Who are you? What defines you? What immutable characteristics make you “who you are”? And do you believe you can change more than what you do and actually change who you are? The examination is important, not just for understanding and accepting yourself, but for shaping the way you understand and accept others. Those who live with High Sensitivity also live with a question – an expectation – born out of lack of understanding: Can a Highly Sensitive Person change?

We are a world of lost souls, it often seems. We journey through life carrying the weighty questions of purpose, belonging, worth, acceptance. Why am I here? Am I enough? Do I belong? Do I make a difference? 

For one specific group of people, those questions are especially profound. 

Those with High Sensitivity not only ask those questions, they feel them.

They feel everything.

A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but not much.

Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are born with an easily misunderstood and underappreciated trait.

This biological personality trait is called  sensory processing sensitivity, and it shapes the HSP’s entire experience of the world. 

The way HSPs process social, environmental, emotional, and physical stimulation is just different. It’s deeper and more intense than the way people without the trait process the same. 

HSPs perceive their environment and experiences layers deep. They “see through” surface allure to structure and meaning that the majority of people never detect.

Because their intake is so much more detailed and evolved, their thinking and feeling are, as well. 

In short, the Highly Sensitive Person can’t “unsense” what s/he senses. And what the HSP senses is what s/he then processes and feels.

And yet, living as a minority in a world that runs counter to the makeup and processing of High Sensitivity can lead to doubt. For non-HSP’s who don’t “get it.” And yes, sadly, even for HSPs themselves.

Can a Highly Sensitive Person change? is really a question of misunderstanding…or not understanding at all.

But why? What is so established in this unique trait that the idea of someone with High Sensitivity changing is naive, or uninformed at best?

High Sensitivity isn’t elective. It’s not the product of a better education or socioeconomic status. It’s not trained into a child by determined parents.

And it most certainly is not a flaw, a condition, or something that needs to be (or can be) undone.

High sensitivity is. 

From within the womb, high sensitivity is.

From the moment of birth, HSPs’ innate temperament means they’re more affected by whatever’s going on in the environment.

HSPs are aware of subtle sounds, fine details in the environment, and even tiny changes in facial expression. 

And many of those subtleties don’t even graze the radar of those without the trait. 

HSPs will hear the air conditioning humming, the airplane overhead, and even gum-chewing in the next room. 

They’ll be aware of the brightness of the light from the lamp in the corner.

And will automatically map the configuration of furniture in the room. 

They’ll also pick up on the scent of sliced lemons in the water pitcher across the room.

And all this intake will happen in one complex, overlapping, sensory moment.

No two HSPs are identical in the way they express their high sensitivity trait. But they will share the common thread of sensory intensity.

Before tackling the million-dollar question – Can a Highly Sensitive Person change? – it’s worth reviewing the characteristics and tendencies of high sensitivity.

You may be among the 15-20% of people who is highly sensitive if, among other things, you tend to:

  • notice nuance and details.
  • get stressed-out or annoyed in chaotic environments, then need to retreat somewhere quiet to regroup.
  • feel rattled when there’s a lot to do in a short period of time.
  • find that you’re unable to watch violent movies or television shows because they’re too disturbing.
  • experience peace and awe in nature.
  • Consistently need plenty of sleep in order to function.
  • are prone to “hanger.”

High Sensitivity is biological. The HSP’s nervous system is calibrated differently than a non-HSP’s nervous system, which is why Highly Sensitive People can’t “just change.” 

Think about the way a dog can hear whistles that humans can’t hear. Their hearing range is almost double that of humans, and they can hear from far greater distances than we can. 

The fact that we can’t hear what they can hear isn’t a value statement. It’s simply a statement of what is.

The same goes for physical traits like eye color. 

High Sensitivity is not an electively mutable characteristic. It simply is.

It is, however, so significant in its influence that it warrants study, understanding, and consideration for its applicability and treatment within society. 

High sensitivity is not a disorder, flaw, or weakness. Nor is it an attempt to be dramatic or get attention.

The four qualities that comprise high sensitivity are represented by the acronym “DOES.”

  • D: depth of processing
  • O: overstimulation
  • E: emotional intensity and empathy
  • S: sensory sensitivity

(More about this shortly.)

If you’re a Highly Sensitive Person, you’ve likely been called “too sensitive” at least a thousand times. And you’ve likely been told more than a few times to “have a thicker skin” or “lighten up.”

Intuitively you know that you’re “different.” And you can feel in your very pulse the estrangement by the largely non-HSP world that simply doesn’t “get it.” 

You know you can’t change your sensitivity. But the outside world? It seems convinced that you can simply flip an inner “get a grip” switch. 

The High Sensitivity trait, which occurs equally in males and females, is a result of a combination of genes. In fact, scientists have discovered at least three different genetic combinations among Highly Sensitive People. And those gene variants include different configurations of  neurotransmitters.

Suffice it to say that the world of Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) is vivid, uber-dimensional, awe-inspiring, and, at times, painfully stimulating. HSPs’ radars are pre-programmed and hard-wired to be on constant intake. 

By default, their brains are constantly processing.  

