It’s always hard to explain what it’s like being a highly sensitive person to someone who’s never heard of it before. And, even if they have, unless they’re highly sensitive themselves, they often don’t “get” it. Most people think we’re “too sensitive,” that we need to “toughen up,” or that our sensitivity is something we can turn on and off. But we can’t.
And it’s especially hard when it’s a loved one. My dad, for example, like most of us, grew up with the idea that sensitivity is a sign of weakness, something to be avoided. One of the biggest challenges in explaining high sensitivity is convincing others, for the very first time, to entertain the possibility that it is a strength, the opposite of what we’ve been taught.
So I always try to find simpler, more relatable ways of describing what it’s like to be a highly sensitive person (HSP). Some of them work and some don’t. The best one so far? Superheroes.
Yes, Being a Highly Sensitive Person Is a Superpower
“We have the ability to pick up on every sense: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch in a magnified way,” I explained to my dad. “You know how Superman can hear the tiniest pin drop from far away? It’s like having superhero senses without the super speed or the ability to fly.”
“Hmm,” he responded, nodding slightly. Although he was squarely focused on the television at the moment, I knew I’d piqued his interest by mentioning his No. 1 favorite superhero of all time.
“When you’re highly sensitive,” I continued, “Everything you experience is heightened. You notice the tiniest changes. Small sounds such as a clock ticking becomes loud. A person’s cologne or perfume may smell three times as strong and nauseating to you but pleasant to others. And when I talk to people…”
I paused, hesitating. This next part was not going to be easy.
Highly Sensitive People Can Read You Like an Open Diary
The concept of sensitivity, on its own, is something most people can wrap their heads around. The hard part is trying to explain how those abilities work in my interactions with people. This is also the part that tends to make people uneasy when I share.
But I pressed on, with urgency this time:
“Sometimes I know things about people without them telling me. I don’t read minds, but I know when I’m being lied to, or if someone pretends to be happy when they’re not. I see past the masks people put on. I know their intentions, their hearts, their fears. I have no reason to know, I just do.”
I felt his body language shift just then, inevitably, from half curiosity to plain discomfort. He sat and thought for a moment, and even though he wasn’t saying a word, I felt I knew what was going through his mind: She says she sees past the masks people wear. If that’s true, that includes me. What does she see about me? Does she know all my secrets?
I probably shouldn’t have said anything. This “superpower” is better off omitted, I thought; it freaks people out and rightfully so. (Last time I attempted to tell a family member, they thought I was possessed.) It’s almost like reading someone’s diary without permission and admitting it to them — except that, to a highly sensitive person, it’s more like they left their diary sitting wide open, with bright highlighter on all the important parts.
But I understand the feelings of defensiveness, vulnerability, and even the shame that they feel. Who wants to be exposed by another human being from one single glance or conversation alone?
Yes, Even Star Trek Has HSPs
My dad had one more big question for me. And it was a doozy.
“Do you know when I don’t tell the truth?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said slowly, “I just pretend like I don’t. I pretend I don’t know most things I pick up on about other people.”
I waited, prepared to receive the backlash of disbelief and criticism.
But he nodded. “I believe it,” he said. “It’s like Charlie X from Star Trek. He had all these advanced abilities, but he was human. And Captain Kirk didn’t know what to do with him because he had the power to destroy the whole ship.”
Wait, I thought… What?
“Watch this,” he said, proceeding to put on the episode he meant, with a sudden burst of energy. His eyes were bright with urgency now, just like I had been moments earlier. For me, it was the urgency of wanting him to understand. For him, it was the urgency of showing me that he finally did.
Spoiler Alert: Charlie X gets banished from the ship for misusing his powers, turning people into frogs, making them disappear, melting chess boards and such.
If only I had powers to that extremity! *evil laugh*
But alas no, I told him; a sensitive person’s biggest superpowers are compassion and empathy.
“Just use your powers for good. Whatever you do, use them for good,” my dad repeated, sounding like the wise elder in just about every sci-fi, comic book, or fantasy piece known to man.
I agreed, nodding my head like a good apprentice. I felt he understood and sighed in relief. After several failed attempts explaining high sensitivity to people, I’d finally gotten a breakthrough.
And all it took was a little Star Trek.
With Great HSP Power Comes Great HSP Responsibility
I’m not saying that my sci-fi examples are the right ones in every situation. But often, when an HSP tries to explain their sensitivity, we lack a shared lexicon of experiences for less-sensitive people to relate to. Turning to characters from fiction can help us create that understanding instantly. For one person, it might be Charlie X; for another, it might be Neville Longbottom.
It’s not easy to share what it’s like being a highly sensitive person. But if I could, I would say this:
To feel everything so deeply and intensely is as joyous of an experience as it is overwhelming.
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And I feel a huge responsibility to the world because of that. It’s like we’re carrying the weight of the human experience; all that is good and all that is bad, the light and the dark, and everything in between. If humanity is a long spectrum, highly sensitive people are the bookkeepers, the observers, the measurers, the feelers, the healers, and the truth seers.
And what we see is this: humans are complicated. Life is fragile. Love and compassion are necessary. Kirk out.