Sensitive People Learn Differently. Here’s What They Need to Succeed

A highly sensitive person learning by sitting on the floor with multiple books spread out around her.

For highly sensitive people, ideas are interconnected and holistic. But what if the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way? 

If you’re anything like me, the fall season is synonymous with learning something new, leftover from school and university days. Our formal education may have ended, but there will always be a need for us to learn something new, be it a skill at work, a new recipe you want to try, or a hobby you want to pursue. And when you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you welcome these opportunities, whether they’re a passion or part of your life’s purpose

Until I found and read Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, I didn’t realize that highly sensitive people learned differently. I always believed that it was my fault when I got the difficult stuff right and the easy stuff wrong. 

And when I had to learn a skill while being observed by others, I felt like an anomaly, convinced I couldn’t do things as well as others. After all, time anxiety makes us HSPs nervous! An example of a job I know I could never do, for example, is work in a coffee shop. The thought of all eyes on me as I make drinks makes me cringe inside!

As a teen, being shown how to work the cash registers at a clothing store job was painfully embarrassing, as I’d hit the wrong key over and over again. I’d even blush and feel so awkward when customers watched me fold and bag the clothes they’d just bought. However, away from the glare of my supervisor or colleagues, I’d perform really well. Over time, I became adept at working in retail — instead of worrying about the customers watching my every move, I’d focus on chatting with them to divert the attention of all involved! 

Now, think about your life as an HSP and if you’ve ever experienced the following: 

  • Struggled to learn a practical physical skill under the observation of others, such as learning to drive or ride a horse.
  • You easily ace the difficult tasks, yet struggle with the beginner basics.
  • You learn well in many ways, but particularly in visual form.
  • Loud environments are too distracting for you to learn quickly, like in open-plan study rooms. 

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How HSPs Learn Differently Than Non-HSPs

According to Psychologist Dr. Linda K. Silverman, who originated the concept of the “visual-spatial learner” (VSL) and wrote Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, they learn through their bodies in a holistic way, rather than by a step-by-step approach. Ideas are interconnected rather than sequential. These learners are  aware of patterns and are able to see the bigger picture. I see similarities in myself as an HSP. 

Many of us are more familiar with the step-by-step approach to learning, which forms the basis of a lot of formal education. It’s not that HSPs can’t learn in this way — it’s just that an HSP’s gifts lend themselves to different methods of learning in certain situations. 

This is because:

  • HSP’ brains are wired differently. Highly sensitive people have sensory processing sensitivity, which means heightened sensory awareness. We have a deeper processing of sensory information, as well as behavioral responses to environmental stimulation and social stimuli. We literally think and make decisions in a different way to non-HSPs. 
  • HSPs get easily overwhelmed by their environment. An HSP’s central nervous system is sensitive to physical, social, and environmental stimuli. Constantly bombarded by such stimuli, HSPs receive — and process — so much information. At the same time, they struggle to filter it out. Just imagine you’re in a college classroom of 20 people and the class is engaged in some group work. The room has bright light and there’s a mix of scents in the air — perfume and soda. How is this an ideal environment for HSPs to learn? If you’re like me, you’ve had to learn to cope with situations like these… many times.
  • HSPs have perfectionist tendencies. If you’re a highly sensitive type, you’re probably a perfectionist — which makes learning anything new a completely different challenge than for non-HSPs! Perfectionists hold themselves to a very high standard. When learning something new, logically, we wouldn’t expect others to get it right the first time, yet perfectionists expect this of themselves. Unsuprisingly, such an unrealistic view can lead to feelings of disappointment and failure. 

So now that we’ve looked at how highly sensitive people learn differently than non-HSPs, let’s look at the four things HSPs need to succeed.

4 Things Highly Sensitive People Need to Succeed When Learning Something New 

1. You don’t have to learn everything right away.

Highly sensitive people have an urgency to do things right now. Couple this with a tendency toward perfectionism, and learning will be extra difficult without a balanced approach. When it comes to learning something new, the old adage “learn to walk before you can run” is a helpful mantra. 

The way I’ve learned to deal with my perfectionism is to compare myself only to myself when learning something new. I’ll ask myself: Am I moving forward? If not, what have I learned this time around? These questions are open-ended and help take the pressure off. 

2. Find an environment that meets your sensitive needs, like someplace quiet.

When I’m learning something new, at the top of my must-have list in terms of location is privacy. In a quiet environment, without the energy and eyes of others, my highly sensitive self feels most relaxed and able to focus on the task in hand. That way, it’s easier to get into a “flow state” and not get distracted by anything or anyone.

Obviously, privacy isn’t always a practical option, particularly at work or college, so you may have to compromise. Have strategies to get the best out of yourself in these situations. You might use noise-canceling headphones, schedule regular breaks for some alone time (crucial for us HSPs!), and choose small group/one-on-one learning to help you do your best. 

I also love this advice from Dr. Aron — she advises us to openly let others know that certain situations are more challenging for us. We might say something like, “I’m a musician/ student/nurse/teacher/etc., so learning to drive/rock climb/knit/swim is very different for me.” I wish I’d had this advice in my teenage years!

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

3. Make use of learning aids, like podcasts or apps.

Don’t be afraid to experiment to find how best you learn. If video and audio is easier for you to absorb, try finding a podcast or app that helps.

For example, I like to use color when learning a new topic or concept. By color-coding my notes, or writing in different-colored pens, I’m able to make connections between concepts and ideas. 

You may even find that a mix of learning aids helps you, such as hands-on learning, supported by reading theories or contexts. 

The important thing to bear in mind is that it’s okay to learn differently from others. HSPs are deep thinkers — and learners — and you will get there!

4. Celebrate your successes — every single one.

Nobody likes to fail, but HSPs often find failure particularly devastating, especially when it comes to  learning something new. An important aspect in teaching (or coaching) an HSP is to pick up every success, no matter big or small. Constant positive reinforcement goes a long way to dampening down an HSP’s perfectionism — it reminds them of their ability to succeed.

Passed that exam? Learned how to dance? Finally mastered cake baking? Great! Decide how you want to reward yourself for a job well done. Everybody needs motivation, and seeing yourself smash through the milestones (again, no matter their size!) on your learning journey is a great way to spur you on to your final goal.

In a favorable environment, HSPs can pick up new skills and perform just as well as non-HSPs. You have the potential — just as anybody else might — and with reassurance and patience, you can be the best you can be!

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