All my life, I’ve felt like I was different. It didn’t matter what group I was in – whether it be my family, school mates, friends, or even colleagues at work. It felt like I didn’t belong and just couldn’t fit in. As a kid, my family described me as shy, sensitive, and quiet. My head would often be in the clouds thinking about the beauty of nature, why I felt all types of emotions all the time, or the nature of people.
Throughout my life, I’ve had well intentioned people say that I’m “too sensitive”, “too emotional”, or “too intense” or that I needed to “toughen up”. I think we can all relate to the feeling of being told that the way you are in the world is bad. I internalized those statements and felt that something was wrong with me.
Why did I react so intensely to comments or situations that others would just shrug off? Why did I cry during every Grey’s anatomy episode or recoil at the sight of violence in movies and the news? Why did I get so overwhelmed so easily by noisy stations or parties? Why did I have such a low social meter, feeling exhausted after a day of socializing with friends or family?
Why couldn’t I be “normal” like everyone else?
These questions, like many others, swirled in my head for years. I thought I was broken. Defective. It was in the last few years where I learned something about myself that was a game-changer: that I am a highly sensitive person or HSP. When I took the self-assessment test, I scored a 25 out of 27!
So, what is a highly sensitive person you ask? Well…
Coined by Dr. Elaine Aron, a highly sensitive person (HSP) or someone with sensory-processing sensitivity (the trait’s scientific term) is a person who has a central nervous system that is more sensitive to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. Most people think that it just relates to emotional sensitivity but that’s just not the case. It also includes lights and sounds (environment), but also things like subtle cues in body language or tone of voice.
Because HSPs pick up more details than others do – which can be both a good thing and a bad thing – they can get overwhelmed easily and often need lots of quiet/down time to recharge. Imagine 100 alarm clocks going off at once all day, as opposed to everyone else having just one alarm clock that goes off. Another thing about having the high sensitivity trait is that it is genetic. That means that if someone is an HSP, a parent or someone else in their family probably is one too.
So, I am a highly sensitive person and that is normal! Research by Dr. Aron and her colleagues shows that about 15%-20% of the population are highly sensitive; it is found not only equally among men and women, but also among many animals in the wild. Based on those statistics, it’s no wonder I felt like I didn’t belong – we’re such a minority! Many of us have grown up never knowing there’s a word for who we are.
According to Dr. Aron, “this trait is not a new discovery, but it has been misunderstood. Because HSPs prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called ‘shy’. In fact, 30% of HSPs are extroverts, although the trait is often mislabeled as introversion.” She also points out in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, that there was an evolutionary advantage to this trait that benefited species. Having someone who was sensitive to their surroundings provided useful for survival.
How To Understand A Highly Sensitive Person: The DOES Model
Dr. Elaine Aron has developed a very useful model that describes the basic characteristics of a highly sensitive person. It is called the DOES model which refers to the following key attributes of highly sensitive people (HSP):
Depth of processing:
HSPs simply process everything more, relating and comparing what they notice to their past experience with other similar things. That is why we take longer to make big or small decisions. We’re also very reflective as a result too. We process either: 1)consciously through emotions or being connected to the world and others, or 2)unconsciously, like through intuition or gut feelings.
We tend to notice a lot in situations and environments. Because we notice so many things in a situation, and if the situation is complicated (many things to remember), intense (noisy, cluttered, etc.), or goes on too long (a two-hour commute), we wear out sooner from having to process so much. Others, not noticing much or any of what we have, will not tire as quickly. It’s a superpower but can also cause chronic stress if we don’t give ourselves lots of downtime.
Emotional reactivity and empathy:
We have strong emotional reactions that can be both positive and negative. People sometimes think that emotions cause us to think illogically. However, recent research, reviewed by psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues, has placed emotion at the center of wisdom. One reason is that most emotion is felt after an event, which apparently serves to help us remember what happened and learn from it. HSPs can also be in tune with other people’s emotions a lot and can absorb them as their own. This is why we tend to be very empathetic. The downside is that we can deal with compassion fatigue (literally feels like an emotional hangover!)
Sensing the subtle:
Because of our high sensitivity, we can notice the subtle stimuli in the environment that others don’t. That is why certain noises, food, or smells can really bother us where it has no effect on others. It’s also why we can be drawn to things like aromatherapy and can be moved by things like music, nature, and art. Sensing the subtle also allows us to enjoy the little things in life more. Our awareness of subtleties helps us to be more perceptive to people’s change in moods or facial cues or someone’s tone of voice, even when they may not be aware that they are giving off nonverbal cues.
The Highly Sensitive Black Girl
It’s been life-changing for me to know that there’s nothing wrong with me. Although I’ve learned so much about the high sensitivity trait, I often saw that the support systems and articles on the topic were written by or catered to white folks. I found that perspectives from people of color, especially Black people across the diaspora weren’t always there.
As a highly sensitive person who is also a Black woman, it’s been a challenge reconciling and accepting who I am while fighting the narratives and stereotypes of how Black women should be. The tough, strong Black woman archetype runs deep in my family and in society. We try not to feel our emotions or we bottle them up. We grind on and push through them because we think we have to. But there’s nothing wrong with being “emotional”, with being “sensitive”, and with being “weak”.
I understand that this has been for survival. When I look at the women in my family, I see strength and resilience. Being an immigrant in this country is not easy. However, I also see how they didn’t have the freedom to always embrace all aspects of their humanness. We are allowed to cry, to let our guard down, to feel pain, and to express the wide range of human emotions freely. For me, accepting my high sensitivity trait is part of my quest to accept my humanness and break the generational cycle.
A good illustration of this paradigm was a This is Us episode I watched a while back – “Flip a Coin” (Season 4, Episode 4). In this episode, Rebecca (Randall’s mom who’s white) and Carol (Beth’s mom who’s Black) finally meet while visiting their children in college and bond over the recent deaths of their respective husbands. You see Carol so “put together” as compared to Rebecca. We see the resilient way in which Carol has handled her own grief at losing her husband compared to Rebecca whose life was a mess.
The dichotomy of how white women are allowed to be vs Black women is apparent. Black women need to be strong and hold it down and can’t be weak. Although resiliency is an important skill to have, sometimes we should be allowed to be “a wreck”. We aren’t superhuman.
Black people don’t have to only be tough. There is a uniqueness to being a highly sensitive person. It’s a strength and the world needs more of us. I don’t need thicker skin. The ability to take in subtleties and feel emotions deeply allows me to be attuned to the injustices in the world. It allows me to approach how I interact with others with thoughtfulness, compassion, and kindness.
Why Highly Sensitive People Are Awesome
My high sensitivity fuels my creativity. Taking everything in, I am able to use my words and my body to understand the world around me and express my thoughts and feelings. I am able to understand where someone is coming from and express empathy in a world that has often hardened our hearts. In our current society where it feels like everyone is often reactive and screaming at one another, it’s important to have the ability to listen to understand instead of listening to react. I take the time to take in information and process it fully. I think before I speak and am intentional with my words. I know that words have power and I make sure I use that power in the most responsible of ways.
I often try to listen to where others are coming from and cannot stand still in the midst of pain and sorrow. Highly sensitive people are often aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others, which can be a powerful gift. It makes us extremely thoughtful and conscientious.
That is why you see HSPs as doctors, therapists, artists, musicians, social workers, small business owners, coaches, teachers, clergy and many other professions that help others. We have an innate drive to do good, and to make a difference in this world.
High sensitivity is genetic. It is a personality trait that I cannot change. It is how my creator made me to be. Frankly, I think the world needs more of us. It is my superpower!