My Introduction to High Sensitivity
When I was a child I could only handle 30 minutes to an hour in a shopping mall before I developed a stomach ache and began asking to go home. I’d feel completely drained. I can vividly remember sitting down on the floor between racks of clothing to rest—knees pulled up to my chest, arms crossed tightly over my knees—while my mom shopped.
I first discovered Dr. Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person when I was 20, and upon reading the title I immediately felt less alone in the world. But it would take me another 15 years to truly understand the deeper implications of my sensitivity. To understand that as a highly sensitive person I’m different from the majority of people. My brain works differently and so, naturally, I have different needs.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
“Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP) is a term that was coined in the 90’s by Dr. Elaine Aron to describe a subset of the population that have a lesser acknowledged form of neurodivergence called, Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). I use the terms sensitivity, high sensitivity, and sensory processing sensitivity interchangeably throughout this blog.
The term Highly Sensitive Person is also often used interchangeably with the more colloquially term “empath.” Although technically HSPs and empaths are distinct categories, there’s a significant amount of overlap between the two—namely, that both groups are impacted by the energy of others.
High Sensitivity is an innate temperament trait that is expressed as an awareness of subtleties in the environment as well as a potential to be overwhelmed by too much stimuli. This enhanced perception is due to differences in the brain of those with SPS, exhibiting a strategy of processing information especially deeply. In other words, HSPs are highly perceptive. And due to perceiving more subtlety at any given time than the less sensitive majority, they also naturally hit their sensory threshold—and need time to rest and withdraw in order to recuperate—more quickly than non-HSPs.
High Sensitivity as a Survival Strategy
High Sensitivity has been found in over 100 species, including dogs, cats, primates, horses, and even fruit flies, and sensitivity is found in equal numbers across genders. Biologists have found that there are two general survival strategies in animals that give rise to two innate personality types. These two types are called by several different names, including bold vs. shy and responsive vs. unresponsive. 70-80% of humans, and other animals, fall into the bold/responsive type, while the other 20-30% are the highly sensitive (Aron & Aron, 2010).
According to Dr. Aaron, the survival strategy of the non-HSP majority is to move more quickly and forcefully toward feeding or mating opportunities without much observation beforehand. Whereas the highly sensitive minority evolved an approach centered around avoiding risks by carefully observing the subtleties in their surroundings before making moves. Both strategies have merit and can be successful, depending on the situation at hand.
The more sensitive strategy of scanning the environment and noticing and making sense of subtle details, leads to traits that HSPs are known for, like high levels of conscientiousness and creativity. It also leads to a greater potential for sensory overload and being overwhelmed by stressful life experiences.
Highly Sensitivity is Not a Mental Illness
Highly Sensitive People are deep thinkers and deep feelers who’ve often sensed their difference from a young age, and most remember being told they were “too sensitive.” But high sensitivity is not a mental health diagnosis. There are some sensitive people who have diagnosable disorders, just as some non-HSPs do. But most do not, just like most less sensitive people do not.
However, highly sensitive people have been found to be more deeply impacted by their childhood environment—both positively and negatively. For this reason, highly sensitive children have been referred to as “orchids,” because much like HSPs, orchids do exceptionally well in ideal conditions and exceptionally badly in poor ones. Children who test low for sensitivity are referred to as “dandelions” because they are less sensitive to environmental quality and therefore, exhibit resiliency anywhere. There’s evidence of a third group who fall into a medium level of sensitivity, that researchers called “tulips” (Read the study here).
Because HSPs are more sensitive to their environments, those who had difficult childhoods are more vulnerable in adulthood to depression, anxiety, and shyness than their non-HSP counterparts, but they also appear to benefit more from good childhoods. Those with sensory processing sensitivity are simply more deeply impacted by their experiences—both good and bad—due to their depth of processing.
An illness is something that we seek to fix or change. High sensitivity is not something that can be eliminated with treatment, nor would we want to because it’s advantageous in many contexts. Highly Sensitive People benefit greatly from learning about the traits of high sensitivity and learning how to use these traits to their advantage.
High Sensitivity is Not the Result of Complex Trauma
Research points to High Sensitivity being an innate trait—something that one is born with--not the result of trauma. However, HSPs are more susceptible to becoming traumatized from poor parenting in childhood than the less sensitive.
The reason for this is quite simple. Across the board HSPs are more responsive to their environments than less sensitive people--both positively and negatively. So, if we grew up in an unsupportive, abusive, or sub-optimal environment as a child, those conditions are going to impact us more deeply in adulthood as HSPs.
However, as mentioned above, research has shown that HSPs are more deeply impacted by positive environments as well. So put a highly sensitive child in a particularly supportive, nurturing environment and they are likely to reap even more benefits and excel even further than their less sensitive peers. This is called the theory of differential susceptibility (Source:10.1016/B978-0-12-818251-2.00003-5).
So while we as HSPs are more likely to deal with trauma (another word for "trauma" is overwhelm) from exposure to negative relational environments in childhood, the trauma itself does not cause our sensitivity.
Highly “Sensitive” or Highly Perceptive?
The word “sensitivity” holds a lot of cultural connotations—many of them not positive. And while I’m all about challenging that paradigm and embracing sensitivity in myself and others, another way of talking about what it means to be highly sensitive (in the specific context of Highly Sensitive People) is perceptivity. As mentioned above, Highly Sensitive People are highly perceptive people.
HSPs are “sensitive” because they’re perceiving more data and they’re processing what they are perceiving more thoroughly. Perceptivity and deep consideration of what is being perceived often leads to more awareness and deeper understanding. Just something to remind yourself of the next time you’re feeling insecure about your sensitivity!
- Five Common Misconceptions about Highly Sensitive People
- Being Highly Sensitive: How to Navigate Emotional Overwhelm
- Four Reasons Why Being Highly Sensitive is a Good
- Isn't Everybody Sensitive?
- Imitating Non-Sensitivity: The Number One Pitfall of Highly Sensitive People
- Why are Highly Sensitive People Prone to People-Pleasing?
- Self-care for Highly Sensitive People
- Research Articles about HSPs
- Are You Highly Sensitive? - Take this test to see!
Looking for an Online Therapist in Kansas?
Do you identify as highly sensitive? Learn to embrace your sensitivity and harness your superpowers as an HSP. As an HSP specialist, I love helping fellow HSPs learn to live a life that respects their highly sensitive nature.
My Lawrence, Kansas counseling practice specializes in providing therapy for codependency, therapy for anxiety, therapy for self-esteem, therapy for Highly Sensitive People, and grief and bereavement counseling. I help people overcome shame and the fear of being their true selves. Breaking the cycles of people pleasing and self-abandonment is possible, and I'm here to help.
I offer online counseling throughout Kansas. Reach out today to schedule your free 15 minute phone consultation. I'd love to hear from you!
Other Services Offered by Maggie
In addition to providing online therapy anywhere in Kansas, I’m also a professional astrologer, and offer Birth Chart Readings anywhere in the United States, as well as abroad.
Astrology is a powerful tool for gaining self-awareness, finding meaning in and understanding of our difficult experiences, and for receiving validation regarding our own unique life path. All of which supports our mental health in a positive way!
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