comforting softness in her voice, she said “Pelo, what happened? How do you feel?”. “Pelo” is the nickname my grandmother had given to me, it is short for “Pelotshweu”, which translates literally to white heart – and figuratively to kind heart – in Setswana, my home language. 

I realised then that it was the first time throughout that period that anyone had asked me how I had been feeling, rather than pointing to the ways I had been acting out. It was not surprising that it came from my grandmother; someone whom I had watched move through life with her heart on her sleeve. She wore her emotions, connected deeply to the people she loved, was incredibly empathic, intuitive, and unfortunately, internalized pain and unease. A few years ago I realized that, just like my grandmother, I was a highly sensitive person. This realization and awareness has changed the trajectory of my life experience, but what has brought me true internal peace, is embracing it.

Through acceptance, I have managed to cultivate ways to foster my highly sensitive nature; this has led to deep and intimate self-love, rather than dwelling in self-loathing. Having said that, there are a few things I swear by – rituals if you will – that help me thrive as a highly sensitive person

  • Journal

Highly sensitive people are more likely to internalize emotions; often times, I find myself unable to let go of past incidences, unsettling conversations, or hurtful words. Eventually, I came to realise that I needed to find a way to release these emotions and this is where journaling and poetry has come in. Putting the emotions on paper and doing so without judging them or myself, brings me relief and enables me to let go of whatever I am harbouring. Journalling might also prevent the HSP’s natural tendency to negatively overthink. Feel it, write it down, then let it go.

  • Talk about it

Some do not resonate with journaling, they find it tedious and time-consuming – understandable. However, it is imperative to realise that you can only be hurt by what you cling to. An alternative to journaling is a conversation with a friend or loved one. Talk about your experience, and express the emotions you’re working through. I am eternally grateful for my tribe of friends and family , and my partner, who, in times when I begin the conversation with “I know that I am highly sensitive though”, reassures me that my feelings are valid simply because they exist. Therapy can also help, and can definitely enable you to understand and express your emotions better.

  • Stay open

Highly sensitive people often absorb the emotions of others, which can be crippling and exhausting. There have been times when I have witnessed an unpleasant incident or heard an unpleasant story that then consumed me, as I experience all kinds of pain and hurt due to it. I have found, in these moments, getting into the cobra pose, followed by a 5 minute yoga session, brings me solace and helps me to release whatever emotions I have picked up, rather than absorbing them to an extent in which they become my own. Dance, and many other forms of physical activity can have the same effect. The point is not to close, and to relieve yourself of anxiety and stress.

  • Watch the negative self-talk

“I hate how sensitive I am”, “I am just too sensitive, it’s a problem”, “I know I tend to overreact”; these are words I used to say to myself more frequently than I would like to admit. I think human beings have an innate tendency to self-critique to a destructive level, and although highly sensitive people tend to be highly sympathetic and treat others with love, they are not immune to the negative self-talk. I believe this might be due to the fact that we live in a world in which sensitive people are often told “Don’t be so sensitive”, “Just get over it”, thus they reflect these words onto themselves. So to my fellow HSPs, I say speak to yourself softly and lovingly. Be gentle with yourself, the way you are with your loved ones. Nurture your spirit and be kind to your heart, it was carved so gently to enable you to live a fulfilling life.

Realizing that I process information differently and deeply was the first step for me. Admittedly, for years I battled with the person I am, but something changed in me some time ago when I realized that my highly sensitive nature is a gift in it’s own right. Because of it, I have managed to cultivate the most genuine and authentic relationships, I am kinder to my heart. Accepting who you are is the first step, loving on yourself is the next, and finding tools to enable you to live your truth is the last. 

Tara is a 22 year old Psychology student from Botswana, currently living in England. She is a passionate writer, mental health advocate, and wellness guru. She uses spoken word and poetry to express her truth and share her knowledge, connecting deeply to the people around her.