Who Says I'm Over-Sensitive?

Sensitive is a good thing. Yes, really. I feel as if I've written this blog many times before. But you know what? Until most of the world perceives 'sensitive' in a positive light & Highly Sensitive People stop apologising for their trait, I'm going to keep on writing it.

Sure there are downsides to being Highly Sensitive (also known as the Shadow sides). Though you could say there are downsides to being human - female/male, adult/teenager, left-handed/right-handed...you get the gist. Those of you who've read some of my blogs before will know that the term 'over-sensitive' really gets my goat. Is there really an average level of sensitivity, a norm, above which people are over-sensitive & below which people are under-sensitive? Has this been scientifically studied & rigorously proven? Are there situations in which it's 'normal' or socially acceptable to be more sensitive & other situations where it's not? Does it depend on which side of the world we live in - East or West, North or South, the country, the state, the town, the time of year?

We are not Overly-Sensitive People, but Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). In fact I sometimes like to think of our trait as exquisitely sensitive. Surely it's a blessing to be able to notice small things that others may miss, like dewdrops on a leaf, or the magnificent hues of a setting sun. To hear the nuances in a piece of music, or smell the subtle fragrance of wild flowers on a walk through the woods. To revel in the luxurious softness of a cashmere jumper.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that people who aren't Highly Sensitive don't get to enjoy these things too. I'm saying that HSPs get to enjoy them to a more intense level. In fact scientific studies using fMRI imaging* have proven that HSPs have greater levels of activity in the mirror neuron areas of their brains than non-HSPs, indicating higher levels of empathy & the ability to notice more.

This noticing more, processing more & deeper thinking is what can sometimes turn the HSPs' exquisite superpower into a Shadow. Take for example criticism. It's commonly cited that HSPs overreact to criticism. Because of their tendency to process deeply, the HSP will likely be thinking about the critical comment, taking it seriously, considering whether it's fair or unjustified, the motivation of the person making the criticism, relating it to past events & future eventualities & so on. This is the normal response of an HSP who cannot help thinking deeply about something, good or bad.

The important part of this process comes with the response to the criticism. If the particular HSP on the receiving end of the critical comment happens to have had a supportive childhood & therefore has developed good self-esteem, they'll probably go through this in-depth processing & respond in a way society deems 'appropriate'. Taking on board the comment & using it to develop & grow or discounting it altogether. If, on the other hand, the HSP has not had such a supportive childhood - perhaps they've always been told they're too sensitive - they may unsurprisingly have low self-esteem & therefore react defensively to the criticism. There they go, being over-sensitive again & the vicious cycle perpetuates.

Let's be controversial here & imagine a World in which people were accepted for who or what they were. Where diversity really was cherished & it didn't matter what colour your skin was, where you came from, what you did or didn't believe in, whether your IQ was 180 or 74. Where your level of sensitivity was just that - your level. Neither over or under. In this Utopia, HSPs would grow up feeling accepted, rather than made to feel there was something wrong with them. They may even be valued for their enhanced abilities - their ability to feel empathy, notice subleties & relate them to the big picture, their depth of processing. Their self-esteem would be good. Throw a critical comment at an HSP in this scenario & they'd be better equiped to consider it & use it constructively.

The difference between the HSPs in our current Society & this Utopia is the amount of baggage they've been subjected to. The judgements & negativity they've had to deal with. The sooner we recognise that being different isn't a threat, the sooner we release the need to judge & label ourselves & others. Being Highly Sensitive is only a problem when the HSP doesn't know how to embrace their trait. To acknowledge the Shadows that can come up, & work to stay in their amazing strengths. To know that they're OK, just the way they are.

It's like the classic chicken & egg scenario. Which comes first, the judgements or the over-sensitivity?


Photo by {studiobeerhorst}-bbmarie on Foter.com / CC BY

Study reference: "The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions"

by Bianca P. Acevedo, Elaine N. Aron, Arthur Aron, Matthew-Donald Sangster, Nancy Collins & Lucy L. Brown

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