being a Highly Sensitive Human
What Does It Mean To Be Highly Sensitive?
Being highly sensitive, 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. You dance in the warmth of people and thrive on the beauty of the world. As a natural empath, you have a gift. You are so perceptive that you see people for what they are, and that is not always pretty.
Being highly sensitive in a world that does not understand or keep you lays a painful and lonely path. All your life, you might have been labelled as being 'too sensitive', 'too difficult'. As a child, you wondered why you see things differently and why others don't feel as much as you do. Your efforts to fit into the mainstream lifestyle and culture may repeatedly prove abortive, and you understand the feeling of being left out— all too well. Because you operate on a different radar, you may end up feeling all alone in the world.
Being sensitive is a gift, but it takes practise to see it as such. You did not ask to be born this way, but your only way forward is to embrace it.
In these following paragraphs, I want to remind you how precious your sensitivity 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
SOME OF US ARE BORN SENSITIVE
In the past couple of decades, there have been more and more researches and studies on sensitivity that aims to understand it from a biological perspective.
It turns out, highly sensitive people are born with different neurological makeup.
Harvard developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan was amongst the first to examine sensitivity as an innate biological difference. In his research, he found some babies more easily aroused by stimuli, and are more likely to perceive them as threats.
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.
As our understanding of the brain progresses, we also see that sensitive people have more active mirror neurons. This explains why you are more empathic, responsive, and easily affected by social nuances. You notice every details and change around you. Because you understand more and feel more, you are a great companion and partner. But you may also be easily overwhelmed by too much information in the world.
THE 'HIGHLY SENSITIVE PEOPLE' CONCEPT
In 1995, Elaine Aron published her book 'The Highly Sensitive Person' (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. In her book, sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) was explained as a fundamental trait of highly sensitive people. SPS is really not a sense organ. Instead, it is a personality trait that makes HSP's central nervous system more responsive. They have a more in-depth perception of physical, social as well as emotional cues. Rather than a disease or disorder, it an inborn survival strategy.
Some HSPs find things that are '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 to feel replenished. This sensitivity trait is just as likely among men as among women; both represent about 20% of the population.
For the HSPs a lot of things can be overwhelming. These stimuli may include loud ticks of clocks, parties and loud noises, bright light, fabric, television or radio static, wrestling or brawls, violence, death or sad faces. While people typically see these things as normal, they may strike a different chord in you. For these reasons, people tend to misunderstand you and perhaps, even label you as awkward, obsessed, shy, and weird.
Aron came up with a Highly Sensitive Person Scale, which is a questionnaire; a list of about 27 questions that can help parents decide if their child is highly sensitive or help individuals themselves decide. These questions include "I have a rich, complex life", "I am made uncomfortable by loud noises", "I am conscientious", "I startle easily", "other people's moods affect me". In the case that the person ticks or answers "yes" to these questions as truthfully and unbiased as they can, they are likely to be highly sensitive.
There are several characteristics of Highly Sensitive People, some of which include:
You are detail-oriented
You are more sensitive to pain
You prefer quiet places— you may choose to work in cubicles than open office spaces
You are more deeply moved by music, nature and art
Other people's mood affect you profoundly; you sometimes feel obliged to lift other people's mood when they feel down.
You are more sensitive to hunger and loud noises or scratches
You are easily startled
You have allergies. You might be good in a crisis, but are more affected by daily stressors than most.
You easily feel overwhelmed, anxious and depressed
You feel more upset when something goes wrong or when you think you have made a bad decision— you find it hard to 'let things go'.
It takes you longer to make a decision as you tend to evaluate the outcome thoroughly
A DIFFERENT TYPE OF HIGHLY SENSITIVE: THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE EXTROVERT
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.
Highly sensitive extroverts are still just as compassionate, empathic, kind, gentle, creative and perceptive as highly sensitive introverts. However, while introverts may withdraw from novel situations, extroverts seek novelty. This is not to say that extroverts do not enjoy their quiet or that the external world does not get overwhelming for them. They may also be disturbed and overwhelmed by the otherwise normal stimuli like loud noises and bright lights etc.
Highly sensitive extroverts enjoy their quiet too. It is where they find the strength to face an outside world. Saying that they may get bored if they are withdrawn for a long period of time. They seek novelty and crave mental indulgences or social times, but they also find that they get exhausted by them easily.
You may find yourself to be a highly sensitive person but do not exhibit all of the characteristics of a highly sensitive person. This may be because most of the materials available are on the majority of the highly sensitive people speaks to the introverts.
There are a few pointers to knowing that you may be a Highly Sensitive Extrovert:
You crave new experiences
You can quickly go from being excited to exhausted
You have most, if not all the characteristics of the highly sensitive person
You enjoy going out on your own
You have a small circle of friends you enjoy being with
You may enjoy working in a team
You easily bored and easily overexcited
Being inwards or withdrawn gets too depressing for you
You have asked yourself the question "am I an extrovert or an introvert?"
