The Highly Sensitive Client
The world is not experienced in the same way for everyone. As healers, we know this. But how quick are we to assume that the differences experienced by the client standing in front of us are because of experience? Or trauma? Or improper medications? Or any other number of factors in the environment that impacts us? All of these things are important to consider, of course, but let’s not forget that each person comes into the world with their own unique temperament. And the highly sensitive client in front of you is no different.
What is a Highly Sensitive Client?
The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was coined by the psychologist Elaine Aron in 1996. Through her research, Dr. Aron concluded that HSPs make up approximately 15-20% of the population and include men and women equally. Instead of being a diagnosis or indicative of pathology, Dr. Aron recognized HSPs as having a normal variation of temperament. This means that not only do HSPs not have anything “wrong with them,” they actually possess several qualities that are beneficial for survival!
This is further supported by the finding that several animal species also include highly sensitive members. And science tells us that traits only persist over time if they are in some way beneficial to the population they are a part of.
What are the Qualities of a Highly Sensitive Client?
The qualities of each highly sensitive client will vary, but Dr. Aron organized the experiences of HSPs into four main categories using the acronym DOES. These categories include: depth of processing, overstimulation, emotional intensity, and sensitivity to subtlety. Let’s look at each category further.
The Highly Sensitive Client’s Depth of Processing
Depth of processing refers to the HSP’s tendency to experience the world deeply, and your highly sensitive client will be both benefited and challenged from this characteristic.
On the positive side, highly sensitive clients show curiosity about the world and love to learn. They often find pleasure in being creative and demonstrate a strong appreciation for the creative works of others. HSPs yearn for meaning, and this may be one of the reasons they show up in your office, as they strive to better understand themselves and the patterns they find themselves in. Other people often enjoy being around HSPs, as they tend to be attuned, empathic people. These are some incredible benefits to the highly sensitive client’s proclivity towards depth.
Processing things deeply, on the other hand, can also have its downfalls. There are two prominent areas where your highly sensitive client may feel challenged by this temperamental trait: in relationships and when making decisions.
Although I noted previously that an HSP’s depth can benefit relationships, it can also present a challenge. There are several reasons for this, including the increased likelihood that they may feel drained by social interactions, the tendency to be put into the role of “pseudo-therapist,” feelings of resentment that can arise if relationships start to feel off-balance or one-sided, and the difficulty of making space for themselves. The role of boundaries will likely be an especially important area of work for your highly sensitive client for these reasons.
One final challenge for an HSP in regards to their depth of processing relates to decision making. Because HSPs tend to consider nuance and detail to such an extent, they can at times become paralyzed by indecision. “What if” questions can arise repeatedly in their minds, as they don’t want to miss a single detail, but it can keep them stuck. The use of cognitive challenging around these “what if” questions and interventions to improve distress tolerance around uncertainty can both help clients here.
The Highly Sensitive Client’s Overstimulation
The most common challenge for HSPs, and perhaps one of the reasons your client landed in your office, is due to overstimulation. Because HSPs are so attuned to the world around them, it’s easy to understand that they can become more quickly overstimulated. This isn’t because HSPs have less capacity to tolerate stress, it’s because they tend to pick up on stressors that others might not even notice.
The sources of stimulation commonly arise from sensory input, such as sights, sounds, touch, smell, and taste, although it can also show up for your highly sensitive client as time pressure, other people’s emotions, multitasking, and being overly scheduled. Just helping clients to label their internal experience as overstimulation can be profoundly helpful in shifting frustration and negative judgements with themselves. Some of the most helpful interventions for clients experiencing overstimulation include working to develop a daily relaxation practice, preventatively reducing stimulation when possible, setting boundaries with others, and expanding coping skills for those moments when overstimulation happens anyway.
The Highly Sensitive Client’s Emotional Intensity
When you or your client first hears the term Highly Sensitive Person, it’s likely that the first thing that comes to mind is a vision of someone who cries a lot. Unfortunately the word sensitive has often been used as an insult, and your highly sensitive client may have a lot of negative experiences with this word.
