Highly Sensitive Refuge
A misunderstood highly sensitive person

7 Ways Highly Sensitive People Are Misunderstood by Society

Despite what society may think, there’s nothing “wrong” with being a highly sensitive person.

As we all know, living in a society comes with certain norms. Some of these norms are beneficial, such as engaging in proper hygiene and extending common courtesy to others. However, other norms can actually be harmful to people, such as sensitivity being considered a weakness. 

It’s no wonder, then, that those of us who are highly sensitive often feel misunderstood by society. And, it can be frustrating — and even hurtful — to navigate the many misconceptions that society has about us. All that said, here are several ways HSPs are misunderstood.

7 Ways HSPs Are Misunderstood by Society

1. Thinking that HSPs lack emotional maturity

Due to HSPs’ ability to feel deeply, we often wear our heart on our sleeve and openly express our emotions. For example, sensitive people are known to cry more than our less sensitive counterparts. (Although that doesn’t necessarily mean we cry in public… we may hold back our tears until we’re behind closed doors.) Because of this, we can be labeled as “overly emotional” or “emotionally immature.” However, this couldn’t be further from the truth! 

First, our emotions are valid — just because others do not feel as deeply as HSPs doesn’t make our emotions any less real. Second, this same ability to feel deeply allows us to be better acquainted with our emotional states. This can lead to higher emotional intelligence, in which we are highly aware of how we are feeling, the purpose of our feelings, and how to navigate those feelings — as well as the feelings of others. Finally, this tendency to express our emotions may allow us to move through our emotions more effectively, since feeling an emotion is crucial to working through it. (You can’t work through bottled up or repressed emotions.) If anything, HSPs likely possess greater emotional maturity since we tune into our emotions rather than avoid them.

2. Seeing sensitivity as a disorder

Because sensitivity is undervalued by society, any display of sensitivity — such as crying or withdrawing from loud places — is often stigmatized, leading to the misbelief that sensitivity is a disorder. Although, as mentioned above, HSPs are more likely to feel deeply and express those feelings, this does not equate to having a mood disorder, like depression. Similarly, the tendency for us to feel overstimulated and to process our thoughts deeply does not mean we have an anxiety disorder. 

According to Dr. Elaine Aron, HSPs who experience adverse events while growing up are more likely to encounter mental health struggles later in life. However, she also found that HSPs who have a positive childhood are actually more resilient and have better mental health than non-HSPs. Additionally, the scientific term for being an HSP is called “sensory processing sensitivity” — the word “disorder” is left out for a reason. So, no, our heightened sensitivity is not a disorder. And, no, our experience of sensitivity is not the same as depression, anxiety, or any other diagnosable disorder. Conversely, our sensitivity can actually be our strength.

3. Judging HSPs as “weird”

Sensitivity is not “the norm” in our society. HSPs are in the minority, only making up 15 to 30 percent of the population. Because sensitivity is not a trait that is often seen (or celebrated) on a large societal scale, we are often perceived as “weird” for being sensitive. 

However, just because being sensitive isn’t the majority experience doesn’t mean it’s not “normal.” Indeed, being sensitive is a normal, healthy trait. Being an HSP is natural (as discussed in point 4), and there are also many superpowers that come with being an HSP (as discussed in point 6). 

4. Implying that their sensitivity can be “cured”

How many times has someone told you to “toughen up,” “grow thicker skin,” “stop being so emotional,” “don’t take things so personally,” or that you are “too sensitive”? These messages not only send us the message that there is something wrong with being sensitive, they also indicate that with enough willpower, we can change — or “cure” — our sensitive nature. 

In reality, sensitivity is innate in us — we cannot change our sensitivity more than we can change our eye color! Research illustrates that HSP brains are wired differently than non-HSP brains, meaning that our minds are made to work differently. Plus, being an HSP is a beautiful thing, as we have many unique strengths.

5. Viewing HSPs as naive

Many HSPs are exceptionally kind and compassionate toward others, are peace-makers, and believe the best in others. These tendencies can lead others to the false conclusion that we are naive and sheltered from the horrors of this world. However, I have found that to be the opposite of the truth. 

Indeed, due to HSPs’ depth of processing, deep feelings, and heightened empathy, we are often impacted by the tragedies of the world on an even greater level than what non-HSPs experience. It is not unusual for HSPs to feel as if we are carrying the weight of the world and to become overwhelmed as a result. 

However, many of us also possess an intense desire to help make the world a better place in some way — meaning, we have to carry hope. This is not naive; rather, this is the only way positive differences can be made. 

