Highly Sensitive Person: You are most likely a deep thinker, an intuitive feeler, and an extraordinary observer. You are prone to existential depression and anxiety but also know beauty and rapture. When art or music moves you, you are flooded with waves of joy and ecstasy. As a natural empathizer, you have a gift, yet you are also overwhelmed by the constant waves of social nuances and others’ psychic energies.
You might have spent your whole life trying to fit in with the mainstream culture without much success.
You wanted to be in the cool cliques in school, but you could not tolerate endless small talk or shallow relationships.
You want the authorities to recognize you at work, but your soul does not compromise on depth, authenticity, and connections.
You feel hurt for being the black sheep in the family, but your success is not recognized in a conventional way.
You may have heard of or wondered about coaching or therapy for highly sensitive people, but you do not know if it is for you.
In the following paragraphs, I want to remind you how precious your unique life path is. Rather than pretend to be who you are not, you do justice to yourself and to the world by celebrating your sensitivity and intensity.
“Sometimes I think,
need a spare heart to feel
all the things I feel.”
― Sanober Khan
Sensitivity is a Brain Difference
Emotional sensitivity is a form of brain variance— an innate trait that makes one different from the normative way of functioning.
The scientific community increasingly acknowledges ‘neurodiversity’— the biological reality that we are all wired differently. Rather than an inconvenience to be eliminated, neurodiversity has always been an evolutionary advantage, something that was essential if we were to flourish as a species.
People naturally reject what they do not understand, so emotionally sensitive individuals are often pushed to the margins. Those who feel more, and seem to have a mind that operates outside of society’s norm, are often outcasts. In the Victorian era, women who appeared emotional were given the humiliating label of ‘hysterical.’ Even today, emotional people tend to be looked down upon and are sometimes criticized and shunned.
Being sensitive and intense is not an illness; it often points to intelligence, talent, or creativity. However, after years of being misdiagnosed by health professionals, criticized by school authorities, and misunderstood by even those close to them, many sensitive people start to believe something is wrong with them. Ironically, low self-esteem and loneliness make them more susceptible to developing an actual mental disorder.
Some People Are Born Highly Sensitive
Since the 1990s, various scientific frameworks have emerged to explain our differences in sensitivity. Some of the most prominent are sensory processing sensitivity, ‘differential susceptibility theory’, and ‘biological sensitivity to context’ (Lionetti et al., 2018).
From birth, we differ in our neurological makeup. Each baby has their own style based on how well they react to external stimuli and how they organize sensations. Medical professionals use tools like the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) to measure such differences.
Harvard developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan was amongst the first scholars to examine sensitivity as a brain difference. Kagan’s studies of infants found that some infants are more aroused and distressed by novel stimuli— a stranger coming into the room, a noxious smell. To these cautious infants, any new situation is a potential threat.
On closer examination, sensitive infants have different biochemical reactions when exposed to stress. Their system secretes higher levels of norepinephrine (our brain’s version of adrenaline) and stress hormones like cortisol. In other words, they have a fear system that is more active than most.
Since the regions of the brain that receive signals for potential threats are extra reactive, these children are not geared to process a wide range of sensations in a single moment. Even as adults, they are more vulnerable to stress-related disease, chronic pain and fatigue, migraine headaches, and environmental stimuli ranging from smell, sight, and sound to electromagnetic influences.
The ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ Idea
In 1995, Elaine Aron published her book ‘Highly Sensitive Person’(HSP), bringing the idea into the mainstream. Aron defines high sensitivity as a distinct personality trait that affects as many as 15-20% of the population. In recent years, therapy for highly sensitive persons has become an emerging trend.
What is moderately arousing to most people, such as crowds or constant noises like clock ticking, can be overwhelming for HSPs. Research has found that the brains of highly sensitive people have more activity in the right hemisphere. They also have more reactive immune systems (allergies) and more sensitive nervous systems. Thus, being an HSP can also lead to physical sensitivities to loud noises, bright lights, humming television, and even fabrics (such as tags on clothing).
Some HSPs feel that seeing things ‘out of alignment’ can be distressing, hence they are often described as ‘perfectionists’. Up to 70% of HSPs are introverted, and many also require more private time than others in order to feel replenished. This sensitivity trait is just as likely among men as among women; both represent about 20% of the population.
These sensitivities are often identifiable from an early age. In most cases, these children are labelled as ‘weird’, ‘sensitive’, or ‘shy’. Like their adult counterparts, they are easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. However, depending upon temperaments and parenting, the behaviours they demonstrate can vary – from being ‘difficult’, active, emotionally intense, demanding and persistent, to being calm, inward, and almost too easy to raise.
