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The Dark Sides of HSP

Let’s take a look at the dark little sides of highly sensitive people. Surprised that we do have dark sides? Why should we? No, we’re not perfect even if it looks like it. And here, I am really just joking; it is a little sarcasm about one of the dark sides of HSP which is to consider themselves superior, but I will come back to it later. Of course, like anyone else, we do have some negative traits and some other sides that I will categorize more as inconveniences. So let's look at them! There are just 13 of them… not too bad and a lucky number… but I just listed the obvious ones!

the dark sides of high sensitivity

1. Self-celebration which can looks like a sense of superiority

Apart from the scientific community, the description of HSP widespread on the web comes out too often of a fairy tale. We are almost described like some kind of angels on earth, lost in this cruel insensitive world, sent here to save it, like a little winged army! I am not refuting that HSP brings certainly high valuable qualities and some light in this world, but where there is light, there is also darkness. And to keep my authenticity at check, I am not exempt from this self-celebration sometimes. I claim out loud my hypersensitivity and I am very grateful to be born this way, and I also think that the world would benefit from emphasizing people's sensitivity rather than seeing it as a weakness.

But to come back to the subject, don’t fall into the trap of feeling superior because of your trait. It doesn’t do the HSP community any good, it might even harm us a lot. In my eyes, it is playing the division card again which has been a dangerous game lately in our society, we are sadly seeing it everywhere. Instead be aware of your own personality’s shadows to not let them self-sabotage you.

2. A huge downside… getting overwhelmed easily

Due to their sensory and emotional sensitivity, highly sensitive people are more likely to feel overwhelmed in many situations and can be literally submerged by common everyday circumstances such as certain noises, excessive workload, a particular smell or when they are in the middle of a crowd, for example.

These situations can be a catalyst and trigger certain receptors in their brain, these effects have been studied and proven by brain imaging. Indeed, by scanning the brains of ultrasensitive people, researchers have noticed greater activity in certain areas of their brain involved in emotional empathy, at the level of the insula and the limbic cortex. HSP seems to need less sensory input than average to react. This could explain why an HSP is more sensitive to noise, for example, than a person with average sensitivity. On the other hand, and this is really the only element that seems to have consensus in the scientific community, the mimicry mechanism called "mirror zones" that exists in everyone, is more intense in HSP.

So these tests show that highly sensitive people have a capacity to overreact emotionally to a given stimulus, and compared to an average in the population. So it's these unique and personal triggers that increase their stress levels, making them feel mentally and even physically drained.

The dark sides of being overwhelmed can trigger panic, tantrums, somatic physical pain of all kinds, but it can also lead to procrastination and even loss of concentration.

The other problem is that this feeling of being overwhelmed can linger for quite a long time and become a bigger issue that will disrupt their production and focus. So, therefore, it will also lead HSPs to feel guilty, helpless and weak for not being able to function to their full capacity, and eventually lead to exhaustion that will affect all areas of their lives. professional and personal.

3 HSP are emotional sponges.

Being extremely sensitive to their surroundings means that HSP are also taking on other’s emotions, as if theirs wouldn’t be enough already to deal with. So, if for example their co-worker woke up on the wrong side of the bed, if their partner got into bad traffic and got back home nervous, or anyone in their day showed some kind of sadness or frustration, it can completely turn their mood upside-down and ruin their day.

When you constantly try to manage not only your own emotions, but other people’s mood too, it is a huge burden to carry and a recipe to set yourself up for mental exhaustion. It can really be quite inconvenient and a lot to take on! And sadly, even for the most resilient HSP, this can make their life a challenging maze of unnecessary stressors and dictate their current mood.

Take this short quiz (below) if you want to know if you are a highly sensitive person.

test : are you highly sensitive

4. The dark side of empathy

One of the great characteristics associated with hypersensitivity is empathy. Empathy is undeniably a very beautiful quality because it gives us the ability to put ourselves in the place of others and to feel their feelings and emotions. It is like a satellite antenna that picks up the emotional, even physical vibrations of others, even if sometimes these are suppressed by the other person.

In coaching and therapy, it is a very valuable “tool” for the practitioner because it will allow them to feel the unconscious or exiled parts of the client. Therefore the coach will be able to help the client to become aware of these lost, repressed or forgotten parts and will help them to accept and reintegrate those parts. In this schema, emotional empathy communicates this information to us. Emotional empathy is often triggered by the mirror effect of our neurons (of the same name, mirror neurons) which recognize in us, at a certain level, a raw, immediate and “instinctive” emotional feeling.

