By Cathy Spaas, HSP Specialist & Coach to High-Achieving Creatives
Being a highly sensitive performer, artist, or creative is a double edged sword. Being more sensitive to both internal and external impressions means you may get overstimulated and overwhelmed quickly. But that same tendency to experience everything intensely is also what makes you a charismatic and gifted creative force! You may feel like you’re wrestling with something that is both a blessing and a curse, especially if you are a high-profile performer working in a high-pressure industry.
My research has led me to believe that most artists, performers, and innovators are highly sensitive; their brains are pre-programmed to be fully engaged, and they constantly strive to pour their soul into every single endeavor. This is especially true for the upper echelon of artists, the ones who have the most visibility, fans, and success. Which is why so many phenomenal performers burn out.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are ways to navigate the challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and still achieve success … without sacrificing their mental health, relationships, and boundaries. Even in tough professions like acting, music, and visual art. I know this for a fact since I’ve coached hundreds of highly sensitive clients to make incredible breakthroughs in their life and career. And to illustrate how innovative and wise these gifted individuals can be as they navigate the world, I interviewed more than a dozen prominent artists and performers about their experiences with high sensitivity, and their coping mechanisms during particularly stressful times. The insights they shared confirmed so much of what I already knew to be true.
How To Know If You’re An HSP
Even though the term Highly Sensitive Person isn’t in common use, it’s a common challenge. In fact, it occurs in 1 out of 5 people in both men and women equally. And if you’re an elite performer yourself who felt drawn to the idea of being Highly Sensitive, my bet is that you are. But let’s cover some basics and see if they resonate.
An HSP is someone with a deeply augmented level of processing in their brain. They are more sensitive to both internal and external inputs, which means that they can reach a state of over-stimulation more easily. Sensory processing sensitivity is a character trait that is genetically determined, and usually emerges in childhood. Were you a picky eater as a kid? Someone who had trouble with intense tastes or unusual textures? Did you panic around loud noises or bright lights, or even have extra sensitive skin that couldn’t tolerate rough fabrics? If so, you’re an HSP for sure.
Adult HSPs are deep thinkers who tend to dwell on difficult or painful ideas. Because of the deep processing in their brains, they keep playing certain situations or statements over and over in their heads; what that person said, why they said it, did they handle the situation correctly and what will others think of how they handled the situation. They have the tendency to project everything onto themselves, leading to low self-esteem and waning confidence.
“It’s the constant overthinking of perception of…are they going to accept me or not?” explains singer, songwriter, and actor Bulat Nasibullin. “And this is a constant everyday struggle for musicians, actors, artists.”
My research has found that large groups of people or crowds cause stress and fatigue with a lot of HSPs. In social settings, they may consume alcohol to avoid or numb themselves from having to deal with the crushing sensory overload. They strive so hard for perfection in everything they do that falling short can cause them to fall into a deep depression. Their health deteriorates and relationships crumble. It becomes an inescapable cycle.
“When I first started, every no would just break my heart into a million pieces. Sometimes I’d be on the couch for weeks afterwards because it just felt so hard and so heavy,” says Broadway actress Kate Chapman. “How do you keep going on with that?”
Artistic HSPs wrestle with these hardships and many more, but there is hope! Some of them have found incredibly effective ways to manage their emotions and sensitivities.
How Gifted and Successful Artists Navigate High Sensitivity
A common thread through all the interviews I conducted was a feeling of alienation. That sense of being a misunderstood outsider is common among highly sensitive people. It doesn’t matter how successful and adored they are, they still feel like it’s not enough.
“It’s easy to feel isolated, and like you’re not really understood, because they’re distorting you so much,” actor Mark Pellegrino told me. “Their own perceptual prism is so twisted that they can’t really see you. I don’t even know if I’ve been seen by Hollywood either. Hollywood doesn’t tap me or know what I am…. I’ve always been on the outside and on the fringes.”
As painful as this can be, some HSPs are able to re-frame it with simple mindset shifts.
“A lot of times when I could have quit or I watched other people quit, I either took a pause and figured out how to keep going, or I redefined things so I could keep going,” Chapman says. “I just didn’t allow myself to get bogged down enough to stop making things.”
Others, like actor Lee Arenberg, find solace in friendship when they’re feeling ostracized or isolated.
“Reach out, talk to someone,” Arenberg advises. “A coach, a therapist, your wife, a friend. We all struggle with this, and that we’re all in it together. Let them shore you up.”
He adds that Highly Sensitive artists must learn to let the people in their lives praise them, and accept and absorb that praise fully.