There has been a lot of discussion about the connection between Highly Sensitive People and introversion, primarily inspired by Susan Cain’s work ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’. Despite Cain’s discussion of “introversion” is almost identical to the standard definition of high sensitivity, it is claimed that 30% of HSPs are extroverted and the two traits are separate entities.
Here are some of the HSP traits in Aron’s original conception:
– Noticing sounds, sensations, and smells that others miss (e.g., clock ticking, the humming noise from a refrigerator, uncomfortable clothing)
– Feeling moved on a visceral level by things like art, music and performance, or nature
– ‘Picking up’ others’ moods or having them affect you more than most
– Being sensitive to pain or other physical sensations
– A quiet environment is essential for you
– Feeling uneasy or overwhelmed in a busy and crowded environment
– Sensitivity to caffeine
– Startle/blush easily
– Dramatic impact on your mood
– Having food sensitivities, allergies, asthma
Some people are going to reject you simply because you shine too bright for them. And that’s okay. Keep shining.
Orchids and Dandelions
But does being born sensitive destine one to lifelong unhappiness and turmoil? MD Thomas Boyce answered this in his ‘Orchid and Dandelion’ theory.
Dr Boyce and his team found that most children, approximately 80% of the population, are like dandelions— they can survive almost every environmental circumstance. The remaining 20% are like orchids; they are exquisitely sensitive to their environment and vulnerable under conditions of adversity. This theory explains why siblings brought up in the same family might respond differently to family stress. While orchid children are affected by even the most subtle differences in their parents’ feelings and behaviors, dandelion children are unperturbed.
Sensitivity does not equal vulnerability. Many of Dr Boyce’s orchid patients have grown up to become eminent adults, magnificent parents, and intelligent and generous citizens of the world. As it turns out, sensitive children respond to not just negative influences but also positive ones. Their receptivity to the environment can also bring a reversal of fortune.
Orchid children’s receptivity applies to physical sensations and relational experiences such as warmth or indifference. They may devolve into despair in critical, undermining settings, but in a supportive and nurturing environment, they thrive even better than the dandelions.
The Orchid and Dandelion theory asserts that the very genes that give us the most challenges also underlie the most remarkable qualities. Sensitivity is like a ‘highly leveraged evolutionary bet’ that carries both high risks and potential rewards’ (Dobbs, 2009). The very sensitive children that suffer in a precarious childhood environment are the same children most likely to flourish and prosper. In fact, they have the most capacity to be unusually vital, creative, and successful.
In other words, the sensitive ones are simply more responsive to their surrounding system. With the right kind of knowledge, support and nurture— even if this means replenishing in adulthood what one did not get in childhood — they can thrive like no others.
Beyond the ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ Concept
You may wonder: The Highly Sensitive Person concept seems to describe me to a T; how is this work different from other coaching or therapy for highly sensitive people?
In my work in Eggshell Transformations, I have expanded the definition of emotional sensitivity to include a dimension of intensity. In my research and experience of working with highly sensitive people, I have found that there is a group of people— perhaps a subgroup of highly sensitive people— who are not only ‘sensitive’, but also exceptionally intense, passionate, perceptive, and creative. If you are one of them, the term “sensitivity” is simply inadequate to describe the spectrum of how you experience life.
In the dictionary, a sensitive person is “capable of perceiving with a sense or senses, responsive to external conditions or stimulation, susceptible to slight differences or changes in the environment.” Those who are sensitive are “easily irritated, predisposed to inflammation,” and “easily hurt, upset, or offended” (American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 2011). Although this traditional definition of sensitivity captures your ability to be highly aware of your surroundings, it only showcases your personality’s reactive and passive aspects.
In contrast, here is the dictionary definition of intensity: “having great energy, strength, concentration, vehemence, etc., as of activity, thought, or feeling,” and having “a high degree of emotional excitement; depth of feeling.” (Random House Dictionary, 2016) Being emotionally intense means, you are sensitive and full of passion, emotive energy, and vigor.
Just as laid out in Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) framework, you may possess a rich and complex inner life and relish fine or delicate tastes, scents, sounds, and works of art. Because of that, you are acutely aware of the subtleties of your environment. Just like the HSPs, you are usually highly empathic and can sense what needs to be done in a given situation to make others comfortable. Your sponge-like ability to soak up information makes you sensitive to the moods of others. However, you are sensitive and passionate— perhaps an idealist or a romantic. When in your most natural state, you feel vividly alive.
Another issue that is worth considering, beyond the current advice for HSPs, is energy and stimulation management for the emotionally intense and sensitive.
