Can We Be Highly Sensitive and Emotionally Resilient?

Written by on November 7, 2016 in Self Awareness

highly-sensitive-peopleI’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.

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Highly Sensitive Person

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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 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.

Thank you for sharing!

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  1. ikechi
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Marquita

    My perception in being sensitive has changed thanks to your post. I do agree that HSP do make a difference and go the extra mile

    It is great thing that you shared the science being being sensitive. Looking at this post, I see some traits that syas this is me.

    Thank you so much for this post. Take Care
    ikechi recently posted…Making a Difference: BlogFest With StyleMy Profile

    • I’m glad you found the post informative Ikechi. It’s been interesting to see that most people who have commented have associated with at least a few of the HSP traits. This is definitely a submit I plan to write to write more about in the future.

  2. Mark
    Twitter:
    says:

    Without a doubt I definitely have traces of HSP’s in my DNA M!

    But like most men, I’m just too darn stubborn & prideful to admit it!LOL!

    BTW, I love the passage in your image!

    Although oddly enough M, whenever I’m reading a book, watching a movie and or a documentary of some kind, I expect to be moved in some way by it!

    And when I’m not, I just feel like it kinda missed the mark in some sense!

    I don’t know what such a response proves, or disproves, but it’s definitely part of the way I process those situations.

    Thanks as always, for sharing some really nourishing mind food!LOL!
    Mark recently posted…So What Happens When A New Way Of Thinking Meets Opportunity Half Way?Part ThreeMy Profile

    • So glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for your kind comment about the image – you know I work hard to find just the right images and quotations, so I really appreciate it when someone notices. I think your response about expecting to be moved by a book or movie is perfectly normal Mark. We invest a bit of ourselves each time we read a book or watch a movie and it’s disappointing to be left feeling flat at the end. But on the other hand, that’s how we know when we’ve found something worth hanging on to – either on our bookshelf or in our hearts. I know I’m not the only re-reading fan with a collection of books that have become so much a part of me that I clearly remember passages and when I reread them it’s like revisiting an old friend. Sounds a bit sappy I know, but I guess that’s a sign of that well hidden HSP in me. 🙂

  3. Janelle says:

    I see myself as a HSP person most of the time. I used to feel bad about it, but now I’m learning to accept it.

  4. lenie
    Twitter:
    says:

    Marquita, is it possible to be partly highly sensitive? I cry at sad movies and sad books, even sad commercials. (Do you remember the one where a certain product cut back on the amount of salt they used and showed the salt shaker slowly walking away – that one made me cry, poor little salt shaker). But in other ways I am the least sensitive – I can take criticism easily and have no trouble dealing with rude people.
    Thought provoking post as so many of yours are.
    lenie recently posted…Remembrance Day: Sacrifices Never ForgottenMy Profile

    • Yes, it absolutely is Lenie. As I mentioned in the article, many people (such as myself) may see a few familiar traits and others they don’t relate to at all. I also have several distinctly insensitive characteristics. Most of us are a kind of mixed bag, but it still helps to understand why we do the things we do. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Sushmita
    Twitter:
    says:

    Marquita I can see my self as a sensitive person.
    I liked your post, it’s always a pleasure to know few unknown details of a subject. Thanks for sharing dear 🙂
    Sushmita recently posted…Here are Easy, Effective & Powerful Marketing Lessons!My Profile

  6. Wow…. You could have made that infographic about me. Seriously. I did not realize that they had coined a term for it.

  7. William Rusho
    Twitter:
    says:

    I guess if I had to choose between a world filled with insensitive, or highly sensitive people, I would take the latter.
    I will admit, I do so some characteristics you mentioned above. I get overwhelmed with too many stimuli. I also weigh choices too much, trying to find out which is best, or which is less costly in the long run. A great and informative post, thank you for sharing it with everyone.
    William Rusho recently posted…The Rise and Fall of Hillary ClintonMy Profile

    • Glad you found the post thought provoking William. I don’t believe it’s uncommon for people to share at least a couple of these traits, just as there are few people who would be considered 100% insensitive. The point I think is that it helps to be aware of these traits to help us understand ourselves and others just a little better. Thanks for sharing with us!

