Recently, I met a young highly sensitive woman who lives near me. She attended an online weekend workshop that I led with Elaine Aron during the pandemic. There were times during the workshop when we had the chat open on Zoom, and we saw that some participants could be extremely critical. This young woman was shocked and disappointed by the criticism people “vocalized” (toward presenters, the Zoom admin managers, and even the content.) I told her that we HSPs can be severely critical, sometimes of ourselves and at times of others. Why is that?

At the core, we are inclined to have empathy toward others, but usually more toward those perceived to be vulnerable. I wonder if we struggle to have empathy toward those we perceive to have a “higher rank”. I’ve often heard HSPs tell me they struggle with their managers at work… why? The HSP sees exactly, with great detail, what would make things work better. Our finely tuned noticing and deep processing help us to really know how to improve an environment, including a workshop. All those great ideas and suggestions can come across as criticism.

That criticism can be hurtful and harsh, particularly in certain environments where we might feel safer expressing it. Examples include, first, with family members, those people who will love us no matter what. They sometimes (often?) get us at our most tired, overwhelmed, or vulnerable, aka critical. When I find myself criticizing and controlling in my family, it is usually when I am feeling “out of control” myself– when I am overstimulated. 

It might be that I (or you) are speaking a truth, but because of the overstimulation, we can be pretty harsh, so please be gentle with your loved ones and yourself. Allow for mistakes, gently letting them know how it might work better for you. Many minor household tasks are hidden traps for family members, including the HSP(s). This might include your spouse who loads the dishwasher differently than you every time even though their way is far way less efficient than your way. 🙂 FYI, HSPs, the dishwasher doesn’t care how it is loaded–and if you want to argue about this, feel free to reach out to me! 

Secondly, we might turn our criticism toward ourselves. This example is especially painful for me to see in the HSPs I support. Just because we see every detail of how we could do better does not mean we have done anything wrong, it just feels that way. We might end up feeling desperately inadequate. We rarely remember that with our D.O.E.S., we are doing so much more than the 80% on many fronts, but especially thinking. (The 80% means those who don’t have our innate sensitivity trait.) This shows up again and again in the research on HSPs at work, in marriage, in parenting, and in relationships in general.

Finally, a third place I have been particularly affected by the critical tendencies of other HSPs is when they have the opportunity to give feedback that they think is anonymous. This happens at large workshops when we offer an anonymous suggestion box, or on large Zoom events when people can have their video off and just first name or initials, as happened in our online workshop and shocked my young friend. I always doubt myself and usually shed some tears when I’m criticized, but I try to practice what I preach, love myself and “don’t take anything personally” as advised by Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements. I’ll cry first, though, because, Hey! That’s emotional leadership, and one of the big gifts highly sensitive people offer the world.

Wondering if you are highly sensitive?

Listen to a short talk on it.