Up to 30% of the adult population has a higher level of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), as supported by a substantial body of research that is still growing. The label of Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has been used to describe people with this trait.
Heightened sensitivity to the environment is seen across species (over 100 have been studied) as seen in temperament, behavior, and gene variants, and is considered to be an evolutionary adaptation.
Initial research on the HSP trait led to an understanding of two basic groups: the highly sensitive and everyone else. A metaphor of orchids and dandelions was introduced in 2005 to describe how different children react in challenging situations. The dandelions were children who would thrive in most circumstances, while the orchids required greater care and attention, but under the right circumstances not only thrived, but excelled. The sensitive group was thought to be more impacted by both negative (for the worse) and positive (for the better) environments.
A Continuum of Sensitivity
Wisdom tells us that reality likely does not fall into such black and white categories. Are there really these two “types” of people (the more and less sensitive)? Research now shows evidence for a continuum of sensitivity, with three main groupings in children, adolescents, and now adults.
Data gathered from responses to the HSP scale showed these three groups. The analysis also considered the Big 5 personality traits (neuroticism, openness, extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness) and emotional reactivity.
31% were highly sensitive, or “orchids” in the metaphor. This group was more likely to be introverted and also a stronger emotional reaction to both negative and positive experiences.
Among those that were not highly sensitive, or outside of the HSP camp, there was a further division. 29% were low-sensitive “dandelions.” They were less emotionally responsive, less anxious, and more extroverted.
The majority of people (40%) fell into a medium-sensitive group that made up 40%. A new label of tulips was applied to this group, being flowers that are “very common, but less fragile than orchids while more sensitive to climate than dandelions.”
Good News for the Sensitive: Therapy Helps
Positive emotional experiences have a bigger impact on the lives of sensitive people (the orchids). As such, the researchers suggest that HSPs have a “heightened propensity to benefit from positive environmental influences, such as psychological intervention.”
In other words, the highly sensitive are likely to experience an even greater benefit from psychotherapy. You deserve to thrive, live into acceptance of your self, and feel empowered by the benefits that come with increased empathy and sensitivity to the environment.
When looking for a therapist, be sure to ask about their familiarity with highly sensitive persons and their approach. Trust your intuition — you will get the most out of therapy when you feel safe, seen, and understood.
HSP Scale. https://hsperson.com/research/measurement-scales-for-researchers/
Boyce, W. T., & Ellis, B. J. (2005). Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary-developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity. Development and Psychopathology, 17(2), 271-301
Lionetti, F., Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Burns, G. L., Jagiellowicz, J., & Pluess, M. (2018). Dandelions, tulips and orchids: evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals. Translational Psychiatry, 8(1), doi: 10.1038/s41398-017-0090-6.