What does being highly sensitive mean? One definition is greater awareness of sensory perceptions and emotions. Highly sensitive people can make good coffee tasters, sommeliers, gourmet chefs, musicians, artists, or perfumers.

To be highly sensitive is to be perceptive and passionate. It is not the same as being hypersensitive. It does not mean being uptight, joyless, defensive, or high maintenance, or a mewling, whining victim. There is a lot of power in being a victim. Ironically, victims can victimize others through hypersensitivity. People feel like they have to tiptoe around them lest they offend them or hurt them. They burden others. How can someone as meek and mild as sensitive person victimize others? They complain. When something doesn’t go there way, they overreact dramatically, and complain to the people in charge, who don’t want to hear their complaints, so they punish whoever offended them. They buy into this culture of you have the right not to be offended. I have read the US Constitution, and have not been able to locate anything in there about a right not to be offended. I am offended 20 times a day. Suck it up and deal with it. Why go over someone’s head and behind their back because they hurt your precious feelings? Why not address it with them directly? Report them instead. Then wonder why you are alienated and not trusted by co-workers, or they are unavailable for you when you need them.

Or the people in charge indulge complaints because they are afraid of litigation. You can sue people for almost anything. What about looking where you are going and exercising common sense, taking responsibility for your actions, and accepting some consequences and learning from them. Where did the idea that you should get paid for being offended ever come from?

It seems like no one is responsible for anything they do anymore. Everything is someone else’s fault. As long as we understand the cause, then it’s OK. Every human behavior has a psychological root. It is a big leap to go from understanding a cause to accepting the psychological cause as a justification or excuse for the behavior. But that leap is taken regularly. Tolerance is looked on as a good thing. We tolerate behaviors which were unacceptable a generation ago. We have more compassion for criminals than we do their victims.

Hypersensitive people are not prepared for the real world. A basic principle of behavioral psychology is that avoidance of a feared stimulus increases the fear response to the stimulus. By indulging the demands of hypersensitive people, you make weak people. (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015). Hypersensitivity is a liability. Enough on that rant. Now for a better definition of Highly Sensitive:

Everyone’s nervous system is calibrated differently. It is believed we are born this way. Temperament is the framework of personality that we receive at birth. It is a set of reactions which become preferences over time. Some children are more sensitive than others. They cry more easily, laugh more easily, and won’t wear socks because “they can feel the seams in them”. They can’t dry off with towels that are “too fuzzy because it tickles”. Perception is how we interpret out sensory input. It is the cognitive and emotional interpretation of information from our senses that gives us varying degrees of sensitivity. Being highly sensitive might be more accurately described as being highly perceptive, in terms of our senses, and highly responsive, in terms of our emotions.

To be highly perceptive and responsive rewards you with the following advantages:

  • Tactile sensitivity: You enjoy sex more, or just being touched. The slightest touch from your lover leaves you tingling. You savor the texture of your clothes, and hot water in the shower, and the texture of your food matters.
  • Gustatory Sensitivity: Food tastes better. The juiciness of berries, the crunchy tartness of an apple, the peppery taste of radishes, or the earthy bitterness of carrots are an especially rewarding experience for people who have highly attuned gustatory perception. .
  • Olfactory Sensitivity: Things that smell good smell even better to you. You delight in good smells and inhale deeply to savor them.
  • You put things in a frame that others miss out on. I saw a contrail from an aircraft flying at a high altitude this morning. It appeared to be heading toward the half-moon that was visible in the sky. It looked like it was going to hit the moon. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera, so I couldn’t record this. A small thing like that captures your attention.
  • You find beauty in ordinary things. The pattern that lake water made freezing on a chain dangling off a dock in the winter formed this pattern:
  • Auditory sensitivity: You discriminate between sounds and musical notes.
  • You appreciate what your senses deliver to you. The world is always photo shopped and enhanced for you. You find appreciation and interest in small things that others overlook.
  • You have emotional sensitivity: You are empathic. You can feel what others feel. You are attuned and connected to others emotions. This is a basic requirement to be a psychotherapist.
  • You experience emotions more deeply. You love , hurt, and get angry easier and more intensely. You are passionate. (See my rant in the second to fifth paragraphs).
  • This can all culminate in: You may have frequent peak experiences, or you experience flow. You lose yourself in experiences, time slows down, and you have acutely enhanced perception, and awareness, and are infused with a sense of peace, calm, and gratitude.

Being highly sensitive is a gift. Being hypersensitive is a liability. Being sensitive is not the same as being weak. Sensitivity is having a highly attuned nervous system, which allows enjoying a richness of experience.

 

Written by David A. Porter, MA, LADC
Private Practice clinician
Adjunct Faculty in Psychology and Criminology
Freelance Behavioral Science writer