“If someone says to me, ‘Hey man, you did a great job,’ my first response is usually, ‘You too.’ I’m not allowing myself to sit with that compliment,” he says. “I’ve heard it takes about 13 seconds to sit with it. So if someone says, ‘Great job,’ let yourself absorb that. Then say, ‘Wow, thanks, man. That makes me feel really good to hear.’ Catch the comment, receive it, let it go boom. And then if you feel like it, say, “And that was really funny what you did,’ or whatever. Then you give it back.”
HSPs spend a lot of time inside their own minds, which means they wrestle hard with their inner critics. This is exacerbated by industry pressures, the natural urge to compare themselves to their peers, and actual journalists voicing their opinions on their work. Many of my coaching clients enlist my help to rewrite their inner monologues so they can be more gentle and supportive of themselves. When I spoke with violinist and keynote speaker Diane Allen, she suggested an ingenious method for managing this dynamic.
“We all know about the inner voice, the inner critic … if you just try to push it away, it’s just going to push back,” Allen said. “So my technique has always been to acknowledge and release. So you just say to the inner critic, ‘Hey, so glad you’re here. Would you please go sit out in the audience and then afterwards you can give me a full report on how well I did?’”
Once the inner critic is under control, many creatives still have to cope with the constant rejection of creating art and submitting it for approval; from critics, from the public, from every person with an opinion on social media. This is especially true for actors and musicians who are asked to audition for their roles. An HSP may be hit hard by missing out on a great gig or choice part in a movie. Which I why I absolutely loved Chapman’s advice:
“As I continued to audition and wonder which jobs I could actually get, I noticed that curiosity was helping me to bounce back,” she told me. “The game was exciting enough to me, and I was curious enough to keep going. As sad and battered and broken as I might feel, I challenged myself to focus on the question, ‘Could I get the next one?’”
Allen adds that finding your way to a flow state can make the entire experience of auditioning more pleasurable for HSPs.
“The flow state is triggered at the intersection of skill and challenge,” she explains. “The audition environment was the challenge and the opening line of music that I played was my opportunity to show my skill. When I surpass my ability to play what I had done in the practice room, it’s thrilling and exhilarating just like the flow state is.”
With auditioning and securing the best gigs mastered, many of my HSP clients move on to navigating success, the public eye, and the mounting pressures that accompany artistic fame.
Artistic HSPs Who Embrace Success
Especially in the era of Instagram and TikTok, many artists feel it’s hard to bring their authentic selves forward as part of the game. They have to conform to an image that directors or fans hold for them, and begin to feel a sense of separation from who they really are as a person, and who they need to be as an artist. Naturally, this is aggravated for artists who are also HSPs… and many have found that building mental resilience is critical to maintaining their sense of self and artistic integrity.
“Knowing what you have control over and what you don’t—and not investing emotionally in the things you don’t have control over—takes a great deal of time to learn, let alone master,” says Pellegrino.
Singer and actress Laura Iniguez has found that re-framing her mindset around success has been helpful, too. As an HSP she has struggled with feeling like only perfection and industry-approved levels of achievement will do… but has come to realize that she is in charge of which thoughts she allows and which ones get dismissed. In doing this consistently, she’s trained her brain to work for her, instead of against her.
“I realized that I don’t have to be in the musical theatre mecca of the world to do what I love,” Iniguez told me. “I thought, ‘I can still do it from here. Even though Mexico is not super big on musical theatre, I can still do it.’ For me, it’s not about being famous; that was never my approach. I wanted to do what I love. So, I decided to go back to preparing myself and taking more classes, and just accept that, no matter where I am, I can still do what I love and give my best.”
And Arenberg’s advice to creative HSPs is to focus on showing up at the highest professional level.
“As artists, we all talk negatively. My buddy calls it the negative insurgency, It’s like a guerilla fighter in your brain. It’s Star Wars…. be your own Jedi. We have to be willing to be warriors for whatever we want. Only draw a boundary you’re willing to die for.”
As a former elite international showjumper myself, I’m no stranger to the spotlight and the unique pressures faced by those ascending to the upper echelons of their profession. But I was so grateful to these highly sensitive and undeniably successful creatives for sharing their tactics and insights with me. HSPs have a tendency to look inward when we feel distressed… but clearly, we can learn a lot from each other about how to protect our boundaries and access our confidence in the face of a tough and trying industry.
If you believe yourself to be an HSP and would like bespoke guidance, please reach out to me! Through my own lived experience in this space, I have become a world class-coach to professional performers, artists, actors, and creatives. My methods push far beyond mere performance coaching; I use the Claim Your Shine modality to help highly-sensitive artists seeking deep personal development to live a life of both massive professional impact AND lasting fulfillment.
If you would like to connect and discuss the creation of a tailored package for you, please reach out via https://cathyspaasacademy.com/contact/