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Interview | Pamela Catapia

Pam Catapia advocates for highly sensitive people (HSPs) in a variety of ways, from helping HSPs as individuals and in small groups to educating the general public about the trait of high sensitivity through media appearances. She’s a certified counsellor in private practice, with a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology. Through counselling and through seminars for HSPs on topics ranging from workplace issues to decision-making, Pam helps HSPs gather and use tools for living well.

When did you discover that you are highly sensitive and what was that process like for you? How did you make the discovery?

I discovered that I had the trait around the year 2000. A friend of mine, who’s also highly sensitive, gave me Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Personbecause she thought I was probably highly sensitive, too. She was right. I read the book and recognized myself, some other people I knew, and some of my clients. It was an enlightening discovery, like pieces in a puzzle finally fitting together. It’s been exciting, positive, and incredibly helpful.

Who are the people who have been the most supportive and accepting of you and your HSP traits?

Friends who are also HSPs have been supportive, but so have friends who are not HSPs but are empathetic types. I have a cousin who’s a teacher. She’s an HSP who knew about the trait before I did. She’s always been very supportive, encouraging me to design seminars to educate teachers about the trait. And there was a continuing education programmer, years ago, to whom I mentioned the trait of high sensitivity. She identified with it and suggested I submit a proposal to teach a seminar on the topic. I did, and that’s how I got started teaching seminars for HSPs.

Have you had any highly sensitive role models? If so, who and why?

The one that comes to mind is Elaine Aron, whom I admire greatly. Her books, her research, her newsletters – there’s enough there that gives me what I want from a role model: someone who’s gone before, who’s done research, who’s written and been published on the topic, who’s already out there as an HSP, who’s given talks about it, and who knows the strengths and weaknesses of the trait and the strategies that help adult and children HSPs thrive.

Would you say that you make a living using your highly sensitive traits? If so, how does being highly sensitive help you do it?

Yes, I definitely make a living using my HSP traits. When I’m doing one-to-one counselling, my acute awareness, empathy, and pattern recognition abilities make me an attuned and highly functioning helper. Being an HSP helps me choose and custom-design the strategies I use to help my clients reach their goals. HSPs excel at perceiving what others need and adapting to provide it. Ethics are very important to HSPs and vital in the field of counselling – so it’s second nature to me to put the best interests of my clients first.

I also use my HSP traits when I’m teaching or facilitating groups. I’m acutely aware of what’s going on in a group and can figure out what to do that will help the group be comfortable and that will provide the learning they wanted in a way that suits them.

When I was a medical researcher I used my pattern recognition abilities to help me with statistical analysis, which was a moderate fit for an HSP. I still use those pattern recognition skills when I read and evaluate published research to keep up with changes in my current profession as a counsellor.

Over the years, I’ve learned to use my HSP skills when making decisions about developing my career. HSPs are usually cautious, intuitive, and fact-based decision makers who are able to see trends, see how things connect to form a bigger picture, forecast the future, self-lead, take smart risks, and lead others. I think having those qualities helps me in my career in many ways.

What challenges have you faced in the process of developing your career? How have you managed to work through those challenges?

Three challenges in particular come to mind. The first one was that I chose a poorly fitting first career – nursing. It’s a fine career for those that fit it, but I didn’t, for many reasons. I chose nursing before I’d heard about the trait of high sensitivity, before I knew myself well, and when there were few female role models in other careers. Also, I talked to an advisor instead of a career counsellor before making the decision to be a nurse. I wish I had known then that nursing is about hands-on task helping, and not really about process helping, at which I excel. Another sign that nursing was a poor fit for me was that I couldn’t identify with the other nurses. I had nothing in common with them. The environment itself, with its trauma and disturbing smells, sights, and sounds, was not right for an HSP. And health care is based on a hierarchical model, which is not usually compatible with the HSP nature. Although nursing didn’t work out for me, I learned how to better choose a career by what I didn’t do: know myself; find role models and a good career counsellor; and use facts, informational interviews, and job shadowing as the basis for decision-making, not just feelings.

The second challenge I’ve had is a typical one for HSPs: being misunderstood by others, as well as by myself. Other people were constantly attributing my intentions incorrectly, misinterpreting my quietness, hesitation, and inner analyzing process. They often would not listen to my ideas or perceptions about people, and did not believe I was smart enough to do statistical analysis and other abstract processes. I was actually a gifted child, put in the “smart kid class” in grade eight. Sometimes I believed people’s misinterpretations of me and labelled myself negatively when I really shouldn’t have. Since those times, I’ve learned how to trust my intuition and my intellect, through getting second opinions from people I trust, and collecting other confirming data. I’ve also learned how to accept and validate myself, especially my HSP traits, and I spend more time with other HSPs, with whom I feel understood and have a sense of belonging. Also, when appropriate, I find ways to explain or demonstrate the strengths of this trait to non-HSPs.