  8. I spent many, many years trying to fix myself and my ‘over-sensitivity’. Then, a few years ago I learned that I had been selective mute as a child. I have since learned a huge amount about my highly sensitive traits, and yes, I relate to all you say in this post.

    Today I recognise the hidden gifts that have been lurking in me all this time, and it is so very freeing to realise that it’s not only okay to be, but it is of great importance that I am. Thanks for sharing all you do 🙂

    • Thank you so much for sharing your amazing story with us Kathryn! What a powerful role model you are for your fellow HSPs, as well as those of us who share even a few of the traits. 🙂

  9. Chery Schmidt
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hello Marty! Awesome post my friend! Oh Yeh as many others have stated here I also see myself n your chart! I can relate as being a highly sensitive person as well as one who needs time alone to recharge myself!

    Yeppers This Is Me LOL

    Great Share
    Thank You
    Chery :))
    Chery Schmidt recently posted…Adding Intention And Expectations To Your GoalsMy Profile

    • That’s you are self-aware enough to recognize highly sensitive traits in yourself, I’m wondering what how you manage those traits. Do you tend to hide them or are have you been able to develop and appreciate them for the strengths that make you who you are?

  10. Phoenicia
    Twitter:
    says:

    You have just described me. I am ultra sensitive; with feelings, tastes and sounds. I cried at the drop of a hat as a child. I took everything to heart. Despite being sensitive now, I have learnt the art of protecting myself. I am not an open book and keep many of my thoughts to myself. Interesting you mention that many see sensitivity as a weakness as I always did. I wondered why I was made this way.
    Phoenicia recently posted…Do you keep your attitude in check?My Profile

    • While I’m glad to hear that you’ve learned to nurture and protect yourself Phoenicia, I encourage you to take that a step further and genuinely appreciate those traits as strengths rather than weaknesses to be hidden. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  11. Erica says:

    Hmmm, well I could relate to every one of those criteria in the butterfly chart. I was very emotional as a child. I actually used to get punished for crying, that’s how emotional I was. I believe I’ve heard the term highly sensitive person before. But it is nice to get a better understanding. Thank you.
    Erica recently posted…Avoid A Holiday Buffet Binge! How To.Whoop Your Cravings Monster Like A Ninja!My Profile

  12. Let’s see, when I was about 14, my older (super sweet) sister wrote a note to me that began, “Dear sweet, vulnerable Rosemary…” so I guess I, too, am an HSP.
    What I find most interesting about your post is realizing that my great niece, only five years old, is already very much an HSP. While I am also wary of labels, this helps me understand ways in which I can help her as she grows up.
    Thank you!
    RoseMary Griffith recently posted…Take a hike! In Pittsburgh’s Schenley ParkMy Profile

  13. ST Mastering
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Marquita
    It was a great insightful post.Personally I think I am one of the HSP in the world.I easily get hurt which makes me think I am weak.But your post has broaden my view.Now I understand to accept nyself.Which will be my way to self freedom

  14. Interesting post, Marty. I have a friend who is highly HSP. It makes interacting with her a fascinating challenge, as I never quite know what to expect. But I always remember that she is indeed highly sensitive to criticism or feedback of the most innocent kind, so treading lightly is always in order.
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…being grateful will improve your healthMy Profile

    • Yeah, you know the danger in these kinds of posts is always the risk that we start labeling each other which is why I emphasize the point that no two people are alike. But still, I think it does help to know that there are many people with similar traits if it helps us to understand ourselves just a little better. Thanks so much for sharing, and especially for letting me know about that typo – fixed! 🙂

  15. Dave
    Twitter:
    says:

    OMG. Check, check, and check. Every single trait of an HSP fits me to a tee. Some more strongly than others, but I can definitely see myself in every single characteristic.

