„I’m a highly sensitive person. What’s the first thing you think about when I tell you that? That I must be shy and introverted? Or perhaps very emotional? Or maybe even that you need to walk on eggshells around me?
The common assumption about highly sensitive people is that we are somehow weak and fragile creatures who picked a losing ticket in the genetic lottery of life. You can see this in action when you google the word ‘sensitive’. You will see images of toothache, irritated skin, wilted dandelions, and crying people. Sensitivity clearly has a PR problem. Today I want to help change that.
Maybe by now you’re wondering what is it like to be highly sensitive? I invite you to imagine living with all of your senses on high alert. You also have a vivid inner world, where all of your emotions are magnified. Sadness is a deep sorrow, and joy is pure ecstasy. You also care beyond reason and empathize without limits. Imagine being in permanent osmosis with everything around you.
Highly sensitive people often hear things like: “You are too sensitive,” “Stop taking everything to heart”, or my favorite “You should really toughen up.” The fundamental message is clear: to be highly sensitive is to be highly flawed. I used to agree with that. I always thought I should come with some sort of warning sign or a disclaimer: “careful: highly sensitive.”
Now, let me share with you a few of the perks of being a highly sensitive person. For one, I have an intensely overactive mind, which means it’s impossible to switch off. That also means that insomnia is my best friend. As you can imagine, that comes in particularly handy the night before a TED talk.
Also I cannot watch scary or violent movies because the images seem to haunt me forever.
I often wondered What good could it possibly do me to be this way? Well, the gifts of sensitivity slowly crept up on me. I’ve come to learn to love that I deeply and easily connect with others and also that I have a strong intuition that guides me like an infallible GPS. It was only at the age of 25 that I came across a book that changed my life: The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron. I could finally put a name to my overwhelmingly technicolor experience of life, and it gave me hope that there were others like me. In this book she describes highly sensitive people, or in short HSPs, as people who have a genetic trait of sensory processing sensitivity. That’s quite a mouthful.
And surprisingly, 15% to 20% of the population is HSP. Now, she uses the wonderful acronym “DOES” to summarize the core traits of HSPs.
D – depth of processing. As HSPs, we have a phenomenal ability to deeply analyze absolutely everything.
O – overstimulation. We get quickly overwhelmed by the world around us.
E – empathy. HSPs feel what others feel.
S – awareness of subtleties. HSPs are like a finely tuned sensor; they can pick up on the minutest things.
As you can see, being an HSP is about far more than emotional reactivity.
I would like to address the two big elephants in the room when it comes to HSP stereotypes. The first assumption is that HSPs must simply be undercover introverts that wanted a fancier name. The fact of the matter is, 30% of HSPs are actually extroverts, which means we cannot park them in the convenient “quiet wallflower” category, HSPs come in many shades of pastel.
Secondly, because of the supposed femininity of HSP traits, many assume that HSPs are women. It may come as a surprise that 50% of HSPs are, in fact, men. In our society, men are not supposed to be sensitive but aggressive and competitive. Sadly, the notion that men can be both sensitive and strong is still too much of an alien concept.
Now, it is a good time to tell you that I don’t think HSPs are better or worse than anyone else; they are simply different. I would also like to point out that despite the rumors, that they are not members of “The Special Snowflake Society”, and also, HSPs don’t have a secret handshake to identify each other either.
HSPs are like everyone else except that they experience the world in a more vivid way. And if you think that all HSPs are alike, that is not true; no two HSPs are the same. Every HSP has their own unique sensitive fingerprint alongside other identity markers like gender, ethnicity, and cultural and personal background.
I would also like to point out that being an HSP is not an illness, and it is also not a choice. It is a genetic trait. We are essentially born to be mild. Every time you tell an HSP they are “too sensitive”, it’s like telling someone with blue eyes that their eyes are too blue. Chances are, no matter how often you tell them, you’ll still have the same blue eyes looking back at you.