In reality, emotional intensity refers to the tendency that HSPs feel things deeply, both positively and negatively. This quality shows up all across the spectrum of emotion, from their sheer joy felt as they participate in a live music concert to their deep sorrow after the loss of a pet.
One of our jobs as healers is to respect the role of emotions in our client’s lives and help our clients see these feelings as part of their inherent inner wisdom. We all have feelings as a reason, some just more than others, and it is to all of our benefits to listen to the messages they are trying to share. We can help this process by validating the feelings that come up in our work together and helping clients to heal those painful feelings of shame that they may have accumulated through their lives.
The Highly Sensitive Client’s Sensitivity to Subtlety
The final core characteristic of HSPs is their sensitivity to subtlety. This refers to their tendency to notice subtle details that others often don’t. This awareness might be in response to the physical environment (such as noticing when something is out of place at home), the social environment (such as noticing the shift in body language or tone of voice from a friend), or even their internal experience (such as noticing the subtle changes at the back of the throat that happens right before they’re about to get sick).
This sensitivity is likely the piece that precedes all the other HSP characteristics in that we can only process something deeply, get to a place of overstimulation, or have feelings in response to something if we first notice it.
As with everything else your highly sensitive client likely experiences, this characteristic has it’s pros and cons. On the down side, noticing everything can result in burdensome feelings created by knowing something and feeling compelled to respond to it. Boundaries again are important here in order to protect your client from taking responsibility for other people and other things. They may also benefit from considering ways to find balance in their lives, as it can be harder to find time for relaxation when there is always something they see that needs doing.
While this sensitivity to subtlety can have its challenges, your highly sensitive client can also take advantage of this characteristic by immersing themselves into environments and experiences that create joy, relaxation, and calm. Nature and creative arts are great avenues for HSPs to immerse themselves into.
And let’s not forget that noticing subtle details is sometimes the very thing that helps people protect themselves and their loved ones from danger. Helping your clients to respect this quality as an asset is another way to help them increase self-esteem and reduce shame.
Why You’re More Likely to Work With Highly Sensitive Clients
Now that you have an understanding of HSPs, it’s important to recognize that you likely have and will continue to work with them! This is for a few reasons, one of which is that HSPs tend to enjoy self-reflection and self-growth, which tends to lead them to various forms of healing.
Unfortunately, HSPs are also more likely to experience trauma. This is because the HSP characteristics lead them to be more impacted when trauma does occur, and their emotional intensity often can set them up to more frequently experience emotional invalidation. Understanding these pieces is important when working with highly sensitive clients, both to understand how trauma may have impacted their lives and to ensure we don’t further perpetuate the trauma of emotional invalidation.
What Your Highly Sensitive Clients Need From You
Highly sensitive people are often really rewarding clients to work with, but there’s a few basic things they need to count on us as healers. First, they need for their healers to see them as whole, and to avoid pathologizing them for their HSP qualities. Second, they need an emotionally supportive environment. That doesn’t mean we need to exhibit perfection in our work (this doesn’t exist), but it does mean we need to work hard to understand them and take accountability if we miss the mark.
The third thing highly sensitive clients need is for their healers to believe in them and their inner wisdom. It’s not enough to tolerate their highly sensitive characteristics, we need to celebrate them! HSPs have some of the best resources for recognizing when something is not ok, so let’s help them to connect to that resource and use it to their advantage.
And finally, HSPs need us to understand their unique challenges and be ready to help them navigate them. We need to ensure we are trained enough to understand their specific needs in order to help them respond effectively. Although HSPs can be negatively impacted by difficult experiences, we also know that they can really thrive when provided with positive experiences. And if we have one thing in common as healers, I believe we all want to see our clients thrive!
Aron, E. (1998). The highly sensitive person: how to thrive when the world overwhelms you. New York: Three Rivers Press
Dana Basu, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of EverGROW therapy. She provides individual therapy, support groups, and online resources for parents in Orange County and throughout the state of California via online therapy. She specializes in working with the highly sensitive person and people with difficult childhood experiences, trauma, parenting stress, and chronic guilt.