But empathy also has a cognitive level which is as much as important and valuable and that we will immediately address further down.

But before that, let's take a very simple example first... You meet someone for the first time and immediately, without any particular reason, except that this person seems to you to have a somewhat strange and hostile behavior, you feel antipathy towards them. , maybe even aversion. Your immediate response will therefore be to keep your distance and avoid any contact. In this context, your emotional empathy has signaled a form of rejection and unfavorable feeling to you, so your empathy will have no hold on you as no effort will be made on your part to “establish contact”. Intellectually, you block this person and, in the worst case, you may even be in judgment and immediate condemnation mode.

Now let's imagine another scenario...Same person, same negative gut feelings but in another context, where immediately after you come into contact with this person, you learn that they have had terrible traumas that caused them to be rather unpleasant and inaccessible at first sight. What will be your reaction then? The antipathy and aversion felt in the first scenario will be immediately replaced by compassion and empathy. And this empathy is cognitive.

Thanks to it, cognitive empathy takes on another dimension that offers us a real capacity for discernment and widens the restricted circle of our personal context and our conditioning. Suddenly, as in the example above, we are able to reconstitute by thought the context of life of people totally different from us, and so instead of judging them, or even condemning them, we will once again have access to our emotional empathy through the cognitive one.

Along the same lines, our cognitive empathy can also warn us if we are falling into our own trap of granting our emotional empathy to someone who does not deserve it or is even using it on us to manipulate us.

So emotional empathy has its downsides if we misuse it. If it is directed towards our loved ones exclusively, it can lead us to a strong aversion for anyone outside our immediate surroundings. This primary aversion must be completed and corrected by cognitive empathy in order to avoid reducing our empathy to feeling the other, and add the component of thinking the other.

Empathy can also be exploited to your detriment because it is an inexhaustible source of information for all malicious people. What would happen if an empathetic person simultaneously had a manipulative side, a psychic disorder, or even criminal intentions? They could then use their empathy to obtain information about other people's intimate lives, weaknesses, fears and aspirations, and thus manipulate them more easily. Empathy is like any other too, used with dishonest or selfish intentions, it can be the instrument of reprehensible behaviors and even dangerous acts.

5. HSP are critical.

We know HSP are deep thinkers and have this ability to process information in a less linear way… so they analyze everything. Besides being exhausting, the dark side of overthinking can be criticism and this… not only towards others but also towards themselves, maybe even more towards themselves. And it isn’t intentional or out of a feeling of superiority.

HSP are so in tune with their thoughts and feelings that they constantly ponder different ideas or opinions which they will voice… When those opinions are addressed to someone else, sometimes it can seem like criticism. Addressed to themselves, they will fall into a rabbit hole and ruminate on their decisions, on their actions, replaying memories in their heads, reflecting on the past over and over again. This can lead to self-criticism, regrets, negative and blaming self-talks and even resentments toward themselves.

6. "Vantage Sensitivity", an ally or an enemy?

One of the characteristics of hypersensitivity is "Advantage Sensitivity" or "Differential Susceptibility".

Taking as a starting point various studies on hypersensitivity, approximately 47% of the variability in high sensitivity would be explained by genetics (not a single gene, but a combination of genes). There is therefore an environmental part (about 50%) in the development of high sensitivity.

Environmental sensitivity has been widely documented in the childhood temperament literature and is believed to provide some evolutionary benefits, which would attest that if HSP are in a balanced, caring, and caring environment from childhood, they will be influenced more positively than the others, and unfortunately this is also valid under opposite conditions. A negative environment also affects them more negatively than non-HSPs.

Vantage Sensitivity is the term for this environmental variability which therefore means increased sensitivity to the environment and more intense environmental impact, good or bad. In itself, Vantage Sensitivity is full of hope if we don't allow ourselves to be defined by negative conditioning and do not perpetuate it throughout our lives.

Because the trap is to focus on the negative side and to remain anchored in fate. To ignore that we are the actors of our life and that we can change its destiny instead of undergoing it. It can lead to hopelessness, self-destructive behavior, depression, or worse. So knowing the important effect of Vantage Sensitivity in our trait, and acting accordingly, is an undeniable asset for HSPs to find their way to healing by taking the step of changing their environment.

So don't focus on your initially traumatic biography, take charge of your destiny!

