So What if You're Highly Sensitive? Why Does it Matter?
This is part of an ongoing series of articles about the joys and challenges of life as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). For more extensive basic background information about HSPs please read The Highly Sensitive Person: An Introduction which also contains an index of all my other HSP-related articles.
Why do I spend so much time talking about HSPs?
I quite often run into people-- HSPs and non-HSPs; health professionals and lay people alike-- who will listen to my story and then make some statements along the lines of "Well, sure there are highly sensitive people; sure high sensitivity is a 'real' thing. But so what? Why does it matter? Why are you always out there talking about this trait like it's something really important to people? I don't see how it makes any practical difference in the outcome of someone's life. You just need to accept you have this trait and deal with it."
In some ways, these folks are well-meaning. In their paradigm, the outcome of life doesn't depend on "knowing yourself." Their intent is good because they perceive all that self-study as people getting mired down, rather than just enjoying life.
Of course, some folks are just plain offended by the idea of there being labels that differentiate people... period. Others are offended by the implication that because some people are "highly sensitive," others (including them) must be IN-sensitive. Then there are people who-- even though quite well-meaning-- assert that high sensitivity is nothing more than the "New Age Pop Psychology Concept of the Month." Yet another group assert that high sensitivity is "nonsense," because "ALL people are basically sensitive, in their own way."
So Why Bother?
Many of these statements tend to come up because the person I am speaking to really doesn't have a clear understanding of what "High Sensitivity" actually is, in a scientific context. Their opinion is based on (often negative) societal and pop culture definitions of what someone allegedly "sensitive" is about. They also seem concerned that the label "Highly Sensitive Person" somehow was created to allow a group of people to consider themselves special or better than.
However, the question I most often face is amounts to why I bother to always write-- and talk-- about being a Highly Sensitive Person like it's "something important." Why don't I just say "OK. Fair enough, I'm highly sensitive," and then go about my life with no further ado?
Short answer... because there are both global benefits to highly sensitive persons knowing that they are HSPs, as well as individual benefits. In addition, there's a secondary benefit to those who are not HSPs gaining at least a fundamental understanding of the trait.
Missing the Point: Senstivity is a TRAIT, not a Choice!
I should start by saying that I have no issue with people being critics of new concepts. Science-- and scientific tenets-- are established through a process of "theory and challenge." As more research is done, more facts about the what of being highly sensitive emerge. Perhaps the most consequential is the mounting evidence that the brains of highly sensitive individuals are-- quite simply-- "hard wired" differently from other brains.
Through observing people connected to EEG and fMRI equipment, it has now been shown that a "sensitive brain" and a "normal brain" actually fire different neural pathways, when exposed to the the same stimuli. This has enormous medical and psychological implications, in that it challenges and largely invalidates popularly held beliefs that sensitivity is something people can "just get over." In other words, telling a sensitive person to get over being sensitive and "just deal with it" may-- in fact-- be a bit like telling someone with size 14 feet to "just get over" having such large feet, just "deal with" wearing size 10 shoes. Of course, most of us would never do such a thing, chiefly because feet are observable and tangible, while "sensitivity" is fluid and IN-tangible.
These growing findings have similar significance to the recent research showing that differences between introverts and extraverts is actually part physiological. Studies have now specifically shown-- for example-- that extraverts access speech from short-term memory, while introverts access speech from long-term memory, offering a tangible explanation for why extraverted people tend to be "quicker" with their words, while introverts generally are slower and more "measured" in conversation.
Of course, the studies only explain some of the "base mechanics" of high sensitivity, not the reason why I believe it is so important for all HSPs to participate in the process of educating and spreading the word about high sensitivity as a trait.
Whereas the term "Highly Sensitive Person" might sound somewhat subjective to a lot of skeptics, the ongoing research has given birth to the more scientific term "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity" to describe what an HSP experiences in the world.
Let's Talk About Numbers: There are a LOT of HSPs
A significant part of my "calling" in life involves working with HSPs, and helping this particular group of individuals understand themselves a little better.
