Most sensitive people are “orchids.” Can embracing it help you thrive?
My two kids are wildly different from each other. One is free-spirited, endlessly energetic, and generally carefree. The other is introspective, deeply observant, and careful. The most accurate, all-encompassing way I can explain their differences is through the Swedish terms maskrosbarn and orkidbarn, meaning “dandelion child” and “orchid child.”
First developed by researchers Dr. Thomas Boyce and Dr. Bruce Ellis — and popularized in Boyce’s book, The Orchid and the Dandelion — these flower metaphors describe two fundamental ways in which children are influenced by their environments:
- Dandelion children are less affected by their circumstances and can find a way to flourish just about anywhere, the way the sturdy little flower might sprout up from a crack in the pavement.
- Orchid children, on the other hand, are strongly affected by their surroundings. They need a specific environment and attentive care to thrive. As sensitivity researcher Michael Pluess says, “Orchids can develop particular delicacy and beauty when raised under the right conditions.”
My own children, one a maskrosbarn and one an orkidbarn, follow this pattern. They’ve had very similar life experiences, living under the same roof with the same parents, yet their response to their environment has been as different as a dandelion and an orchid planted in the same pot.
The Three Sensitivity Flower Types
Researchers have been analyzing sensitivity for decades, with many focusing on differentiating the trait of high sensitivity from those who score “average” or “low” for sensitivity. Drawing on Boyce and Ellis’ research on “Biological Sensitivity to Context,” sensitivity levels have classified people as either “orchids” or “dandelions” to illustrate the differences between highly sensitive people — who account for nearly 30 percent of the population — vs. the other 70 percent of people.
This wasn’t an effort to be exclusionary, but simply a means of understanding how highly sensitive people (HSPs) are different from those who are less-sensitive: HSPs are very aware of, and affected by, their surroundings. Non-HSPs aren’t. For example, HSPs are more affected by emotions, more aware of subtle stimuli, and even process information more deeply than non-HSPs. They are the varsity players of deep thinking and wholehearted feeling, but — compared to rugged dandelions — they get overstimulated easily by everything they take in.
But that isn’t the whole story.
While high-sensitive dandelions and low-sensitive orchids have helped us understand the two ends of the continuum, research has never divided people into simple “haves” and “have-nots” when it comes to sensitivity. Instead, Pluess points out that people can fall anywhere from “low” to “medium” to “high” levels of sensitivity. Lots of people, indeed the majority, are “medium.”
So a third category was added:
- Tulip children are more sensitive to their environment than dandelions are, but not as much so as orchids are. They’re “average.”
So we can think of sensitivity as a bouquet. Dandelions are people with low levels of sensitivity, orchids have higher levels, and those somewhere in the middle are referred to as tulips.
But just how deep do the differences go?
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How Does Being an Orchid, Tulip, or Dandelion Affect Your Personality?
Sensitivity is part of your temperament, meaning it’s something more deeply innate and permanent than your personality, which can change. But personality and sensitivity do affect each other. To understand how, researchers explored how sensitivity levels relate to the “Big 5” personality traits, which are identified by the acronym OCEAN:
Openness refers to one’s curiosity and willingness to explore new ideas and experiences. Orchids (HSPs) tend to be very open, perhaps due to our deep processing and empathy. Orchids naturally look at a situation from all different angles and can analyze and empathize with varying points of view.
Dandelions might have to be more intentional to cultivate openness, because they don’t process as deeply or analyze as thoroughly as orchids. And tulips may enjoy delving into abstract ideas to a point (perhaps more than dandelions) or they may be more readily enthusiastic for novel experiences than orchids, who have much more to consider before trying something new.
Conscientiousness often refers to someone’s thoughtfulness. Leaingd sensitivity researcher Elaine Aron has long-praised HSPs for our careful consideration of others. However, the Big 5 combines an organizational and goal-oriented aspect to thoughtfulness, resulting in someone’s level of conscientiousness. So while HSPs are usually very thoughtful by default, we are not strongly correlated with conscientiousness in the context of the Big 5. Many of us are strongly driven by our intuition, which is less concerned with staying organized or pursuing some external goal.
Similarly, dandelions may be very driven and organized, but may not be as careful to consider how their plans might affect an array of variables as orchids would. Tulips will likely inhabit some variation of middle ground of thoughtfulness, combined with being organized and driven.
Extroversion/Introversion is not as strongly associated with sensitivity as researchers originally thought. While orchids lean toward introversion, research confirms that they can also be extroverted. This just means where someone falls along the extroversion/introversion spectrum is less indicative of sensitivity levels than one might presume.
Still, extroverted dandelions probably interact in a crowd quite differently from extroverted orchids. The elements of social settings that contribute to overstimulation will still affect sensitivity levels, even if someone is extroverted. For example, introverted tulips may enjoy a crowded theme park more than extroverted orchids, due to their sensitivity to the park’s atmosphere (lights, sounds, smells, etc).
Agreeableness has an interesting relationship with sensitivity. Agreeableness is the spectrum of how kind, trusting, well-meaning, and even empathetic someone is, which one would think more sensitive folks possess in droves. And that’s true to an extent, as orchids are often good friends and people-pleasers.