7. HSP can have difficulty setting boundaries.

Any psychologist will tell you, drawing a line between what keeps us comfortable or not is the key to any healthy relationships, whether it's in our friendships or with our romantic partner. But HSPs often have difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries, because they are so altruistic and compassionate. Sometimes they will go too much out their way for their own good, just to keep the peace. It doesn’t come easy to them to call people out when they cross the line with them. They avoid confrontation at all cost, so as a result, they often choose to sweep under the rug other people’s behavior. It can become very unhealthy and go as far as being taken advantage of or even being abused. That’s why HSPs often find themselves in relationships with antagonistic people who will feed their narcissistic behavior from them. And eventually these situations will evolve into bigger problems.

8. HSP and narcissists: a hell of a tandem

Highly Sensitive People tend to attract narcissists because their natural empathy is an inexhaustible source for them. They feed on it and abuse it with only one goal: to destroy the hypersensitive.

So why does this hellish tandem seem to be not only unavoidable but also repetitive?

There are several patterns that can trigger this fatal attraction. One explanation is that HSP often have the “savior syndrome” which makes them believe that they will be able to heal or change others through their love, compassion and dedication. A second explanation is the problem of their personal boundaries which are often porous or not defined by themselves. For narcissists, who are great manipulators, HSP are a great playground for their sick game. And the game can last for years… up until HSP sees them for who they are. But when HSP gives up hope of saving the narcissist, the damage is already done and disastrous. Let’s keep in mind and not lose sight of the fact that the tandem, as the name indicates, is led by two people, the hypersensitive and the narcissist. Now, don't jump at my throat, it's math! The relationship is danced by two, it is nourished by two and it is perpetuated by two if a decision does not occur from one side or the other.

So why do HSP get into this messy duo? And here I only am talking about relationships or friendship, by no means I am talking about a child raised by a narcissistic parent who has done nothing to be in that type of situation, and is a real victim. So, this being clearly defined, why would HSP attract more narcissistic people than others? I can come up with a few explanations. The first one would be to wake them up to their own struggles and broken parts and push them to take some crucial steps in their life, like to build a more mature, more autonomous Self, and to define healthy and solid personal boundaries.

In practice, it is about learning to say “no” and developing a better ability to read and understand their own emotional world. Because, let’s face it, behind the “savior syndrome” often hides a certain immaturity, mistrust or even arrogance. And it's not a judgment! It's an observation after having been in unhealthy relationships many times myself, it is obvious today that these feelings were underlying, without me recognizing them. I know now that I didn't have the necessary emotional maturity back then. And I realized that I had the conviction that “I” could make a difference in my friends or partners life... which is not always free from narcissism, let’s be honest! Of course, not in terms of narcissism disorder in the pathological sense, but as a tendency to narcissism that we all have within us to a greater or lesser extent. Something along the line: “I know best what this person needs, if anyone can change/heal/save them, it’s me, so I’m going to do it without them even noticing and without their consent!” Does it resonate with anyone?

So what is the motive behind all of this? Somewhat to buy ourselves a place in paradise, to receive all the recognition from others, to get the palms of merit and the applause of those around us? But what about when failure occurs and is messy and sour? What tactics are we going to use then? Manipulation, blame, perhaps even blackmail? Or will we choose the last option of avoidance: to sink into victimization!?!

Keeping on our blindfolds will not help and the show will go on with others, in different relationships, until we finally get it and see our role in those toxic connections. By continuing to deny our contribution in this infernal dance, there is no chance of evolving at the level of personal development, no chance of taking responsibility, no chance of finally growing emotionally in order to gain more personal sovereignty.

Certainly, we must not only neglect but also take into consideration that HSP’s exacerbated focus on others may also hide a trauma, a trauma that has weakened the Ego, has completely damaged it or has become almost non-existent. You will tell me that this strangely resembles the description of pathological narcissism. Of course, somehow, the comparison is tempting and the reflection relevant, because isn't pathological narcissism just as much of a traumatic origin? Yes, in the majority of cases, but let's not forget that the tango of hypersensitive empathy and narcissism is danced in pairs, it feeds each other, it supports each other, if no decision is taken by one of the antagonists. However, generally and surprisingly, the narcissistic person is not the one who will make the decision to break up as one might imagine.

Narcissistic people, because of their appalling sense of superiority and inflated ego, will completely slip through what is brewing in the HSP’s mind. They won’t see the denouement coming that will hurt them… as HSP were enduring their manipulations, they transformed their emotional pain and suffering into a ticking time bomb. The only goal of narcissists is to make the life of the other more and more unbearable overtime, and it effectively becomes so, until the day when the other "explode", out of despair, as a last resort for their own survival. That’s when they finally make their first steps towards maturity that they can no longer avoid. This is when the realization will come, as painful as it may be, that it is time for them to define their own Self, and establish healthy and strong personal boundaries.

