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Highly Sensitive Person

How Sensitive People Can End Violence Without Getting Hurt

You don’t have to choose between protecting yourself and protecting others.

Key points

  • Our sensitivity makes us want to end suffering, but it also makes us want to turn away from that suffering.
  • Most information that raises awareness of violence isn’t tailored to the needs of sensitive people.
  • Sensitive people need to bear witness to suffering in a way that feels psychologically and emotionally safe.

If you’re a sensitive person like I am, you probably expend considerable energy trying to avoid witnessing the violence that’s all around, and to cope with whatever painful realities you can’t block out.

Perhaps you make sure to click off war coverage before it cuts to footage of the victims, change the subject when your coworker starts talking about why they’ve stopped eating meat, or nudge your thoughts away from the landfill you just drove past and the climate crisis it brought to mind.

For many sensitive people, it’s a challenge just to make it through the day. Whether you identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP) or just fall somewhere on the high-sensitivity spectrum, your experience is qualitatively different from that of others. One key difference is that you’re more empathic and emotionally reactive to bearing witness to suffering. So you’re more easily dysregulated when you’re exposed to violence. When we’re dysregulated, our nervous system is out of balance, and we feel unsafe. Because dysregulated people instinctively seek to return to a calm, regulated state, our choice appears to be to either end the violence or tune it out.

Herein lies the paradox of being a sensitive person in a violent world. Our sensitivity compels us to want to end suffering, and it also compels us to turn away from that suffering, particularly when we feel helpless to bring about change. So we end up morally and emotionally paralyzed—knowing, on some level, that our inaction makes us complicit in the problem but feeling powerless to do anything about it.

But what if we didn’t have to choose between protecting ourselves and protecting others?

This is a question I’ve grappled with as a psychologist, professional advocate, and HSP. And I’ve come to understand that it’s not whether we bear witness to suffering—and to the injustice that gives rise to it—but how we do that matters. When we bear witness in a way that enables us to stay psychologically and emotionally safe, we can shift from being passive bystanders to active agents of change.

Before we discuss how to do this, let’s look at a few factors that contribute to our fear of bearing witness.

First, information that’s designed to raise awareness of violence and injustice isn’t tailored to the needs of sensitive people. For instance, articles lack trigger warnings, and outreach from charitable organizations, desperate to break through the apathy of the masses, often beat us over the head with imagery of suffering. Further, many such communications are shaming and therefore dysregulating, based on the erroneous belief that if people feel ashamed enough they’ll change their behaviors. When we understand that good people can and do engage in harmful practices and this doesn’t make them “bad” people, we’re less affected by such communications.

Also, we may worry that we’ll have to navigate interpersonal conflicts and possibly lose important connections with others. We may think: If I stop eating animals, what kinds of family feuds will I have to contend with? How will I be able to maintain respect for the people in my life who don’t share my values? These fears are not unfounded, but they can be significantly mitigated by building relational and communication skills.

We may worry as well about feeling overwhelmed and despairing if we take in the enormity of a problem, such as climate change, while knowing that we can’t fix it. Fortunately, there are techniques to help us prevent and cope with these feelings, such as Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects.

So how can we help end violence without getting hurt? Here are five tips.

  • Don’t overwitness. You don’t need to constantly witness or to be aware of the details of an injustice in order to help end it. You only need to be informed enough to know that something isn’t in alignment with your values and to know what actions you can take to counter it.
  • Witness yourself while witnessing others. If you start to feel dysregulated, give yourself permission to stop witnessing. Protecting your emotional boundaries is essential for witnessing safely.
  • Learn to self-regulate. When you know how to bring yourself into a state of regulation, you’ll be less worried about getting dysregulated and better able to cope when you are.
  • Learn about high sensitivity so you can understand yourself and practice the self-care necessary for building resilience.
  • Appreciate that your sensitivity is not a weakness, but a strength. The emotions of sadness, fear, and grief are appropriate and courageous responses to violence and injustice. Much more concerning is the widespread apathy that enables such problems. The world needs more sensitivity, not less.

Your sensitivity is a gift, and it’s perhaps the world’s greatest hope.

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