It’s a sensitive topic. Literally. And, if you consider yourself a sensitive person, you’ll want to be in on this discussion about how to know if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person or a sensitive person. 

What you think you know about sensitivity may not be all there is to know about it.

And what you don’t know — and will learn here — could be life-changing.

What does it mean to be a sensitive person? And do you fit the bill?

Perhaps your answer is a combination of yes and no, depending on your interpretation of the word.

After all, everyone likely prefers to be seen as “sensitive” vs. “insensitive”? “Tuned in” vs. “tuned out”? “Aware” vs. “unaware”?

You know — the kind of person Hallmark writes greeting cards about?

But then again, you don’t want to be thought of as “too sensitive” — too emotional, too much of a pushover, too shy, too easily offended.

So just what does it mean to be a sensitive person?

And, for purposes here in this article, is that the same thing as being a Highly Sensitive Person?

What does sensitivity look like?

A young girl ‘s feelings are hurt, and she cries. 

A schoolboy shuts down and hides when his classmates bully him. 

A woma brings dinner to a neighbor who just became a widow.

A husband hires a sitter and plans a surprise date night for his overworked wife. 

And anyone with an ounce of compassion aches inside when Sarah McLachlan starts singing on the animals-in-need commercials.

What do all these people have in common? 

Each is an example of a sensitive person expressing a normal part of being human.

But would you place a value judgment on these expressions of sensitivity? 

Is the girl who cries “too sensitive”? Is the schoolboy’s sensitivity setting him up for a life of never standing up for himself?

And what about the adults doing thoughtful things for others in ways they know will be appreciated? How is their “sensitivity” different from the emotive sensitivity of the others? 

These examples and questions are intended to make you think about the concept of sensitivity and how we often paint it with a broad brush.

Sensitivity, after all, is really just about how we perceive and respond to stimuli in our environment. The higher the sensitivity, the lower the threshold for a response, whether physical or emotional.

Physical sensitivity includes responses to things like temperature, pressure, sound, taste, pain. 

We all know people who are always cold, always hot, or jumpy when touched unexpectedly.

And there are people who can’t have their teeth cleaned without novocaine, while others can undergo invasive procedures wide awake.

Emotional sensitivity, on the other hand, is rooted in awareness — first of oneself and then of others. And it’s the basis of virtuous qualities like compassion and empathy.

This kind of sensitivity is fundamental to building healthy relationships and communities. We strive to nurture it in our children so they can become good citizens, good friends, and one day good parents themselves.

Think of someone you consider to be a sensitive person.

Perhaps he’s shy or introverted. 

Perhaps he’s easily offended, resulting in you walking on eggshells around him. 

The age and gender of this hypothetical person don’t matter because sensitivity is a normal part of being human. 

But there is a special category of sensitivity that goes beyond the sensitivity discussed so far.

It’s not “abnormal,” “flawed,” or “too (anything).” 

And it’s certainly not “bad.”

It is, however, found in a relatively small portion of the population.

Roughly 15-20% of people have a neurological makeup known as high sensitivity or sensory processing sensitivity (SPS).

The neurological makeup and functioning of the Highly Sensitive Person amp up both inner and outer experiences. Everything is intensified, magnified, and omni-present, with little filtering of incoming information.

So what is a Highly Sensitive Person?

High sensitivity is a scientific personality trait that has to do with the nervous system. It’s not a choice, a social deviance, a diagnosable “condition,” or something to be avoided, let alone “fixed.”

It is, however, something to be understood so it can be positively embraced and managed…for the benefit of the HSP and everyone in his/her sphere of influence.

Highly Sensitive People experience the world more intensely than do non-HSPs. They even experience the world more intensely than the average “sensitive” person.

The intensity is due to differences in the HSP brain. Fascinating differences, really. 

For example, HSP’s have more mirror neurons than non-HSP’s. (For an informative exploration of the role(s) of mirror neurons, read here.)

