It was a rainy Wednesday night, and my partner Jenn Granneman and I found ourselves in a craft brewery in an industrial district of the Twin Cities. We were there for a “networking event” — not something that comes naturally for either one of us. This particular event, however, is for our local literary community, which is near and dear to our hearts. We try to attend every month.
When we do, we always try our best to explain what we do — and what the heck a highly sensitive person is. Lately it’s been more and more common that someone says, “Oh, I know what that is! I’m highly sensitive!” That’s encouraging; it means we’re raising awareness about what it means to be sensitive.
But not this time.
This time, we had a newcomer at the event. “What do you do?” she asked us. We told her we run an online publication for highly sensitive people.
“Oh,” she replied. “So you write about people who get offended easily. Must be tough!”
Jenn and I looked at each other. I was hoping it was a joke, but if so, it was in poor taste. Jenn responded.
“Being highly sensitive doesn’t actually mean you get offended easily,” she explained. “It just means you’re sensitive to stimuli in your environment.”
But this woman still didn’t get it. “It certainly seems I’ve offended YOU,” she replied. “So, touché!”
I turned away, but I found myself wondering: how many people think of high sensitivity this way?
When you say, ‘I’m a highly sensitive person,’ and people react like you said, ‘I have a highly infectious and pitiable disease,’ let’s be honest: it hurts.
Why There Are So Many Misconceptions About Highly Sensitive People
I wish I could say there’s something unique about this particular woman’s reaction. The truth is, it’s not unique at all. Not everyone is quite so forward, but if you mention being sensitive, here are the reactions you can expect to get:
- “You just need to toughen up.”
- “I bet you can control that, you just need to learn how.”
- “Are you getting help?”
In a business setting, like the event I was at, it’s easy to brush off these reactions — as long as you don’t get flooded — because it’s less personal. But when you say I’m a highly sensitive person, and people react as if you said I have a highly infectious and utterly pitiable disease, let’s be honest: it hurts.
It hurts because the world doesn’t understand what high sensitivity means.
It hurts because people have a lot of baggage around the word “sensitive.”
And it hurts because people openly joke about a trait that defines who you are.
The truth is, there’s a reason why there are so many misconceptions about high sensitivity. “Sensitive” is a word we all use to mean different things, and its casual definition often has no relation to the way it’s used in psychology. Many people have never heard of “high sensitivity,” and they’re not always open to learning anything about it — in large part because sensitivity itself is often seen as a weakness.
But sensitivity isn’t a weakness at all. Like many traits, it comes with two sides: lots of advantages as well as some disadvantages. Many people only see the inconvenient side of it and never learn to appreciate the strengths of being sensitive.
5 Misconceptions Every HSP Has to Deal With
Maybe it’s no surprise that not everyone “gets” sensitivity. But there are a few particularly annoying misconceptions that come up again and again. Here are the five biggest ones that I hear all the time — and the truth that people need to understand instead:
1. “Sensitive” is not the same thing as “weak.”
HSPs need harmony in their relationships to thrive. Sometimes this means they avoid conflict, because it can easily overwhelm them. This can also lead to avoiding highly competitive situations or feeling stressed by aggressive deadlines. To some hyper-competitive people, this may seem “weak,” but the truth is, it can also result in better decisions, a more thoughtful approach, and coming up with win-wins that work for everybody.
2. Being highly sensitive does NOT mean you’re easily insulted or “full of drama.”
We always tell people who get offended easily to not be “so sensitive,” but high sensitivity has nothing to do with overreacting, getting offended, or creating drama for people. It simply means you process everything deeply — including physical sensations and emotions.
Sure, in some cases that means you’ll notice a subtext that others missed… but that can actually make you easier to be around. Most HSPs are capable of extreme empathy, even if once in a while they get overstimulated and need to take a break.
3. Being highly sensitive does NOT mean you cry at everything.
Highly sensitive people do tend to feel emotions strongly, and they may cry more often than others. However, that doesn’t mean HSPs cry at the drop of a hat or for “no reason.” And most adult HSPs have learned how to handle their own tears, and will do so in a way that is minimally disruptive to others.
4. Being an HSP is NOT a disorder that needs to be “fixed.”
This is a healthy trait that occurs in 15-20 percent of the population and is sorely needed by our society. Frankly, the world would be a better place if there were more sensitive people in it.
5. No, HSPs don’t “dislike” being sensitive.
Many young HSPs struggle to understand their sensitivity, and it can take time to grow into the strengths that come with it. It can also be difficult sometimes to have a trait that society doesn’t value as much as aggression or cold logic.
Eventually many HSPs come to appreciate their sensitivity as an immense gift: an ability to see things that others miss and care deeply and passionately when others are only lukewarm. Many HSPs use their talents to help others, to act as caregivers, to create art and music, or simply to enjoy connecting authentically with other human beings. Most HSPs wouldn’t trade their sensitivity for the world.
These are far from the only misconceptions about high sensitivity that I run into, but they are some of the most misguided — and they show why everyday life can be a struggle simply to be understood and accepted as an HSP. I believe that can change, that one day we may be able to accept sensitivity as a valuable and “normal” trait. Until then, we need to keep on speaking up when people say otherwise.
You might like:
- How to Explain High Sensitivity to People Who Don’t ‘Get’ It
- Why Highly Sensitive People Get Mentally and Emotionally ‘Flooded’
- 21 Signs That You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
- 14 Things Highly Sensitive People Absolutely Need to Be Happy
- 13 Problems Only Highly Sensitive People Will Understand
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