I’ve always felt uneasy about the use of “superpower” to describe high sensitivity.
In this episode of The Gentle Rebel Podcast, Scott Barry Kaufman and I talk about recent research indicating a shift in cultural frames around sensory processing sensitivity and potential issues with portraying high sensitivity as a superpower.
Sensitivity is a “Beautiful and Complex Trait”
Rather than being a “superpower”, Scott points out, sensory processing sensitivity is a beautiful and complex trait underpinning the survival strategy for 20%-30% of humans and has been found in over 100 species so far.
There have been some interesting (and challenging) studies in the past couple of years looking at portrayals of sensitivity in Western culture. Last year, Scott wrote an article for Psychology Today responding to a study examining links between high sensitivity and vulnerable narcissism.
He wrote another piece highlighting research into how some people misappropriate the trait of high sensitivity to seek certain benefits. This research found “zero correlation between sensory processing sensitivity and signalling high sensitivity.” In other words, between those with the trait and those who make unreasonable demands using the trait as an excuse.
This research found “zero correlation between sensory processing sensitivity and signalling high sensitivity.” In other words, between those with the trait and those who make demands using the trait as an excuse. For example…
- Asking for privileges because of sensitivity
- Receiving special treatment because of sensitivity
- Requesting help because of sensitivity
- Avoiding penalties because of sensitivity
- Blaming mistakes on sensitivity
- Telling people how hard life is because of sensitivity
Most of the highly sensitive people I’ve talked to about this list recoil in discomfort at the idea of using their sensitive trait in this way. Especially if it involves making a fuss, receiving special treatment, or requiring others to go above and beyond just for us.
The Potential of Sensitivity
Scott writes, “A beautiful and complex trait has become co-opted by some people as a victim-signalling strategy– “a public and intentional expression of one’s disadvantages, suffering, oppression, or personal limitations.” Indeed, recent research suggests that victim signalling is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society and can be viewed as an expression of a “culture of victimhood” in which claiming to be a victim isn’t in the service of receiving help and assistance for a genuine disadvantage but instead becomes something actually desirable and fashionable in itself.”
I believe highly sensitive people have a powerful role to play in the collective potential of humanity. When combined with genuine empathy and compassion, sensitivity senses what needs to be sensed. It feels deeply for the whole and seeks ways to connect rather than drive apart.
About Scott Barry Kaufman
Scott Barry Kaufman is a humanistic psychologist exploring the depths of human potential. He received his PhD in cognitive psychology from Yale University and an M.Phil in experimental psychology from Cambridge. He has taught courses on intelligence, creativity, and well-being at Columbia, NYU, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Scott is the author of Ungifted, Wired To Create, Transcend, and Choose Growth. He hosts The Psychology Podcast. In 2015, he was named one of “50 Groundbreaking Scientists who are changing the way we see the world” by Business Insider.