For years, Hannah Walker endured criticism for being fragile and ‘over-sensitive’. Then she discovered that feeling things acutely is not a weakness – being a highly sensitive person is a strength.
I guess you’re just a little too sensitive. This remark has been made to me by boyfriends, bosses, friends, taxi drivers, strangers at bus stops. Each time it has stopped me short: a slap of shame, a sudden brick wall, a shower running ice-cold mid hair wash. After each encounter, I would think, at what point was it that I showed too much sensitivity? Have I embarrassed myself? Even if it was said kindly, it didn’t feel like a compliment and I didn’t take it as one.
We live in a society that does not value sensitivity. So undervalued is it, in fact, that many people consider it a guaranteed path to failure. Nowhere is this more obvious than in employment, where sectors with sensitivity at their heart – teaching, nursing, social work – are often badly paid. The story we buy into is that the tough succeed, while sensitivity is inconvenient, messy and embarrassing. I tried to hide mine.
But then something fundamental changed. In 2015, I had my daughter. It didn’t take me long to realise that she was (and still is) just like me. I realised that if I felt bad about being highly sensitive – and about her being highly sensitive – that she would learn to feel bad about it, too. I had to change the story. Was there, maybe, another way of looking at this? Could sensitivity, in fact, be a positive trait?
When my daughter was little, I took her to playgroups, where she would always sit back and observe. Sometimes, she would remove herself from the circle entirely, watching to see what the rules were and if this might be something she would like to do. I remember taking her to a group where the children had to choose a musical instrument. All the kids rushed in, but even when I carried her up to choose, she hid her face in my neck, then looked at the people and began to cry. Everyone was watching, so I picked her up and carried her out, not even stopping to put our coats on.
Walking home I was angry as I felt the under-the-skin prickles of familiarity. Memory upon memory of being in a classroom, workplace or social environment and being unable to throw myself in and just do it. I don’t work that way; nor does my child. Growing up, I heard my mum say quite a lot of negative stuff about herself. She never criticised me for my sensitivity, but she did criticise herself. I am so proud to be made of the same stuff as my mum, but I believe things might have been different for her if she had been given an understanding of her sensitivity, her difference, earlier in life – and that’s what I decided to do for my daughter.
So, I started researching and discovered the psychologist Dr Elaine N Aron. She coined the phrase highly sensitive person (HSP) in 1996 in a book of the same name. She explains that sensitivity is a trait, not a disorder. It is genetic and found in equal measure among genders and personality types. One in five people have this trait: 15 to 20 per cent of any population could be labelled as such (some studies suggest up to 30 per cent of people are HSPs).
It took a while for that figure to sink in – one in five. That is one fifth of the population; 1.5 billion people in the world.
When I first read about HSPs, I found it amusing, sobering and touching. Things I’d known about myself but did not understand began to make sense: ‘I can’t drink coffee, I go jumpy’; ‘I can’t watch horror films, I don’t sleep for days after’; ‘I take things people say to heart.’ I started to see why I have to leave social gatherings at times. Why I failed to tell the dressmaker who made my wedding dress that it was different to what we had discussed – and instead thanked her then went out and bought a disgusting £30 dress I ended up wearing to my own wedding.
Aron’s work also revealed that sensitivity is a positive trait – HSPs are particularly good at empathy, listening, interpersonal skills and thinking things through. However, the world is set up for the 70-80 per cent of the population who aren’t HSPs.
The key is for HSPs to look for the powers that come with sensitivity (see below) – and for the rest of us to appreciate that our one-size-fits-all approach to employment and education doesn’t work for everyone. Moreover, that sensitive people are not shy or standoffish, they’re just more… sensitive.
Make the most of your hidden strengths
Think you might tick the highly sensitive box? Rather than see it as a shortcoming, it’s time to give sensitivity the credit it deserves, says Hannah (below). Here’s why…
Your brain sees the bigger picture
‘A highly sensitive person’s brain is fast, and can quickly make connections in things that others may not see,’ says Barbara Allen, founder of the National Centre for High Sensitivity. ‘This makes them good at uniting information and ideas and noticing the joins that others might easily miss.’
You can read minds (well, almost…)
‘HSPs’ brains show greater responsiveness to others’ emotions,’ says social neuroscientist Dr Bianca Acevedo. ‘They are reading situations all the time and that can result in them having an intuition about something from all that information being processed deeply.’
That’s right: as highly responsive beings, HSPs are super attuned to both the positive and negative. This means they notice not just whether people they are with are OK but also the mood of others in a room.
You appreciate other points of view
Because HSPs’ brains are constantly taking in information, they have a lot more quality data about any given interpersonal situation or environment. This makes them great at understanding multiple realities, points of view and nuance.
…and excel at empathy
Again, thanks to all that reading of what’s going on around them, HSPs understand people more easily and their high level of empathetic understanding is why they are often found working in the NHS, or as police or social workers.
Decision-making is your thing
HSPs understand layers of information and can see both the bird’s-eye view and close detail, making them excellent people to consult over important decisions.
You think before you act
HSPs observe first (think of my daughter at the playgroup, watching and waiting) and then act. The more they observe, consider and process, the more likely it is that they will offer an appropriate response to a person or situation.
Sensitive: The Power of Feeling in a World that Doesn’t by Hannah Walker is published by Octopus, price £14.99*. Want to find out if you’re a highly sensitive person? Try Dr Elaine Aron’s test at hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/.