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Being highly sensitive: What if it’s the answer not the problem?

If you’ve been asking yourself, “Why am I so sensitive?” or wondering, “How can I be less sensitive?”, then something about your sensitivity – maybe a lot – doesn’t feel OK. You may even have wondered, “What’s wrong with me?” if, for example, others seem more able than you to take things in their stride, or you’ve been told that you’re too easily affected by things and need to “toughen up” or “grow a thicker skin”. And if your sensitivity causes difficulties, it’s inevitable you won’t welcome it in yourself.   

No wonder you want to change it. But it’s not that easy, you can’t just flick a switch to turn your sensitivity off, as you probably know from years of trying. So, what can you do?  

Where the answer may lie

Well, the paradox is that the answer to your sensitivity ‘problem’ could well lie in acknowledging just how sensitive you are. Trying to deny, suppress or change your sensitivity is often what keeps you shackled, self-blaming and stuck. Another thing you probably already know. So, let’s start with a different premise – that you may be what’s known as “highly sensitive”.

If you don’t like the word “sensitive”, I’m guessing adding “highly” won’t seem helpful. It may feel like inviting more negative connotations and suggest more need for you to change. But, if the term does fit you, it might just be one of the biggest and most important discoveries you make about yourself.    

It has been for countless clients I’ve worked with. They have described recognising they’re highly sensitive as, “life-changing”, “transformative” and “finally making sense of me and my life”.  They have come to embrace their sensitivity as the essence of who they are and where their strength and power lie. And this shift in perception has changed confusion into understanding, flaw into forgiveness, and even berating into celebrating. It could do the same for you.    

Highly sensitive: four facts

Before we look at what it means to be highly sensitive, there are some facts that may help you consider the idea more easily:

1. It's a real thing

Being highly sensitive is an actual thing. The term, “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP) was first coined by Dr Elaine Aron in the 1990s. Nowadays, an internet search will throw up a multitude of books, blogs and websites about the subject. Even questionnaires you can take to find out if you are an HSP.

2. You're not alone

You’re not alone in being this sensitive. You can’t be if so many people are writing and talking about it! In fact, Aron estimates that 15-20% of the general population are HSPs; and Counselling Directory’s own research suggests there are over 4,000 searches on the term “highly sensitive person” each month.   

3. It's genetic programming 

Being an HSP isn’t something you choose but is the way you’re genetically programmed. Studies into high sensitivity and sensory processing show that the brains of HSPs are activated and respond in particular ways to certain stimuli. And that this is different from other forms of high sensitivity resulting from e.g. trauma or a medical condition. So, this form of sensitivity is innately you.  

4. There are many benefits

Being highly sensitive isn’t all downsides, there are also many benefits: HSPs tend to be thoughtful, conscientious, compassionate, insightful, intuitive, reliable, loyal, attentive to detail, focused on quality and sustainability, creative and appreciative of the beauty of things. The trick is to acknowledge both sides: manage the challenges, and value and use the gifts.   

Being an HSP doesn’t label or define you, it simply describes how you process the world and react to it.  

Four indicators you may be highly sensitive

There are lots of indicators for being an HSP and lots of researchers and commentators frame them in different ways. The most common distillation is:

  1. processing things deeply
  2. being easily over-stimulated
  3. being emotionally responsive/empathic
  4. being sensitive to subtleties   

How might these show up? Well, you are likely to have a busy brain - always noticing and taking in information, deeply processing it and thoroughly considering implications and consequences. Because you absorb and process so much, you can become over-stimulated and exhausted. That stimulation isn’t just about observations and thoughts, it’s also about reactions to your environment: for example, you may be sensitive to light, to noise, to textures; or you may prefer quieter venues, less busy streets, and socialising in smaller groups. You will tend easily to spot and be affected by the emotions of others; and you probably think and care deeply about many things – people, nature, world events, fairness, justice and equality. You may also appreciate nuances and notice tiny differences that other people don’t.

 All this takes energy so you are likely to need downtime and space to recover and recharge. If you don’t get it, you can become agitated, overwhelmed or feel that everything is “too much”. Noticing all that you do and thinking ahead can lead to conflict with others or a feeling that you are out of synch with them or the prevailing culture. And this can leave you feeling hurt, confused, misunderstood and alone.   

Fours ways that knowing you are highly sensitive can help

You may wonder how knowing that you’re highly sensitive can help you deal with your sensitivity. Here are four main reasons:

  1. There’s a world of difference between thinking there’s something wrong with you and understanding there isn’t. 
  2. Equally fundamentally, you cannot benefit from the gifts of something when you see it as a flaw.  
  3. Understanding there is a reason for your sensitivity and that it’s something you share with others naturally reduces the inner conflict and aloneness you may have been feeling about it. 
  4. Just imagine the resources and potential you can release if you stop spending so much time and energy judging your sensitivity and not trying to change what is inherently you. 

Every highly sensitive person I’ve come across has found that discovering, exploring and understanding their HSP-ness has been like finding the key to a puzzle. Despite its costs and challenges, not one of them would change their sensitivity for the world, because it makes them who they are.   

Four easy steps to begin connecting to your sensitivity

If you are highly sensitive, identifying and acknowledging it is a major first step and half the battle. The next step is to use that knowledge to make better choices in future; ones that take account of your sensitivity. Here are some suggestions to help you connect to your sensitivity differently:

1. Get curious

Get curious about being a highly sensitive person – research it, read about it, complete a questionnaire (search online for 'HSP questionnaire'). Enjoy finding out what is true (and not) about your sensitivity. And start nurturing it the way you would someone or something you really care about.

2. Reflect on past reactions

Reflect compassionately on your reactions to past events and situations where your sensitivity was an issue. Try to understand why something was difficult for you or why you reacted the way you did. This can often move you from seeing faults in what you felt or did to a more forgiving place of, “No wonder…….”.

3. Identify what drains and energises you

Start noticing what activities, events, environments and even people deplete and drain you and which soothe or energise you. Change what you can of the things that sap your energy and get more of what nourishes and feeds you. And if you know something will tire you, prioritise building in some recovery time afterwards.     

4. Get enough downtime

Pace yourself and take regular breaks when you can. Try to ensure you get enough quiet, demand-free downtime when you need it. You will burn out if you don’t and get more done if you do. Taking care of yourself in this way is not selfish but essential self-care. And an investment in you and your wellbeing.  

Taking even these four steps will make a real and meaningful difference. You might be surprised at how much benefit even the smallest changes can bring. And the more you understand and manage your sensitivity, the more you can harness its power and potential. Because the view you have had of your sensitivity has been holding you back. Throw off the shackles, regain and refocus your energy, and begin releasing the power. Your power.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Sally Pendreigh

I'm a senior accredited member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy, and I take a person-centred approach to my work. I believe understanding how we process the world and react to it is fundamental to having the freedom to be ourselves in it. Being highly sensitive is just one example of this.… Read more

Written by Sally Pendreigh

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