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Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

I’m Sensitive, So What?

I recently wrote about my ex-best friend who cheerfully told me that I “take things too personally.” I’ve also shared stories here about my boss who regularly described me as his “intern” even though I wasn’t, and the male commentators who are quick to call me a man-hater whenever I suggest that women may in fact not have as much privilege as they do.

It may sound like I’m a delicate snowflake. Like cruel comments from strangers bother me, and cruel comments from friends even more so. Like I’m oversensitive.

Well, I am.

I’m a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). According to psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron, HSPSs make up about 15 to 20 percent of the population, and experience greater sensitivity to all stimuli, including negative social encounters. Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) covers the full range of sensory input to our brains. Whether it’s loud noise or a subtle dig at our appearance, we hear it, notice it, process it, and then either dwell on it or shut down.

Recently, I posted on Facebook about starting a new exercise routine and wanting to get stronger. That was about the entirety of the post, which I thought was pretty innocuous, but it apparently rubbed one friend the wrong way. In what I felt was a total rebuffing of all the time we’d spent together, he criticized me for being self-absorbed and arrogant. I was stunned, and it bothered me all day.

Maybe that sounds normal to you, or maybe it doesn’t. I wish I were the type to let things roll off my back, but I am not. Even though I knew intellectually that my “friend’s” cruel remark didn’t matter, my brain convinced me that it did. Eventually I let it go, but not after feeling icky for a few hours.

For HSPs, it all comes down to stress. Our system for dealing with stress is whacked. It varies by individual; for example, I thrive on creative stress and do well under pressure, and that might in fact be due to my SPS. Other HSPs might buckle under deadlines but have no issue with people making mean comments. And yet whatever our stressor, we tend to react on high alert, perhaps overreacting to the threat or overcompensating to make ourselves feel better.

These qualities definitely have benefits: HSPs might be more likely to survive a threat, whether it’s a tiger or an abuser, and we also might be more able to sniff through fake behavior and identify people who are not worth our time. It’s my guess that those same people realize this even before we do: I’ve had people outright reject me despite minimal conversation, then I hear that they’re bullies to others. HSPs might inadvertently put up a sign that reads, “I’m you.”

At the same time, HSPs often tend to be their own worst critic or worry extensively over what their friends think of them. I’ve been utterly convinced at times that all my friends secretly hated me. While this intrusive thought is also associated with depression and anxiety, it also happens to HSPs who might pick up on their friends’ (unrelated) distress and worry that they caused it, to the point that they it.

Being an HSP can be challenging, but beneficial. Yet recently, as people increasingly call those with different views “special snowflakes,” I’ve started to think more about how we demonize sensitivity. It’s gaslighting to assert that people’s concern about human rights makes them “oversensitive,” and we HSPs don’t appreciate our condition being used to bolster your personal politics. I’ve met plenty of sensitive people on both sides of the political spectrum, and I’ve met plenty of people who are very passionate about their views, but not “sensitive” about it.

Unfortunately, being “sensitive” is considered a sign of weakness, which is odd to me. Would you rather be numb? The problem is that people assume one can’t be both sensitive and tough, and that’s simply not true. I’m tough both physically and mentally, as an athlete and a survivor of trauma. I’m also sensitive. The two things are not related.

While it may be true that I’m bothered by loud noises or shitty friends’ comments, those things don’t have much of an impact on my personality or activities. At the end of the day, I’m still my badass self, even if I worried a little too much about things. And so I think being an HSP can be a powerful asset — and I hope my fellow HSPs out there can realize the power of sensitivity.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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