This Is a Better Term for ‘Highly Sensitive Person’

a highly sensitive person

Sometimes it’s hard to see the good in being sensitive because people often think of it as a bad thing.

This article is adapted from our book, SENSITIVE, which I co-authored with Andre Sólo.

Although you clicked on this article, you may not want to be called sensitive, let alone highly sensitive. To many people, sensitive is a dirty word. It sounds like a weak spot, a guilty admission, or, worse, an insult.

Case in point: As Andre and I wrote SENSITIVE, curious friends and family asked me what our book was about. “Highly sensitive people,” I’d respond. Sometimes they would get excited because they knew what this term meant. “That’s me!” they’d tell me enthusiastically. “You’re describing me.” 

But the vast majority of the time, people had the wrong idea of what it means to be sensitive. Some thought we were writing a book about how our society has become too politically correct. Others thought we were giving advice on how to be less easily offended (the word snowflake came up more than once).

Another time, I asked a friend who is an author to read an early draft of SENSITIVE and give Andre and me feedback on it. While reading, she realized that she herself is a sensitive person and that the man she is dating fits the sensitive description as well. For her, this revelation was deeply affirming. Yet when she broached the topic with her boyfriend, he got defensive. “If someone called me sensitive,” he retorted, “I’d be really offended.”

Sensitivity, then, as a dimension of human personality, has gained an unfortunate reputation: It has wrongly become associated with weakness. It’s seen as a defect that must be fixed. Just type the word sensitive into Google, and you’ll see what I mean: As of December 2021, the top three related searches were “suspicious,” “embarrassed,” and “inferior.” Or, type the phrase “I’m too sensitive,” and you’ll find articles with titles like “I’m Too Sensitive. How Can I Toughen Up?” and “How to Stop Being So Sensitive.”

Because of the misconceptions around sensitivity, even sensitive people themselves have internalized a sense of shame about who they are. That’s part of the reason Andre and I created Sensitive Refuge, the publication that you’re reading right now, a community for sensitive people and empaths. Although there is growing awareness around the topic of sensitivity, readers still frequently ask me, “How do I stop being so sensitive?”

The answer, of course, is not to stop being sensitive—because, in reality, these shame-based definitions are not what sensitive means at all.

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What It Really Means to Be Sensitive

As a human temperament trait, sensitivity is defined as the ability to perceive, process, and respond deeply to one’s environment. This ability happens at two levels: (1) perceiving information from the senses and (2) thinking about that information thoroughly or finding many connections between it and other memories, knowledge, or ideas. People who are sensitive do more of both. They naturally pick up more information from their environment, process it more deeply, and are ultimately more shaped by it. Much of this deep processing happens unconsciously, and many sensitive people aren’t even aware that they do it. This process applies to everything a sensitive person takes in.

However, Andre and I prefer a simpler definition: If you’re sensitive, everything affects you more, but you do more with it. 

In fact, a better word for sensitive might be responsive. If you are a sensitive person, your body and mind respond more to the world around you. You respond more to heartbreak, pain, and loss, but you also respond more to beauty, new ideas, and joy. You go deep where others only skim the surface. You keep thinking when others have given up and moved on to something else.

Sensitivity, then, is a normal part of life. All humans—and even animals— are sensitive to their environment to some degree. There are times when all of us cry, get our feelings hurt, and feel overwhelmed by stressful events, and there are times when all of us reflect deeply, marvel at beauty, and pore over a subject that fascinates us. But some individuals are more sensitive to their surroundings and experiences than others are. These are the highly responsive people.

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Why It’s Important to Use a Different Word

For far too long, society has equated sensitivity with weakness. However, this personality trait is actually a strength in life. In fact, sensitivity has been linked to brilliance. According to Linda Silverman, the director of the Gifted Development Center, the higher an individual’s IQ, the more likely that person is to fit the characteristics of a sensitive person.

But sometimes it’s hard to see the good in being sensitive because people often think of it as a bad thing. In our book, we argue that it’s time to change the way we think about sensitivity. I believe this change starts with the language we use.

Responsive doesn’t have the same negative connotations as sensitive. When we say someone is responsive, it means they pay attention to what’s going on around them. It suggests a more active and engaged approach to the world. Rather than simply reacting to external stimuli, a responsive individual is attuned to their surroundings and adjusts their behavior accordingly. This can include understanding how other people are feeling and taking care of their own emotions.

Of course, words are neither good nor bad in themselves, and there may be situations where sensitive is the more appropriate word. (And many people love the term highly sensitive person. If you’re one of them, there’s no reason you need to stop using it!) However, in many cases, using the word responsive can help us view this personality trait in a more positive way. 

The words we use shape how we treat each other. By changing our language, we can begin to create a culture where people embrace sensitivity. About 1 in 3 individuals are highly responsive people, so either you are one yourself or you know someone who is. These individuals are poised to do great things for society—but first we must stop shaming them for being sensitive.

This article originally appeared on our sister site, Introvert, Dear.

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