Often unfortunately, it is through difficult relationships or hopeless situations that we gain maturity, begin the path of inner healing and move forward… because it is the only option and only way of survival.

Discovery Call

The empath-narcissist dynamic is a difficult one to navigate and manage, but by taking certain steps to protect yourself and recognize when it’s time to disengage, you can protect yourself from any potential harm. When the show is over, take a long look at the parts you were bringing to the table too in this toxic relationship, and dive deeper into them to heal them so you won’t fall again into another toxic cycle with someone else.

The key tips you should keep in mind are: set boundaries, pay attention to the red flags, remember that self-care should always be a priority and take a good look at your own contribution in the relationship, heal that part… and you should become immune to any toxic relationship, at least in your personal life!

Before concluding, I would like to make a small parenthesis on a big detail that seems important to me to mention: Beware of the use of the word “narcissistic”! Today as soon as a person has a misunderstanding or a conflict with someone, the heavy artillery comes out, and everyone starts to bombard with the “sweet” narcissist word…their ex, their mother-in-law, the neighbor, the basketball teacher or who do I know… the list is endless! So I grant you, we live in a narcissistic society, but the whole Earth is not populated by narcissists… or I pack my bags and go to live elsewhere!

To close the parenthesis, making a psychological diagnosis of those who have disappointed, criticized, left or even hurt us, in order to defame them, has become very fashionable. The word "narcissistic" is peddled wrongly and through to blame the other for our sentimental failure. Be careful before labeling others with the “narcissistic” label and take a step back to take a closer look at your own narcissistic inclinations and behaviors… we all have them to a greater or lesser extent.

Burn-out nurse

9. HSP can be self-conscious about their sensitivity.

Common remarks you will hear from HSPs go along the line of: I don’t belong to this world. Nobody gets me. I don’t understand why people don’t see and feel the way I do. There must be something wrong with me.

You must have heard those comments many times, if you know an HSP. And it isn’t overrated… trust me! It is really how they deeply feel and those questions or statements couldn't be more accurate and similar to all HSP.

So they can really struggle over their trait of being highly sensitive and feel like aliens or weirdos… even crazy sometimes.

And this might be because they've experienced being constantly criticized, laughed at and ridiculed. Their feelings might have too often been dismissed, their mental health even questioned. So when you’ve been labeled negatively most of your life as if your sensitivity is a flaw in character and even a handicap to navigate through life. Well… no wonder that HSP feel insecure, see their sensitivity as a weakness and have a huge impact on their self-esteem.

10. Excuse me but I am highly sensitive! The victimhood mentality transformed into excuses.

Being highly sensitive has become over the years a new trend and another fashionable label to wear.

As I can relate to the feeling of being at last validated when Elaine Aron defined in 1990 this new field of psychology that is hypersensitivity, we are seeing this trait becoming another fashionable label, a personality trait which makes us “special”. Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful trait but the entitlement of being treated with velvet gloves can go as far as a passive-aggressive attitude. And here comes a real danger again for our community and for each one of us in particular!

As explained and defined by Elaine Aron, hypersensitivity is a sensory and not a behavioral trait. So, starting from this definition which doesn’t fall into a personality disorder, our behaviors are really a matter of our own individual decisions and are not predetermined.

If hypersensitivity was framed in the personality disorders then we could expect that all hypersensitive people would have similar reactions in similar situations, but I repeat hypersensitivity isn’t an illness, it is an innate trait.

So when someone puts forward their hypersensitivity in a too ostentatious or opportunistic way, it may in some cases be a manipulation tactic to get others to adapt to their own needs which isn’t right. Of course, we can informed our closest friends and family members that hypersensitivity comes with some struggles, but to push them to treat us with velvet gloves, to take advantages of others by asking them to not asking for too much of us or to change their behaviors for our own good… there is a thin line between bringing awareness to the overwhelm we can feel and becoming a self-centered, manipulative person or even a narcissist.

So try to keep in check those tendencies if you recognize some of these behaviors in yourself or in an HSP in your life.

Developing a panel of excuses or taking on a role of victim can be the road you will take especially when you will discover that all you’ve been feeling and dealing with as a name : hypersensitivity. I think we all fell into this comfortable attitude at one point, especially after years of not understanding why we were different and lacking the feeling of belonging. It is okay and very human, but you should pick yourself up instead of playing the victim or the superiority card as we talked earlier.

