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Navigating Life as a Highly-Sensitive Person

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

By Arlene D. Nagtalon

I don’t often walk with my head held high. I get easily rattled when I have a lot to do in such a short amount of time. I make it a point to avoid watching violent shows and movies that show a lot of blood and gore because it makes me queasy. I often need to withdraw from my busy days to ensure I can rest and recharge. When worse comes to worse, I strive to avoid conflict, as well as upsetting or overwhelming circumstances.

I am a highly-sensitive person.

Since I was young, I’ve been the type who easily cries at everything. Whether it be receiving bad grades, getting scolded by my parents, or watching sad scenes in movies, it never takes a lot to get my waterworks flowing. My parents always knew that I was a delicate person, and it didn’t take long before my peers and teachers found that I’d break down in class when something that upsets me occurs. I’ve become known as the person who flees from a room when I feel my eyes watering, and it’s been difficult to find a sense of belonging when I grew up with the belief that constantly crying was a sign of weakness and just another reason for others to put me down. That was until I realized that there were others who shared this trait.

According to Dr. Elaine Aron, a psychologist who researched high sensitivity personalities since 1990, merely fifteen to twenty per cent of the world population have this trait. Unfortunately, too many people consider it a disorder, but that is primarily due to the fact that it is still not well understood by others. Despite this, biologists have confirmed that high sensitivity is found in various other species, such as birds, fish, dogs, cats, primates, and various other types of organisms. Apparently, certain humans and the following animals are built differently with the survival strategy of being observant before acting, shedding light on how the brain works differently compared to those who don’t identify as highly sensitive.

Aron believes there are four main criteria that are used in determining high-sensitivity, which include the depth of processing, overstimulation, emotional responsiveness and empathy, as well as being sensitive to subtleties.

However, while these characteristics may be more common in introverts, extroverted people also share these qualities! With these once-misunderstood personality traits, there is no longer a black and white answer when it comes to being an introvert or extrovert. In fact, Aron herself is an HSP extrovert married to a non-HSP introvert. Therefore, for an outgoing, sociable person, she also believes that she is susceptible to overstimulation from being in stressful situations. Either can share high sensitivity qualities that many tend to overlook, which can put a lot of mental strain on an individual feeling misunderstood or out of place for feeling emotions that are beyond their control. Still, you don’t need a proper diagnosis from a psychoanalyst or therapist to determine whether or not you fall into this category of deep-thinking people. By taking this simple questionnaire made by Aron herself, it’s easy to figure out whether or not you may see the world differently than others do.

Still, sensitivity carries negative connotations because many believe that people who carry this trait will be destined with “lifelong unhappiness and turmoil,” according to Psychology Today’s “The Beautiful Truths About Being a Highly-Sensitive Human.”

To combat this harmful way of thinking, Thomas Boyce, M.D., nationwide-known pediatrician, founded the “Orchid and Dandelion” theory. With years of pediatric experience and empirical research, he and his team came to the discovery that eighty per cent of the population are dandelions, meaning that they can thrive living in nearly every environmental situation. However, the remaining twenty percent are deemed as orchids, implying that they are uniquely sensitive to their environments and left vulnerable in the face of adversity. Boyce’s theory explains why orchid children with siblings respond to stress differently and why they are affected by the most subtle fluctuations in parental emotions, compared to undisturbed dandelion children.

It’s notable to mention that many of Boyce’s orchid patients have grown up to be wonderful parents who contribute to society as brilliant, giving adults. In some cases, with the right amount of tender love and care in a supportive environment, orchid children have a greater chance of going further than dandelion children ever could. That is, without the assumption that they are in overly-critical hands where they are not hindered from embracing their true selves.

In many cases, culture plays a huge role in how sensitivity is valued. According to Psych2Go, an organization and YouTube channel whose goal is to make psychology more widely accessible, sensitive people are merely a minority in the world population due to the negative connotations of weakness that comes with the stereotype. Therefore, HSPs who live in environments where their unique trait isn’t fostered will most likely grow up with low self-esteem after believing that they are made to feel abnormal or unwanted.