    And in an ironic twist, the first one I gravitated toward noticing was the “extremely sensitive to criticism” part. Yep, I went right to the trait that comes across with a negative connotation.

    And, I have to admit with full disclosure that before reading this article, I held that one overarching meaning of being “overly emotional” as the sole definition.

    It is so empowering, however, after reading your thoughts how we can view all these characteristics as our strength as opposed to some perceived weakness. Thank you kindly, my friend. It’s almost as if it feels a burdensome weight has been lifted from my shoulders 😉
    Dave recently posted…The Big CatchMy Profile

  16. This article explains many encounters causing discontent between me and my husband.My husband is an HSP and unknowingly I have offended him many times.I can relate to the lady at the grocery store as I am preoccupied with so many thoughts sometimes or badly affected by a difficult day at work, that I tend to overlook following a decorum.how did u feel looking at that woman ? did u feel irritated? did u feel that someone needs to teach her right from wrong ? HSPs could be right in their own way but they have high expectations from others around them and feel the need for everyone to respect it .To me, being an HSP or a non-HSP are both personality traits that are flaws and cannot be justified. Highly sensitive persons tend to be preachy, while the non-HSPs being insensitive towards others are rude indeed. There is a self analysis tool that I have been following to overcome these flaws within me so that I can learn to be more accepting of his HSP needs and also view more positively when he points my mistake.It would have been really nice if he too followed this tool so he could lower his expectations and felt much happier within.It is a life long process but it helps me be a better person :- )
    Priya Prabhu recently posted…Mental illnesses in developed countriesMy Profile

    • Insightful questions and illustrations as always Priya. As far as your question about how I felt about the woman in the store – it wasn’t my intention to teach her right from wrong, I don’t have that kind of authority. My point was, and always is when I see people who have disconnected from their surroundings, to illustrate that they are not alone in this world, that their actions often affect others. That’s a big part of taking responsibility for our own lives, accepting responsibility for our own behavior as well as for the effect our actions have on others. I could not agree more with you about our efforts to become all we can be as a life-long process. Hopefully, we’re able to enjoy the journey. 🙂

  17. Sabrina Quairoli
    Twitter:
    says:

    I can relate th being a highly sensitive person like my father was. But i wouldn’t change it because, as you stated, it makes me who I am today.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…How to make a standing scrapbooking stationMy Profile

  18. Donna Merrill
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Marquita,

    I have seen some of myself here. Mostly my old self lol. But now, I do need my time alone to recharge, have strong emotional reactions that I harbor and most of all, can be affected by other people’s moods.

    Through NLP, and other therapies I’ve learned how to deal with it. I can see myself and how I used to react before I have gotten the help I needed for it. Now I’m out of that “cage.”

    -Donna
    Donna Merrill recently posted…4 Productivity Tips For BloggersMy Profile

    • You know the one about being affected by other people’s moods is an issue for me as well, and it took years for me to get to the point of being able to accept that you can like someone, and still not have them in your life because of their negative effect on you. Thanks for sharing, I too am glad you are out of that “cage”. 🙂

  19. I enjoyed this post, Marquita. I saw myself in several of the HSP traits you mention — but I am definitely not a detail person, especially sensitive to criticism, or affected by other people’s moods. I am extremely observant, have rich inner life, highly conscientious and need down time. So I’m not quite sure what this combination of traits makes me. I think most of all we need to be self-aware and understand ourselves and our responses to external stimuli. I can’t expect everyone to be like me so I need to be sensitive to their needs, too.
    Jeannette Paladino recently posted…#Nike “Owns” Millennials on InstagramMy Profile

    • It makes you beautifully human Jeannette. 🙂 I am certainly no expert in the area of HSP but it seems to me that most people would have a varying degree of these traits, which to me is rather comforting. I love the notion that each of us is one of a kind, precious and unique. 🙂

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