I’m a highly sensitive person, I’m proud of it, and I’m not going to “toughen up.”
Back when I was a doctor-in-training, there was one patient whose wounds we were not allowed to dress. She had ulcers on her leg that were extremely painful. We were, however, asked to observe how the surgeons bandaged the wounds.
I could see how careful the surgeons were — they’d apologize after every dab and tug. But the patient was still in distress.
Being a highly sensitive person (HSP), I found witnessing this incredibly uncomfortable. Her cries were haunting. My chest constricted in response and my eyes welled up with tears. So I excused myself from the room…
After they had completed their work, one of the surgeons found me and asked if I was okay. I explained all that I was feeling. I think he understood. He acknowledged that being “so sensitive” would make it difficult to do what a doctor does. Then he nodded as he said, “I think my role here is to help you toughen up.”
On the one hand, I was immensely grateful. Here was a surgeon who checked on me, asked how I was feeling, and genuinely wanted to ensure that I became a successful doctor. But, on the other hand, I felt a defiant unwillingness to let go of my high sensitivity.
I chose not to “toughen up” and to embrace my sensitivity instead.
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Here’s Why Sensitive People Don’t Need to ‘Toughen Up’
People (especially those who care about us) tell us that we need to become “less sensitive” and more “thick-skinned.” It might be our parents who are worried about how we’ll survive in an insensitive world. Or teachers whose job it is to equip us to function on our own. It could be bosses who feel that our sensitivity may hold us back. Or our communities that believe sensitivity is a sign of weakness and a trait that makes us vulnerable. Whatever it is, it’s usually well-intentioned. The people who want us to “toughen up” also want us to thrive.
However, this doesn’t mean we should “give up” our sensitivity. Research has found that high sensitivity has a genetic basis and influences the way our nervous systems work. It’s part of our nature. To fight that and become hardy alter-egos would take a significant amount of work.
Secondly, there are many benefits to being an HSP. Our heightened awareness, introspective nature, and empathy contribute to our wellness, as well as to the health of those around us. Dispensing with these qualities would be a loss.
Below, I’ll elaborate on five aspects of the HSP experience that I have grown to love and explore ways in which each of these is a strength to cherish. Then, I’ll look at some potential challenges they present and how I deal with them.
So get ready to wear your sensitivity as a badge of honor, too!
5 Reasons to Wear Your Sensitivity as a Badge of Honor
1. It’ll make you more aware of your body and its sensations.
Researchers have found that people who score high on the HSP scale (HSPs) are more sensitive than those who don’t (non-HSPs) to sensations within their bodies. (In fact, nearly 30 percent of the population is considered to be highly sensitive.)
Being more aware of internal prompts, such as hunger, thirst, and fatigue, means that we can meet our needs more quickly. And studies show that our sensitivity to bodily discomfort and pain, too, could also encourage us to notice symptoms and signs of illness and get help if, and when, necessary. This is highly beneficial, because it’s always best to notice, and treat, illnesses early.
The flip side of being acutely aware of our body is that we might get alarmed by internal cues that are not necessarily problematic. One study showed that sensory processing sensitivity (being an HSP) is associated with health anxiety. However, it’s not only HSPs who are at risk. The study also showed that being a health-conscious non-HSP increases health anxiety.
We are the primary caretakers of our own bodies and health, and being an HSP who is sensitive to the body’s signals makes the job easier. However, the cost of this heightened awareness is anxiety around health. A way to deal with health anxiety is to seek help as soon as possible, such as by seeing a therapist and primary care doctor. That way, once we’ve been examined and found well, our worries can be allayed.
2. It’ll help intensify experiences of the mind.
Our HSP minds carefully analyze everything, research has found. This could include external information (we’ll look at this in point 3), as well as our own thoughts and emotions. This makes us introspective and innovative. We enjoy thinking, learning new ideas, solving problems, connecting the dots, and creating things. We might even have mystical experiences, some researchers say. All of this enables us to keep growing.
