How to Explain High Sensitivity to People Who Don’t ‘Get’ It

A highly sensitive person who feels like others don't "get" her high sensitivity.

“So what do you do?” my coworker asks. I recently moved into one of these downtown coworking spaces, the kind of place where everyone’s project is trendier than I’ve ever been in my life. I like everyone I’ve met, and it’s a lot better than working at my messy kitchen counter. But it can be intimidating to explain my own work.

“I run a website,” I say, which invariably draws questions about what kind of website, “It’s, um, a community for highly sensitive people.”

“Oh,” comes the reply, followed by the uncertain stare. “So… what does that mean?”

I think most highly sensitive people (HSPs) can relate to that blank-stare moment. When you try to explain your high sensitivity, reactions can range from confused to critical to simply not interested. Which is painful, because HSPs inhabit a world where their needs are almost universally overlooked, and simply feeling understood can be one of the most soothing feelings another person can offer.

So how do you explain high sensitivity to people who don’t “get” it? It’s not easy, but I’ve had to do it a lot. Below I’ll discuss why so many people misunderstand it — and the five simple things they need to know about HSPs.

“The truth is, many highly sensitive people are told they’re broken — even though they’re perfectly normal.”

Why It’s So Hard to Explain High Sensitivity

I understand why people react the way they do. Only 15 to 20 percent of people have the trait of highly sensitivity, and many of those have grown up never knowing there’s a word for what they are. The truth is, many highly sensitive kids are told they’re broken even though they’re perfectly normal — and that stigma continues to affect HSPs as adults.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is just a matter of perspective. Highly sensitive people experience the world in a truly different way than others do. Noises that seem like background to most sound intrusive to HSPs. And the emotions that everyone thinks they’re keeping hidden are, to the highly sensitive, on full display. Even smells and textures can seem “louder,” more distracting, more salient to HSPs.

Other people just can’t relate to that. Which is why high sensitivity seems, to them, like a liability. (It’s not; it’s a healthy characteristic with pros and cons, just like any other personality trait.)

That gulf in perspective may be the single biggest challenge in explaining high sensitivity. But bridging that gulf is also the number one reason why it’s important to explain it in the first place.

“Being highly sensitive means your nervous system is more sensitive to stimuli of any kind. It doesn’t just mean being emotionally sensitive, although many HSPs are very aware of people’s emotions, too.”

What Everyone Should Understand About High Sensitivity

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled explaining what a highly sensitive person is, but the basic idea is pretty simple. The only problem is there’s a lot of baggage around the word “sensitive.” In the context of highly sensitive people, it doesn’t mean what most people think.

Here’s the truth about high sensitivity, based on both research and the experiences of HSPs — in five simple truths:

1. Highly sensitive people have a slightly different nervous system.

High sensitivity means your nervous system is more sensitive to stimuli of any kind. That includes lights and sounds, but also things like subtle cues in body language or tone of voice. HSPs pick up more detail than others do, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing.

And those are just the physical impressions. Highly sensitive people don’t just notice more, their system processes it longer and more deeply. That means that almost any experience they have gets turned over in their mind again and again. As a result, HSPs are more prone to overstimulation and overwhelm.

2. Being a highly sensitive person is genetic.

Many people wrongly think it’s “in your head” or it’s something you picked up in childhood. While environmental factors influence high sensitivity, it’s primarily genetic, which means HSPs are born that way. And HSPs tend to have fundamental differences in the brain, including highly active “mirror neurons” — the part of the brain that helps us empathize with other people.

3. “Sensitive” doesn’t necessarily mean “emotionally sensitive” … but sometimes it does.

Emotions are only one part of being highly sensitive — there’s nothing intrinsically emotional about being stressed out by bright lights and loud noises. But it is true that HSPs tend to have stronger emotional responses than others. Partly, this is because they notice so many emotional cues that others miss, so they’re very “tuned in” to feelings. But it’s also because HSPs process things so deeply. Imagine if you felt every emotion five times longer and five times louder; that’s kind of what it’s like to be an HSP.

4. Too much stimulation can overwhelm an HSP.

By noticing and processing every detail around them — not to mention their own internal thoughts — HSPs are doing far more cognitive work than most other people. Brains get tired, especially when they’re working overtime, and especially if there are constant distractions. That sense of being overstimulated and frazzled is something anyone can identify with, but for HSPs, it can happen much more easily.

Like introverts, most highly sensitive people try to have a private place they can go to to recharge, and they seek out quiet corners at work and in public if possible. Too much exposure to nonstop stimulus makes an HSP crash.

5. High sensitivity comes with a lot of benefits.

Some of the things on this list might sound like bad things. And yes, being highly sensitive comes with its share of pitfalls. But being an HSP is a perfectly “normal,” healthy way to be — and it comes with some serious advantages. For example:

  • Highly sensitive people tend to be extremely creative and can make powerful, evocative art and music;
  • They are empathetic and capable of understanding (and relating to) almost anyone — so much so that people often come to HSPs for comfort and advice; and
  • HSPs see connections that others miss, making them deep intuitive thinkers and very successful in the right kinds of careers.

When HSPs embrace these strengths, they go on to lead happy, fulfilling lives. And while every HSP struggles with overwhelm sometimes, it’s a lot easier when other people take the time to understand their sensitivity.

If you’re highly sensitive, consider sharing this article with someone in your life. The more we work to raise understanding, the less blank stares there will be — and the more people will realize that sensitive is strong.

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