10 ways highly sensitive and empathetic people may be more vulnerable to gaslighting

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You know what they say, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

So how as a naturally sensitive type do you stop yourself from getting eaten alive?

Being deeply empathetic brings so many benefits.

It comes with gifts like emotional intelligence, creativity, stronger relationships, and wonderful compassion.

But it can leave you more vulnerable too.

Here are 10 reasons why highly sensitive people may be more susceptible to gaslighting.

1) They easily absorb emotions because they have more mirror neurons

There’s a lot of neurodiversity in the world that we’re only just starting to understand.

People who are highly sensitive (HSP) are often born that way. Their brain is wired differently.

This has many social advantages.

In fact, scientists think it’s probably a survival strategy created through evolution. Being socially responsive pays off in many ways.

Yet one of the downsides is that when you’re so in tune with others’ feelings, it can leave you open to manipulation.

As psychotherapist, Dr. Elayne Daniels explains:

“HSPs have more active mirror neurons, which explains their gigantic capacity for empathy. Mirror neurons are brain cells that help us understand what someone else is feeling. They’re involved in recognizing sadness and relating to it. Because of such active mirror neurons, HSPs absorb emotions from people around them”.

2) They don’t always trust or value their own instincts

Sensitive people have often grown up being told:

  • They need to toughen up
  • They are too soft
  • They shouldn’t take things so much to heart
  • They are over-reacting
  • They are “too intense” or “too much”

Essentially, they grow up being told that their feelings aren’t valid. In some ways, you might say that they are used to being gaslighted.

Sadly, that means many very sensitive people can learn to question themselves and their feelings.

They have been made to feel like their natural responses are “wrong” or disproportionate.

That can mean they no longer trust their internal compass.

They second-guess themselves rather than listening to their gut. 

As we’ll see next, as a consequence, when something is wrong, they might try to convince themselves they’re overreacting.

3) They justify other people’s bad behavior and try to explain it away

When we don’t trust ourselves, people tend to get away with more.

Because HSPs have been almost programmed to mistrust their instincts, that’s exactly what they do.

And when they can no longer believe how they feel and what they think, they start to pick away at it.

They may find themselves looking for explanations and reasons for why they are in the wrong.

Perhaps they convince themselves it is all in their head and they are reading too much into everything.

They assume it must be their imagination, and just another consequence of being “too sensitive”.

But even when they do recognize that someone else’s behavior isn’t right, they can still confuse understanding that behavior with accepting it.

4) They can struggle to draw the line between understanding bad behavior and accepting it

A lot of people struggle to see someone else’s side.

Their own framework means cognitive biases kick in. They are convinced that they are right because they find it so difficult to shift their perspective.

That’s fairly common. We all use our own preferences, experiences, and beliefs to shape how we view the world.

But people with a lot of empathy and sensitivity find it easier to understand where someone else is coming from.

They are able to shapeshift in order to put themselves into others’ shoes.

Having greater understanding of others is always a good thing. But it’s important to stay vigilant.

Sometimes understanding can drift into accepting.

We can understand why someone is behaving a certain way, without choosing to accept it in our lives.

That is why boundaries are so important. But they can be another thing that is more challenging for highly sensitive people to uphold.

5) They find it difficult to set clear boundaries

Boundaries are the invisible lines we draw.

They are the guidelines that we set for ourselves and others which dictate the rules to our relationships.

  • How do you expect someone to behave?
  • What will and won’t you do?
  • How will you communicate your needs and wants?
  • What are your deal breakers?

Highly sensitive people can find boundaries more tricky to maintain because:

  • They pick up on slight changes in others
  • They are prepared to change their own behavior to put others at ease
  • They worry about hurting others
  • They are fearful of rejection

Essentially, HSP might find themselves taking responsibility for other people’s feelings.

6) They tend to take things personally

The most sensitive and empathetic among us can end up internalizing things.

They spend a lot of time processing. As a result, they can end up stewing on something for weeks, months, or even years!

This habit of deep thinking and deep feeling can lead to overthinking.

That includes their personal relationships too.

They may be quick to take things personally. Unfortunately, gaslighters can use this to their advantage.

It can be easier to manipulate someone who has a tendency to overanalyze themselves and feel bad about things.

Which is the exact reason why these two opposites (the gaslighter and the HSP) can attract one another.

7) Their sensitivity can act like a magnet to all the wrong types of people

It’s almost like narcissists, manipulators, and control freaks can sniff out empaths and highly sensitive people.

In a way, they do. For the very reason that they are more susceptible to their manipulation.

Toxic relationships can form when both sides find someone to fulfill the role they are looking to play out.

And sensitive people are very good at giving people what they need. Even when that person doesn’t necessarily deserve it or is a good influence in their life.

Dominant people who may use gaslighting as a means of control like the natural caregiving tendencies of sensitive types.

But sadly, they then abuse these nurturing qualities.

8) They care about others and want to please them

Let’s remember what we said earlier about how being a highly sensitive person is likely evolutionary.

You might be surprised to hear that this type of heightened sensitivity (known as SPS) has been identified in over 100 species.

So it’s not just us humans, it’s everything from birds to fish, monkeys, and horses.

The traits of sensitivity and empathy are designed to make people more responsive to their environment.

But when you are heightened to your environment, it’s perhaps no wonder that people-pleasing habits can quickly trip you up.

Especially when you have been made to feel like you are “too much” HSPs can start to think they need to change in order to fit in.

They feel apologetic over how they are and try to bend more to the needs of others.

9) They show more compassion to others than to themselves

One of the keys to overcoming the potential for manipulation is for an HSP to build up their self-compassion.

Because it can come more naturally towards others than toward themselves.

We’re talking about focusing on:

  • Listening to and acknowledging your own feelings
  • Treating yourself with the same kindness you would your best friend
  • Acknowledging your strengths and talents

The bottom line is that you are more vulnerable to gaslighting if you suffer from anything that can lower your resistance to it.

Things like mental health issues, a history of abuse and trauma, or low self-esteem.

The more robust your mental health is, the better.

Particularly when you are sensitive and empathetic it’s important to invest time and energy into working on your self-worth and self-esteem.

That way you can learn to trust and value yourself

As you do, you will also probably find you become more comfortable with saying no, and standing up for yourself.

10) They can struggle with confrontation and change

It can be harder for sensitive types to be assertive.

It makes sense. They are mindful of how others feel, and so don’t exactly enjoy rocking the boat or causing conflict.

But that can spill over into silencing their own voice in order to leave room for everybody else’s.

Just the thought of standing up to someone can cause a great deal of anxiety — something HSP are already more prone to.

Combine that with the fact that sensitive people can find change harder to adjust to, it’s yet another reason why they’re less likely to show a gaslighter the door.

To conclude: Highly sensitive people don’t need to be victims

Although we’ve looked at the ways in which sensitive people can fall foul of gaslighting, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Far from it!

Plenty of very empathetic and sensitive types know how to protect themselves.

They do this through:

  • Listening to and validating their own feelings
  • Creating strong boundaries
  • Practicing speaking up and asserting themselves
  • Refusing to take responsibility for anyone but themselves

That way they can maximize the gift of sensitivity whilst shielding themselves from others’ attempts at manipulation.

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Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

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