But being agreeable also requires people to be easily adaptable and malleable for the sake of others. Remember, orchids are defined by their susceptibility to their surroundings. We cannot forego our needs as easily as dandelions might, even for the sake of others whom we deeply love and care about. While orchids are not strongly correlated with agreeableness, it’s unlikely that we are uncaring or unconcerned with others. It’s simply that we cannot adjust our environment as readily or easily as dandelions or tulips and still thrive.
Neuroticism measures how reactive and susceptible someone is to life circumstances, like stress, threats, and hardships. (The word “neuroticism” is misleading: as a personality trait, it’s not a bad thing, and isn’t synonymous with mental illness.) Understandably, orchids are strongly correlated with neuroticism because we need the right environment to flourish. Dandelions may be able to experience a myriad of stressors and curveballs in life — and keep on growing. Tulips, meanwhile, may struggle when hardships come their way, but can dust themselves off and move on more readily than orchids. Orchids often feel the negative effects of these things more intensely and need more time to recover.
But there’s an upside to orchids’ “neuroticism” or emotional reactivity: We may be more responsive to life’s hardships, but studies show we are more reactive to life’s joys than dandelions or tulips, as well.
The Sensitivity Bouquet and Emotional Reactivity
In addition to the Big 5 personality traits, the researchers above also studied the differences in emotional reactivity between the sensitivity levels. Sensitivity is characterized in part by being more responsive to one’s emotions — being a deep-feeler or wearing your heart on your sleeve. If you’re an orchid, you’ve probably been teased (or even shamed) about this at some point in your life because it is generally seen as a problem.
But when evaluating emotional reactivity, researchers found that orchids have even stronger reactions to positive emotional stimuli (researchers measured reactions to a heart-warming video clip in the study) than they do to negative emotional stimuli (a sad video clip). In fact, the study found that there wasn’t a significant difference in how dandelions, tulips, and orchids responded to the sad video clip. The differences were more evident between sensitivity levels in reactions to the heart-warming clip, with orchids reacting more strongly than tulips or dandelions.
Boyce refers to this as an orchid’s “exquisite sensitivity.” Science confirms that while everyone benefits from understanding their sensitivity levels better, it’s especially important that orchids understand theirs, for cultivating an environment in which we can thrive will have especially beneficial outcomes. Orchids may never sprout and grow from a crack in the pavement, but in the right environment — and with proper care and attention — they are exquisite.
5 Crucial Lessons for Highly Sensitive People and ‘Orchids’
So, now what? Here are some key takeaways from the “sensitivity bouquet”:
1. Sensitivity isn’t an “all or nothing” equation.
Everyone has varying levels of sensitivity, and orchids can be curious about others’ sensitivity to find common ground. In fact, just as tulips and dandelions can tap into their sensitivity if they focus on it, HSPs can tap into their “inner dandelion” when they absolutely need to muscle through something. Just be sure to take extra time for rest and emotional processing afterward!
2. When you’re having a hard time, compared to others, know that you aren’t “weak” or “less-than.”
You just need the right conditions to thrive — and you deserve to pursue them. In fact, in some ways you might even be more resilient than others, because you get more of a boost out of support, resources, and mentoring, and you have the power to build those things into your life. This is what Andre Sólo, coauthor of the book Sensitive, calls the sensitive “Boost Effect,” and it’s what makes sensitive people strong. “Sensitive people can even end up being more resilient to stress than less-sensitive people are,” Sólo writes. “Sensitive people are not hothouse orchids who wither in anything but the most perfect conditions. Rather, they are akin to succulents: No drop of nourishment escapes them, and they continue to absorb it until they swell with lovely blossoms.”
3. Your “dandelion” and “tulip” friends can still be quite sensitive.
Don’t always assume they won’t notice or be bothered by things as you are. Everyone has a sensitive site, and when tulips and dandelions get hit by theirs, they often lack the skills to navigate it the way HSPs have learned to do through a lifetime of experience. That means that your emotional intelligence, your compassion, and your willingness to talk about emotions — which many people are afraid to do — can be invaluable to those you love.
4. Use your openness to learn from tulips and dandelions.
How do they navigate their varying sensitivities? In light of their relationship to their “sensitive side,” how might you approach your own sensitivities with more care, acceptance, and ease? For example, you may know tulips or dandelions who are actually better at regulating their emotions than you are, or who have a life philosophy that helps make it easier to shrug off little things every once in a while. You’ll never adopt their strategies wholesale, and doing so wouldn’t be healthy, but there’s probably as much you can learn from your less-sensitive loved ones as they can learn from you.
5. Sensitivity is, at its core, an awareness.
So honor sensitivity at whatever level it manifests for you (not what society says about it).
Every year, my orchid and dandelion kids both love to spot the first dandelion flowers of spring. I marvel at a field of tulips painting the landscape in vivid color. An orchid’s unique and delicate beauty is mesmerizing. In the wild, each flower is awe-inspiring in its own right. The same is true of the sensitivity bouquet.
It’s no small thing to pick up on something others miss. Honoring sensitivity is a willingness to say that even the little things matter. We HSPs may say this about more things than most, but the sentiment is always important.
What do you think about the sensitivity bouquet? Does it reflect your experience of your own sensitivity and those around you? Are you a dandelion, tulip, or orchid? (I’d love to hear in the comments below!) However you identify, the most important thing is to know what you need to grow and flourish.