The biggest challenge with feeling things deeply is that our thoughts and emotions can be so intense that they quickly spiral out of control. Research has found this to be true, too. We might plummet into sadness, anger, or fear when it shows up. Our sensitivity trait, when coupled with troubled childhoods, makes HSPs prone to developing anxiety or depression, studies show.
Our awareness of ourselves, and our bodies, can help us notice when we begin to go down the rabbit hole. I have found that if someone says something that could bother me significantly, talking about it with my husband, friend, or therapist — as soon as it happens — can help me to avoid catastrophizing. Practicing mindfulness, through meditations and grounding techniques, can also help us stay rooted where we are instead of getting into an overthinking spiral.
3. It’ll help you be more aware of every facet of your environment.
Perhaps the best-described facet of the HSP experience is our sensitivity to environmental cues, as research shows. I can happily get lost in my senses, especially when in a forest. The buzz of a mosquito’s wing, the song of an unknown bird, the legs of a ladybug on my skin, the chill of the air as I breathe (and the taste of its freshness on my tongue), and on and on… Everything that we can sense — light, color, sound, taste, smell, touch — seems very vivid and magnified to our sensitive selves.
Our heightened sensitivity makes the world an enchanting place to be, and our ability to notice our environment enhances our proficiency in capturing it. We make good writers and artists, for example. Our sensitivity also allows us to appreciate subtle changes (we might make excellent sleuths, too!).
The trouble, of course, is that when there is too much stimulation, we might experience sensory overload. The world can seem messy, distressing, and frustrating. To prevent this, I avoid events that could overstimulate me. Instead, I try to surround myself with nature and the things I love (whenever possible).
But, in our technologically advanced and fast-paced world, this is not always possible. What helps me is to ensure that I take breaks and retreat to spaces where I can recharge and recuperate, which researchers have found to be important, too.
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4. It’ll increase your empathy skills (even more).
As sensitive types, we are known for our empathy. We are able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see things from their perspectives (whether we like it or not!). We can feel their emotions and relate to their pain.
This makes us really good listeners and companions to those who are suffering. In addition, our ability to see the other person’s point of view makes it easier for us to see where they are coming from and accept them. As a writer of fiction, this has also helped me develop life-like, lovable characters.
However, feeling people’s pain puts us in a position where we are easily affected by what we witness. Even though, when we empathize, the pain is someone else’s, our brains process it as though the source of the pain is within our own bodies. Our emotional and physiological responses to the pain that we see in others are identical to what they would have been if the pain was wholly ours.
Simply put, when we empathize, we hurt. Hence, we need to give ourselves time to recover from what comes up for us as we encounter another person’s suffering.
Studies have found that our empathy also allows us to be very perceptive to other people’s responses to us. As HSPs, we tend to avoid disapproval, and sometimes start people-pleasing instead. The best solution I have found is to give myself love and be surrounded by those who understand me.
5. It’ll boost your desire to help others.
As HSPs, we are not just good at empathizing, but we are also very caring people: We can’t just see someone struggling and walk away. We feel the urge to help them. Highly sensitive people also feel the desire to leave the world a little better than it was before. Because of this, as HSPs, we often find ourselves drawn to professions in which we can help others, yet ones that also burn us out. Studies have found this to be true, too.
What helps is to remember that we cannot, and need not, save the world on our own. We are a part of a large global community of people working toward making the world a better place. It also helps to remember to take time off and recover. After all, in order to help others, we need to care for ourselves and meet our own physical and psychological needs first. And alone time and “doing nothing” can work wonders for an HSP.
Why I Wear My Sensitivity as a Badge of Honor
Remember: Although the world tells us that we must “toughen up,” we don’t necessarily have to. Not in the way they want us to anyway. Our attention to detail, ability to listen, and willingness to help those in need make us HSPs indispensable.
And, contrary to popular opinion, we are not “weak” beings. Rather, we are resilient and able to take care of ourselves — and others. These are reasons why I wear my sensitivity with pride, why I embrace it, and I hope you do the same.