What Does it Mean to be a Highly Sensitive Person?
As science has advanced, our ability to better see and understand how the mind works (both in ourselves as well as with other species) has markedly improved. A person’s temperament, personality, and preferences…aspects of ourselves we used to think of as being some combination of voodoo magic and parental guidance…is now something we can start to map in the human brain.
The nature vs. nurture argument has never been more blurred.
Through our exploration, we stumbled onto some pretty neat discoveries. We now understand, for example, that there is a subset of people (about 15 – 20 percent) who have a genetic trait which identifies them as being “Highly Sensitive People” (HSP). It’s an inheritable trait, and it’s found not only in humans, but in a number of other species in the animal kingdom.
People with this trait tend to:
- Feel easily overstimulated and overwhelmed in areas that have large crowds or a lot of sensory output. (Think Vegas….)
- But in compensation, they are also easily amused. They tend to appreciate subtlety. They tend to process their surroundings more deeply, and are therefore often drawn to art, music, and quiet spaces in nature.
- They tend to have good spidey senses when it comes to other people’s emotional landscape. Others around them might say they were intuitive. Mostly, though, it’s simply because they pay close attention. They notice small tells.
- They have a rich and thoughtful inner life – and often appreciate having long periods of time alone to process and digest their thoughts.
- They tend to get hangry when not fed regularly.
- They tend to be extremely conscientious – and as a result are usually very productive and easy to work with.
- Because they feel rather deeply, they are frequently – though not always – interested in “making a difference”…thus this is a group drawn toward entrepreneurship, art, leadership, coaching, consulting, and freelancing.
- The trouble is…because their processing system is perpetually trying to process EVERYTHING deeply, and they are likely to pick up on more sensory data than the average person, they can easily become overstimulated. If left unchecked, that can lead to a sense of fatigue and/or anxiety in the short term. It can lead to chronic illness, adrenal failure, full blown anxiety disorder, chronic depression and even suicide in the long term.
In many cases, these folks go entirely unnoticed. They won’t have a neon light on their forehead. They won’t fall to pieces at the drop of a dime. They are not made of tissue paper. They aren’t lazy bums who need to be committed. They are also not magicians or mind readers with mental telepathy. They are quite simply a group of people who, like anyone else, is trying to find their way in the world.
In a nutshell, this is a group of people who represent a large minority. But they are trying to make a life in a world that caters to the majority.
The Challenge HSP’s Face…
Up until this point, highly sensitive people have been faced with what can feel like a lose-lose choice.
- Option 1: I can engage in the world fully on the WORLD’S terms, sharing my unique insights, creativity, and warmth…but sacrifice my physical and emotional health OR
- Option 2: I can bury my head in the sand, retreat into the mountains somewhere, and feel physically and emotionally balanced…but sacrifice connection, community, and meaning in the process.
I’m here to tell you there is a third option. You can engage in the world fully, find meaning and connection without sacrificing your health and sanity in the process.
Not only is this a valid option…it’s imperative that you take it.
What’s Stopping Them?
Unfortunately, the classic American narrative has left this group feeling like there simply must be something wrong with them. Sensitive? Seriously? Geez. I sure hope it isn’t contagious…
The American Mantra often includes phrases like:
- Suck it up, buttercup
- No pain, no gain
- Pull yourself up by your boostraps!
Now don’t get me wrong. There is a LOT to be said for that gung-ho go-get-em attitude. Life can be challenging, and it takes a bit of gumption to be successful. I don’t want to confuse “sensitive” with “snowflake.”
Having said all that, the standard American story insists on a very particular way of doing things. It asks it’s audience to push hard against life. It demands everything from us. No exception. It’s the jack-hammer of worldviews. And when it comes to highly sensitive people, most of the time a simple hammer and nail will do the trick.
Highly sensitive people, in the U.S. have thus been lead to believe that they are weak. Other. Underdeveloped. Emotional. Too easily bruised.
So we hide. Either behind a wall or behind a mask. But either way, we’re hiding.
How Might It Be Different?
The irony is that we are hiding at the very time when the world needs us most. When highly sensitive people are able to practice even a moderate amount of self-care, they bring a LOT to the table.
They are insightful, creative, and empathetic. They are able to make connections and integrate ideas easily. They see patterns easily, and can solve seemingly insurmountable problems. These traits can make them excellent leaders, advisers, lawyers, writers, judges, healers, counselors, managers and yes…artists. Examples of highly sensitive people you may already have heard of include:
- Albert Einstein
- Nicole Kidman
- Alanis Moresette
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Charles Darwin
- Dr. Suess
- Elizabeth Gilbert
- Elaine Aron
- Lewis Howes
- Mahatma Gandhi
- Martin Luther King Jr.
- Mother Theresa
- John Lennon
- Alice Walton
- Andy Mort
- Brene Brown
- Arriana Huffington
- Amy Cuddy
- Simon Sinek
- Deepok Chopra
- Hillary Clinton
- Oprah Winfrey
- Amy Schumer
- Eckhart Tolle
- Walt Whitman
- Matt Kearney
Is there anyone in this list you would criticize for being “weak?” I would be willing to venture the answer is no. Because they aren’t weak. Quite the contrary, when highly sensitive people are able to develop a structure that works for them, they are capable of being super-heros. And the best part? They don’t have to be miserable doing it. The subjective experience of a highly sensitive person, when they are in a good groove, is phenomenal. They feel charged up. Fully alive. It can feel like the world is a magical place and people are both inspiring to you and inspired by you.
I can remember after a tear-filled break-up…I moved back to my home-town. It had been a few weeks of spending time alone. Getting sleep. Eating well. I really just focused on me. I went for a run one of those mornings and inexplicably felt like my insides were on fire. I couldn’t run fast enough. The world seemed indescribably beautiful. Alive.
I have felt those kinds of experience since then, as well. I feel that way every time I hear an especially moving song. I feel a thrill when I see a film that inspires me. A well-written passage in a book can feel like a sort of roller-coaster ride.
To the majority of people, these same experiences are pleasurable. But they don’t inspire euphoria. To incite the same kind of experience in them, they may need a bit more umph. Jumping out of an airplane. A loud concert. A battle.
But I only got there by putting in a LOT of work. It took self-exploration. It took academic research. It took help from insightful healers (mainstream and otherwise). Bit by bit, I started to understand how my little system worked. I learned how to not only accept how I am built, but really and truly fall in love with it.
I guess that’s why I’m so obsessed with talking about this subject. It’s why I want to badly to help others who also have this trait. Because I see what life CAN be like. I also know what it used to be like. And the joy I feel now is miles away from the frustration and exhaustion I felt a decade ago.
What about you? Can you relate to any of this? Do you identify as being “sensitive”? What experiences have you had that left you feeling breathless…and grateful to be made up exactly as you are?