I’ve never believed that toughness was a requirement for authentic emotional resilience, but nothing could have prepared me for what I discovered when I began exploring the question “can we be highly sensitive and emotionally resilient?”
The term “highly sensitive person” was coined by Dr. Eileen Aron in 1996 and I’ll admit that when I first came across the concept I was more than a little skeptical that it may be yet another self-improvement buzz word.
But in recent years the scientific community has taken notice of her work identifying a group of people more governed by sensitivity than others, and not only is the consensus that the theory is valid, but that Highly Sensitive People (HSP) are born, not made.
In other words, HSP is a trait, not a choice.
I used to dislike being sensitive. I thought it made me weak. But take away that single trait and you take away the very essence of who I am. You take away my conscience, my ability to empathize, my intuition, my creativity, my deep appreciation of the little things, my vivid inner life, my keen awareness to others pain and my passion for it all. ~Author Unknown
Understanding the Nature of a Highly Sensitive Person
Sensitivity is often seen as a weakness in our culture, in fact, there is a tendency to define sensitive people simply as overly emotional, but if you consider that Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt all exhibited HSP characteristics it becomes obvious that the reality is far more complex.
The following visual illustrates just how much more there is to being an HSP.
It was at this point in my research where things got personal. I have never thought of myself as being particularly sensitive, let alone “highly” so, and yet the more I read about HSP, the more I saw me!
Here’s an example relating to the trait of being “highly conscientious”.
I admit it, rude and thoughtless behavior is a hot button for me. One day I was in the market and observed this shopper who kept leaving her cart in the middle of the aisle as she wandered around in her own little world. Meanwhile, other people were forced to maneuver around her blockade as she worked her way up and down the aisles.
Finally, I walked up to her smiling as I slowly pushed her cart out of the way and said, “Excuse me, sorry to interrupt you, but you appear to be under the false impression that you are the only shopper in the store, because I’m sure it wasn’t your intention to keep rudely blocking the aisle. Here let me fix this for you.” Then I walked away as she stood there, stunned with her mouth hanging open.
Coincidentally, there is a stunningly similar example of “classic” HSP behavior given in Dr. Aaron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. Now that made me laugh out loud, but it also freaked me out just a little.
All Highly Sensitive People Are Not Alike
I really hate labels, especially when they are applied to people, so I want to emphasize that all HSPs are not alike. You are still uniquely YOU.
This is important because if you happen to harbor a bias against the notion of being “weak” (as many people do) before you even understand what being an HSP is all about it’s going to be very tempting to dismiss this concept outright rather than risk discovering that you (gasp!) share at least some of the traits.
Many of us who lean toward being highly sensitive will relate strongly to a few traits, while not at all to others. But even if you find that you are truly a “Highly Sensitive Person” keep in mind that the very characteristics that make you highly sensitive are the qualities that can give you enormous emotional resilience when you learn to manage them.
For now, let’s take a quick look at a few basic facts about the HSP population.
- It is estimated that 15% – 20% of the population are highly sensitive people.
- While there is a strong association, being highly sensitive is not by definition the same as introversion, in fact, approximately 30% of HSPs are Extroverts.
- Being highly sensitive is not the same as “shy”. This misconception likely comes from the fact that HSPs tend to enjoy their own company and actively seek periods of downtime. The distinction is that shyness is a learned behavior whereas sensitivity is not.
- Many will be surprised to learn that there are as many men HSPs as women, it’s just that men go to a lot more trouble to hide it.
I put on an act sometimes and people think I’m insensitive. Really the opposite is true. The act is a kind of armor because I’m too sensitive. If there are 200 people in a room and one of them doesn’t like me, I’ve got to get out. ~Marlon Brando
The Challenge of Being an HSP
A highly sensitive person can quickly become overwhelmed by too much sensory stimulation such as loud noises or strong smells, too many things going on at once, or too many people. Those who allow their emotions to rule their behavior tend to be reactive and show their feelings, both good and bad, which give others the impression that they are unable to cope.
Worse, lacking self-awareness, many HSPs view themselves as weak and look for others to lead the way or “fix” them, which is a slippery slope that can lead to a state of victimhood.
The key to overcoming the potential negative aspects of being highly sensitive is self-awareness, and the willingness to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses.
For example, many HSPs struggle to make decisions because they feel the need to weigh every possible option for fear of making a wrong choice. While this can be challenging at best on a daily basis, there’s a reason confident decision making is a key trait of emotional resilience.
If you ever do find yourself facing a crisis you may have no choice but to make any number of life-altering decisions without the luxury of a lot of time to ponder your options.
Fortunately, if you’re willing to do the work, with practice and clearly defined priorities, anyone can learn to become a confident decision maker.
When you know yourself you are empowered. When you accept yourself you are invincible. ~Tina Lifford
When you believe that you are a strong, capable person, not in spite of your HSP traits, but because of them, you will feel free to make choices that honor who you are, that is, sensitive, creative, empathetic, intuitive and passionate.
The key to developing emotional resilience for an HSP, therefore, is not in trying to be less sensitive, but recognizing that sensitivity is your strength.
Your turn: Do you see yourself as a Highly Sensitive Person?
Even if you don’t identify with being a Highly Sensitive Person, chances are good that someone you know (or are related to) is, so if you’d like to learn more about this topic I encourage you to visit Dr. Aron’s website, The Highly Sensitive Person, and Dr. Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person (affiliate link) is available at Amazon.
Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.
About Marquita Herald
Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.
She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.
To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click “here“.