By Lauren Tober
Embracing our sensitivity can make it a strength instead of a weakness
Up to 20% of the population are considered to be ‘highly sensitive.’ High sensitivity isn’t a psychological weakness, but is an innate trait…the brains of highly sensitive people are actually wired differently to others
Psychologist Elaine N Aron coined the phrase the Highly Sensitive Person, and has been researching sensitivity since 1991. She is a pioneer in the study of sensitivity and has written widely about it.
People across the globe are relating to her identification of this innate trait of sensitivity and her work has opened up hope for those who felt they didn’t fit in to the world today, to feel valuable, unique and to accept themselves and their sensitivity. Elaine N Aron’swork is revolutionary and visionary. It has created widespread acceptance and understanding of the positive and life-affirming traits of the Highly Sensitive Person, who feels things more deeply than others and are more sensitive to the environment.
So what is a Highly Sensitive Person?
Highly Sensitive People have nervous systems that are more sensitive than others and they process things more deeply. As a result, they pick up on more information from the environment than the majority of the population.
Highly sensitive people:
- Notice and are affected by smells, noises and bright lights (highly sensitive people often don’t like the TV on in the background, or being around people with strong perfume)
- Pick up easily on the emotions of others
- Feel overwhelmed by busy days and long to do lists
- Prefer a meaningful one-on-one talk to speaking with large groups or making small talk
- Are strongly affected by caffeine, alcohol, drugs, medication and herbs
- Enjoy their own company, in fact they need down time by themselves to recover from the busy-ness of the world
- Tend to burn out and develop chronic conditions like chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia
- Have a rich and deep inner life
- Were often described as ‘sensitive’ as a child
- Appreciate creativity, art and music
- Get overwhelmed and overstimulated in shopping centres and supermarkets
- Are intuitive and empathetic
High Sensitivity is not a Weakness
It’s important to know that high sensitivity isn’t a diagnosis or an illness. It’s a trait, meaning that we’re born with it. It’s simply a way of describing the workings of the nervous system.
I personally identify as a Highly Sensitive Person and have discovered chatting to many of my colleagues, that many other therapists do too.
You see, high sensitivity is not a weakness, it’s a strength that makes us intuitive and empathic, and therefore it’s not surprising that it would be common in therapists. Highly sensitive people are in the minority, enough so that we’re often misunderstood and dismissed as overly sensitive, but we’re a large minority, and we have a lot to offer the world.
Highly sensitive people process the world more deeply and are more aware of subtleties. And as a result we’re also more easily overwhelmed, as we get overstimulated when there’s a lot going on. Our nervous systems are easily over loaded. We need time to ourselves to unwind and unravel from all this stimulation.
The challenge that comes with this is that we can get exhausted, overwhelmed and burnt out more quickly than ‘normal’. So fatigue related illness, anxiety, depression and low self esteem and are not uncommon.
The up-side of being a HSP is that we are often deeply creative, spiritual, empathic and insightful. We make links between things in the world that other people may miss, and hence we are often thought-leaders and creative-folk.
People who embrace and nourish their sensitivity are likely to be happy, healthy and doing wonderful things in the world. People who see their sensitivity as a burden and ignore it, are more likely to end up depressed and wondering why they can’t keep up with rest of the world.
How to work with the gifts and challenges of being an HSP
Dr Elaine N Aron says it’s important to recognise if we’re highly sensitive, so we can make full use of its advantages and compensate for its other effects. Elaine suggests:
- reviewing our past, and taking note of times when we felt we failed, and reinterpreting the failure in light of being a highly sensitive person in a world that does not cater well for this trait (perhaps we were overstimulated at the time)
- stop living like a non-sensitive person – you may need more down time and more meaningful work
- work on your self esteem (our culture largely does not always value high sensitivity, so our self esteem can take a battering at times)
- help the important people in your life understand your needs as a highly sensitive person – such as your need for down time and for gentler communication (and that these needs are just who you are, they’re beyond your control)
In addition, I believe that it’s also important to have ways to calm the nervous system when it’s over-stimulated. Getting out in nature, curling up in bed with a good book and doing yoga practices like iRest Yoga Nidra and mindful breathing can be a great help.