With that said, I’ve also undergone the same circumstances where the sensitivity came with a stigma. My parents never came to terms with how much I cried from being born as a colicky baby until now. However, I’m thankful that my peers have accepted me for the way I am. They are the ones who see my tears and me wearing my heart on my sleeve as a sign of strength that even the strongest people lack. Though I consider myself a work-in-progress, I no longer feel alone as I once did with my upbringing at home. As the oldest in my family and the only one to be the eldest sibling, I’ve often felt confused by the angsty feelings of struggle, especially with having to deal with struggles only first-born children know. Understanding that I am an HSP has made me realize that I’m different from others and require more self-love and acceptance from myself.

According to another Psych2Go video, “Eight Signs You’re a Highly-Sensitive Person (HSP)”, there are various connections I’ve made to my own life that helped me to understand specifically what about myself made me an HSP. For example, feeling deeply and having the tendency to be emotionally reactive are a few personality traits of mine. I often find myself empathizing with others because I understand what it’s like to live in their shoes. I can recall this one occasion a few years ago where I was at the mall and felt pity towards an elderly janitor who spent Christmas Day mopping the floors and cleaning tables in the food court. On a holiday that should be spent with family, friends, and loved ones, I admired her hard work while feeling bad that she couldn’t be with others instead. After going up to that janitor and thanking her for doing her job, I felt a sense of pride that I was able to see life from her eyes. I also feel others' pain when they are suffering and have a deep understanding for other people, which allows me to be my friend’s go-to person for advice on a multitude of topics. Seeing people cry often puts me to tears when it hurts me to see them in pain for whatever reason.

Another sign of being an HSP has to do with taking more time than others to make decisions and paying very close attention to subtlety. Especially as a workaholic, choosing my classes is a long and tedious process that requires me to weigh the pros and cons of my mental health, how much time it will take, and whether or not it will truly be worth it in the long run. These are decisions that I can’t take lightly, so my parents and school counselor are often involved to ensure that I’m making the right decision for myself without the additional worry of making the wrong choice. In terms of noticing the smaller details, my observant self will notice physical changes in people, whether it be them getting a new haircut, getting their braces removed, or trying out a new style of clothing. Although, these new changes have absolutely nothing to do with me, being eagle-eyed and aware of my surroundings is something that has helped me out in various situations, particularly when I’m in an unfamiliar environment.

However, despite these minor inconveniences that come with being an HSP, I’ve discovered that it also makes me a better individual. We are highly conscientious and good-mannered people who are very considerate towards others' needs, even to the point where we put theirs before our own.

I address all people as either “sir” or “ma’am,” whether they are my teachers, waiters, or other significant adults. I’m also a very crafty person who makes a lot of handmade presents for the people I love, putting a lot of time and effort into them to show my affection. When I’m out shopping, I go out of my way to put a product back if I don’t want to buy it so that I don’t inconvenience staff and have them put it away for me. Doing kind deeds are second-nature to me, so I’m the type to always hold the door open, pick up something someone dropped, or compliment a stranger to make their day.

These are examples of gestures I’d want others to do to me, so why not start a chain reaction of random acts of kindness so that others pay it forward? Even when it comes to working well in team environments, I take everyone’s talents and differences into consideration to work more efficiently and effectively. I know how to play with all strengths and encourage others to put their best work forward to reach their full potential.

In a society where sensitivity is stigmatized, we must learn how to accept people for who they are. The normalization of high-sensitivity is necessary when it’s misinterpreted as simply shyness, rather than a misunderstood survival tactic. Crying often and wearing your heart proudly on your sleeve should be taken as a sign of strength when others aren’t able to express their emotions as freely as we can. The benefits of sensitivity should be spotlighted instead of shunned so we can continue doing our part to foster an environment where we can be proud to be emotional beings without feeling ashamed of how others perceive us to be.

Written by writer Arlene D. Nagtalon

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