They also respond differently than non-HSP’s to neurotransmitters like dopamine. 

HSPs experience the world as “extra” because their brains don’t filter stimuli as efficiently as the brains of non-HSPs. 

As a result, their responsiveness to both positive and negative influences is greater than it is for people who are not highly sensitive.

What you may define as a “sensitive person” may have some areas of notable sensitivity: shyness, empathy, discomfort in large crowds, occasional overwhelm, for example.

For the Highly Sensitive Person, however, sensitivity is a life-defining state of affairs. Little, if anything, escapes the umbrella of high sensitivity.

When Dr. Elaine Aron published her groundbreaking book The Highly Sensitive Person in 1996, she brought years of scientific research into a waiting spotlight. 

Millions of people had been living with an intuitive sense that they were somehow “different” than most. And Dr. Aron’s work exposed the exceptional nature and scientific basis of high sensitivity in such a way that they could claim their uniqueness without shame.

More importantly, the announcement and approachable explanation of high sensitivity opened the door for HSPs to engage in compassionate self-care reflective of the nature of their trait.

High sensitivity has 4 defining qualities, conveniently packaged under the acronym “DOES”:

  1. D: Depth of processing: HSPs pick up on things (including nuances that most people don’t even notice) easily and process information deeply.
  2. O: Overstimulation/Overwhelm: Because HSPs are constantly processing  information, they are prone to anxiety and overwhelm. Regular time to themselves helps to replenish.
  3. E: Emotional Responsivity/Empathy: HSPs easily pick up on social and emotional cues and have tremendous empathy.
  4. Sensory-specific sensitivity: HSPs are highly responsive to subtleties in smells, flavors, sounds, fabric, and/or things they see.

The difference between a sensitive person and a Highly Sensitive Person lies in the “cumulative constancy” of these qualities.

For the HSP, life is, with very little margin, a combo of all of them. 

The HSP is always aware, always processing, always feeling, always noticing details, always picking up on the feelings and moods of others. Always. 

This is what is meant by their brains not filtering stimuli as efficiently as non-HSPs or even typical “sensitive” people.

Think of a strainer that you would use while cooking. 

A colander for straining pasta allows a lot to pass through its holes quickly. 

A hand-held strainer made of a fine wire mesh, on the other hand, will retain more and let only the finest particles through.

Sensitivity is analogous to the holes in a strainer. The smaller the holes, the higher the sensitivity.

And so it is for the Highly Sensitive Person.

The brain’s “strainer” is so fine that very little escapes. It perceives everything. It processess everything. Everything is important.

And that is an enormous mental and emotional responsibility. It’s time-consuming, energy-consuming, emotion-consuming.

Wondering if you are a sensitive person or a Highly Sensitive Person? The only fool-proof way to know is through scientific testing.

But there is a simple, well-devised questionnaire for High Sensitivity that can provide a reliable assurance one way or the other.

What you will notice as you complete the questionnaire is that High Sensitivity isn’t the result of one or even several yes answers. It’s the result of a preponderance of yes answers.

After all, for the HSP, everything registers…everything matters…everything is important.

The challenges of this trait are at least balanced, if not exceeded, by the veritable super-powers of this trait.

But powers must be recognized for the gifts they are if they are going to be used for good.

And they must have benevolent boundaries to protect and channel them so the person who possesses them doesn’t despair of them.

If for no other reason, this is why science has distinguished high sensitivity from the norm of neurological sensitivity. 

It’s not a disorder or an illness, so it has no “symptoms.” 

It is, instead, an innate neurological trait with qualities and characteristics. When you understand the qualities and characteristics, you can manage them to their full potential.

And so it has a name, a label, a verbal way of calling its unique characteristics out of the darkness and into the light of acceptance…

…and, with understanding, into the embrace of appreciation.

Dr Elayne Daniels is a psychologist in private practice. Her passion is helping Highly Sensitive People to thrive! Contact her here.