One in five of us struggle to cope with everyday smells, sounds and images. Rather than a weakness, this extreme sensitivity could be a strength in everything from the pandemic to the climate crisis.
“I feel I’m too sensitive for this world,” says Lena, who can’t cope with crowds or bright lights. Melissa gets her husband to watch films before her to see if she will be able to handle any violence, gore or scariness. When their grownup children bring the grandchildren round, she has to retreat to another room because their “loud laughter, the talking over each other, their swearing and their smells overwhelm me”. Lucia says she can feel “each and every fibre of her clothes” and it feels very ticklish or uncomfortable at times. Sometimes, she has to stop during sex with her partner because it becomes “too ticklish”.
Lena, Melissa and Lucia would all describe themselves as highly sensitive, a label that could be applied to up to 20% of us, according to the US-based psychologist Elaine Aron, who started studying high sensitivity in the early 90s, and published her influential book The Highly Sensitive Person in 1996.
“When these people have information coming in, they process it much more deeply and more elaborately,” explains Genevieve von Lob, a clinical psychologist who works with many highly sensitive people, especially children. “They tend to take in much more information from lots of different kinds of stimuli. And then they’re processing it more deeply than a non-sensitive person – and because they’re taking in so much at once they can get much more overstimulated, overaroused and overwhelmed.”
When the Guardian asked readers to share their experiences of high sensitivity, more than 300 people responded. Over some 40,000 words, they wrote about feeling drained by their ability to tune into other people’s emotions, or exhausted from working in open-plan offices or a visit to the supermarket. It was common to report crying at emotional adverts, but also to be dismayed and deeply affected by political events. “I found austerity horrifying,” writes one. “I work in a school that has been directly impacted by cuts. I teach children who are experiencing the effects of neglected public services and parents who are financially unstable. If poverty continues to rise in this country, I know I will be spending a lot more time crying in my classroom.”
Several people reported wearing headphones “to block out the world”, and avoiding social media lest a cross word ruin their day, or week. Criticism at work can stay with them for years, other people’s perfume feels like an assault and relationships can be tricky.
“It is difficult to explain to someone why the noise and light of the television in the morning feels like being punched in the face, or why the texture of their favourite scratchy blanket makes me want to cry, without sounding like an insane person,” wrote one woman. “I wish I were not a highly sensitive person – it has made my life much more difficult.” Others remembered being told to “toughen up” as a child, or had lived for decades with the feeling there was something wrong with them.
As a result, a lot of highly sensitive people have low self-esteem, von Lob says. “Often they might have been bullied at school. Society tends to view it as a weakness, and they can get these labels like ‘fragile’ or ‘overemotional’. I think people who are highly sensitive can often feel lonely and misunderstood, and not normal. The world feels too harsh, too loud for them. It’s not surprising that they struggle to accept themselves and they struggle to value their gifts because of the messages they have received.”
But while our noisy, frenetic, always-on world can be an unforgiving place, there is some hope. Our understanding of what it means to be highly sensitive and how to cope with the unpleasant side-effects is increasing.
Self-acceptance is key, says von Lob. High sensitivity is innate, and not something to be diagnosed or “treated”, though people can learn coping mechanisms for when life becomes overwhelming. “I can’t emphasise enough how much you need unstructured downtime – plenty of sleep and rest,” says von Lob. The highly sensitive “need to pace themselves. Because they take in so much more and they have more intense emotions, they need time to process the emotions in their body, so movement can be really helpful – walks, or kickboxing or dance or yoga, whatever type of movement they enjoy. Because they’re people who are deep thinkers, they’ve got very rich inner worlds, and it’s really important for them to have those sort of meaningful, deeper connections in relationships.”
Time spent in nature can be helpful, she adds. “And simplifying life, so having less clutter around, less of a busy schedule. That’s why they work well with self-employment or being able to structure their own work day.” It is important, she says, not to compare yourself with other people, “because if you’re comparing yourself with the mainstream world of the non-sensitive, you’re never going to be able to do what they do, but you’ve got your unique strengths”.
Because being highly sensitive is a strength – or a “superpower”, as more than one respondent put it. “The advantages are that it makes me a really good listener, good at conversation,” says Samira. “I’m able to find underlying meanings easily, I’m very intuitive and I have a rich inner life with a strong emotional vocabulary.” Others report hearing nuances in music that the average person might miss, or being deeply empathetic with friends. Highly sensitive people tend to notice things in the environment that may pass others by, and get more from the arts.
Louise, a researcher, grew up believing it was “wrong” to be so sensitive. It was only in her 30s, when she was unhappy in her job, that she went on a sculpture holiday and reconnected with her love of art. “That holiday completely changed me – I met similarly sensitive people and for the first time realised that being sensitive was OK. The people I met there didn’t think being ‘soft’ was bad, and were comfortable discussing their own sensitivity, their ability to find joy in beautiful things, to feel deeply about the world around them,” she says. “Meeting people who embraced their quiet, joyful natures was transforming and I came back embracing my own sensitivity. I started reading and creating again and thought carefully about my career and how it failed to nurture me. I gave myself permission to be the sensitive person I really was.”
She started a PhD, and: “Several years later, my life is transformed. My sensitivity has become my strength and it is the reason for the success of my research, which involves working with vulnerable people. My work is reliant on deep thinking and deep human connection. I am open about my need for a quiet office and my employers have been brilliant, understanding the impact of overstimulation in larger offices. I wish I had realised earlier in my life that being highly sensitive could be a strength, rather than a weakness.”
There has been a question over whether high sensitivity is a sign of autism, but Michael Pluess, professor of developmental psychology and sensitivity researcher at Queen Mary University of London, says that, although both feature a more responsive sensory system, “sensitivity and autism are probably two fairly separate things” (highly sensitive children may originally be diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder). Similarly, it’s not about being an introvert, as there are extroverts who are also highly sensitive. Aron’s work is around the idea that sensitivity is a personality trait, although other researchers come at it from a biological or physiological perspective.
Pluess doesn’t like the term “highly sensitive personality”; he prefers to think of sensitivity as a continuum. “Everyone is sensitive – we would not be able to survive without being sensitive to the environment – but some people are more sensitive than others, and having a higher sensitivity has benefits and also challenges.”
It’s about knowing that being highly sensitive is not a weakness, says von Lob. In fact, it might be exactly what we need, if only society could recognise and nurture people with these traits. There are thought to be as many men as women who have high sensitivity, but for cultural reasons to do with ideas of “masculinity” these traits are not seen as desirable – to the detriment of all of us. “Some of the strengths are that they are very self-aware, they have this great capacity for empathy,” says von Lob. “So that’s really good in leadership roles. They often are creative people, so they could be the visionaries of our world – they come up with different ways of thinking from the mainstream. They have a very strong sense of justice and fairness. They’re very good listeners, and question rules that don’t make sense. They’re very conscientious, because they look at details. We need these kind of skills and awareness in the world at the moment.”
The ongoing response to the pandemic and the climate emergency are both vital areas that could benefit from the abilities of highly sensitive people, says von Lob. “They can use their passion, their intuitive knowledge and their self-awareness to be part of the solution.”
Isadora often wears earplugs while out and about to dull some of the “jarring” noise, can’t bear the odour of cleaning products or cooking smells, and finds loud music in restaurants unbearable. Still, she says, “despite the challenges, I’m glad to be highly sensitive because I feel that the world could benefit from more sensitive individuals. There is an overabundance of insensitivity.”
Some names have been changed.
- Emine Saner