Both hypersensitive and highly sensitive people are prone to having strong emotional reactions — and the difference lies in nature vs. nurture.
Note: hypersensitivity refers to several different conditions in medical literature. This article is about emotional hypersensitivity and mental health.
I’ve wondered if I was hypersensitive my entire life.
Whether it was because I’d cried easily, asked someone to dim the bright lights, or changed my clothes dozens of times in one day to be more comfortable, I was often told that I was “hypersensitive.”
Before I knew better, I kind of agreed with them. I noticed I really did react to things more strongly than other people. I didn’t see anyone else being so particular, or emotional, or passionate. I thought, That must mean I’m hypersensitive, right?
Yet “hypersensitive” has a specific meaning in psychology — and it doesn’t match me (or most sensitive people) at all. For example, I may have big feelings, but I don’t express them in extreme or harmful ways. And while my sensitive nature isn’t always easy, it doesn’t ruin my life or my relationships the way it would if I were textbook “hypersensitive.” That’s because most people who come across as emotionally sensitive have a healthy trait known as high sensitivity. And, despite the similar-sounding names, “hypersensitivity” and “high sensitivity” are nearly opposites.
Here’s how they work.
What Is Emotional Hypersensitivity?
Although we all have big emotions that get away from us at times, emotional hypersensitivity is different — it can be described as a lack of emotional resilience tied to low self-esteem. When someone is emotionally hypersensitive, they’re unable to manage their emotions and often feel attacked. They have delicate feelings and usually haven’t developed coping skills for dealing with those feelings. When triggered, even in the smallest way, they’re more likely to react in unhealthy, and often extreme, ways.
For instance, someone may point out a minor mistake they made in a work report. Instead of feeling temporary embarrassment, they may break down weeping, start yelling, or get defensive — or all three. Chances are good that you’ve dealt with someone who has these kinds of extreme, inappropriate reactions — and you know they’re not easy to be around.
It happens for a reason. Research shows that, oftentimes, hypersensitive people have endured negative or traumatic life experiences that they never fully processed. Maybe they were bullied, abused (emotionally or physically), or caught in the middle of their parent’s difficult divorce. Whatever the case may be, they try to repress their emotions as a result of these experiences. However, with repressed emotions comes repercussions — and the emotions then explode after having been bottled up for so long. The good news is hypersensitivity is something that can be addressed and healed through therapy.
Insecurity and low self-esteem tend to be an issue for hypersensitive people, as well. Since they haven’t developed a more robust emotional skill set, they’re easily offended by others because they have difficulty recognizing other people’s intentions. For example, someone could make a harmless comment without any intention of criticizing them — like, “You could use more white there,” if they’re painting a picture of cloudy sky. But they may take this very personally, feeling defensive and attacked, as though their painting is not good enough. They may even haphazardly splash paint all over the canvas, ruining the painting, or throw it across the room.
Hypersensitivity can lead to profoundly unhealthy behavior. Hypersensitive people make use of harmful tools, such as emotional blackmail, verbal aggression, and gaslighting. All of this is to protect their wounded inner ego, and soothes them by giving a certain sense of superiority.
After learning the definition of hypersensitivity, I recognized that, while I had some areas of my life where I wasn’t as emotionally developed as others, I wasn’t hypersensitive. The times I cried easily or reacted strongly didn’t occur because I was emotionally unstable, but because I was highly sensitive.
What Is High Sensitivity?
High sensitivity, on the other hand, is a biological predisposition that occurs in around 20 percent of the population. A highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone who’s more aware of subtleties in their environment because of the way their brain processes and reflects on information more deeply. Research has found that HSPs have stronger activation in regions of the brain involved with empathy, awareness, and self-other processing.
People who are highly sensitive notice and are affected by things that less-sensitive people might miss. For example, HSPs are more likely to notice an itchy tag in their shirt, a strange smell, or the slightest shift in someone’s facial expression. They tend to be incredibly observant and, often, quite emotionally intelligent since they’re able to pick up on the smallest of cues.
Yet people who embody the trait of high sensitivity are also prone to becoming overwhelmed more easily, simply because they’re processing so much at all times. When their environment becomes intense, chaotic, or even a little too loud, they may find themselves feeling overstimulated. It’s important to note that this state of overstimulation occurs because of their sensitive nervous systems, not because they’re “weak” or “too sensitive.”
