8 Ways Highly Sensitive People Make the World a Better Place

Artistic representation of person holding cage of stardustSensitivity is often referred to in a negative context. Phrases such as “You’re too sensitive” can be commonplace when someone expresses strong emotions. Much of American society is not set up to honor the needs of highly sensitive people.

By definition, a highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone who has an innate high degree of sensory processing sensitivity and emotional intelligence. Studies show these people are naturally more sensitive to stimuli, whether it be loud noises, strong smells, or bright lights. They may startle easily, feel emotions strongly, and may be more affected by substances such as caffeine and alcohol.

Psychologist Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, estimates that 15-20% of people are highly sensitive. Natural selection has continued this trait, as there can be many advantages to heightened sensitivity. Highly sensitive people might be different from the general population, but they are different in a way that could be useful—and perhaps crucial—to the function of society.

Here are eight traits HSPs typically have that could make the world a better place:

1. Awareness of Surroundings

Highly sensitive people have a high degree of sensory awareness. They are often first to spot an animal in the wild. Strong awareness and attunement to the natural environment can be beneficial when it comes to recognizing threats and avoiding dangerous situations.

They are also keenly aware of how environment impacts mood and are skilled at knowing what it takes to create a pleasant environment. An office worker may feel agitated upon arriving to work every day but fail to recognize how a messy cubicle may be contributing to his or her emotional well-being. An HSP could walk into the room and immediately recognize the ill effect of the disordered stack of papers piled on the desk.

“Highly sensitive people are very aware of stimulants in their environment,” said Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT, marriage and family therapist. “It’s as if they have finely tuned antennae that can pick up minute changes in sound, color, light, and other peoples’ moods. In addition, they can become even more vigilant to ward against the discomfort this sensitivity causes. If a simple doorbell sounds to you like a painfully loud gong, you’re going to be on the alert so you can avoid feeling overstimulated. A benefit of all this attunement is a greater understanding not only of the sensory world, but how other people might react to their surroundings.”

2. Creativity and Innovation

Highly sensitive people may be more stimulated by external stimuli, so when they turn their focus inward, their energy can be channeled creatively.

Many HSPs are visionaries and inventors. They have vivid imaginations with colorful imagery and rich sensory details.  Highly sensitive people are more likely to be right-brained dominant, meaning their thinking is less linear, which can make them more creative, intuitive, and curious. They may process information, experiences, and situations in a deeper, fuller way, making them more open to possibility and better able to connect the dots and find the missing pieces.

Creative people tend to think in more reflective and innovative ways than the general population, Botnick said.

“Highly sensitive people, who are taking in so much information and trying to make sense of it, often find they can capitalize on this perceptiveness by applying it artistically,” Botnick said. “By painting or writing, they can make use of their intellectual insights (the idea behind the work) while also combining them with their sensory insights (the look and feel of the work itself).”

3. Sense of Empathy and Compassion

Because HSPs are more keenly aware of emotions, they may be better able to sense what others are feeling and typically have more empathy, compassion, and genuine concern for others as a result.

They are typically more aware of nonverbal cues and can easily read others, picking up on subtle emotions that most people might miss. Many HSPs report experiencing another person’s emotions as if they were their own.

A 2014 study scanned the brains of self-reported HSPs to determine how they responded to the emotions of others. When researchers presented study participants with photos of people experiencing happy or sad emotions, they found that areas of the brain involved with awareness and empathetic feelings had greater blood flow in HSPs than in those without high sensitivity.

4. Strong Intuition

Highly sensitive people can be incredibly intuitive. They tend to be more connected with both the personal and collective unconsciousness, giving them access to information that doesn’t come through logic and reason. They are more in tune with their own nature as well as the subtle cues from their surroundings. They can easily sense what is going on beneath the surface and may have a strong knowledge about something without realizing how they received the insight.

Nancy Simon, LCSW, believes HSPs have a strong intuition because they can transcend left brain logic and reasoning easier than the average person.

“They are generally deeper thinkers and not afraid of exploring the unknown—probably due to trusting their intuition,” she said. “Their greater access to the right brain can block out unnecessary logic so they have more immediate access to their intuitive and gut instinct.”

5. Ability to Make Deeper Connections with Others and Themselves

Because they feel things on a deep level, HSPs usually crave meaningful connections. Their high levels of depth, empathy, and emotional intelligence make them excellent partners for those who can relate to and understand their emotional nature. Their profound self-awareness combined with the understanding of what drives others emotionally helps to create powerful, lasting relationships.

Their high level of self-awareness can also contribute to a stronger ability to recognize negative patterns deep within themselves. A 2015 study published in Personality and Individual Differences looked at 166 girls ages 11 and 12 experiencing depression. After presented with a 12-week class on reframing depressive thoughts, researchers found the girls with higher than average sensitivity were better able to internalize and apply the lessons, leading to a significant decrease in depression symptoms.

