being a Highly Sensitive Human
-'Am I Too Much For The World, or is The World Too Much For Me?'
Being intense and sensitive— seeing the world through different eyes and feeling the world on a distinctive wavelength— does not lay an easy path.
You are most likely a deep thinker, an intuitive feeler, and an extraordinary observer. You are prone to existential depression and anxiety, but you also know beauty and rapture. When art or music moves you, you are flooded with waves of joy and ecstasy. As a natural empathiser, you have a gift; yet you are also overwhelmed by the constant waves of social nuances and others’ psychic energies.
You might have spent your whole life trying to fit in with the mainstream culture, without much success.
In school, you wanted to be in the clique, but you could not tolerate endless small talks or shallow relationships.
At work, you want the authorities to recognise you, but your soul does not compromise on depth, authenticity and connections.
You feel hurt for being the black sheep in the family, but your success is not recognised in a conventional way.
In these following paragraphs, I want to remind you how precious your unique life path is. Rather than pretending to be who you are not, you only do yourself and the world justice by celebrating your sensitivity and intensity.
“Sometimes I think,
I need a spare heart to feel
all the things I feel.”
― Sanober Khan
SENSITIVITY IS A BRAIN DIFFERENCE
Emotional sensitivity is form of brain difference— an innate trait that makes one different from the normative way of functioning.
More and more, the scientific community acknowledges ‘neurodiversity’— the biological reality that we are all wired differently. Rather than being an inconvenience to be eliminated, neurodiversity is an evolutionary advantage, something that is essential if we were to flourish as a species.
As people naturally reject what they do not understand, the emotionally sensitive ones are being pushed to the margin. Those who feel more, and seem to have a mind that operates outside of society’s norm are often outcasted. In the Victorian era, women who appeared emotional were given the humiliating label of ‘hysteria’. Even today, emotional people tend to be looked down upon, and sometimes criticised and shunned.
Being sensitive and intense is not an illness- in fact, it often points to intelligence, talents or creativity. However, after years of being misdiagnosed by health professionals, criticised by school, and misunderstood by even those who are close to them, many sensitive people start to believe there is something wrong with them. Ironically, low self-esteem and loneliness make them more susceptible to having an actual mental disorder.
“The real warriors in this world are the ones that see the details of another’s soul. They see the transparency behind walls people put up. They stand on the battlefield of life and expose their heart’s transparency, so others can finish the day with hope. They are the sensitive souls that understand that before they could be a light they first had to feel the burn.”
― Shannon L. Alder
SOME OF US ARE BORN SENSITIVE
Since the 1990s, various scientific frameworks have emerged to explain our differences in sensitivity. Some of the most prominent being sensory processing sensitivity, ‘differential susceptibility theory’, and ‘biological sensitivity to context’ (Lionetti et al., 2018).
From birth, we differ in our neurological makeup. Each baby has their style based on how well they react to external stimuli and how they organises sensation. Medical professionals use tools like the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) to measure such differences.
Harvard developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan was amongst the first scholars to examine sensitivity as a brain difference. In Kagan’s studies of infants, he found that a group of infants are more aroused and distressed by novel stimuli— a stranger coming into the room, a noxious smell. To these cautious infants, any new situation is a potential threat.
On closer examination, sensitive infants have different biochemical reactions when exposed to stress. Their system secrets higher levels of norepinephrine (our brain’s version of adrenaline) and stress hormones like cortisol. In other words, they have a fear system that is more active than most.
Since the regions of the brain that receive signals for potential threats are extra reactive, these children are not geared to process a wide range of sensations at a single moment. Even as adults, they are more vulnerable to stress-related disease, chronic pain and fatigue, migraine headaches, and environmental stimuli ranging from smell, sight, sound to electromagnetic influences.
The “HIGHLY SENSITIVE PEOPLE’ concept
In 1995, Elaine Aron published her book ‘Highly Sensitive People’(HSP), bringing the idea into the mainstream. Aron defines high sensitivity as a distinct personality trait that affects as many as 15-20% of the population.
What is moderately arousing to most people, such as crowds or constant noises like clock ticking, can be overwhelming for HSPs. Research has found that the brains of highly sensitive people have more activity in the right hemisphere. They also have more reactive immune systems (allergies) and more sensitive nervous systems. Thus, being an HSP can also lead to physical sensitivities to loud noises, bright lights, humming television, and even fabrics (such as tags on clothing).
Some HSPs feel that seeing things ‘out of alignment’ can be distressing, hence often being described as ‘perfectionists’. As up to 70% of HSPs are introverted, many also require more private time than others in order to feel replenished. This sensitivity trait is just as likely among men as among women; both represent about 20% of the population.
These sensitivities are often identifiable from an early age. In most cases, these children are labelled as 'weird', 'sensitive', or 'shy'. Like their adult counterparts, they are easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. However, depending on their different temperaments and parenting, the behaviours they demonstrate can vary – from being ‘difficult’, active, emotionally intense, demanding and persistent, to being calm, inward, and almost too easy to raise.