In the original HSP concept, sensitive individuals are described as those who are startled or rattled easily, and they were advised to make it a high priority to arrange their life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations. It is believed that changes can shake up the HSP, and competition or observation can lead to nervousness or shakiness (except for a small subgroup of “sensation-seeking” HSPs who seek out novelty and risk). As a result, most HSP self-help books focus on managing over-stimulation, and many therapists and coaches who work with HSPs concentrate on offering guidance on how to limit them. (Aron, 2013)
However, emotionally intense and gifted people are not necessarily stimulant-phobic. In fact, they need a certain degree of stimulation to maintain their optimal level of functioning. To be physically and psychologically well they must also be generative and creative and have found their “sweet spot” of balance where they can consistently enter a creative flow state. Yes, they need to be mindful of the amount of stimulation they let into their life, but they must also avoid being under-aroused. Under-stimulation is just as problematic as over-stimulation and can hold ramifications for all aspects of life, including work, love relationships, and daily activities. This is most often the missing piece in existing therapy for the highly sensitive person. Our work will tackle the issues that come with both ends of the spectrum. For instance, we will explore how partners that “under-stimulate” the gifted brain can bring about unique challenges. The key to the health and wellness of the emotionally intense is to find the right intellectual, emotional and physical stimulation rather than simply limiting exposure to the world.
Thriving as a Highly Sensitive Person
In Daniel Pink’s book, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future”, he pointed out that our society has arrived at a point in which systematization, computerization, and automation are giving way to new skills such as intuition, creativity, and empathy. For more than 100 years, the sequential, linear, and logical were praised. As we move towards a different economic era, the world’s leaders will need to be creators and empathizers. As Pink says: “I say, ‘ Get me some poets as managers.’ Poets are our original systems thinkers. They contemplate the world in which we live and feel obligated to interpret and give expression to it in a way that makes the reader understand how that world runs.”
It is clear that humanity is calling for a different way of being and a redefinition of power. In today’s world, people yearn to be led by empathy rather than force. Even in the most ego-driven corporate space, we hear people saying things like ‘trust your gut instinct’, ‘follow your intuition’, or ‘watch the energy in the room’. Sensitivity, emotional intensity, and deep empathy- what were previously thought of as weaknesses are now much-valued qualities that make you stand out.
We are in a time where the previously highly sensitive and empathic misfits rise to become leaders.
Claiming your place in the world is not just an act of courage but also a form of noble public service. By showing up to the world as the sensitive empath that you are, you are championing not just your own rights but also those of all the passionate and porous souls that came before you and will come after you. By standing up for yourself when others call you a ‘drama queen’ or ‘too this and that,’ you are helping your soul sisters and brothers fight against injustice. Being unapologetically honest about your emotional reality is not only personally healing, but also transpersonally meaningful.
“ I want to unfold. I don’t want to be folded anywhere, because where I am folded, here I am a lie” – Rilke.
False Belonging, True Belonging
We must learn to see the differences between true belongingness and false belongingness.
We must honor our truths more than the mere need for fusion with the masses.
False belongingness is drowning in our need to win social approval.
It is silencing our truths as sensitive humans to make others feel comfortable.
It is hiding our gifts to trade popularity for real respect.
True belongingness looks nothing like that.
It does not come from disowning any parts of us.
With true belongingness, we feel safe.
Being seated in our true home offers deep contentment and tranquillity— the opposite of a roller coaster ride of social anxiety, perfectionism, and fear of rejection.
When we love only parts of us and reject others, self-criticism, inability to forgive oneself, guilt, and envy can seep in through the cracks.
True belonging is embracing the fullness of who we are and rejecting none of it- we love our sensitivity, intensity, and empathy.
At the core of True Belongingness, we find a deep friendship and sacred communion with ourselves.
It is knowing no matter what happens in the wild and precarious world, we have our own back.
It is the capacity to be alone, to have fun in a party of one, to seek support in a tribe of one, and to feel loved in a community of one.
Only when we have found a home within ourselves can we be ready for genuine belongingness in the world?
By accepting ourselves fully, we earn self-esteem and self-respect. Then, naturally, we know where our boundaries are, and who to invite in or keep out.
Given the option between contorting ourselves to fit in and being free, we choose the latter.
When we come to see how finite our time is in this world, we can no longer tolerate anything or anyone that does not honor our fullest self as sensitive humans.
Deep down, we know that.
The most threatening thing in life is not that others would abandon us,
But that we abandon ourselves.
Some of the most important endeavors in life are
To peel off layers of social conditioning and find our true selves,
To become our own best friend, parent, guardian,
And to preserve the dignity of our souls at all costs.
Return home to you; your beautiful soul is waiting for you.