Dr. Elayne Daniels

What it’s like for Highly Sensitive People (HSP) in an insensitive world varies, from painful to blissful.

One unfortunate commonality for Highly Sensitive People in an insensitive world is that big things and little things easily and often feel like “too much.”

Western Culture in particular causes and reinforces that High Sensitivity is a bad thing to be born with.

Why? Because you notice “little things”– such as a shirt tag grazing against the base of your neck, the muted sound of sirens in the distance, or subtle disapproval in a friend’s tone. And your nervous system alerts you. Kind of like when a smoke detector activates. (But the same kinds of things don’t activate the smoke detectors of the 85% of people who do not have the High Sensitivity trait.)

And boy oh boy, life sure can feel like “too much” – because you REALLY NOTICE and REALLY FEEL the impact of your senses, of your empathy, of your way of deep thinking.

And those ‘really’s’, especially in this culture, easily lead you to feel as if something is wrong with YOU.

Sensitivity is typically considered a weakness or flaw – or at best, not a strength. At least in Western culture. (In Asian cultures, for example, high sensitivity is considered a strength and is admired.) As a result, there is lots of ‘proof’ from those around you that your (HSP) response is not normal. And that the culturally normative (insensitive?!) response IS normal.

The 85% or so of the population who do not have the HSP trait may not even notice or only be slightly put off by whatever has catapulted you into system overload.

People who are not Highly Sensitive ask, “why must you be so dramatic?”

And then you, as a Highly Sensitive Person, eventually collude with the majority and come to see your innate hard wiring as bad. Wrong. Too much. And you believe you need to find a way to be less sensitive.

Plot twist: You don’t need to find a way to be less sensitive.

Reminder: Traits are hard wired and can not be transformed. If your eyes are blue, you can’t wish them to be brown. Your foot size is your foot size, even if you wish your feet were a different size.

Highly Sensitive People living in an insensitive world experience a lot of “extra’s”.

The extra’s can be delightful (e.g. noticing two cardinals playfully chirping as they fly from branch to branch) or intolerable (e.g. bright lights shining in your eyes). Package deal.

When you deem something in your environment to be extra loud, extra sharp, extra warm/cold, or extra anything, people around you may pejoratively label you as ‘extra sensitive’.

What for others are at most minor annoyances, for you are energy zaps.

You can’t ignore the shrill beeping of the symbolic smoke detector. People in close proximity hardly notice. Some do not even hear/smell/feel/see it. But it causes you to want/need to escape. The sensory stimulation of whatever type from whatever source deluges your nervous system.

Being a Highly Sensitive Person in an insensitive world can be lonely.

Knowing about and recognizing the trait is an invitation to make friends with it. When you do, your ‘weakness’ becomes a source of strength and vitality.

Just about everything you process is intense because you were born with a biological difference in your nervous system. The high sensitivity trait means what you see, hear, touch, taste, and experience are deeply processed and can naturally lead to feeling depleted.

As if you have nothing left.

Fortunately, you can replenish in a quiet, low stimulating setting, and give your nervous system some time to recalibrate.

Highlights of what it is like for a Highly Sensitive Person in an insensitive world include:

1. Emotion Hangovers:

You’re in tune with other people’s unexpressed emotion, easily absorb other people’s feelings, and are aware of subtleties such as tone and body language. The result? EXHAUSTION!

Emotional exhaustion is easily mistaken as disinterest, social anxiety, or ‘a mood’ for Highly Sensitive People in an insensitive world.

2. Bumpier Transitions:

Even if the change is positive, such as going on a vacation, you take longer to adapt. Acclimating to changes throughout the day can also take extra time and effort. You probably aren’t a huge fan of change, nor do you likely adapt easily or quickly.

Being a Highly Sensitive Person in an insensitive world can feel like you ‘should’ be more adept at adapting to the next thing, whatever that may be.

3. Cry readily:

Because of your innate deep processing, empathy, and intensity of feelings, you are more prone to cry. Your threshold for what is considered crying-worthy is considered low. But only because of how deeply you process and feel, and how misunderstood your style of processing is in this culture.

As a Highly Sensitive Person in an insensitive world, you may be called a crybaby. Or have been shamed for crying.