As a highly sensitive person myself, I notice that I react emotionally when I’m feeling overwhelmed. If I’ve had a busy day with very little downtime, I may find myself getting impatient and frustrated. I don’t act in this way because I’m hypersensitive, but because, biologically, I’m highly sensitive. As an HSP, I feel exhausted — and mentally and emotionally flooded — when I’ve been overstimulated for too long. I then want nothing more than to seek refuge in my HSP sanctuary, a calm, quiet place I can retreat to at the end of the day.
If you’re starting to think you might be an HSP yourself, here’s how to find out if you are a highly sensitive person.
The Difference Between ‘Hypersensitive’ and ‘Highly Sensitive’
Some of us who are actually highly sensitive may have been told we were hypersensitive. These two terms are often used interchangeably, and most people don’t even realize there’s a difference.
In a nutshell:
A highly sensitive person has strong emotions but typically expresses them in a healthy way, and shows deep concern for others. A hypersensitive person may exhibit unpredictable and inappropriate emotional reactions, sometimes to the point of causing harm.
Why do two similar traits end up with such opposite outcomes? Researchers say the difference lies in the reason why those feelings are so strong.
“Hypersensitive people often have unhealed emotional triggers that cause them to erupt with anger or other reactive emotions,” Judith Orloff MD, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, tells Highly Sensitive Refuge. “Highly sensitive people, on the other hand, have very fine sensibilities and don’t typically dump anger on other people — because it will also burn them out.”
For example, let’s say a contentious topic comes up in a work meeting — your hypersensitive coworker didn’t get a new account they wanted. Instead of accepting the news, they have an extreme, out-of-proportion reaction. They scream at the boss and everyone in the room. They may even overturn a chair or abruptly exit, slamming the door behind them.
However, if a highly sensitive person was the one who didn’t get the new account, they’d react differently, digesting the news in a calm manner. Sure, they’d probably be disappointed and think deeply about it — maybe they’d even excuse themselves to cry — but they wouldn’t be irrational in their reaction. In fact, because of their empathetic nature, they’d be considerate of others’ feelings. They might even feel sincerely good for whoever did get the account — and commiserate with others who also missed out.
Overall, hypersensitive people are emotionally reactive as a trauma response to their life experiences — the “nurture” end of the equation. As a result, they have trouble managing their emotions and tend to be insecure, so they act in ways that make them feel “protected” from others.
Highly sensitive people, on the other hand, are biologically wired to be deeply empathetic — the “nature” end of the equation. HSPs are often reacting emotionally because of the way they’re processing information and relating to other people, and absorbing others’ emotions as though they’re their own. This is part of what makes them great listeners and someone others often confide in. HSPs also have rich, complex, inner worlds. If you’re the type of person who thinks deeply, has a vivid imagination, and abhors violence and cruelty of any kind, you may be an HSP.
In essence, while hypersensitive people are easily offended, highly sensitive people are able to discern whether a person is being genuine. The trait of high sensitivity is marked by one’s depth of processing of their environment — including emotional cues — whereas hypersensitivity is marked by emotional fragility and reactivity.
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Is it possible to be both hypersensitive and highly sensitive?
Yes. After all, one comes from nature and the other comes from nurture, and both play a role in any person’s development.
If you see yourself as potentially being hypersensitive, I encourage you to start exploring your “big” reactions with self-compassion. Consider the ways stress, grief, loss, or trauma may be affecting your life. Remember, it’s not your fault, and it’s normal to have disruptive emotions or behaviors in response to trauma. It can be helpful to talk with a therapist or other professional who has experience helping people heal from hypersensitivity.
Embracing Your High Sensitivity for the Gift It Is
If you’re a highly sensitive person, it may feel challenging at times to manage your sensitive trait. You may feel like you have to work a little harder than others to feel calm, happy, and safe. And, at times, you may feel misunderstood by others, like you don’t quite fit in.
However, just because you’re highly sensitive doesn’t mean you’re automatically hypersensitive, too. Being highly sensitive simply means you’re biologically predisposed to being more perceptive, empathetic, and intuitive. It means you feel deeply and care deeply. You experience life in a rich way.
While we may live in a society that doesn’t always fully support our sensitivity, you can be certain that being an HSP is a gift: we serve a special purpose here. Highly sensitive people are unique, caring souls that make the world a more beautiful and compassionate place.
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