Of course, I am an HSP myself, as well as 25+ year student of psychology. And I know-- both from interacting with others, and from learning about myself-- that being highly sensitive is NOT "just in my head," as some health/mental health professionals would prefer to think.
Based on the original estimates made by Dr. Elaine Aron, 15-20% of the population fit the description of a "Highly Sensitive Person." Using even the conservative end of those numbers, there are at least 45 million people in the US alone, who fit the HSP description!
And yet, on a GOOD day? Maybe... maybe 3-5 million are aware that the strange "quirks" and moods, and their desire to find time alone, their tendency to get easily overwhelmed by external stimuli are all the biproduct of high sensitivity, rather than depression, anxiety, shyness, sensory integration disorder, SAD or some other "illness."
Even if you're not an HSP, odds are you know someone who is.
Are you a highly sensitive person?
If you don't know, here's a quick and easy "sensitivity self-test." Take the quiz... and post a comment to let me know how it went, and if the outcome was surprising, or "what you'd expected."
One of the primary reasons it truly matters to know... is because it you don't choose to know, you could be trying to get treatment for something that's not a treatable condition, and feeling the frustration and defeat of "nothing changing."
Back to the "Sensitivity Awareness Crusade:" WHY does it matter?
As you can see from the above statistic, highly sensitive people represent a very large but often overlooked group in our society. This is not just an issue of concern to "a handful of people with some strange psychological condition." Just the fact-- alone-- that maybe only 10% of HSPs are actually aware that they are HSPs makes it important to increase public awareness of the trait.
The most important issue, however, is that some of the natural manifestations of high sensitivity are "lookalikes" when put side-by-side with anxiety disorders, depression, shyness, social phobia, ADHD and various other conditions which are "medicalized" by our society and treated with pharmaceuticals and other treatment methods.
Why is this so important?
To reiterate the final point from above, even as you are reading this, millions of people are being ineffectively treated and drugged for (mis)diagnosed "conditions" that are nothing more than the natural manifestations of the highly attuned nervous system that's an integral part of being a highly sensitive person.
I should know.
I was repeatedly told to "get help" for Social Anxiety. And yet? I never disliked or feared people-- in fact I like the company of people. Social situations do not make me anxious. They merely exhaust me, very quickly... for no reason other than I take in a lot more stimuli from my environment than most people, and thus wear out more quickly.
I've come to understand that it's about how I process information from my environment, not about a "disorder." If most therapists "had their way with me" my brain would not only be dulled by some medication, but I would still be getting exhausted around groups of people!
If you are genuinely an HSP, be part of the Solution!
And that, in a nutshell, is why I continue to spread the word about high sensitivity as a trait, and why I continue to do my part to help HSPs around the world become more informed. We cannot afford to maintain a status quo in which high sensitivity continues to be treated as a treatable pathology.
This is also why I encourage all the HSPs I meet to become active catalysts in helping to generate more and broader awareness of high sensitivity. It benefits not only you, but the world, in general. "Hiding" your sensitivity for fear of judgment does nobody-- least of all yourself-- any good. Nothing will ever change.
Of course, there are some who may still not "see the point." They'll agree that perhaps there's "something" to the whole "high sensitivity thing" but then might suggest that there's no reason to care because "it isn't going to kill you, and it doesn't cost society anything." Typically, those who argue from this perspective are very pragmatic folks who are somewhat suspicious of things that can't be measured, counted, or seen.
In return, I ask them why we bother to spread awareness of such things as Dyslexia, or ADHD. Those don't "kill you," either. Typically I get the reply that spreading awareness about these helps create more productive and well-integrated people, as well as saving society billions of dollars in wasted education, and subsequent lost productivity in the workplace.
To which I ask "And this is different from billions of dollars being wasted on the medical and psychological treatment of what's actually something that falls within the range of normal human experience... exactly HOW and in what ways?"
I have no expectations that HSPs should want to become "crusaders for change," I'm merely encouraging anyone who's highly sensitive to be part of the ongoing process of quietly making changes-- when they can-- rather than just letting things slide by. Share articles and books with people you know; post articles (maybe like this one) to your Facebook page or blog. After all, we're HSPs... so it'll be a "quiet revolution!"
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