As a society, we have come to think of sensitivity as a flaw, an unfortunate, emotional Achilles heel, that tempers with our ability to become ever more optimized, detached, and robotic. We all too readily belittle the idealists, the dreamers, and the creators. This was, however, not always the case.
In previous centuries, philanthropists, philosophers, poets, artists, and painters were all venerated for their sensitive contribution to society. Who would we be without Leonardo da Vinci or without a Mozart? Without Anaïs Nin or Balzac? Or Mother Teresa or Gandhi? Our world would certainly be a shade darker.
Now, I’m not suggesting that all HSPs are geniuses that shaped the world. But, most HSPs have a genuine urge to create connection and meaning. Because they feel every pain they see, they want to elevate the forgotten and save the misfortunate. When HSPs try to hide their sensitivity to fit in, we all lose. For wouldn’t a society that lacks the beating heart of sensitive creation, one that discredits imagination, intuition, and empathy be poorer? I believe so. That is why I think we need to urgently start to accept and appreciate sensitivity for the temperature regulating effect it has on an often hot headed world.
I believe we’re all sensitive to different degrees and in different ways. HSPs are simply at the far end of the spectrum. That is why how we think and talk about sensitivity concerns all of us. We need to come together as a society to rewrite the negative cultural narrative about sensitivity, and turn it into a positive one. We need to erase the notion that sensitivity is a weakness to finally benefit from its many strengths. By doing so, we will create an environment where everybody is safe to express their softer side, not just HSPs.
How can we go back to creating more positive awareness and acceptance for sensitivity? On a public level, I believe the two most urgent changes need to happen in schools and in the workplaces.
In schools, we need to better train our teachers to recognize and understand sensitive children. And for parents and teachers alike, the often well-meant desire to toughen them up, to survive in the big, mean world out there, needs to stop. We should not try to force sheep into wolves’ clothing.
On a corporate level, the system is set up to favor those with steel elbows. Because sensitive people typically are more soft spoken and co-operative instead of competitive, they often get left behind on the corporate ladder. To change this, we need to create an environment where all personality types can flourish, and not just a select few. That is why I believe, for corporations, it is in their own best interest to invite sensitive people to the table. Because without sensitives they risk lacking innovation, integrity, and ultimately, humanity.
On a personal level, we can all make an impact simply by refraining from judging the delicate difference of the sensitives around us. The next time you feel like telling someone, “You’re too sensitive!” I would ask you to stop and pause. Fill that pause with understanding. You will see that the simple act of acceptance will uplift both of you.
To my fellow HSPs, I say: „Take heart and be unashamedly yourselves. Stop trying to toughen up. Stop hiding; you’re beautiful as you are. Don’t feel weird, because it’s not you who can be considered wrong but rather a world in which corruption, violence, and greed are the norm. As [Jiddu] Krishnamurti said: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
When I was a little girl, I loved chasing butterflies in our garden and I admired their fragile beauty. I felt a deep urge to protect them, so I decided to trap them in little mason jars filled with grass and flowers, to keep them safe with me in my room. I quickly understood: butterflies do not like captivity. This made me understand: they did not need to be rescued, their colorful contribution to the natural ecosystem was exactly as it should be. Similarly, HSPs should not hide away from the pain of this world in a protective incubator. It is their role to step up and share their sensitive gifts with all of us.
I believe, as humans, we are all united by our experience of sensitivity and empathy. Also I don’t believe you need to be an HSP to care and to make a difference. We are facing grave political, cultural, and environmental problems today. Now, more than ever, we need the contribution of sensitive minds and hearts to pave a path for the troubled times ahead. The more we all allow ourselves to connect to our innate sensitive gifts, the more we can heal ourselves and the planet we live on. Inspired by John Lennon who perhaps wrote the biggest sensitivity anthem of all times with “Imagine“, let me close by saying: please, don’t tell me I’m a dreamer, for I know I’m not the only sensitive one. Have faith that you’ll join hands with me to make this world a gentler one.”