Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person is misunderstood

4 Common Ways Highly Sensitive People Are Misunderstood

Highly sensitive people are often misunderstood. When someone tells them to “just relax,” it’s not like they can turn their sensitivity “off.”

Those of us who identify as highly sensitive people (HSPs) probably hear them all the time — the criticisms, the judgments:

You’re too much! 

You’re being too sensitive. 

Stop overreacting! 

Why are you so fussy? 

What’s wrong with you?

Nothing. Nothing is wrong with us. But the voices can creep in. And when others can’t understand us — how we’re just wired differently due to having a sensitivity trait — it can feel very much like something is not right, and this can be very hurtful. On top of feeling criticized, we can often feel disregarded or unsupported in our experiences. 

Being Highly Sensitive Is Not a Disorder, but a Gift

Because high sensitivity isn’t often discussed or seen as being a personality trait like extroversion or introversion are, it is often incorrectly thought of as something about us that needs to be “fixed,” some type of disorder, when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. This can leave many HSPs feeling like something is wrong with them. It can be very invalidating and hurtful.

But the truth of the matter is, HSPs make up nearly 30 percent of the population. While this certainly makes it so that we’re not alone, it is not high enough a part of the general population to be well-understood by society.

This misunderstanding can lead to many misconceptions and incorrect labels placed on us. It can also lead to the hurtful things we sometimes hear from others. The following are some of the most common things HSPs hear and experience from others, as well as some helpful ways to perhaps rethink these misconceptions.

4 Common Ways Highly Sensitive People Are Misunderstood

1. “You’re introverted.”

This is perhaps one of the most common misconceptions, as many confuse introversion with high sensitivity. And while this certainly makes sense (about 70 percent of HSPs identify with introversion) there are distinct differences between the two personality traits that make them unique from one another. 

Introverts seek to avoid stimuli associated specifically with people while the HSP seeks to avoid being overwhelmed by stimuli (loud noises, bright lights, etc.) Both escape to be alone and recharge, which is why many confuse the two. But when the introvert is alone, they often take that time to recover by not being around other humans. When the HSP is alone, they’re often recharging just by virtue of being away from overstimulation. And while they are in the minority, there are highly sensitive extroverts, too. 

2. “You’re overthinking things!”

Because sensitive people see the details and subtleties better than the rest of the general population, we also process things on a deeper level. We are able to make connections that others cannot. Highly sensitive people also tend to pause a lot before acting on something. They think things over more because there’s more to think on. 

This can lead to others losing patience with the HSP, or even telling them that they’re “overthinking things,” which carries some negative connotation (i.e.. you’re overcomplicating things). 

Instead of telling the HSP that we’re thinking too much about something, a more positive way to look at it would be to embrace this heightened cognitive processing. We’re very deep thinkers and can see things others can’t! Sounds like a superpower to me!

3. “You’re overreacting. Just relax!”  

Because we are capable of noticing so many things, things that most people take for granted, it’s very easy for us to become overwhelmed. Add that to our keen perception and the ability to feel things more deeply, and you can imagine the many things an HSP must navigate through that the non-HSP doesn’t. 

Take for example, a trip to the farmers’ market or going to a concert. The HSP hears and experiences all the noise, the shouting, the crying babies, the millions of conversations going on all around us! Our nervous system is working hard, really hard, to receive all of that sensory detail. 

On the outside, others might only see the outward manifestations of the heightened awareness our minds and bodies are going through. A highly sensitive person’s fight-or-flight response could also be triggering during these moments when they are hit with a ton of stimuli. And being told to “calm down” or to “just relax” can feel very invalidating during these moments. 

Rather than making the implication that what we’re feeling isn’t normal or not okay, non-HSPs can help by acknowledging what we’re feeling and even perhaps just being there and sitting with us as we navigate things. On our end, the HSP can steer themselves out of these overwhelming situations with self-regulation — things like breathing exercises and mindfulness can help. 

