Highly sensitive people were once highly sensitive children who were often given the message that they are “too much” to handle. This leaves HSPs with a sense that our emotional or intellectual needs are just “too much” into adulthood. We do what’s needed to cope in relationships, suppress our voice, and take care of others’ emotions while neglecting our own.
But deep down inside, we are often still aching for someone to see us, to hear us, to understand and accept us. We have a deep wish that someone could ultimately say, “Your needs are important and worth prioritizing as much as mine are.” Three of our most primal emotional needs are: attention, acceptance, and approval.
Chances are, attentiveness to your sensitive emotional needs were often lacking as a child – but what DID you get attention for as a child? Was it your intelligence? I remember getting the most attention when I was sick and when I was smart. My early childhood caretakers remember how early I began talking and stringing sentences together. I still remember relishing in all the attention I got when, at the age of four, I learned to read my first book: “Up Went The Goat.” Certain emotional needs went unmet, but my parents were very good at reinforcing my desire to read and learn. So of course, I did as much reading and learning as possible. Reading and learning gave me positive feelings about myself.
Maybe you grew up in a religious home and were celebrated for your compassionate willingness to serve others. Did you often lay aside your own physical or emotional needs so that someone else could feel okay or in control? This compassion you excelled at may have been exploited, but it is how you were able to get some of your emotional needs met, if only for a few minutes.
The thing you excelled at is likely what you are still requiring of yourself to be able to accept yourself as a valuable human being.
Your experience of being accepted has come from this thing you excelled at throughout life. Maybe it was even your appearance. If that’s the case, beauty and fitness are likely still very important to you, because being beautiful and fit are really the only way you can fathom being accepted.
But what if this thing you’re so good at was taken away from you? Could you still possibly be worthy of acceptance? What would be left of you that has value? Do you think people would still want to be around you – even if you weren’t exceptional at this thing that got you the most attention as a child?
You may have felt a lot of disapproval for being “too much” in the eyes of others throughout your developmental years. But what was approved of in the household where you grew up? That is something you may have become very good at – or at least attempted – in your adult years. Was being quiet approved? Participating in a certain activity? Helping with a certain task? Working in a certain industry or occupation?
What would it feel like to give yourself permission to do something different?
Looking at the things that brought us attention, acceptance, and approval as children can help us see some of the ingrained messaging we still give ourselves today. These things are at the root of our present struggles. We naturally honor and care for ourselves to the extent that we were honored and cared for early in life.
When we cannot give ourselves the attention we need… when we cannot accept or approve of ourselves… there’s a good chance we’ll end up seeking out and depending on external acceptance and approval. This causes us to continue those childhood patterns of doing anything necessary to get our needs met in relationships – to the point of dishonoring our own personal boundaries and and letting go of our true selves. We end up diminishing ourselves, sacrificing our own spirit, in order to get whatever attention we need from loved ones.
Living for external acceptance and approval never works.
These unmet needs for approval will also come out in our personal habits. If we were praised for our intelligence or productivity – especially if that praise came from an emotionally inconsistent caregiver – we will do whatever it takes to prove to ourselves we are smart and productive. Even if that comes at the expense of our sleep, physical fitness, or emotional needs. This is how workaholics are made. If we were rejected or ignored as children, but occasionally praised for our looks, we might put every waking minute into beauty and fitness. For some HSPs, nothing fulfills the emotional void, nothing in them has ever been validated, and so they approve of nothing inside themselves. Is this you? You may eat your emotions, or drink them, or numb them with substances, screens, sex, or self-harm.
Children grow up to do whatever got them the most attention, acceptance, and approval. This is why, for us who are parents, it’s so important to be a consistent source of attention, acceptance, and approval for not only the things our kids excel at – but also their physical and emotional needs.
- Are they sad? Validate their expression of care, compassion, or grief.
- Do they need alone time to read or daydream? Tell them how proud you are that they take the time to fill their own tank that way.
- Are they just plain fun to be around? Let them know how much you just enjoy talking and laughing with them on car trips.
And finally, some questions to ask yourself as you begin to re-parent yourself and give yourself NEW messaging:
- In what ways can you give yourself attention that honors your own physical and emotional needs? How about allowing yourself some time to read books – for the pure enjoyment of it? Allowing yourself to go to sleep at night – even before finishing your list? Showing up without makeup on, or hosting a party with a house that’s a little messy? Giving yourself permission to say no to a job that you intuitively know will be detrimental?
- Which of your relationships are mutually consistent in meeting emotional needs? Which relationships bring you back to a place of being an emotional caretaker by what you are doing or not doing? In which relationships do you need to speak up for yourself more? Which relationships feel a little unfamiliar – but healthier than what you’re used to?
- What parts of yourself can you accept and approve of that were rejected or disapproved of in the past?
This is the most important question. When we are able to accept and approve of our true selves, our boundaries strengthen and we become able to love from a place of self-worth instead of unmet needs. Only then can we form secure, healthy attachments with others.
I encourage you to journal some of your thoughts and responses to these questions. You may have emotional needs that have gone unmet for many years, and you may need some time to grieve over them. In time, learning to honor your own emotional needs for attention, acceptance, and approval will help you grow and mature into a healthier, mightier sensitive.