By Lauren Presutti
Through online blogs and in the academic literature, you may have come across the label “highly sensitive person.” Individual qualities can vary a great deal depending on a person’s environment, mood, or emotions, so sometimes I struggle with the binary implications of this term. Can we really say that people are simply “highly sensitive” or “not highly sensitive”? Just like other qualities, it seems that the level of sensitivity a person holds is a matter of degree. We all might waver in our sensitivity, and that’s okay. Some days we might feel particularly sensitive and other days we may not. Nonetheless, this is an interesting topic to explore – what exactly does it mean to be a “highly sensitive person”?
My understanding is that highly sensitive people react more intensely to experiences than the average person. They process both positive and negative information more deeply, generally have more empathy, pay closer attention to their environment, and overall have a deeper level of cognitive processing. Highly sensitive people are also very “tuned in” to both their feelings and the feelings of others – which sometimes allows them to notice emotional and social cues that others miss. For some, even non-emotional stimuli (bright lights or loud sounds) can be more impactful to highly sensitive people. There is a whole body of research on the “highly sensitive person” – I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but it is interesting to scan the literature and see that some studies show there are actually differences in the level of neural activity of highly sensitive people, compared with their non-sensitive peers. This means it’s not just “all in your head” or something you picked up in childhood. Instead, highly sensitive people were probably born this way and have fundamental genetic differences in the brain that may account for higher levels of empathy and emotional responsiveness. Explore some research if you are curious to learn more.
So if you find yourself absorbing the world a bit more strongly than others, you may have some heightened sensitivity. Similar to managing other aspects of our lives, we have to recognize our sensitivity and find ways to make it work for us – rather than against us. To do this, we must first dismantle any negative internalized beliefs about sensitivity that others may have wrongly imposed on us. Many of us have heard the following: “Don’t be so sensitive – it’s not that big of a deal.” Or how about: “You’re too sensitive – don’t take it so personally.” Sound familiar? We live in a world where being sensitive is often equated with being weak or dramatic. People associate sensitivity with being irrationally overdramatic or overly exaggerating about our experiences and interactions. This is because sensitivity is widely misunderstood and the reactions of sensitive people can confuse (and frustrate) others.
To help mitigate some confusion, we must be willing to openly share stories and experiences that come from viewing the world through a sensitive lens. Start a conversation with others about how you perceive sensitivity – either within yourself or within others. Let it be known that being highly sensitive doesn’t make a person weak – it is not a disorder or character flaw by any means. Being sensitive might mean that we manage our day-to-day routines, relationships, work, and overall lives differently than others because we process things more deeply – but this is no different than adjusting our lifestyles to accommodate any other character difference.
Above all, being sensitive should not be regarded as a negative aspect of one’s life. I feel strongly about this – if a person is unable to cope with mental health symptoms related to his or her sensitivity, the problem is generally not the existence of sensitivity – but rather the problem is the lack of coping mechanisms and lack of self-knowledge that would allow the person to thrive with their sensitivity. It is critical to learn how to thrive with sensitivity, because once you master the art of managing this part of you, you’ll be able to view your sensitivity as a strength – not a weakness – and use it to help you succeed in your goals, build stronger relationships, and overall maintain positive mental health and wellness.
Let’s talk about the strengths of high sensitivity:
1. Stronger Emotional Skills. Highly sensitive people are emotionally strong. They are able to reflect on their emotions and articulate their thoughts and feelings in sophisticated ways. Because highly sensitive people tend to have advanced emotional skills, they are more likely to be effective in their lives because they can control, understand, and use their emotions productively. While others may struggle to openly discuss their emotions, highly sensitive people typically enjoy emotional dialogue. They honor their emotions and fully embrace emotional experiences, which strengthens them as wholesome individuals.
2. Stronger Empathy. Highly sensitive people are extremely empathetic and capable of understanding (and connecting with) almost anyone. Because they often adopt the emotions of those around them, their empathetic nature is amplified – so much so that people often come to highly sensitive people for comfort. This allows them to exist in the world as integrated beings who have superior skills for offering validation and emotional safety to others – this often brings deeper relationships with greater meaning and purpose. Of course, managing high empathy requires becoming highly adept at setting and sticking to boundaries – otherwise, high empathy can lead to burnout and self-neglect. Proceed with caution!
3. Deeper Intuition. Because highly sensitive people have remarkable processing abilities, they often have deeper intuition that can act as a guide for making wise choices. They may have an easier time trusting their intuition because their finely-tuned nervous systems stand strong in the face of complexity. When presented with difficult decisions, highly sensitive people rely on their ability to see connections that others miss and often have greater insight into the right choices for them. This can be especially useful in certain careers where high-level decisions are critical.
4. Greater Self-Awareness. Highly sensitive people are hyper tuned-in to their external surroundings – but these skills also turn inward. They understand themselves more so than the average person because they are constantly analyzing their emotions, thoughts, and reactions. Highly sensitive people strive to understand where they fit – or where they belong – in the world. This leads to greater self-awareness, which is inherently a strength because when we have a better understanding of ourselves, we are able to better take care of ourselves, capitalize on our gifts, and find our purpose in the world.
5. Heightened Creativity. Highly sensitive people tend to be innovative thinkers with strong creativity. They look at the world through a much larger lens and employ higher levels of depth and processing into their work. Creativity is the outcome of all their accumulated emotional and sensory data spilling out of their minds. When approaching projects, highly sensitive people may pull ideas from previous experiences, interactions, or ideas lingering in the back of their minds – all of which have deep, significant meaning to them. Collectively, these become the source for creative energy.
Celebrate your sensitivity – and the sensitivity around you. It is a rare gift that most people disregard, and it might be your greatest strength to use in your recovery process.