Are You Highly Sensitive?
According to psychologist Elaine Aron, PhD, approximately 15%-20% of the American population could be categorized as highly sensitive—that is, they are affected by and react stronger than most people to various stimuli. But is sensitivity a gift or a curse?
Paula is a competent and conscientious community outreach worker who recently quit her job with a social services organization. Though she valued the work and enjoyed helping people, after only one year she found herself emotionally and physically exhausted. “It was too much,” she sighed. “Too much interaction with people, too many meetings and social events, too much pressure to be outgoing.”
One might conclude that Paula is simply an introverted individual, but her situation is a bit more complicated. Actually, she was exhausted by a number of things in her environment—things that didn’t seem to bother any of her co-workers. Paula experienced her working environment as cluttered, chaotic, and too noisy. The fluorescent lights made her uncomfortable, the gray walls dampened her spirits, and she frequently felt affected by her co-worker’s moods, as if they were contagious.
What It Means to Be Highly Sensitive
Paula is a person with unusual sensitivity. According to Dr. Aron, author of the best-selling book The Highly Sensitive Person, individuals who are highly sensitive have nervous systems that are more easily aroused. They are more acutely attuned to themselves, others, and their environments. Consequently, they are more easily overwhelmed.
Even though the term “sensitivity” or “unusual sensitivity” is not a psychological diagnosis, Dr. Aron has highlighted the following traits shared by highly sensitive people:
- Well-developed intuition
- A very high level of empathy
- Love of solitude and introspection
- Strong connection to emotions (their own and others’)
- A tendency to be shy or inhibited in social situations
- Strong appreciation of beauty
- Low tolerance of strong lights and odors, noise, disorganization, and clutter
- Heightened physical and/or emotional reactivity to certain foods and stimulants
- Heightened sensitivity to change, and sometimes a tendency toward insomnia, anxiety, and depression
- The ability to concentrate deeply
- Awareness of subtleties
- Strong foresight
- Difficulty thinking, speaking, or performing while being observed
Sensitivity: Strength or Weakness?
Due to their ability to pick up on subtleties that others often fail to notice, highly sensitive people often bring a great deal of foresight and humanity to their work and relationships. They are typically conscientious, creative, and thorough. Sometimes they feel that they “care too much.”
But there is a downside to being highly sensitive. According to Dr. Aron, we live in what can be described as an “aggressive warrior culture”—one that values toughness, extroversion, and the repression of softer emotions. This has been the general trend from the boardroom to the entertainment media, and those who do not fit this cultural ideal may feel like second-class citizens. Ask highly sensitive people what bothers them the most and many will tell you: feeling misunderstood, flawed, under-valued, or even weak.
Highly sensitive people often pick up on so much in their environment that they can become overstimulated and need more “down time” than others. While those around them are enjoying large crowds, loud music, and violent movies, the highly sensitive person wants to run for cover. This is something that their less sensitive counterparts often don’t understand.
Sensitive men have an especially rough time in our society. “It is fascinating how extensively gender is confused with sensitivity,” says Dr. Aron. Men are socialized to be stoic—to not express softer emotions or cry. They may feel constant pressure from childhood on, and grow up believing that there is something deeply wrong with them when they are sensitive. These deeply ingrained cultural expectations are difficult to break, but parents can make all the difference. “When parents appreciate their sensitive boy, as an adult he will have great self-confidence,” says Dr. Aron.
Advice for the Highly Sensitive
The first step toward dealing with sensitivity—whether it’s your own or someone else’s—is to acknowledge that, despite cultural preferences, it is ultimately a gift. People need tenderness, caring, and sensitivity, even if they don’t understand it. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re sensitive, and many people will appreciate and benefit from your soothing qualities and awareness.
Find a Healthy Balance
It’s crucial for the highly sensitive to find balance. Society pushes us to conform, but sensitive people sometimes get sick and exhausted trying to be “normal.” They may mistakenly push themselves into excessive stimulation, too much socialization, or occupations that don’t fit. On the other hand, there are those who use their sensitivity as a crutch—they protect themselves at all costs, spend most of their time alone, and don’t try anything new.
The key is balance. Find an occupation that utilizes your strengths, and an environment that isn’t overly stimulating. Make an effort to learn new skills, find hobbies, and build friendships with people who share your interests. Don’t be afraid to take on some challenges and feel uncomfortable, but at the same time, know your limits. If your lifestyle or work is overwhelming you physically or emotionally day after day, make some changes to reduce the stress or over stimulation.
Take Care of Your Health
Some highly sensitive people believe that they are more sensitive than most people to certain foods and substances such as caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. Many claim that a simple diet of whole, unprocessed foods seems to work better for them—both physically and emotionally. Regular exercise can also help people to cope with the stress and anxiety that comes from sensitivity. Sleep is important too, especially for those with nervous systems that are in high gear.
Manage Your Environment
Try to control the level of stimulation in your environment. Soft lighting, flowers, aesthetically appealing decor, and relaxing music can help. Keep your surroundings as neat, organized, and clutter-free as possible. Close doors and windows to block out noise.
A Word for the Less Sensitive
Sensitivity is both a gift and a challenge, but it’s a trait that needs to be supported and nurtured. People who want to re-claim and affirm their sensitivity are beginning to organize support groups—something that’s bound to generate snickers from some of the less sensitive among us.
“Some people will look upon us as another group looking for sympathy and special treatment,” says Paula. “But we need to reinforce the message that people have different temperaments and to understand and honor that. Sensitivity is a good thing, not a weakness. And in a society where it isn’t valued, it shows a great deal of strength to acknowledge, much less affirm, one’s own sensitivity.”
Aron E. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Strive When the World Overwhelms You.New York: Broadway Books; 1997.
The Highly Sensitive Person website.