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6. Not seeing any value in the trait of sensitivity

Since society doesn’t recognize the strengths of the sensitive person, sensitivity is often deemed a useless trait. On the contrary: We need HSPs and their gifts. For instance, due to our compassionate nature and desire to help others, HSPs make wonderful teachers, nurses, physicians, nonprofit workers, social workers, psychotherapists, and other helping professions. Additionally, HSPs are often highly creative — combined with our depth of feeling, sensitive people can create beautiful art, music, and stories. Some people believed to be HSPs who have made significant creative contributions include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Vincent van Gogh, Bruce Springsteen, Katherine Hepburn, and Judy Garland. 

Further, HSPs have a passion to contribute to the world in a meaningful way and to help make the world a better place. Indeed, many historical figures who have made the most significant positive contributions to our society are believed to have been HSPs, too, including Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Goodall, Abraham Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Can you imagine a world without the contributions of these amazing people? High sensitivity has many gifts. If you are an HSP, you are in good company. 

7. Mistaking sensitivity for weakness

For the longest time, sensitivity has been synonymous with weakness. This is a poor analogy. 

Rather, it takes strength for HSPs to be ourselves in a world that tells us we are “wrong” for being sensitive. It takes strength for HSPs to feel everything so intensely. It takes strength for HSPs to wear our hearts on our sleeves. It takes strength for HSPs to hold compassion and be kind to others when the world tells us it would be easier to be cold and look out solely for ourselves. It takes strength for HSPs to continue to have hope and to try to make the world a better place. HSPs are resilient people who should not be underestimated.

The Dangers of Sensitive People Being Misunderstood 

As an HSP and a psychotherapist, I know the impact being misunderstood has on HSPs, both from personal experience and from hearing my client’s stories: 

  • Hiding our true nature. If we consistently are misunderstood by others, chances are we will do anything in our power to avoid this hurt. This can come in the form of hiding our sensitive nature by changing our behaviors. For instance, we may not be honest about our level of burnout in order to keep up with the productivity level of our peers and to avoid being considered “weak.” This can be especially damaging for HSPs, since we need to live in accordance with our authenticity in order to thrive. 
  • Feeling ashamed. When we are told that a trait so inherent to us (in this case, heightened sensitivity) is “wrong,” this often leads to shame. Because shame is so internal — it tells us the story of “I am wrong” — this often leads to mental health struggles, such as depression and anxiety. Shame is the antithesis of self-acceptance.
  • Isolation. If we feel misunderstood by others, we are less likely to nurture social connections. Instead, we may turn inward to the point of isolation and cutting others out of our lives. Unfortunately, lack of healthy social support is also a significant contributor to mental health struggles.
  • Gaslighting. If we as HSPs are constantly misunderstood, this will eventually get to us. We may even come to question our own perception of reality. Although society’s tendency to misunderstand isn’t intentional gaslighting, it still has the same result: We doubt the legitimacy of our own experience — including our thoughts, feelings, and abilities — since we are told time and time again that our way of experiencing the world is “wrong.”

How to Counteract HSP Misconceptions

As HSPs, what can we do about being misunderstood by society? It is unfortunate that the burden of proof falls on HSPs, as we shouldn’t have to prove ourselves in order to be accepted. However, if we work collectively to undo these misconceptions, society can start to better understand (and appreciate) our high sensitivity. Here’s what we need to do:

  • Learn about the trait. Having knowledge about being an HSP is fundamental — increasing our own understanding about being sensitive means we are more likely to accept ourselves as HSPs. Then, we can better explain high sensitivity to others: “Yes, I am highly sensitive. No, there is nothing wrong with being sensitive. No, I cannot change my sensitive nature. Can I share the science behind sensory processing sensitivity with you?” 
  • Advocate for yourself (and other HSPs). When you explain to others why sensitivity is not a detriment, but rather a strength, you are advocating not only for yourself, but HSPs everywhere. 
  • Connect with other HSPs. Because HSPs are largely misunderstood, it can be helpful to connect with other sensitive people. This helps us feel understood on an individual level, which can be incredibly healing and provide much-needed relief from society’s misconceptions.
  • Get professional help. Given that HSPs are misunderstood, it is understandable if this negatively impacts our mental health. If this is the case, it can be difficult to counteract some of those messages and truly accept ourselves. There is no shame in seeking help. Working with an HSP-knowledgeable mental health professional can lead to greater self-acceptance and self-knowledge, in addition to reducing shame, depression, and anxiety. You are worthy of accepting and appreciating your wonderful HSP self. And who knows? You may inspire someone else to do the same.

Although we may not be able to change society overnight to understand and accept our sensitivity, we can help ourselves and those close to us understand in our own gentle way.

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