If you can name what you’re going through, what your senses are detecting, it goes a long way psychologically in helping you deal with the overstimulation you’re experiencing. For example, perhaps you notice that you’re irritated or feeling “off.” So you might take a pause and get curious about what could be triggering you in the moment. As you slow down and check in internally, you may realize you’re feeling overwhelmed by the bright lights and noises in the room. 

Going through this process can make it easier to cope. Perhaps you can find a more calming space to be in or create a mental refuge for yourself. You can validate your experiences as you become more aware of what you are going through and put language to it. Finally, just allowing yourself some grace can help in these very intense moments.

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4. “You’re so shy!”

Similar to introverts — who also tend to get the shy label — HSPs are often told that they’re being “so shy.” According to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, shyness isn’t something we’re born with, but a learned behavior. In contrast, the highly sensitive person’s high sensitivity is innate, not learned. It’s part of our chemical and biological makeup whereas shyness stems from fear of judgment from others. While someone can be both an HSP and shy, being one doesn’t automatically mean you are the other.

Other hurtful or incorrect labels falling under the “shy” label could also be “timid,” “meek,” or even “fussy.” Sure, it’s easy to write off HSPs as “just shy” and label them as adverse to people or social groups — yet, in fact, HSPs do desire to have strong bonds with others. The more appropriate way to see things is that the highly sensitive person is really just taking their time before they enter into any situation, and this includes social gatherings, meeting new people, and the like. 

An HSP will usually go to a party, take stock of their environment and perhaps need a few moments to just “take it all in.” They’re noticing things many others around them aren’t, they’re hearing every little thing, and they need time to adjust to their surroundings. The HSP is not avoiding people. It’s not that they’re not wanting to make meaningful connections.

Society Often Misunderstands ‘Sensitivity,’ Too

Much of the misunderstanding about HSPs stems from societal and cultural values. Many societies, for example, value the outgoing, the very vocal, and the easygoing. When someone doesn’t behave in a way that is expected of them by the rest of society, that’s when the eyebrows rise. So when society tells you, “Don’t be so sensitive!” it’s very easy to feel like something is wrong with you. 

Yes, HSPs might seem “shy” or ‘introverted” and they may seem like they’re “quiet” or “timid.” They might be told they’re overreacting to things or that they’re “just being fussy.” These very hurtful things can begin as early as childhood (from unknowing parents and teachers) and stay with the HSP throughout their entire lives. It’s no wonder that many HSPs feel like they’re doing something wrong, when in fact, they’re just being themselves. 

The fact is that many people don’t know that high sensitivity is very much a real temperament and that it is very much “normal.” Many HSPs grow up not knowing about their sensitivity trait, and so when society tells them that they’re not valued or seen, it can be very difficult not to ask, “What’s wrong with me?”

Embracing Our Sensitivity Is One Way for Society to Better Understand It 

Instead of harmful labels or incorrect ways to think about the highly sensitive person, society — and this counts for us HSPs, too — needs to embrace our trait. Rather than trying to change us or fix us, let’s see the wonderful value that an HSP can bring to the table in all areas of life! The HSP will be able to see things that others won’t and so can bring to attention things at work, school, or just everyday life that people would otherwise miss out on. The HSP can also prevent people from stepping into a situation that they might regret as they’ll have considered and thought deeply about all the little things before committing to any situation. As a matter of fact, Forbes published an article last year titled, “Why Highly Sensitive People Make The Best Leaders, According To A Psychologist” where high sensitivity is seen for what it should be: a strength.

The cultural and social narrative on high sensitivity has been primarily negative, but with the right frame of mind, it can change. With a more positive look at sensitivity, our temperament is very much like a superpower — don’t forget it! And who wouldn’t want to be thought of as a deep thinker who can cognitively dive deeper than most people, offer insightful observations that enrich conversations, make well-informed choices, and see and experience the world on a higher level altogether? Count me in!

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