Could sensitivity be a superpower? Helen Massey shares the keys to thriving as a highly sensitive person
We live in a fast-paced world and a culture that celebrates resilience and toughness. To survive, there’s seemingly no space for gentleness or sensitivity. And that means identifying as a highly sensitive person (HSP) can feel like a burden. Or maybe, it’s actually a superpower…
In a world tearing itself apart with division, maybe it’s time to reconsider the way we think about sensitvity. Maybe it’s time we recognise that sensitivity is not a flaw but a unique and valuable trait. When understood and embraced, it can lead to personal growth, success and a richer, more fulfilling life.
Approximately 15 to 20 per cent of individuals identify as HSPs. It’s not a disorder or a condition, but a set of personality traits. Therapeutic coach and wellbeing psychologist Lauren Wild specialises in helping HSPs flourish and applies the ‘DOES’ acronym: “It encapsulates what it’s like to be highly sensitive. You’ve got D for higher depth of processing; O for over-arousability; E for emotional intensity, and S for sensory sensitivity.
“Here’s the fascinating part: there’s concrete evidence that HSPs process things on a deeper neurological level, engaging deeper parts of our brain. They’ve shown this in brain scan studies. Sometimes, an HSP can become over-aroused due to an abundance of sensory information. But it’s not about struggling to figure out what to process; it’s about being exceptionally good at processing things deeply.”
Sensitivity is sometimes seen as a negative trait due to misconceptions, stereotypes, gender biases and a lack of understanding. “I prefer the term ‘a highly attuned person’,” says psychologist, scientist and author Dr Meg Arroll. “It makes more sense to me and my clients,”
Wild agrees: “If the term ‘highly sensitive’ doesn’t quite click with you, that’s absolutely fine. What’s most important is finding a word or description that resonates with your unique experience of the world, making you feel comfortable in your skin.”
Some people regard ‘highly aware’, ‘highly connected’ or ‘highly empathetic’ as more aligned with their personal experience of high sensitivity. There’s no one-size-fits-all, and it’s fine to choose a term that empowers you, especially considering the negative connotations of ‘sensitivity’.
Being an HSP is only seen as unfavourable because of our environment. “These individuals would have been revered in our ancestral communities,” Arroll points out. “Their heightened sensitivity allowed them to perceive threats well before others, ensuring the safety of the group. They played a vital role in maintaining group cohesion and harmony – a responsibility that often fell on their capable shoulders more than anyone else’s.”
The value of sensitivity shines brightly, Wild adds, in cultures where seeking facts before taking action is cherished. This perspective is prominent in places such as Japan and other Asian countries, where the HSP mindset – prioritising thoughtful consideration over impulsive indulgence – is seen as a force for the greater good of the community.
It’s vital to perceive sensitivity not as a weakness but as a remarkable strength that holds incredible benefits both for individuals and for the broader community. “Many successful individuals,” Arroll notes, “have proudly come forward to embrace their highly sensitive nature, recognising the positive impact it can have on their lives and the world around them.”
And it’s not just community cohesion that is a strength of HSPs. Their heightened sensitivity to light, smells and sounds can make daily experiences richer and more vibrant, even though they can be overwhelming. And acute emotional awareness allows highly sensitive people to connect deeply with others, fostering empathy and meaningful relationships. “Highly sensitive individuals possess a remarkable gift for understanding other people’’s emotions, making them excellent at anticipating reactions and fostering effective communication,” says Arroll.
A knack for seeing through emotional complexities sets HSPs apart as highly effective communicators. They excel at accurately gauging others’ feelings: a skill as critical as conveying factual information, and one that comes naturally to them.
Managing these abilities with healthy boundaries is key. HSPs process things more deeply, so are more likely to have an emotional reaction to things they try to learn. However, Wild observes, “Having an emotional response helps you learn. So people who are highly sensitive find it easier to learn than other people because they are always engaging in an emotional response.”
Another side to it is often overlooked: the profound connection an HSP feels with music, art, and nature. Highly sensitive individuals are like sponges for the beauty and inspiration that the world offers. This receptiveness extends to their creativity, which tends to flourish. Being in sync with the world through all your senses is something truly special.
Being an HSP can be overwhelming and lead to sensory overload or burnout. “It’s not so much that it’s problematic in itself,” explains Arroll. “It’s problematic in our modern world, which is overloaded with every type of stimulation: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and complex emotions that are 24/7.”
A key skill is environmental mastery. “Create an environment that aligns with your sensitivities,” suggests Wild. “I thrive when I work from home, allowing me to control my surroundings, which is much more supportive than the distractions of an open-plan office.” If you work in an office and find the background noise overwhelming, using noise-dampening earphones can change the environment. To truly flourish, it’s essential to master your environment, to match your unique needs.
Engaging with the arts helps too. Taking time for activities such as music, art and immersing yourself in nature can be nurturing. Find moments in the day for these calming experiences and down-regulate from overwhelming stimulation.
HSP traits are unique and powerful attributes that, when embraced and understood, can help us flourish in all aspects of life. By recognising heightened sensitivity as a strength rather than a weakness, and by setting boundaries to manage overwhelming experiences, highly sensitive people can unlock the full potential of their emotional depth, empathy, creativity and profound connections with the world. Highly sensitive individuals are not just capable of thriving; they can bring a heightened sense of beauty, compassion and understanding to the world, making it a better place for everyone.