Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person with a rainforest mind

12 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person with a ‘Rainforest Mind’

Complex. Highly sensitive. Intense. Creative. Misunderstood. Colorful. Gifted. If you have a rainforest mind (RFM), these are just some of the adjectives that might describe you.

I developed the metaphor of the rainforest mind while working as a teacher with children who were identified as gifted. As I soon found out, it’s difficult to define giftedness, and there’s a great amount of controversy around what it might be. Because of many people’s discomfort with the label, I created the RFM analogy. It was fitting. These kids were like the rainforest. They had particular traits and needs that were often overlooked because they were so smart.

When I became a psychotherapist, I started working with rainforest-minded adults. I help them understand their particular characteristics and concerns so that they learn self-acceptance and create fulfilling lives.

Maybe you, too, have a rainforest mind — in my experience, many of those with an RFM are highly sensitive. How will you know? Here are 12 signs.

Signs You Have a Rainforest Mind

1. You’ve been accused of being too sensitive, too dramatic, too emotional, too curious, and too smart.

It’s the nature of the RFM to be intense. There’s a depth of emotion and a high level of sensitivity. Avid curiosity. A desire to know everything. It can be overwhelming to others and to oneself. A “too much-ness” in many realms. There can be lots of talking, questioning, analysis, and creativity. Your intelligence is advanced but so is your emotional, creative, intuitive, and spiritual capacity.

2. You feel like too much and not enough at the same time.

Even while you’re seen as having an overabundance of sensitivity, emotion, curiosity, and insight — so much that you sometimes overwhelm others — you can also feel like you’re inadequate. In your mind, you don’t have enough of what you need. Not enough intellect. Not enough achievement. Not enough compassion. So you end up being both too much and not enough.

3. You’ve painted your living room 12 times, and it’s still not right.

You can tell the difference between white, eggshell, and ecru. People may see you as obsessive-compulsive or hyper-critical, but it just may be that your RFM sees more, hears more, tastes more, and is more affected by subtleties. Your capacity to perceive colors and sounds, for example, is greater. So, you need your environment to be just right or you’re out of whack. You might be irritated by “little” things that other people don’t even notice.

4. You love learning, reading, and research but didn’t necessarily excel in school.

It’s assumed that RFMs are high achievers and the teacher’s pet. Not necessarily. You may have enjoyed school and achieved high grades. But you may have also been frustrated with the lack of challenge and with having to wait for the other students to catch up — having to review material that you already knew. You may have been eager to start school because you wanted to learn about so many things but, sadly, you found disappointment and frustration instead.

5. People tell you that you’re not living up to your great potential. You feel pressure to be a high achiever but sometimes end up in perfectionist paralysis.

If you were identified early as “the smart one,” there may have been pressure from family members and teachers to reach your potential. But no one could explain just what that was, and as a result, you became overly worried that you’d let them all down. Perfectionism was the result. Extreme fear of failure. Intolerance of mistakes. Procrastination. Paralysis. The high expectations from others and yourself could become quite disabling. Not only that, but you were also born with high standards, whether or not you were pressured to achieve. This type of perfectionism can be the good news. Your goals of balance, beauty, harmony, precision, and justice just might create a better world.

6. You’re overwhelmed by screeching leaf blowers, strong fragrances, needy friends, loud chewers, buzzing that no one else hears, bad architecture, and beauty.

This is another way that your sensitivity makes you different. Other people may not hear or see or smell as acutely as you do. They might not hear their Uncle Charlie chewing his meatloaf. They may not notice or care much when a friend is grieving. They might like the house on your street that was painted an obnoxiously bright orange. And while you are breathless at the sight of the setting sun on the beach and awestruck at the magnificence of the starry night sky, your friends think you’re a little kooky.

7. People tell you to lighten up when you’re just trying to enlighten them.

Other folks don’t have the same curiosity you have. You may not feel particularly smart; you may think that you’re normal and everyone could know what you know if they only tried. So you share your enthusiasm. You let them know how much you love writing your Wikipedia entries and your job at the museum archiving photos from the 1930s. And surely they need to know the latest discoveries about the dangers of Teflon. Your passion for learning is the fire hose to their garden hose.

8. You may have changed majors in college several times and graduated after 9 years. You leave a job just when you’ve mastered it because you need to learn something new.

This is called multipotentiality. You have lots of interests and abilities. People say you’re a jack of all trades, master of none. But you actually do master a lot. But when you learn what you want, it’s time to move to the next thing. This can be a problem if you need to support a family or if you need to look “normal.”

9.  You’ve been socially responsible since you were five years old.

You feel responsible for making a difference. Helping people. Changing the world. When you were a little tyke, you may have done things like getting your neighbors to recycle or raising money for the organizations working to save endangered animals. Clear-cutting of forests and environmental crises kept you up at night. They still do.

10.  You’re an avid overthinker and frequent ruminator. Sleep and meditation are challenging.

People call you an overthinker but thinking deeply comes naturally to you. It’s preferable to being an underthinker. Overthinking may, in fact, not be a bad thing. It’s how your brain works. It’s what smart people do. And, yes, you will need to work on self-soothing and relaxation if you’re a ruminator. Your capacity to be creative and think a lot can be what produces all of those many worries that interrupt your sleep and make it hard to meditate.

11. You counsel your friends, relatives, neighbors, and pets, and often know what they’re feeling before they do. You have a sense of a larger Force in the universe that has a spiritual strength and a loving energy.

People are often drawn to you because of your compassion and your natural listening and counseling skills. You care deeply about others. You also have a powerful intuitive ability that may show up as clairvoyance, lucid dreaming, premonitions, or just a knowing. You’re a spiritual seeker and may find great solace in nature, mindfulness, shamanic journeying, or some other nontraditional form of spirituality.


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12. You often ask yourself: If I’m so smart, why am I so dumb?

Because you don’t know about the complexities and contradictions connected to being gifted or having a rainforest mind, you may have decided you’re not so smart. It’s confusing when you think that being a smart person is all about achievement and eminence. Or when you think that if you were smart, you wouldn’t be so sensitive or so emotional. Instead, you would make decisions easily and be thriving in a lucrative career. Well, um, no. In the rainforest,* it’s just not that simple.

If You Have a Rainforest Mind

And so…

…my darling HSPs, if you have a rainforest mind, you can begin to recognize who you really are. You can begin loving your sensitive, dramatic, emotional, curious, and smart self! (Check out my book, Your Rainforest Mind to get started.) And, well, you can paint your living room for the 13th time and not feel guilty.

(*Note: Those of you who are sticklers for precision, yes, I get that the rainforest is probably most appropriately spelled as two words. Because I’ve changed it into an adjective, I’ve taken the liberty of making it a single word. Please forgive me!)

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