Can highly sensitive people be happy?

Can highly sensitive people be happy?


your avatar   Anita, 53-year-old woman

I am a highly-sensitive Black female of 53 years. I have written an article entitled the Pain of Knowing for a newsletter that emanates from San Francisco, created by Dr. Elaine Aron, the author of The Highly Sensitive Person. My article centered around my profound sense of "feeling" the energy of others, and unfortunately, my pain at experiencing it. I know now that I have a disproportionately sensitive temperament, and unfortunately, I also know now that I have suffered emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of both of my parents.

I have done a lot of work on "fixing" myself, but I wonder if a child who is emotionally stunted is destined to always feel unhappy, and acutely aware of that unhappiness. I had one parent with low self-esteem issues, and another parent who was simply a damaging control freak, which in turn affected my own self-esteem.

Any point of view you may share would be greatly appreciated. I somehow feel that if a child is damaged at a certain age, that stain of misinformation can follow them throughout his or her adult life.

Am I right? Will I always feel "damaged" because of my parent's poorly taught life lessons? Thank you very much.


    Jef Gazley, M.S., LMFT, LPC, LISAC, DCC

Dear Anita,

That is one of the best questions I have ever heard. I do agree with you that some people are more sensitive by temperament than others. I also agree that people who are more sensitive have greater problems with self-esteem than others. However, I do feel that usually it is not the temperament that a person is born with, but the way they have been treated that is often the determining factor in self-esteem.

Recent research indicates that when a child is under greater stress than they should be for too long of a time, several parts of the brain are affected. Too much cortisol, a stress related chemical, can do damage to the body and even cause several areas of the brain to be underdeveloped. Our body was only meant to have the central nervous system in a state of flight, fight, or freeze for only fifteen minutes at a time. When it remains overactive a person either becomes shell shocked and numb or hypersensitive and reactive. Often these symptoms alternate in the same person. The toll on self-esteem is enormous.

Having had the misfortune of abusive parents, as was the case in your family, this is what would cause the above symptoms. It would cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is the formal name for the symptoms you are talking about. When someone has been mistreated in this fashion they tend to feel as if they are shameful and unimportant. This happens even when they know intellectually that their parents were wrong. Shame results even if the person knew as a child that they had worth. They even tend to feel the shame despite a successful career and present family members who love them.

Having this poor sense of self-esteem makes a person more likely to resonate to any pain they see in others. It is often as if they relive their own pain by seeing the pain in others. This is one of the hallmarks of PTSD. This pain, sensitivity, and low self-esteem pervade the entire person who has been victimized. It is not only in their conscious mind, but lodges in their subconscious and even in the cells of the body.

Where I disagree with you is that even though the treatment is difficult with someone who has been abused, and even though the brain has been damaged or underdeveloped, people are unbelievably resilient. Not only can they change their behavior and thoughts, but they can grow new neural pathways in their brains. Therefore, they can repair their own brains and nervous system to a large extent. The latest work with brain imaging has demonstrated this repair.

Some of the newer therapies such as NET (Narrative Exposure Therapy) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) have made it possible for quicker, more complete and less painful progress in these areas. Old neural pathways and body cell memory of traumas can be greatly reduced and often eliminated. People are no longer doomed to stay over-sensitive and shame-bound. To change self-worth and over-sensitivity still takes a lot of work on the part of the client and therapist, but the change is much more complete now.

Good luck. I hope this has been helpful.

Jef Gazley, M.S.

This question was answered by Jef Gazley M.S. Jef has practiced psychotherapy for twenty-five years, specializing in Love Addiction, Hypnotherapy, Relationship Management, Dysfunctional Families, Co-Dependency, Professional Coaching, and Trauma Issues. He is a trained counselor in EMDR, NET, TFT, and Applied Kinesiology. He is dedicated to guiding individuals to achieving a life long commitment to mental health and relationship mastery. His private practice locations are Scottsdale and Tempe, Arizona. You can also visit Jef at the internettherapist, the first audiovisual mental health online counseling center on the net.For more information visit:

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