by Cherie Dalton, Clinical Psychologist
“My biggest weakness is my sensitivity” . That’s how Mike Tyson described himself. Winona Ryder also said of herself, “You go through spells where you feel that maybe you’re too sensitive for this world”. I’ve thought a lot about sensitivity in my life. “You’re too sensitive” was a childhood catch-cry. In a world that prizes corporate pressure and competitiveness, ‘handling it all’, constant drive, stimulation and being busy, tough decision-making and keeping emotions ‘under control’; let’s face it, sensitive people are often mistakenly labelled as weaker and more vulnerable and sensitivity can be viewed more as a burden than a gift.
If you’re still reading this article, it may be because you can identify with being a sensitive person or know someone who is. Research suggests that 15-20% of the population identify as highly sensitive. The trait was first researched by Elaine Aron, author of ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’. She believes having a sensitive nervous system is less common yet very normal and if you’re a sensitive person, you might:
- Be extra aware of subtleties in life
- Be particularly understanding and empathetic
- Feel the need to withdraw on busy and demanding days
- Be deeply moved by the arts, music or kindness
- Get rattled and exhausted by loud music, bright lights, strong smells or sirens
- Be easily startled
- Be conscientious
- Be a responsible person
People vary broadly as to how much their nervous system responds to situations. Sensitive people tend to notice, reflect-on and process information unobserved by others, absorbing their environment. This can be overwhelming at times yet also incredibly helpful and positive. Like all personality traits, sensitivity has its advantages and disadvantages. Positively, experiencing sensitivity allows for compassion and deep experiences of appreciation of beauty and life. According to Aron (1999), sensitive people do well in a huge range of life situations as they are better at detecting errors and avoiding mistakes, they are especially good at activities that rely on vigilance, accuracy, speed and detection of differences. They reflect on their own thinking and feeling, are intuitive and particularly empathic. They are affected by others and therefore, connect well and tune- in to others easily. They are often considerate, enthusiastic and supportive people. They learn intuitively and without being aware of learning and they process information thoroughly so they are often cautious, wise and insightful. They consider consequences and simple things often mean the most to them. To quote John Haltiwanger (2015), “The world needs more people with sensitive souls, as they’re innately self-aware and empathetic. Individuals with these qualities are natural leaders…They understand both themselves and others, which is a product of their own sensitivity”.
The tricky part of sensitivity can be its impact on ones energy and peace. When overstimulated, a sensitive person can become overwhelmed and frazzled and at times, less understanding and caring as a result. There may be a need to withdraw to recover and a heightened need to pace themselves and factor in quiet time to reduce the risk of feeling stressed and anxious. As Aron points out, human’s function best when their nervous systems are neither too underaroused nor too overaroused and finding this balance and understanding it, is key. Humans function optimally when they realise their strengths, yet detect and manage any over-use of these strengths.
Anthropologically, societies need two groups to succeed and survive – a type of warrior group and the advisors. Warriors subscribe to ideas of expansion, freedom, extroversion, risk-taking, and boldness which have enormous value. On the flip-side, a society requires balance with an advisor group providing calm and stability to the impulses of warriors. Sensitive people naturally fall into this advisor group and are often drawn to respected professions where they are considered caring and responsible, diligent and insightful, concerned with the wellbeing of society and its people. Sensitive people are often among the advisors and planners, the spiritual and moral compass of society where sensitivity is something to be utilised and be proud of (Aron, 1999).
Sensitive people can:
- Embrace the strengths possessed by this trait
- Acknowledge the enormous contribution being sensitive makes to life and society
- Focus on developing a kind and acknowledging understanding to support themselves in a world of people who may not share or understand sensitivity
- Lead a balanced life, with awareness and self-care
- Nurture the nervous system and notice and manage overcommittment or overinvestment in people or things
- Ensure opportunity for quiet and still periods with time to nurture close relationships
- Pay attention to maintaining appropriate boundaries and assertiveness
- Learn skills to manage avoidance and withdrawal from situations that may be desired
- Run their own race and acknowledge the strength of sensitivity and the rich life this offers
- Practice self compassion to support oneself.
Overall, use sensitivity to guide a full appreciation of the world while also embracing a gentle awareness of when it can also overwhelm.
Acknowledgements -Aron, E.N., The Highly Sensitive Person, Element, London, 2003.Haltiwanger, J., Editor and Senior Politics Writer for Elite Daily.
Click here to read more about Clinical Psychologist Cherie Dalton.