Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Beautiful Truths About Being a Highly Sensitive Human

"Am I too much for the world, or is the world too much for me?"

Being intense and sensitive—seeing the world through different eyes and feeling the world on a distinctive wavelength—does not lay an easy path.

You are most likely a deep thinker, an intuitive feeler, and an extraordinary observer. You are prone to existential depression and anxiety, but you also know beauty and rapture. When art or music moves you, you are flooded with waves of joy and ecstasy. As a natural empathiser, 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 cultural "shoulds" and "musts." In school, you wanted to be in the clique, but you were unable to make small talk or have shallow relationships.

At work, you want the authorities to recognise you, but your soul does not compromise on depth, authenticity, and connection.

You feel hurt for being the black sheep in the family, but your success is not recognised in a conventional way.

In these following paragraphs, I want to remind you how precious your unique life path is. Rather than pretending to be who you are not, you only do yourself and the world justice by celebrating your sensitivity and intensity.

(Read the full definition of what it means to be emotionally intense and sensitive.)

Sensitivity as a form of brain difference

Emotional sensitivity is a brain difference—an innate trait that makes one different from the normative way of functioning.

While the mass media and medical professionals are eager to use labels to diagnose people with a way of being that is different from the norm, findings in neuroscience are going in the opposite direction. More and more, the scientific community acknowledges "neurodiversity"—the biological reality that we are all wired differently. Rather than being an inconvenience to be eliminated, neurodiversity is an evolutionary advantage, something that is essential if we were to flourish as a species.

Like many brain differences, it is misunderstood. As people naturally reject what they do not understand, the emotionally sensitive ones are being pushed to the margin. Those who feel more, and seem to have a mind that operates outside of society’s norm are often outcast. 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 sometimes criticised and shunned.

The stigma attached to sensitivity is made worse by trends in the mass media. In 2014, author Bret Easton Ellis branded Millennials as narcissistic, over-sensitive, and sheltered; from there, the disparaging term "generation snowflake" went viral. The right-wing media ran with the insult. Last year, a Daily Mail article described young people as “a fragile, thin-skinned younger generation.” This notion is not only unfounded but also unjust and damaging.

The sensitive male is also misjudged and marginalised. Under the ”boys don't cry!" macho culture, those who feel more are called "weak" or "sissies," with little acknowledgment of their unique strengths. Many sensitive boys and men live lives of quiet suffering and have opted to numb their emotional pain of not fitting the male ideal with alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, or other addictions.

Being sensitive and intense is not an illness—in fact, it often points to intelligence, talents or creativity. However, after years of being misdiagnosed by health professionals, criticised by schools or workplace authority, and misunderstood by even those who are close to them, many sensitive people start to believe there is something wrong with them. Ironically, low self-esteem and loneliness make them more susceptible to having an actual mental disorder.

Some of us are born sensitive

Since the 1990s, various scientific frameworks have emerged to explain our differences in sensitivity. Some of the most prominent being 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 style based on how well they react to external stimuli and how they organize sensation. 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. In Kagan’s studies of infants, he found that a group of 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 secrets 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 at 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, sound to electromagnetic influences.

In 1995, Elaine Aron published her book Highly Sensitive People, bringing the idea into the mainstream. Aron defines high sensitivity as a distinct personality trait that affects as many as 15-20 percent of the population—too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority.

Here are a set of 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, performance, or nature
  • "Pick up" others moods or have them affect you more than most
  • Being sensitive to pain or other physical sensations
  • A quiet environment is essential to you
  • Feel 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

The orchids and the dandelions

But does being born sensitive destine one to lifelong unhappiness and turmoil? To answer this question, Thomas Boyce, M.D., founded the "Orchid and Dandelion" theory.

Combining years of experience as a paediatrician, and results from empirical studies, Dr. Boyce and his team found that most children, approximately 80 percent of the population, are like dandelions—they can survive almost every environmental circumstances. The remaining 20 percent 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 behaviours, dandelion children are unperturbed.

But sensitivity does not equal vulnerability. Many of Dr. Boyce’s orchid children patients have grown up to become eminent adults, magnificent parents, intelligent and generous citizens of the world. As it turns out; sensitive children respond to not just the negative but also the positive. Their receptivity to the environment can also bring a reversal of fortune.

Orchid children’s receptivity applies to not just physical sensations, but also relational experiences such as warmth or indifference. In critical, undermining setting, they may devolve into despair, but in a supportive and nurturing environment, they thrive even further more than the dandelions.

The Orchid and Dandelion theory holds a provocative view of genetics, which 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 risk and potential reward (Dobbs, 2009). The very sensitive children that suffer in a precarious childhood environment are the same children most likely to flourish and prosper. They may be more prone to upsets and physical sensitivities, but they also possess the most capacity to be unusually vital, creative, and successful.

In other words, the sensitive ones are not born "vulnerable"; they are simply more responsive to their surrounding system. With the right kind of knowledge, support and nurture—even if this means replenishing what one did not get in childhood in adulthood—they can thrive like no others.

Thriving in a new world

Our world is changing. Qualities such as sensitivity, empathy, high perceptiveness—what the sensitive person excel at, are needed and celebrated.

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 systematisation, computerisation, 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 empathisers. As Pink quoted: “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. Poets, those unheralded systems thinkers, are our true digital thinkers. It is from their midst that I believe we will draw tomorrow's new business leaders.”

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, deep empathy—what were previously thought 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 the leaders. Therefore, embracing your gift of sensitivity is not just something you do for yourself, but also those around you. If you can summon the courage to stand out as a sensitive leader, you set a solid example for all others like you. The more you can free yourself from the childlike need to trade "fitting in" for authenticity, the more you can channel your gifts and serve the world.

More from Imi Lo MA
More from Psychology Today