Sensitive People Are 30% Of the Population. So Why Do We Feel Like We’re Rare?

A pensive woman looks out a car window

When we hide a crucial part of ourselves from other people — like our sensitivity — we never feel truly seen or accepted.

Sensitivity is not a particularly rare trait. In fact, recent research suggests that highly sensitive people (HSPs) make up nearly 30 percent of the general population. Yet many sensitive people go through life feeling different from the people around them, like they just can’t fit in no matter how hard they try.

As an HSP, I experience this phenomenon frequently in my own life. No one else seems to be bothered by the guy yammering on speakerphone on the subway. Everyone else seems able to cope with the cacophony of texts and interruptions constantly coming from their pockets. Other people don’t seem to burst into tears while reading a beautiful poem or watching a sappy movie.

So if sensitivity is a fairly common trait, why do sensitive people feel so unusual? Here are some reasons I’ve come up with (and I bet you’ll be able to relate!).

6 Reasons Sensitive People Feel Rare (When They’re Really Not)

1. They avoid being among too many people.

The fact that nearly one-third of the general population is sensitive doesn’t mean that a third of the people in your neighborhood bar are sensitive. Most HSPs, even extroverted ones, find the world a tad overwhelming. As a result, many of us avoid spending lots of time in public or among lots of others. 

For instance, we might choose to work from home instead of in a busy office or we might order in instead of eating out. Our idea of a fun Friday night might involve playing board games with a few friends — or simply watching movies with our cat. (We have a special bond with animals!)

So if you’ve dragged yourself to a busy bar and are wondering why you feel different — and so drained — from the people around you, consider that your fellow HSPs might be in their living rooms, hanging with their cats. We definitely value our alone time when we can get it!

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2. They are experts at being unnoticed. 

When sensitive people do venture out into the world, we tend not to draw attention to ourselves. Being in the limelight — or anywhere near the limelight — is overstimulating for HSPs. It makes us want to run away and hide in a cleaning supply closet. 

As a result, HSPs often become experts at hiding in plain sight. Unless we are an extroverted HSP, we generally don’t talk a lot, and when we do talk, we’re soft-spoken. We also tend to wear clothes that don’t stand out and try and take up as little space as possible. 

So you might not really notice the sensitive folks who do make an appearance in your life, like the poet reading in the corner of the cafe or the quiet assistant taking notes in the back of the meeting. It’s easy to forget that other people prefer to watch life quietly from the sidelines, just like you.

3. They are often “trained” to hide their sensitivity.

Throughout our lives, sensitive people receive messages that our reactions and emotions are “too much.” Parents and caregivers tell sensitive kids to “toughen up” and “to keep a stiff upper lip.” And, as we get older, friends and partners become alarmed or annoyed when we burst into tears at apparently small provocations.

In order to maintain our connection with others, HSPs learn to hide their sensitivity from others. I like to hide my own soft interior behind a sarcastic sense of humor while others may hide behind a cover of stoicism or prickliness (or even cruelty). (Think Severus Snape: snarky Death Eater on the outside, romantic softie on the inside.)

These (often unhealthy) coping mechanisms can make it hard to recognize HSPs in the wild. In addition, using these coping mechanisms can make us feel alone: When we hide a crucial part of ourselves from other people, we never feel truly seen or accepted.

4. Mainstream culture doesn’t feature many sensitive role models.

Western societies don’t particularly value sensitivity. The role models of Western culture tend to be hustlers — people who project confidence and are good at selling things. Picture a business executive yelling on the phone while racing through an airport, or the gregarious talk show host who jokes with celebrities night after night.

Because we don’t see ourselves depicted in mainstream culture, sensitive people often feel more unusual than we really are. The lack of sensitive role models in our society also leads people to hide their sensitivity. This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: people hide their sensitivity in order to fit in, which reinforces our culture’s belief that sensitivity isn’t valuable or common, which, in turn, causes people to hide their sensitivity.

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5. Society isn’t set up for sensitive folks.

While we might not be as unusual as we feel, HSPs are still in the minority of humans. This means that society isn’t really set up to accommodate sensitivity. (For proof of this, just walk into nearly any restaurant or store and note the blaring music, or open your smartphone.) We’re constantly bombarded with noise, distractions, bad news, and information. 

So just walking around town or going to work can make sensitive people feel like they don’t fit into the world. Like the lack of sensitive role models in mainstream culture, this can lead to a kind of feedback loop: HSPs might just stay home to avoid the overwhelm of “normal” society, or they might numb their sensitivity — or try to “drink it away” — in order to function. This can lead to an impression that sensitivity isn’t common, or that it’s a “problem” to overcome, which can, in turn, lead to an even louder society. Because sensitive people are often misunderstood by society, it seems to do us more harm than good. So, society is the problem, being sensitive is not!

6. Sensitive people tend to primarily live in their heads and hearts.

Life can be a lot for HSPs. Sounds are loud, lights are bright, and seemingly small things, like a less-than-friendly greeting from the guy at the cash register, can send icy daggers into our tender hearts. 

This means that sensitive people spend much time looking inward, trying to process their many intense emotions and thoughts. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, for having a rich inner life is one of the wonderful things about being sensitive. But it does mean that HSPs, despite our natural empathy, can sometimes get so caught up in managing our own sensitivity that we don’t notice (or accurately assess) the sensitivity of others. 

For instance, say you’re at a party. The music is loud, your heart is racing, and you’re wondering if you can climb out the window without people noticing. In fact, you’re so focused on not exploding or melting into a puddle of nerves that you don’t realize the people around you are just as overwhelmed as you are. 

So the next time you’re feeling different from the people around you, look carefully: your fellow HSPs might be hiding in plain sight. (Or maybe they’re still at home with their cats.) In any case, you’re not alone (and there’s more comfort in that than you may realize).

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