Let’s Learn to Talk About Sensitivity

It can be hard to talk about the idea of sensitivity.

The word ‘sensitive’ has so many connotations and conjure different mental pictures for everyone, many times negative. We often unconsciously associate it with being ‘too emotional’, having ‘thin skin’ or needing to ‘man up’.

These are the cultural constructs that surround sensitivity and so when we think about the idea of high processing sensitivity or ‘highly sensitive people’ we jump straight to the view that sensitivity equates to weakness or a naivety/lack of self-control/inability to cope with reality.

But with a temperament that accounts for 20% of the population, including both introverts and extraverts, we need to grapple with and de-bunk some of the myths and negative connotations surrounding what it means to be ‘sensitive’.

Talk About Sensitivity

It took a while before I began to recognise myself in the traits of ‘a highly sensitive person’, simply because of the word ‘sensitive’.

It didn’t sound like something I was or even wanted to be. I rarely cry, enjoy consuming gritty, scary, thought-provoking art, and love competitive sport, especially rugby. Given all of this, I couldn’t possibly be sensitive…could I?

Then I came across an article someone had shared online. I began to realise that there was more to sensitivity than the destructive, one-dimensional, ‘sissy big girls blouse’ definition that had been drummed into me by the way self-styled alpha-male PE teachers responded to the kids who didn’t like playing sport.

Sensitivity is ingrained, it’s how we process the world and perceive reality. It is about noticing and observing things more acutely and feeling things deeply, often seeing things that others might overlook, and getting distracted and drained by environmental sensory input like sights, sounds, and smells.

It is NOT weakness, it is a very necessary societal asset that we are often quick to suppress and destroy.

1. Emotion is Only a Response to Sensitivity

We may be quick to associate sensitivity with being overly emotional and self-absorbed, i.e. a sensitive person is easily offended, quick to react, and is someone around whom people feel like they are walking on egg shells. Yes, there ARE many people like this but it is rarely the result of high processing sensitivity. 

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” – Charles Dickens

For many highly sensitive people emotion is probably most obviously identifiable as a response to empathy (i.e. finding yourself in the place of someone else and experiencing the world/a situation as that person). HSPs may exhibit a strong emotional response to injustice, abuse of power, the suffering of others, but also when feeling overwhelmed by external stimulation, or isolated in the way we see/feel the world around us.

2. It’s Noticing, Observing, and Processing

It’s worth remembering that high sensitivity is innate and an evolutionary strategy that has been identified in most or all animals. It is the counter-balance to the strategy of acting boldly, quickly, and without fear of risk. Highly sensitive people and animals prefer to observe carefully before making the decision to act. This has been shown to have huge advantages to the entire community.

Society needs both personality types. HSPs may notice patterns, signs, and aspects of the world that are overlooked by others, and come up with new and creative solutions to problems.

3. It’s Not Always Obvious

Highly sensitive people are not necessarily easy to spot, especially as most aren’t even aware of what a HSP is.

Hearing the word sensitive it would be easy to just see the most emotionally reactive people and think they are the HSPs. But we often quietly stand in the cracks, observing, imagining, dreaming, creating, and offering our insights from the sidelines when we feel compelled to contribute.

4. It’s Not a Choice

Sensitivity is an innate trait, hardwired into the brain. Elaine Aron points to research that shows that the brain of HSPs works slightly differently to others. You can’t choose how sensitive you are to external stimuli. Your body and brain react in the way that they react.

It is important therefore to identify the things that stimulate and drain you. Rather than thinking ‘I need to harden up and learn to suppress my sensitivity’, consider ways to change the environment and your routine so that you can reach a better level of functioning.

5. It’s Not Your Personality

There are many blog posts that list characteristics of certain personality types/temperaments. It’s important to read these with a pinch of salt and in a non-prescriptive way. Being a highly sensitive person is not what defines you as a person. Your personal choices, your individual tastes, your unique passions are what creates that picture.

Sensitivity is the foundation upon which you experience the world, but it doesn’t define what you should enjoy or care about. This is especially important to remember if you have only recently discovered that you are not alone in the way you process sensory input.

You may find it helpful to read this list of different sensitivities that individuals experience more or less than others. It shows how even within the umbrella of sensitivity we are all unique in what we bring to the table. Elaine Aron breaks it down into the following:

Social Sensitivity (judging the trustworthiness of others)
Environmental Sensitivity (observing and altering behaviour in response to changes in your environment)
Innovation (reflecting on a situation and coming up with a new and creative solution)
Social Learning (noticing and adopting other peoples’ good ideas)
General learning (observe and notice the world)
Choosiness (notice subtle differences in what is optimal and only choose the best)
Reactive (you notice changes in the environment, startling easily and reacting to sights, sounds, and smells when other don’t)
Proactive (notice subtle signs and patterns that ‘it’s going to happen again’)
Mate sensitivity (can quickly assess how to please the partner of your choice, making you The One, not someone else)
Recognising a Mating Opportunity (if you want kids, like sex, or think some love making would help your relationship, you know when and how – mate sensitivity – to make your move)
Sensitivity to Visceral Reactions (recognise ‘gut feelings’, which although they are not always right, provide another source of information when observing and reflecting before acting)

Over to You

Question: Which of these sensitivities do you seem to experience most in your own life? Please leave your answer in the comments below.

  1. The way you put things is so wonderful.
    There is only one sensitivity there that I don’t identify with and I try to remember to see the bright side of it, though that kind of traits aren’t always recognised as useful.

  2. Intelligent and thoughtful article, thank you. Andy, is it common/uncommon to identify with several sensitivities? Specifically: social, environmental, choosiness, reactive, and reactions.

    1. Thank you Jackie, really glad you enjoyed the article. It’s common for highly sensitive people to identify with a number of them, but I believe it’s also common for people who may not necessarily be ‘HSP’ to have certain sensitivities. I know people who might identify with one but none of the others and wouldn’t consider themselves Highly Sensitive. I identify with about half of them. So yes, you seeing yourself in a few of them is not uncommon!

  3. Love this! I very much identify with social sensitivity, chooseiness, reactiveness, and mate sensitivity. It’s so nice to hear being highly sensitive described as a positive instead of a negative <3

    1. Great to hear from you Cath! It’s definitely gotta be a positive – these sensitivities are very useful! Once we understand who we are then we don’t have to succumb to the negative side 🙂

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