If you are someone who cries in the movies, or senses when a friend is hurt without being told, you may be called sensitive. Your empathy is easily triggered. If you notice subtle flavors in a fancy chocolate dessert, you might be said to have a sensitive palate. You notice things others might miss.
But what if you become worried about fictional characters, as I do sometimes, or miss them when they’re gone? Crazy? What if you made the chocolate dessert, and feel hurt by a harsh criticism, or offended by a politician’s joke? You might be told you take things too personally, or too seriously. If you avoid stepping on bugs, you might be called hypersensitive.
What if you feel overwhelmed with big loud parties, sparkly holiday lights, and joyful music blasting in public places? You might be called a grinch. (Good luck, if you are an introvert in our extroverted culture, in an extroverted season.) Is there such a thing as excessive sensitivity to noise or nuances of speech, and does it call for treatment, or does the very question reflect a bias of our times?
If any of this sounds familiar, you might be among the 15-20% of us who psychologist Elaine Aron calls “Highly Sensitive People” (HSP). She has researched this personality type for 20 years, and made some interesting observations. There is a neurological basis for our quirks; our brains work differently. 70% of us are introverts. We do typically notice more than others, which doesn’t always make you popular; the extra information takes longer to process, so we take longer to make decisions; we are more sensitive to light, sound, and coffee, etc; and we experience emotions more intensely than others. As a result, we are more easily hurt, even by the suffering of others. What used to be pathologized, labelled as fragility, shyness or neurosis – a symptom cluster that certainly makes you eligible for treatment – may, as it turns out, be a reasonable way for the HSP among us to stay sane in what feels like a harsh world. Maybe we are also more easily amused?
In short, you may not be crazy. And you certainly don’t need to defend yourself.
Being highly sensitive may seem like a mixed blessing; the majority, who do not experience it, are statistically “normal,” and sometimes greet HSP traits with resentment. Some of them may be your relatives. WebMD addresses this in an article called Are You Too Sensitive? The author, Helen Kirwan-Taylor, acknowledges that she initially wondered whether HSP would expect special treatment, or force everyone else to “walk on eggshells”. Awkward, to realize that others experience your comments, or the volume of your music, differently from the way you do. But wouldn’t you want to know?
If you think you might be an HSP, there are lots of online resources for coping in a world that has a slightly different operating system from yours. You know that a topic has gone mainstream when Psychology Today has a blog about it, called Sense and Sensitivity. Facebook also has a Highly Sensitive People Support Network.
Being highly sensitive, needless to say, offers gifts as well as challenges. Psychologist Douglas Eby has written about the 5 Gifts of Being Highly Sensitive, for the Psych Central blog. He observes that the HSP can detect more subtle differences of color or taste or sound, and often has greater awareness of inner emotional states, which is helpful if you happen to be a writer, a musician, or an artist. Heightened empathy can be a great resource for teachers and healers. A Highly Sensitive Person is likely to notice nuances of meaning, and therefore weigh possibilities more carefully before acting. (Note: this seriously gets on people’s nerves, even if they benefit from the result.)
Not surprising, if an HSP feels different from others. There is no minimizing the seriousness of being temperamentally at odds with the majority culture. Because others may not notice or accommodate your heightened feelings, self care is critical. When you need a break from the action, take one.
At least, the knowledgement that one has a healthy trait not shared by everyone, and not a personal weakness, can be helpful. Being highly sensitive can support us in our creative work and our passion for healing the world. Naming it may help us respond well to others who may urge us to just toughen up, calm down, fit in. In the midst of a world designed for others, our ability to find peace and coherence may end up offering lessons useful to everyone. Or, who knows, it may lead to a great science fiction movie.