Knitting a web of self-excuses will not help you in the long run. It might be a relief at first because you can finally put your guard down after fighting so much, but if people start to adapt to you, you will start to expect nothing less and you will never do the work to overcome your struggles. Another consequence… people surrounding you might also give up on you and leave you saying again something you might have heard too many times: YOU ARE TOO MUCH! But that time, they might be right!

What will you find at the end of this road of abdications? An immobility for which you can only blame yourself. Self-esteem takes a hit and you are back to square one: the world is too cruel for me. Nobody gets me! Sound familiar?

So, let’s not go this way. HSP have too much to offer if they develop their own sovereignty!

11. HSP are often misunderstood by the ones around them

In the world of HSP, there is also plenty of room for misunderstandings. When highly sensitive people have an extreme emotional response to stress, completely withdraw or get too easily angry, the ones around them may take this personally if they’re not aware of their trait. Others may think that the highly sensitive person just exaggerates, is full of drama and overreacts over tiny details. From afar, it might really look exactly like that even though these reactions are quite natural for whoever is going through a temporary accumulation of still unprocessed sensory stimuli. But, when this accumulation has reached its limit threshold, the smallest stress will trigger a reaction which seems out of proportion and difficult to understand by others.

Overstimulation often leads to irritability, anger, outburst or a total shut-down. Those who do not understand their own high sensory processing sensitivity and do not explain it to the people around them are at risk of many misunderstandings - privately, in partnerships and at work.

To avoid that kind of situation, bring awareness about your trait to the closest people in your life, but don’t fall into victimhood… you would push them further away or they would feel that they must walk on eggshells with you.

12. The danger of pent-up resentment

HSP can experience hurtful, offensive and even humiliating situations more often than others. The first reason is again the problem of not knowing how to set our boundaries or simply not having any. So more often, these are transgressed in an abusive and sometimes even brutal way. Because HSP are generally trusting and benevolent in nature, they can also be the victim of petty intellectual crooks who will not hesitate to appropriate their idea or a creative project and take credit for it. I cannot list examples without of course mentioning the myriad of abuses to which HSP will be exposed from narcissists or other energy vampires who too often populate their journey.

So everyone suffers emotional wounds, it's inevitable, but for HSP, these wounds bleed for a long time. The healing time is much more painful because of their hypersensitivity. These unfortunate experiences, if left unmanaged, can quickly degenerate into self-loathing, feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, loss of confidence and an accumulation of resentment. The negative experience may turn into trauma or depression instead of being transmuted into a lesson learned and drawing the positive consequences.

Without this inner alchemy, the long-term implications can be dire. Resentments can accumulate and turn into prejudice, a need for revenge, and even acts of violence. HSP are not immune to this type of behavior despite their high sensitivity. Sometimes it only takes one drop too much for everything to turn into a devastating tidal wave, either towards oneself or towards others.

The only alternative is to become aware of their exiled and repressed emotions that they can sometimes even project onto others. Then will come the phase of acceptance and integration into their sphere of consciousness. This is the famous "shadow work" which you have certainly heard the expression before. It is a difficult and painful process, but revealing and essential for the healing of our inner Self.

13. HSP can be really moody

So as I said earlier, HSPs have this special ability to feel emotions on a deeper level than most. While a non-HSP might not get too ecstatic over seeing a beautiful tree, for example, an HSP might find themselves in awe because of its majestic grandeur, of its flamboyant colors in autumn. That’s on the positive spectrum of their emotions. But as they feel deep positive emotions, they also feel the darkest ones the same way… much deeper.

So they can, in a blink of an eye, switch from joy and happiness to sadness, anxiety, distress or irritability, despite how they were feeling moments before.

When your nervous system is always on high volume and on a much larger scale too, of course it can be a little tricky to adjust to a more moderate emotional state… We have many more octaves than others to play with! So yes, we are high pitch people… no semi tone with us!

In conclusion

The list of the downsides of being an HSP I shared with you today was really intended to help you to feel validated and understand the darker side of our high sensitivity.

So despite the challenges listed here, don’t let these struggles discourage you! Being an HSP is anything but a flaw. HSPs are the most insightful, creative, empathetic, open-minded, thoughtful and gentlest people you will ever meet. So let your unique qualities be your power and strength and accept them, but also work with compassion on the downsides.


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What is your biggest struggle?

  • Feeling emotionally drained

  • Moving on and letting go

  • Criticism and conflict

  • Being under pressure

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