Perhaps you grew up hearing, “Why are you so sensitive? Lighten up!” Or, you may have been told the even more frustrating, “Don’t be so sensitive!” You may as well have been told, “Don’t have such blue eyes!”
The reality is that no one chooses to have a highly sensitive temperament, any more than we choose our eye color, height, or predisposition to an illness. To make matters worse, most of us are socialized to see sensitivity as a weakness, and to the extent that we come to believe it to be a weakness, we then struggle with self-esteem. Sensitive children hear a great deal of criticism from parents, teachers, coaches, and peers: “Toughen up!” “Shake it off!” “Get over it!”
Of course not all highly sensitives have all of the same characteristics. Some of us are brought to tears of joy by a beautiful song or the innocence of a newborn infant. Some, myself included, cringe and feel physical pain if faced with the sight of a child (or an animal) being abused. Torture scenes in movies are unbearable for many of us, although we’re fully aware that the events are fictional.
This “strong and unexplainable reaction to both violence and beauty” is one of 13 challenges that only highly sensitive people truly understand. Other common traits include a dislike for loud noises and crowded places, high anxiety when under time pressure, and the hellish feeling that comes with having to function on very little sleep. These may be stressful situations for many people, but they are more intensely aggravating to Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP’s).
The concept of an HSP is based upon measurements of individuals' responses to stimuli, also called their Sensory Processing Sensitivity. This degree of responsiveness was initially measured by psychologist Elaine Aron and her husband Arthur Aron during the 1990s. The team then developed a scale, the HSPS questionnaire, to help individuals identify and differentiate among types of sensitivity. Research has indicated that HSPs process even minor stimuli deeply, due to biological differences in their central nervous systems. Since they feel deeply and think about emotional events more deeply, they also get overwhelmed more easily.
It is critical to understand that sensitivity is a temperament—an aspect of personality, such as introversion or extroversion, which is believed to be innate rather than learned. It has been estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the population has a Highly Sensitive temperament. It occurs about equally for men and women. Being an HSP is not considered to be a disorder or malfunction. Unfortunately, in spite of being a significant percentage of the population, HSPs are still not well understood, and their particular challenges are not often recognized.
There have been some revealing studies, which evidence that the higher sensitivity of HSPs is due to differences in neurotransmitters (dopamine), as well as the higher activity in their systems of mirror neurons. The mirror neuron system has been studied by neuroscientists for over two decades as a major factor in how we learn motor skills by observing others perform that skill, such as kicking a soccer ball. There have been conflicting conclusions about their importance in the development of autism. However, according to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, “Mirror neurons are obviously the starting point for things like empathy.”
High sensitivity has also been linked to a gene that is associated with an increased vividness of the emotional experience. In other words, there is a genetic basis for the more intense and vivid experiences of HSPs. This is evidenced by a difference in activity in the part of the brain which is involved in processing emotion and sensory data (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC).
For those of us who identify with the examples described here, it can be difficult to accept these sensitivities as a part of who we are. We live in a society that moves at a fast pace and constantly pressures us to do more and take on more. Self-care, including rest and relaxation, is not highly valued within our culture. It is helpful when we are able to question the societal norms that direct us to do more and be more productive without regard for the cost to our emotional well-being.
We also need to learn to value our sensitivity and see the potential strength inherent in it. Being highly sensitive often includes being highly empathic toward those close to us. The capacity for empathic responses is a trait that benefits our relationships.
High sensitivity is also associated with high levels of creativity and a more keen awareness of subtleties. Many HSPs are able to make connections between ideas and facts more intuitively than non-HSPs. This can enhance our ability to synthesize information and to present it to others in novel ways. In terms of emotional experiences, the intense joy that is felt by an HSP is at least as powerful as the distress due to overwhelm. For me personally, the positives outweigh the negatives. However, that balance only came after years of working toward the acceptance of myself as I am, so that I can make accommodations as needed. As with any other challenges in life, understanding and acceptance are critical to overcoming the obstacles.
There are excellent resources available both online and in print for those who are working toward the acceptance of high sensitivity in themselves or a loved one. The following is a sampling of these sources. I am confident that you’ll find articles and books which are highly relatable, encouraging, and helpful. For the HSP men, there will be additional resources in the near future, including the First International Highly Sensitive Men’s Conference, March 14-15, 2020.
Aron, Elaine N. (1996). The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Aron, Elaine N. (2002). The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Aron, Elaine N. (2000). The Highly Sensitive Person In Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Falkenstein, Tom (2019). The Highly Sensitive Man: Finding Strength in Sensitivity. New York, NY: Kensington Publishers.
Zeff, Tedd (2004). The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publishers.
Zeff, Tedd (2010). The Strong, Sensitive Boy. San Ramon, CA: Prana Publishing.