Have you been told that you are too sensitive or had your emotional reactions dismissed? Do you feel inexplicably drained after interacting with others or with changes to your environment? You may have naturally adapted over the years to this kind of negative feedback by not sharing your inner processing with others, limiting your social interaction, and dismissing or ignoring your feelings.
Some feel less-than or that they are somehow defective rather than possessing well-researched and innate trait of sensitivity. Rather than a disorder or an impairment, this trait can be seen as a valuable super-power with the proper understanding.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
Highly sensitive persons, or HSPs, are individuals more attuned to the subtleties of the environment, whose brains process and reflect on information more deeply, are often socially inhibited by nature, and prefer their own rich inner world to the external world. HSPs are more likely to experience overstimulation or overarousal of the nervous system because they take in more. It is important to note that sensitivity is an innate, not learned, trait.
In their research, Dr. Elaine Aron and colleagues have found the highly sensitive trait to be present in about 20% of the population, in humans and animals. This fact supports the idea that there is an evolutionary advantage to the trait. Perhaps the tribe members more aware of changes in the air, sights, and sounds in the village played the role of the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
Dr. Aron uses the acronym DOES to summaries the key aspects of high sensitivity: D – Depth of Processing, O – Overstimulation, E – Emotional Reactivity, and S – Sensing the Subtle.
What is an Empath?
Empaths are likely to be highly sensitive and are especially gifted in depth of processing. They are attuned to the emotions of others, often feeling a “sixth sense” for the unspoken dynamics in a group or between people. This depth of processing is connected to emotions of other people and the world and may happen unconsciously. Empaths may have great insight into others and themselves but may also feel and bear the burden of others’ emotions more readily if not actively protecting themselves.
An empath may not always have a ready explanation for their feelings. Perhaps they feel a heaviness or great depth of sadness, only to find out later about the grief and loss recently experienced by a friend or coworker. Dr. Judith Orlof is a leading author on the subject notes that empaths “actually feel others’ emotions, energy, and physical symptoms in our own bodies, without the usual defenses that most people have.
“Through our sensitivity we can create a compassion revolution and save the world.” – Dr. Judity Orlof
What about Introverts & Shyness?
Most HSPs are empaths, and vice-versa, but this is not necessarily the case. Additionally, many confuse both of these traits as introversion. About 70% of HSPS are introverts, meaning a good number are actually extroverts. However, an introvert is not necessarily highly sensitive or an empath. Introversion is well-known in part due to the Myers-Briggs personality test and the work of Carl Jung. Those with the introversion personality trait restore their energy best when alone, and their energy is drained by being around others.
Shyness may be a part of the experience of many individuals but does not accurately describe empaths or the highly sensitive. The term “shy” actually refers to fear of social judgment.
As an example, imagine yourself as a young child at a new school, being walked into the classroom at the start of the day. There may be an element of shyness (fear of judgement by others). Imagine also the noise: the laughter and shouting, sounds of books and papers, desks and chairs squeaking on the floor. Imagine the sights: other children already playing with one another, bright fluorescent lights, walls filled with posters and words, lots of other people and a room much bigger than you. Imagine the energy and emotions in the room: playful chaos as the children connect in the morning, a welcoming smile from the teacher you just met, some curious eyes looking your way, knowledge that your parent will be leaving you there soon. All of this sensory input is received by the brain.
An empath will be more sensitive to the emotions of others in the room. The HSP will be more quickly overstimulated, leading to slower sensory processing, overwhelm, and greater difficulty in connecting with others in the moment.
Because typical traits of HSPs are not valued by popular culture, at least in the US, these individuals may hear and internalize negative labels at an early age. These may turn into thoughts such of “I am too _____.” Fill in the blank with sensitive, shy, afraid, neurotic, touchy, thin-skinned, withdrawn, or more. Frustration from these internalized messages may come out as thoughts of “What is wrong with me?”, “Why can’t I just not be this way?”, “Why am I the only one bothered so much?”, or “Others had it a lot worse than me. Why am I the one depressed and anxious?”
What does your inner critic say?
“Why can’t I do what others have done—ignore the obvious. Live a normal life. It’s hard enough just to do that in this world.” — from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower
Help for the Highly Sensitive Empath
While sensitivity may lead to behaviors or reactions such as shyness, low self-esteem, social withdrawal, and rumination, these do not have to be the case. The downside of sensitivity can be managed and overcome with increased knowledge and understanding of self along with development of more positive coping mechanisms.
Psychotherapy can be an invaluable part of your journey to self-acceptance and living a full life as a highly sensitive empath. Additionally, tools such as mindfulness, meditation, affirmations, and spiritual practices can be helpful tools to integrate into daily life. A trained psychotherapist can be your guide to exploring and living into your gifts.
In seeking a therapist, find someone knowledgeable of highly sensitive persons and empaths. Ask about their training and approach to working with your traits.
Aron, E. (2013). The Highly Sensitive Person. Citadel Press.
Orloff, J. (2018) The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People. Sounds True.