There has been a lot of discussion around the connection between Highly Sensitive People and introversion, primarily inspired by Susan Cain’s work ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’. Despite Cain’s discussion of “introversion” being almost identical to the standard definition of high sensitivity, it is claimed that 30% of HSPs are extraverted and the two traits are separate entities.
Here are some of the HSP traits in Aron’s original conception:
- Noticing sounds, sensations and smells that others miss (e.g. clock ticking, the humming noise from a refrigerator, uncomfortable clothing)
- Feeling moved on a visceral level by things like art, music and performance, or nature
- ‘Pick up’ others moods or have them affect you more than most
- Being sensitive to pain or other physical sensations
- A quiet environment is essential to you
- Feel uneasy or overwhelmed in a busy and crowded environment
- Sensitivity to caffeine
- Startle/ blush easily
- Dramatic impact on your mood
- Having food sensitivities, allergies, asthma
Rather than fearfully shutting down your sensitivity, dive in deeper into all possible feeling. As you expand, keep only those who are not afraid of oceans.
- Victoria Erickson
ORCHIDS AND DANDELIONS
But does being born sensitive destine one to lifelong unhappiness and turmoil? MD Thomas Boyce answered this in his ‘Orchid and Dandelion’ theory.
Dr Boyce and his team found that most children, approximately 80% of the population, are like dandelions— they can survive almost every environmental circumstances. The rest of the 20% are like orchids; they are exquisitely sensitive to their environment and vulnerable under conditions of adversity. This theory explains why siblings brought up in the same family might respond differently to family stress. While orchid children are affected by even the most subtle differences in their parents’ feelings and behaviours, dandelion children are unperturbed.
Sensitivity does not equal vulnerability. Many of Dr Boyce’ orchid children patients have grown up to become eminent adults, magnificent parents, intelligent and generous citizens of the world. As it turns out; sensitive children respond to not just the negative but also the positive. Their receptivity to the environment can also bring a reversal of fortune.
Orchid children’s receptivity applies to not just physical sensations, but also relational experiences such as warmth or indifference. In critical, undermining setting, they may devolve into despair, but in a supportive and nurturing environment, they thrive even further more than the dandelions.
The Orchid and Dandelion theory asserts that the very genes that give us the most challenges also underlie the most remarkable qualities. Sensitivity is like a ‘highly leveraged evolutionary bets’ that carry both high risks and potential rewards’ (Dobbs, 2009). The very sensitive children that suffer in a precarious childhood environment are the same children most likely to flourish and prosper. In fact, they have the most capacity to be unusually vital, creative, and successful.
In other words, the sensitive ones are simply more responsive to their surrounding system. With the right kind of knowledge, support and nurture— even if this means replenishing what one did not get in childhood in adulthood— they can thrive like no others.
Some people are going to reject you, simply because you shine too bright for them. And that's okay. Keep shining.
BEYOND being ‘highly sensitive’
You may wonder: The Highly Sensitive Person concept seems to describe me to the tee, how is this different?
In my work in Eggshell Therapy and Coaching, I have expanded the definition of emotional sensitivity to include a dimension of intensity. In my research and clinical work, I have found that there is a group of people— perhaps a subgroup of highly sensitive people— who are not only ‘sensitive’, but also exceptionally intense, passionate, perceptive, and creative. If you are one of them, the term “sensitivity” is simply inadequate to describe the spectrum of how you experience life.
In the dictionary, a sensitive person is “capable of perceiving with a sense or senses, responsive to external conditions or stimulation, susceptible to slight differences or changes in the environment.” Those who are sensitive are “easily irritated, predisposed to inflammation,” and “easily hurt, upset, or offended” (American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 2011). Although this traditional definition of sensitivity captures your ability to be highly aware of your surroundings, it only showcases the reactive and passive aspect of your personality.
In contrast, here is the dictionary definition of intensity: “having great energy, strength, concentration, vehemence, etc., as of activity, thought, or feeling,” and having “a high degree of emotional excitement; depth of feeling.” (Random House Dictionary, 2016) Being emotionally intense means you are not only sensitive, but also full of passion, emotive energy, and vigour.
Just as laid out in Elaine Aron’s HSP framework, you may possess a rich and complex inner life and relish fine or delicate tastes, scents, sounds, and works of art. Because of that, you are acutely aware of the subtleties of your environment. Just like the HSPs, you are usually highly empathic and can sense what needs to be done in a given situation to make others comfortable. Your sponge-like ability to soak up information makes you sensitive to the moods of others’. But you are not only sensitive but also passionate— perhaps an idealist or a romantic. When in your most natural state, you feel vividly alive.
Another issue that is worth considering, beyond the current advice for HSPs, is energy and stimulation management for the emotionally intense and sensitive.