The third challenge for me in my career was public speaking, which tends to be a real challenge for HSPs. I had an early beginning with meeting this challenge, though. My father is a teacher, and when I was growing up he was always teaching me things. The content of what he taught me didn’t stick because the topics were about concrete things I don’t have an aptitude for, like fixing cars and building boats, but I absorbed the process of how one teaches. In high school, I tutored another student and loved it. I had an instinct that I might be good at teaching if I could just overcome the overwhelm of being in front of people who are all looking at me and listening to me. Since I knew public speaking was my weakness, I set out to work on getting better at it. I did that by deliberately choosing opportunities to practice speaking in front of people in groups, even though I was terrified. I managed the fear by keeping my sight on my goal, by focusing on learning and improving, and by seeing it all as a surmountable challenge – conquerable through exposure. I can do this, I would say to myself, I just have to practice. I did improve and that kept me going. It helped, too, that early on I got a lot of positive feedback when I spoke to groups. In all three of my careers – nursing, medical research, and counselling – I always got positive feedback from people when I gave presentations. That helped me persist. That was the reward – having the positive feedback. In fact, I think many HSPs can learn how to speak in front of a group, even if they don’t believe they can or are very anxious. It’s a learning process that comes with great rewards.

What issue related to being highly sensitive would you most like to have help with?

I’d love to have help with empowering more HSPs. Empowered HSPs can help everyone by designing a better society. We need to design better towns and villages; ways of mastering technology; systems regarding health care, education, food, and the environment; and ways of making a living, communicating, partnering, parenting, and leading. Sometimes HSPs are like the canaries in the coal mines that miners used as an early warning system. Elaine Aron writes about studies of highly sensitive animals that provide early warnings to other animals, that notice danger and dysfunction before the others, which can save the group as a whole. Often, HSPs have the creative, long-term problem-solving abilities and wise, big-picture view needed in a situation. And often we are uncomfortable about offering our expertise, about stepping into a leadership role that would give us the power to make decisions, influence systems, and redesign things that aren’t working. (Just read the book Collapse, by Jared Diamond, and you’ll see what things are not working and haven’t worked for many cultures.) Once we HSPs have honed our leadership skills and found our confidence in leadership roles, we can offer the wise advisor style of leading that Aron describes as a necessary balance to the warrior king ways of non-HSPs. Those two styles of leadership working together enable cultures to thrive in the long term. In my seminars I teach leadership skills to HSPs, and I provide counselling and coaching to HSPs to help empower them. I consider that just a start. I would love to reach and empower even more HSPs, and I welcome greater media exposure, business contacts, and advice that will enable me to do so.

I’d also love to have help with having a nice environment in which to live. If someone can make Vancouver smaller and quieter again, or build an HSP-friendly village or town within it, let me know. An HSP village would be great. I imagine it as being very quiet, but with lots of interesting activity. There are quaint homes and stores, and there’s a university. The village is beautiful, close to water, has lots and lots of green space and many trees, and there are cycling paths and woods, and comfortable benches to sit on. You can walk to everything, yet it’s still got everything that’s needed. There are community and cultural centres, and several plazas where no cars are allowed. Homes are affordable and attractive, and each has its own space for growing vegetables or flowers, as the residents wish. There are places that sell really good chocolate, really good books, and beautiful cards, and places that provide peace and privacy and rejuvenation. There are interesting and satisfying places to work and to play. Alternative and preventive health care facilities and good schools are plentiful. Technology and traffic are reduced. There’s enough parking and it’s free. The cafés have inner courtyards. There’s no intrusive noise or music allowed anywhere. There are no televisions in public places. If there’s music in any public place, like a restaurant, it’s very soft and soothing and in the background so you don’t have to strain to have a conversation above it. There’s a lot of personal space at every level of society, lots of physical distance in all the physical places inside, with tables in restaurants not being so close that elbows bump. And, of course, everyone is respectful, good manners being something HSPs highly value.

What aspects of being highly sensitive bring you the most joy?

I want to say my deep appreciation for the arts, but there’s more to it than that. Subtleties attract me, like the interesting timbre of someone’s speaking voice or laugh, the sound of a bike riding fast over wooden boards, the sparkling sunlight path on water, the sweet fragrance of scotch broom in April, beautiful décor or architecture, gardens, woods, paintings, music, the rhythm and sound of the waves near Tofino, the beauty of certain words strung together adeptly, certain colours that look just right, or even the just-right temperature I feel as I walk or sit for a while. I also appreciate the deeper, meaningful conversations we HSPs tend to fall into, and I enjoy humour that’s subtly amusing and clever. I love not being overstimulated or understimulated. I feel the most joy in those rare moments when what I’m noticing with my five senses and my brain is in the “just-right” zone.

What words of encouragement would you most like to give other HSPs?

We have so many natural strengths to offer. Let’s support each other and work together to create what we need, including acceptance – being treasured and valued by the culture at large.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I would suggest to HSPs to find other HSPs to spend time with, for so many reasons. Being with other HSPs brings validation and a sense of belonging. You can be yourself and feel more relaxed. You can feel heard and understood. It helps you to be even more aware of your strengths and the different ways you can use them. With other HSPs, it’s easy and rewarding to brainstorm, to tap into and create synergy, that bigger something that comes into play when individuals create together.

Also, I want to say that the way I became a highly functioning HSP was by confronting, not avoiding difficult things, and by finding more ways of using my strengths. And that’s what I wish for other HSPs, too.

What are three books that you consider favourites, that you really love?

Photo from Pam Catapia