It is estimated that approximately 20% of the population is highly sensitive. The term is becoming more well-known, particularly since Elaine Aaron published her books ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ and ‘The Highly Sensitive Child.’
Many people object to the term ‘highly sensitive’ because it is often thought of as being a bad thing. Some prefer terms like highly attuned or highly aware, since those terms don’t carry the negative connotation of being ‘overly sensitive.’
It can be difficult for most people to understand or relate to highly sensitive people. I think that’s mostly because we don’t really understand ourselves. I certainly didn’t for most of my life. Because we were seen as being different from everyone else when we were growing up, other people, particularly our parents and family, didn’t know how to relate to us. A highly sensitive person often tries very hard to fit in but is unable to do so, and so they conclude that there must be something wrong with them. We’re often told things like “you’re too sensitive;” “get over it;” “you’re being childish, grow up;” and, my personal favorite “don’t be so stupid.” As if when we say that we are uncomfortable in certain situations or don’t want to do certain things, we’re just being difficult.
If you are highly sensitive or know someone who is, these tips might help you have a better understanding about what it means:
- We’re not delicate. Being sensitive simply means that we are more tuned in to the environment and to the people around us. We pick up on things that most others do not. We notice things. It doesn’t mean that we will fall apart if you are direct and honest with us (in fact we prefer it because then we know where we stand with you). It also doesn’t mean that we’re going to burst into tears at the slightest thing.
- There’s nothing wrong with us. We are not broken. We do not need fixing. We are just different. We don’t often enjoy the same things that many others enjoy – and this isn’t just in our heads, it’s a physical thing. We actually feel physical symptoms that are uncomfortable in response to things like: noise, fluorescent lighting, smoke, perfumes, chemical smells, crowds, chaotic environments, and so on.
- We are not unsociable, nor do we think that we’re better than everyone else. Those who are highly sensitive and also introverts can respond to over-stimulation by withdrawing and becoming quiet. We may decline to join you at a bar or an event where there are lots of people, not because we’re unsociable, but because we know we wouldn’t enjoy it and we would suffer afterwards. We know, from experience, that it can take us days to recover from such over-stimulation.
- Not all highly sensitive people are introverts, and vice versa. There are people who are extroverted and yet also highly sensitive. The difference is that an introverted HSP will tend to withdraw when experiencing over-stimulation, while an extrovert may lash out and become aggressive or angry. Although again, this depends on the person, not all extroverted HSP’s will act this way.
- It’s easy to think that HSP’s might not thrive in leadership positions. The opposite is true. They can thrive (although they may not always want to). In fact, HSP’s make great leaders because they can be more in-tune with the other members of their team and have a wider perspective. They also tend to pick up on things that others might miss – such as emotions, body language, and facial expressions - because they are so highly aware.
There’s no doubt about it, being highly sensitive can be difficult. But those difficulties are greatly reduced and your sensitivities can be turned into great strengths once you fully understand and own who you are. It’s easy to think there must be something wrong with you when you are not the same as the majority of other people. But being different is not a problem, it’s a gift. Learn who you are and when challenging situations come up, help others to understand. Don’t expect them to automatically know, you must help them – and know how to help yourself.
Not sure if you're highly sensitive? Want to know how sensitive you are? Take this simple Sensory Processing Self-Assessment to find out.