In the original HSP concept, sensitive individuals are described as those who are startled or rattled easily, and they were advised to make it a high priority to arrange their life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations. It is believed that changes can shake up the HSP, and competition or observation can lead to nervousness or shakiness (except for a small a sub-group of “sensation-seeking” HSPs who seek out the novelty and risk). As a result, most HSP self-help books focus on managing over-stimulation, and many therapists and coaches who work with HSPs concentrate on offering guidance on how to limit them. (Aron, 2013)
However, emotionally intense and gifted people are not necessarily stimulant-phobic. In fact, they need a certain degree of stimulation to maintain their optimal level of functioning. To be physically and psychologically well they must also be generative and creative, and to have found their “sweet spot” of balance where they can consistently enter a creative flow state. Yes, they need to be mindful of the amount of stimulation they let into their life, but they must also avoid being under-aroused. Under-stimulation is just as problematic as over-stimulation and can hold ramification for all aspects of life, including work, love relationship, and daily activities. In our work, we will tackle the issues that come with both ends of the spectrum. For instance, we will explore how partners that “under-stimulate” the gifted brain can bring about unique challenges. The key to the health and wellness of the emotionally intense is to find the right intellectual, emotional and physical stimulations, rather than only limiting their exposure to the world.
THRIVING IN A NEW WORLD
In Daniel Pink’s book, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future”, he pointed out that our society has arrived at a point in which systematisation, computerisation, and automation are giving way to new skills such as intuition, creativity, and empathy. For more than 100 years, the sequential, linear, and logical were praised. As we move towards a different economic era, the world’s leaders will need to be creators and empathisers. As Pink quoted: “I say, ' Get me some poets as managers.' Poets are our original systems thinkers. They contemplate the world in which we live and feel obligated to interpret and give expression to it in a way that makes the reader understand how that world runs.”
It is clear that humanity is calling for a different way of being, and a redefinition of power. In today’s world, people yearn to be led by empathy, rather than force. Even in the most ego-driven corporate space, we hear people saying things like ‘trust your gut instinct, ‘follow your intuition’, or ‘watch the energy in the room’. Sensitivity, emotional intensity, deep empathy- what were previously thought as weaknesses are now much-valued qualities that make you stand out.
We are in a time where the previously highly sensitive and empathic misfits rise to become the leaders.
Claiming your place in the world is not just a real act of courage, but also a form of noble public service. By showing up to the world as the sensitive empath that you are, you are championing not just for your rights, but also all the passionate and porous souls that come before and after you. By standing up for yourself when others call you a ‘drama queen’ or ‘too this and that,' you are helping your soul sisters and brothers to fight against injustice. Being unapologetically honest about your emotional reality is not only personally healing, but also transpersonally meaningful.
“ I want to unfold. I don’t want to be folded anywhere, because where I am folded, here I am a lie” - Rilke
FALSE BELONGING, TRUE BELONGING
We must learn to see the differences between true belongingness and false belongingness.
We must honour our truths more than the mere need for fusion with the mass.
False belongingness is drowning our needs to win social approval.
It is silencing our truths as a sensitive human to make others feel comfortable.
It is hiding our gifts to trade popularity for real respect.
True belongingness looks nothing like that.
It does not come from disowning any parts of us.
With true belongingness, we feel safe.
Being seated in our true home offers deep contentment and tranquillity— the opposite of a coaster roller ride of social anxiety, perfectionism, and the fear of rejection.
When we love only parts of us and reject others, self-criticism, inability to forgive oneself, guilt, and envy could seep in through the cracks.
True belonging is embracing the fullness of who we are and rejecting none of it- we love our sensitivity, intensity, and empathy.
At the core of True Belongingness we find a deep friendship and sacred communion with oneself.
It is knowing no matter what happens in the wild and precarious world; we have our own back.
It is the capacity to be alone; to have fun in a party of one, to seek support in a tribe of one, and to feel loved in a community of one.
Only when we have found home within ourselves could we be ready for genuine belongingness in the world.
By accepting ourselves fully, we earn self-esteem and self-respect. Then, naturally, we know where our boundaries are, who to invite in or keep out.
Given the option between contorting ourselves to fit in and being free, we choose the later.
When we come to see how finite our time is in this world, we could no longer tolerate anything or anyone that does not honour our fullest self as a sensitive human.
Deep down, we know that
The most threatening thing in life is not that others would abandon us.
But that we abandon ourselves.
Some of the most important endeavours in life are
To peel off layers of social conditioning and find our true self,
To become our own best friend, parent, guardian,
And to preserve the dignity of our soul at all cost.
Return home to you; your beautiful soul is waiting for you.
“I finally know the difference between pleasing and loving, obeying and respecting. It has taken me so many years to be okay with being different, and with being this alive, this intense”
― Eve Ensler, I am an Emotional Creature.