4. Hanger:

You tend to be more reactive to blood sugar ups and downs. Low blood sugar impacts you more negatively and suddenly. Irritability, intolerance, and cognitive fuzziness are signs that your blood sugar needs tending to. (As in, Eat!)

Being a Highly Sensitive Person in an insensitive world means you are more prone to becoming hangry. Especially because other people may not realize how quickly and intensely you react to low blood sugar. And you may not feel comfortable advocating for food in certain settings, such as in a work meeting.

5. Deemed shy, weird, anxious, or something else inaccurate:

Our culture that has strong views on what is normal and of value. Nonconformists of any type are misunderstood. As if there is something fundamentally wrong – with them, rather than with the standards for reference.

Being a Highly Sensitive Person in an insensitive world can render you to feel like a misfit.

Sensitivity is thought of as ‘girly’, feminine, and a flaw. Standards that tend to be valued are patriarchal: Stoic, conventional, strong, unwavering.

6. Startle/alert:

Your nervous system is wired to readily respond to subtle stimuli. You are more likely to startle when you hear an unexpected sound (even music) or are in an unfamiliar environment – even if both are considered benign.

As a Highly Sensitive Person in an insensitive world you’re more often on edge or distracted. Rather than others recognizing you have a nervous system that is highly attuned to what is going on around you.

7. Overanalyzing:

To you, there is nothing “over” about “overanalyzing”. Your brain is wired that way.

You are just thinking. And when you think, you process many facets and angles, many of which are not even remotely on others’ radar.

Being a Highly Sensitive Person in an unsensitive world means you are more likely than not used to be told you are “overthinking this” or “belaboring the point.”

8. Strong reaction to criticism:

Because of the way you are wired, you react to criticism with deep processing and feeling. Add to this what is reinforced from culture, family, friends– that there is something de facto wrong with you at your core. Criticism intensifies the hurt.

Being a Highly Sensitive Person in an insensitive world means you are often misunderstood and considered high maintenance.

9. “Can’t take a joke“:

Even though people making the ‘joke’ may not mean to be hurtful, the jokes may be hurtful. Especially because you naturally process comments multidimensionally.

People making the joke may actually not recognize that the joke is hurtful; their mind works more uni-dimensionally. Your genuine empathy translates to easily recognizing what could hurt someone else’s (or your own) feelings.

Being a Highly Sensitive Person in an insensitive world means you may have to remind yourself that you find funny jokes funny, and other jokes not so much.

If the joke were funny to you, you would laugh.

10. People pleasing:

Being a Highly Sensitive Person in an insensitive world means you may face temptation to pretend. To pretend that you want to do what everyone else is doing (e.g. going to church/synagogue as a family) or feel the way others feel (e.g. excited about a concert).

Educating yourself about the high sensitivity trait can make all the difference in the world.

The trait, with you from birth, can transform into one of your biggest assets.

Learning about the High Sensitivity trait allows you to appreciate it more. Especially when you use the knowledge to support your highly attuned nervous system.

The way you experience the warm sunlight reflecting off the beautifully heart shaped leaf on the tree by the lake is something you wouldn’t trade for the world.

There is nothing “too …..” about you. You are just right.

And that, my Fellow HSP, is extra awesome.

If you would like more information about how to thrive alongside your HSP tribe, please contact me.

4 Responses

  1. I have never heard of HSP until today. I was trying to look up how my boyfriend “jokes” with me bc we got into another disagreement, and he thinks telling me something I like isn’t worth liking or I’m silly for liking it or it’s stupid or something I’m doing is ridiculous, and then when I get upset he says “he’s just joking and I’m so sensitive and that’s actually a form of love is poking at others”. Anyways, I found out about HSP bc of my research today after all that. So much has been so helpful in understanding and knowing, and then your article…just wow! Thank you so much! Case in point of how much I relate to everything you said and finally feel understood by you at least, and others out there, I cried at the end of your article. Still am actually 😂Go figure, lol. Thank you again very, very much . It means so much to me! Sincerely, Storm.

    1. Dear Storm,

      How fantastic that you went online to do some research and found information about High Sensitivity. Yay! Hopefully you will continue to connect the dots and deepen self-understanding. Many HSPs feel like everything now makes sense in a way it hadn’t before learning about the trait. Use your high sensitivity to thrive! Take care, and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about the article. Warm wishes to you!

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