Why the ‘Dictionary Definition’ of Being Sensitive Harms HSPs

A pensive woman looks off

In order for other people to start seeing sensitivity in a more positive light, HSPs have to first see it that way themselves.

My stomach was in knots because, for the first time, I was going to share that I was a highly sensitive person (HSP). Learning about the trait was changing my life, and now I hoped that it might help others understand me better, too. 

I was excited, but nervous. How will people perceive it? Will they treat me differently? At the time, I was living with one of my best friends and decided to share it with her over pad thai takeout.

“You’re a highly sensitive person? Are you sure?” she asked with a concerned look as she set down her chopsticks. “I don’t think you’re that sensitive.”

I understood her initial confusion. My friend knew me as someone who was fairly easygoing, good-natured, and friendly. I knew her perception of a “sensitive person” — the “dictionary definition,” if you will — was someone who was fragile, easily offended, and crying all the time.

“No, no. I totally am that sensitive,” I told her with a laugh. “You know how I always need to sleep with my eye mask? Or how I can never stay out too late with our friends? It’s because I’m highly sensitive. I’m more sensitive to my surroundings and I get drained more easily.”

She nodded and replied, “That makes sense.” We’d shared a room for a while and she knew firsthand how particular I was about sleep. “Wait, so do you think that’s why you’ve had stomach issues? Because you’re highly sensitive?” she inquired.

I shrugged. “It definitely could be!” I responded. (I later learned that my digestive issues were, indeed, related to my high sensitivity, but that’s a story for another time.)

Luckily, my first time sharing about being an HSP was fairly well-received by a confused, but open-minded, friend. However, that’s not always the case. In fact, many HSPs report feeling misunderstood, rejected, or looked down upon because of their sensitive nature.

When it comes to embracing our true nature as HSPs, I think we have an extra hurdle to jump because of the way society perceives and defines sensitivity. It certainly isn’t doing us any favors.

What Is Sensitivity?

Being sensitive does not mean what most people assume. Rather, it’s a healthy personality trait and an innate part of a highly sensitive person’s being. In other words, everyone is sensitive to some degree — some people are just more sensitive than others. Up to 30 percent of the population is highly sensitive, nearly 1 in 3 people. They’re more sensitive to stimuli, both emotionally (to the feelings, facial expressions, body language, words, and social cues of everyone around them) and physically (to sounds, lights, textures, temperature, smells, etc.). 

This trait brings with it a huge number of strengths, from empathy (many empaths are probably highly sensitive people) and creativity (“sensitive artists” are sensitive for a reason) to a large capacity for deep thinking, emotional depth, attention to detail, and an intuitive Spidey-Sense, as well as picking up the slightest details that other people often miss. 

When you combine all of these, it shows a very different picture of sensitive people than most people think of — not fragile or “weak,” but gifted and thoughtful. 

All that said, many people still get the “dictionary definition” of sensitivity wrong — especially if an HSP has been told all their life that their sensitivity is a negative thing. So how do we change people’s mindsets? We explain exactly what high sensitivity is and how much of an asset it is vs. a drawback.

The Misconception of Being Highly Sensitive

Unfortunately, society has conditioned us to think of sensitivity as a bad thing; a negative; a hindrance. How many times have you heard, “You’re too sensitive!” or “Toughen up”? I know I’ve heard them more times than I can count.

That’s why when I proclaimed to my friend that I was a highly sensitive person, she was initially concerned. Because we aren’t used to seeing sensitivity in a positive light. So, when someone hears the word “sensitive,” they likely think fragile, delicate, unable to handle any difficulties.

And, I mean, if you look up “sensitive” in the dictionary, it says, “highly responsive or susceptible: such as (1): easily hurt or damaged; especially: easily hurt emotionally (2): delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others.”

While this definition holds truth — Yes, sensitive people often do feel hurt more easily. And, yes, we tend to be quite aware of other people’s feelings, which is a wonderful thing! — it doesn’t describe the complexity and beauty of being sensitive.

Of course, this dictionary definition is referring to sensitivity in general, and not the trait of high sensitivity, as coined by Dr. Elaine Aron. But the reality is, most people still don’t know about the term highly sensitive person. So, when they think of sensitivity, they think of this one-dimensional definition of it.

Unfortunately, this keeps a wall up between us and our non-HSP friends. It often keeps us HSPs feeling painfully different, and sometimes even ashamed, of who we truly are.

Being Misunderstood as an HSP Is Painful

As a mentor for HSPs, one of the most common struggles I hear from my clients is that they feel misunderstood. Of course, being an HSP myself, I’ve experienced this firsthand.

But, knowing all of our experiences are a bit different, I decided to ask my community what misconceptions people had about them when they shared they were highly sensitive. Here are some of their answers:

“That I’m just really picky; a perfectionist, high strung ‘type A,’ and difficult to please. Or that I’m very fragile and need to be protected and coddled.”

“The misconception I came across mostly is that people feel sorry for me if they learn I am an HSP because they think it means only suffering and no benefits… and they wish I could find a way to ‘cure’ it or diminish it, so I will be ‘happy again.’”

“People assume I’m overly dramatic, have impractical standards, can’t manage my emotions, fragile, wanting attention, awkward. Mostly, they think I’m exaggerating and that I need to get ‘thicker skin’ or stop letting things ‘bother’ me.” 

Whew. Hearing answers like this, it’s no wonder so many HSPs struggle to find self-acceptance. But, just because we hear this from the world around us doesn’t mean we are destined to struggle. As I said earlier, we just have an extra hurdle to jump. So, tie up your running shoes, my HSP friends, we’re jumping that hurdle!

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Redefining What It Means to Be Sensitive

Changing the way people see sensitivity begins with us. We’re the ones who know the most about this trait, right? I mean, we live it every day! So, in order for other people to start seeing sensitivity in a more positive light, we have to see it that way ourselves.

For instance, my friend was initially concerned when I shared with her that I was a highly sensitive person. However, because I’d found freedom in understanding my HSP nature, I didn’t share that same concern and was able to respond in a lighthearted way. “No, I really am that sensitive!” I’d said playfully.

After that conversation, my non-HSP friend began to see sensitivity in a new light. Here, she had a highly sensitive friend in front of her who didn’t fit her traditional definition of “sensitive” and who was actually proud of being sensitive. Since then, she’s actually enlightened other friends about the HSP trait because of what she learned from me.

It’s in these small moments that we slowly break down the stigma of sensitivity.

Of course, there are challenges that come with being highly sensitive, and it isn’t always easy for us to accept our sensitivity right away. Even though I’m able to share confidently about it today, that wasn’t always the case. I used to feel like my sensitivity was a burden and I struggled with low self-worth. I carried a lot of shame for who I was and felt like I was better staying hidden in the background.

In order for me to get to a place of loving who I was, I had to do deep inner work. I saw a therapist, worked with a holistic practitioner, and meditated daily. I found a community of fellow HSPs through Highly Sensitive Refuge and educated myself on the trait. The more I learned, the more I began to accept myself for who I was.

When we heal our relationship with our sensitivity, it becomes easier for the rest of the world to be more accepting of it. And the more that happens, the more the dictionary definition of high sensitivity changes, too.

If you’ve struggled to share your HSP experience with others, grab my free guide for explaining your sensitivity to non-HSPs!

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