You have a hard time deciding whether to stay in or go out
EMOTIONALLY SENSITIVE OR INTENSE?
You may wonder: The Highly Sensitive Person concept seems to describe me to the tee, what about 'Emotional Intensity'? How are they related or are different?
You may notice that in my work, I talk about Emotional INTENSITY rather than just 'sensitivity'.
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. When the publisher approached me in 2016, asking me to write a book about Highly Sensitive People, I felt it was an opportunity for me to expand the definition of emotional sensitivity to include a dimension of intensity.
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, intense, excited— 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.
ORCHIDS AND DANDELIONS
There are several concerns as to how highly sensitive children turn out. Do they normalize eventually or not? Do they thrive because of their sensitivity, or it causes them to fail at life?
Dr. Thomas Boyce and colleagues attempt to answer these questions with the Orchid and Dandelion theory.
In his first study on children's susceptibility to respiratory illnesses, he found that some children were biologically more reactive and prone to these illness and some others are not. The biologically reactive children quickly developed asthma when in high-risk environments and exposed to stress, but thrive in an environment that is conducive to their development.
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.
When orchid children are raised in a stressful environment (one that the family keeps fighting or is broken up, unloving, judging and scapegoating), they are affected more deeply and negatively than dandelion children.
But 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. It turns out, when sensitive children are nurtured in environments that are loving and understanding, they will come out blossoming on top. The orchids in the right environment actually thrive and succeed even more than the dandelions.
In other words, being sensitive have it the best and the worst. Sensitivity is like a 'highly leveraged evolutionary bets' that carry both high risks and potential rewards' (Dobbs, 2009).
FOR PARENTS OR GUARDIAN OF A HIGHLY SENSITIVE CHILD
It is a difficult task to take on; parenting a highly sensitive, gifted child. There is no doubt they are different and needs a little more than average children-- A little more care, a little more space, a little more understanding. At first, you may find yourself judging them as being' dramatic, overly sensitive, too serious or idealistic', but see this is only because they are wired differently to you. To them, the way you or most people are, are as foreign and strange.
The sensitive child is compassionate and can mirror your emotions more than other people can. You may find they act more in tune with the way you feel. They may seem more mature and older than they actually are. They feel more intense love for you and may even be more attached to you. They also respond differently to punishment, criticism and judgment. It may break your heart sometimes to watch your child getting hurt in the world and sometimes by things that happen at home.
Sometimes, you may find it too much to handle.
When you are frustrated, try to remember they do not mean to hurt you (in many cases, they feel your hurt too).
As we learned from the dandelion and orchid study, the environment in which a sensitive child is raised matters a lot in how and who they grow up to become and whether or not they succeed. This means that more than the average child, sensitive childhood need a supportive home. However, this is not to parent-blame or to say you need to be perfect. Most of the time, as long as your intention to love them and appreciate them as who they are is there, they can feel it, and it would help them hugely.
As much as you can, create a judgment and criticism free zone in the house. A lot of parents and families resort to trying to "toughen him or her up" by exposing them to the harshness of the world. They think that by doing this, the child may come out of his or her shell but this is a false idea. A sensitive child is a sensitive human, it is not a learned function, so it cannot be unlearned. Only by understanding, loving and being tender can you help them grow into their best.
You can also help your sensitive child find outlets for his or her emotions early. The highly sensitive child is usually more creative and make great artists and innovators, you can introduce your sensitive child to art or music, or allow them to explore an expressive avenue that they are drawn to.
Some people are going to reject you, simply because you shine too bright for them. And that's okay. Keep shining.
FOR THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON: THE WORLD NEEDS MORE OF YOU
A lot of highly sensitive people try to hide their difference because of what the society may say; afraid that they may be judged for just being themselves.
Hiding your gifts do not help you in the end. You are a highly sensitive, intelligent, compassionate and creative person.
People judge what they can't understand or be and too often, find someone to blame or make a scapegoat of for their emotional distress or feeling of inadequacies. Growing up as a highly sensitive person, snide comments such as "weird", "grow a pair", "man up" may be thrown at you quite frequently but it shouldn't make you any less you. By fully accepting yourself, you understand more how the world works and only then can you properly channel how you feel in the right direction.
More and more, the world embraces what is called 'neurodiversity'— the fact 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 community. Being sensitive is neither an illness, nor is it a disorder. Most sensitive people have higher capabilities to create and invent. A lot of geniuses have been thought to be different and highly sensitive. Because they feel and see more than most other people, they have a reservoir of materials that could be channelled into creative work. Rather than being a burden, you house one of nature's gifts to humanity.
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.
The world today needs you to embrace yourself more rather than try to conform. We do need your art, your creativity and your innovations. We need you to get to work and be you so you can inspire the world.
“ 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.