HSPs are anxiety-prone because they process thoughts and feelings deeply. Because of how deeply they experience the world, they’re more easily and quickly overstimulated.

The overstimulation can become so intense that HSPs may at times wish for less sensitivity and stimulation.

They, too, ask what the outside world always seems to be asking in their presence: Can a Highly Sensitive Person change? 

They turn the questioning inward out of self-doubt, misunderstanding, and a yearning to fit in. Can I change? Can I be more like the 80-85% of the population that doesn’t have to deal with the intensity of High Sensitivity?

There is an upside to the trait, however. 

In fact, when HSPs learn about and understand their HS, they rarely want to be any different from how they are.

Back to DOES, the four key features resulting from the trait:

  • D: depth of processing:

    Highly Sensitive People process things deeply and reflect often and intensely, especially on their own internal workings, relationships, and decision-making. They make connections in their mind that other people respond to by saying they “never thought of it that way.”
  • O: over-arousal/overstimulation:

    The five senses of a Highly Sensitive Person respond intensely and easily. Certain smells, sounds, or textures are overwhelming – sometimes in good ways and sometimes not.

    Crowds, bright lights, and loud noises can also be overwhelming, to the point of activating the ‘fight or flight’ response.

    As a result, HSPs are likely among the first in certain environments to feel overstimulated.
  • E: emotion responsivity and empathy:

    Highly Sensitive People feel emotions intensely. They also worry about the health and welfare of vulnerable people and animals. When they see a flower that reminds them of a loved one, for example, they become sentimental.

    Sometimes HSPs’ empathy is so strong that they can feel others’ emotions, even when the people themselves do not feel the emotions.
  • S: sensory sensitivity:

    HSPs notice details and nuance in just about everything. The moment-to-moment changes of a setting sun, a subtle shift in facial expression, or the sound of the wind as it picks up speed are all things HSPs naturally notice.

    Their senses are highly attuned, and their experience of life is very rich.

Asking Can a Highly Sensitive Person change? is understandable.

At times all the automatic input can feel like “too much,” making it difficult for the HSP to self-regulate.

Other HSP qualities like creativity, empathy, awe, and love of nature, however, are rarely considered “too much.” They’re some of the secret-sauce ingredients, the built-in perks of High Sensitivity. 

They’re the superpowers that draw people in and make them marvel at the qualities of this rare person.

You can’t change the trait itself or the fact that you are an HSP

But you can change how you live with it.

When you embrace what the trait offers, you’re unlikely to wonder if a Highly Sensitive Person can change. You’re also unlikely to want the HSP to change.

After all, you have a winning lottery ticket!

For those who still wonder if there’s anything you can do to manage High Sensitivity with more ease, the answer is yes.

You can learn to adapt to it better; to highlight the advantages and diminish the challenges; to create more balance in your life.

Here are my tips for Highly Sensitive People (so they don’t want to change their trait):

Learn about the High Sensitivity trait.

Learn especially about its many wonderful qualities! Doing so guarantees you’ll know how to thrive by harnessing the benefits of High Sensitivity and by accepting yourself and how you’re wired.

Stack the deck in your favor.

If you know, for example, the crowds and loud music at the concert are going to wear you down, plan on cushioning it. Have a low-key day before and after if possible.

Similarly, if in NYC, focus as much or more on the beautiful oak tree in Central Park than on the aversive smell on the street.

Spend time with like-minded people.

It’s important to have an HSP community – or at least one HSP friend who “gets you.”

Be intentional about whom you give your energy to. Spend more time with people who value and support your High Sensitivity and less time with people who drain you of energy. 

Learn techniques, skills, and strategies for handling emotions, calming your anxious heart, and  being authentic.

Self-acceptance is a prerequisite for being able to set boundaries. 

So, set boundaries. Speak your truth.

Strengthen these skills, and you, as an HSP, will no longer wonder if a Highly Sensitive Person can change. 

There’s a funny thing that happens when you accept yourself and what you need. The people around you become more accepting of you, too. 

Learn self-compassion practices. Doing so will help you provide loving care to yourself just as you naturally would to a loved one.

Gently allow affirming, self-validating thoughts to prevail over the “you’re too sensitive,” “you need to lighten up,” or “you’re too thin-skinned” type of thoughts.

The origin of insensitive thoughts may be the comments you heard earlier in your life – perhaps from a parent, coach, teacher, or friend who didn’t know how to respond.

But now you get to face those insensitive thoughts with enlightenment. You have the opportunity – the responsibility, really – to challenge them with a truth you didn’t know until now.

No one can change the High Sensitivity trait.

You may not be able to change it. But you can absolutely change your lifestyle and habits so you’re less affected by stressors you can’t control. (Hello short version of the Serenity Prayer.)

You pave the way for what you contribute to the world. You are the only you. Rather than seeing yourself as weird, broken, flawed, or weak, how about allowing your power, creativity, vivid mind, and playfulness to be front and center?

For the HSP who understands and embraces the unique trait of High Sensitivity (HS), life is gloriously lived. 

Dr Elayne Daniels is a MA-based psychologist who specializes in eating disorder recovery, body image, and helping HSPs thrive! Contact her here for more information.