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Coping with a Setback the Sensitive Way

Overcome life's challenges and move forward, rather than straight ahead.

A setback or disappointment can be particularly devastating for highly sensitive people. We feel emotions so intensely, that when faced with defeat or misfortune, it can shake us to our core. But the best strategy for HSPs trying to cope with life’s difficulties is use your own unique sensitive traits.

Everyone feels shocked, angry, upset and a range of other emotions when they lose their job or a relationship ends, when a loved one passes away or a personal goal we’ve been working for slips out of reach. But for HSPs, even a change in schedules can rattle us. Pearl Buck, a Nobel Prize winning author and HSP wrote that for the sensitive person, ‘a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.’

For many people, the answer seems to lie in extremes. They react to difficult situations, either by withdrawing, shutting down, giving up or falling prey to depression due to the loss of everything they’d hoped for because they no longer have the drive to move forward. Alternatively, many people do the opposite and respond to setbacks by taking on the world, travelling, changing jobs, moving to a new city, taking up new hobbies and essentially trying to stay as busy as they can to avoid facing the real challenge, their own feelings.

The hardest part about coping with any negative experience is the feelings it generates in us. It’s the hurt, sadness, guilt, embarassment, rejection, humiliation and sense of loss that can feel so overwhelming we fear it will destroy us. Hiding your feelings, avoiding your disappointment, pretending that you are okay, are all ways of trying to keep the hurt you really feel at bay so that you don’t have to hurt so much.

Unfortunately, avoidance strategies don’t work for long. The painful feelings tend to increase the longer you avoid them and you end up spending increasing amounts of time and energy trying to keep them under wraps. It’s like procrastinating on your housework, telling yourself that you’ll pick up the magazines and newspapers next week because you don’t want to face having to clear it up now, but it just gets more and more cluttered until you are trapped in a messy house. Emotions are the same way. They can take over if you don’t take care of them.

When we are faced with something painful, our first response is often to try to hide our true feelings. We want to put on a brave face so that we don’t appear to be struggling. We are more concerned with how others see us than with our own well-being. I once heard of a man who had been laid off his job and when he got home, he and his wife opened a bottle of champagne because they believed that something better would come along. He did get another job, but it’s important to give yourself time to grieve a loss. There is often so much pressure to just ‘get over it’ that we end up burying our feelings in the rush to move on and those feelings never go away. They live just under the surface and just like increasing clutter in a house, they begin to affect every aspect of your life.

Here’s how to deal with an upsetting event and the painful feelings that follow in a way that will lead you closer to where you really want to be:

1. To begin, don’t react. Be gentle with yourself. Let yourself feel whatever it is you are feeling. Don’t be in a hurry to be okay. Give yourself time to think. HSPs need time to process information, absorb the shock, think and analyze. It’s okay to just sit and stare out the window for a little while after something shocking happens.

2. While sensitive people can feel flooded with emotions, we also have the ability to express them, which is the key to coping with difficult situations. Cry, shout, and talk about your feelings, your anger, frustration, hurt, regret, and shame to someone you trust. Write about your feelings in a journal. Use your natural creativity to express your feelings through creative writing, art, music, dance or drama. Try to figure out exactly what you are feeling. Are you really angry that you lost your job or are you also feeling disappointed in yourself? Are you hurt that your ex left you or perhaps angry at yourself for staying with them? The clearer and more honest you are about your feelings, the sooner you will get over them. Once you recognise them, acknowledge them and express them, they will move out of your mind and your heart and begin to disappear. Expressing your feelings about a tragic event should be a phase. Take care not to become stuck in a self-pitying, sympathy-gathering rut.

3. Once you have given yourself the time and freedom to acknowledge and express your feelings, use your thoughtful HSP mind to try to learn from the experience. Whatever it is, there is usually some kind of insight you can gain about yourself or life or a certain situation. Perhaps you lost your job because you were overly controlling or your relationship ended because you were afraid of getting hurt. Recognising these truths is not easy. That’s why people try to avoid them. But facing them will help you to feel better, learn to overcome some of your own challenges and move on in a healthy, open, honest way, free from regret, bitterness and emotional baggage.

4. At some point, when it feels you’ve written, wept and said all you can say, the experience will fade into the past while you move into the future. Expressing your feelings and learning from life will allow this forward motion to happen naturally. The next step is one you take yourself. Once you have faced your feelings, grieved your loss, and perhaps learned a lesson or two, you can take action. If life has left you feeling victimised by its cruelty or unfairness, this is the time to stop and decide where you want to go next. It is your choice. Perhaps that job or relationship or town wasn’t really right for you. Perhaps what you really want is something else, something better. Something that enables you to be you.

Don’t let life drag you down with it. Decide what you want, what is right for you, and take a step in that direction. In the words of writer Henry David Thoreau, ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.’