Being Highly Sensitive


In the world of adolescence, it’s not unusual to hear about “teenage drama.”  A while back (the very end of October, when I started this post, to be exact–yes, it’s been far too long since we got a blog post up here!), a young person in my life told me, “It’s just, like, I feel all the feels, you know?”  Kudos to that young person for giving me permission to share that statement AND for introducing me to the phrase “all the feels”.

It’s unfortunate that the world judges sensitive people, misinterpreting their words and behaviors, and twisting the meaning behind it into something negative.

There’s a body of thought and research on what it means to be sensitive, and more accurately, what it means to be highly sensitive.  To better understand what being highly sensitive means, it might be helpful to point out and describe a few things that it doesn’t mean.

  • “Being sensitive means you’re weak.”  Nope.  Sensitive does not equal weak.  People who are highly sensitive may experience “all the feels” a little more often and feel more deeply, but in no way should that be construed as a weakness.  As someone who leans toward sensitive myself, I know that I definitely feel my emotions more strongly than some of the people around me, that my feelings are easily hurt, and that disruptions to routine can provoke a lot of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety.  That doesn’t mean someone who experiences those feelings is weak.
  • “If you’re sensitive, it just means you’re super emotional and full of drama.”  Nope again.  Sensitive is not just another word for being emotional and being sensitive is not a negative attribute.   Noting that someone can come across as emotional can be an observation, but that doesn’t make it helpful or even true.  Emotions aren’t necessarily good or bad; they’re a subjective experience.  While sensitivity may appear dramatic at first, it’s actually quite different.  Sensitivity is emotional and internally based, whereas being dramatic can be deliberate, external behavior.
  • “Anyone who’s that sensitive must be faking and trying to manipulate you.”  Eeek.  Definitely not.  All people have emotional needs, and highly sensitive people may have a lower threshold for negativity (i.e. rejection, criticism, correction) and thus express their emotional needs more strongly.  That’s not manipulative.  Think of it in simpler terms.  Some people eat three meals a day and are perfectly fine.  Others “graze” throughout the day, eating maybe 5 or 6 smaller meals.  Other people eat a few modest meals, but have small snacks in between.  Think about expressing emotional needs as “snack time”.  Some people need it, some don’t, and there’s nothing wrong either way.  A highly sensitive person may have some additional emotional needs, just like someone with a varying appetite may need an extra snack during the day.

Someone asked me, “Can I stop being so sensitive?”  It’s interesting to consider what this means.  I don’t know why someone would not want to be sensitive–it may not always be a convenient characteristic, but it is a strength, especially when we consider that people who are sensitive are typically also more intuitive, more aware of their own needs, more responsive to others, and genuine and gentle in their feedback to others.  I suppose the bigger questions might be, “How can I stop reacting to being sensitive?” or “How can I not show that I’m feeling emotional?”  In general, it’s hard to turn off feelings completely, and probably not a good idea anyway.  Having the emotional range of a cardboard box certainly isn’t healthy, either.  I can appreciate that people may be at school or at work and not want to express or show the depth of emotion that’s being felt, and it can take practice to manage that.  Small behavioral changes to interrupt the emotional expression may be helpful–challenging yourself to take a few deep breaths, counting backward from ten, using a fidget item (a stretchy key chain, piece of cloth, small stone, etc.) to press, twist, or hold onto, can all be options to help yourself focus before responding.

If you are or you know someone who is sensitive, remember: Being sensitive doesn’t mean being shy, being sensitive shouldn’t be viewed as “unacceptable”, it’s not about over-reacting.  Sensitive people offer a lot concern, caring, and empathy for others, so be proud of that and embrace  it!