6. Ability to Notice Details and Subtleties  

Highly sensitive people might be different from the general population, but they are different in a way that could be useful—and perhaps crucial—to the function of society.Highly sensitive people typically have keen senses and rarely miss even the smallest of details. Heightened senses might amount to more vivid hues, stronger smells, louder sounds, subtler tastes, and more sensitive touch. Because everything is amplified, everything is noticed.

If someone makes even a small change to the environment, such as moving a vase from a table to a window, an HSP is usually the first to notice. They tend to process information more carefully and can easily spot changes as well as errors or mistakes. These skills can be beneficial in most aspects of life and are particularly useful in careers in which being detail oriented is a desired trait.

“People with high sensitivity are firing on all cylinders,” Botnick said. “They are often receptive not just in terms of the physical world, with its strong sounds, smells, and tastes, but in the world of the mind as well. A sensitive person is a hyper-aware person, who might notice subtleties that other people would miss, such as a small movement of someone’s mouth that might indicate anger or a below-the-radar shift in how a group of people are interacting.”

7. More Conscientious

Highly sensitive people are more likely to be self-reflective and think about the consequences of their actions. Due to their empathy and concern for others, they may also have a strong sense of justice and fairness. This can make them more conscientious than the average person, said Grace Malonai, PhD, LPCC, DCC. They tend to be more considerate of others and typically strive to do what they think is right in every situation.

“For some HSPs, personal and cultural values are exceptionally important, and their feelings associated with their values are heightened,” Malonai said. “This makes for a conscientious person. Justice and fairness are often strongly valued by HSPs because they notice, and are keenly aware of, so much unfairness in the world.”

Because HSPs tend to have a strong sense of empathy, they often have a low tolerance for the pain of others, which can lead to a strong desire for justice in society, Botnick said.

“Seeing the world not in black-and-white certainties but in nuanced shades of gray, they may pull for the underdog, grasp the details of complicated cases, or feel their own moral scruples more deeply than others,” Botnick said.

8. Ability to Be Peacemakers

Because of their heightened sensitivity, HSPs tend to become anxious around conflict and prefer to avoid it if possible.

“I believe that conflict is challenging for them because anger, shaming, and blaming are harsh emotions that can easily overwhelm someone who already has such a tender system,” Simon said.

However, their strong empathy can also ensure they are better equipped at seeing the other person’s point of view. They are naturally more relationship oriented than agenda oriented, making them great mediators if they choose to be active peacemakers. If there is ever a conflict that can’t be settled, an HSP may be able to help establish peace.

“HSPs become highly trained in reading other people and are often eager to dispel any tensions that could cause themselves more stress,” Botnick said. “Because of this, they can also excel at soothing others—sometimes before the other person even knows they’re upset.”

Sensitivity can be an asset rather than a problem. Next time you find someone who you see as being “too sensitive,” remind yourself of the many gifts they can bring to the world.

References:

  1. Acevedo, B. P., Aron, E. N., Aron, A., Sangster, M. D., Collins, N. and Brown, L. L. (2014), The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Brain and Behavior, 4: 580–594. doi: 10.1002/brb3.242
  2. Borchard, T. (2015, May 12). The perks of being a highly sensitive person. Everyday Health. Retrieved from http://www.everydayhealth.com/columns/therese-borchard-sanity-break/perks-of-being-highly-sensitive/?xid=y_sh
  3. Campbell, S. (2015, April 23). 8 advantages highly sensitive people bring to business. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/245293
  4. Holmes, L. (2015, June 10). How highly sensitive people interact with the world differently. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/09/highly-sensitive-person-behaviors_n_7543140.html
  5. Pluess, M., & Boniwell, I. (2015). Sensory-processing sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program: Evidence of vantage sensitivity. Retrieved from http://www.philosonic.com/michaelpluess_construction/Files/Pluess_2015_Sensory-Processing Sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program – Evidence of Vantage Sensitivity.pdf
  6. Wachter, A. (2014, November 12). Advantages of being highly sensitive. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrea-wachter/advantages-of-being-highl_b_6141146.html

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  • 11 comments
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  • Monique

    Monique

    November 12th, 2015 at 12:05 PM

    It’s not that I ever thought that those who are sensitive make the world a bad place, on the flip side of that I have always thought how a bad world like what we live in today must be really hard on those who are the most sensitive to everything a round them.

  • Constance 5

    Constance 5

    November 13th, 2015 at 10:12 PM

    Oh my…now I know…I am a HSP!😊!

    Such an insightful article!

  • Elaine

    Elaine

    November 14th, 2015 at 7:47 AM

    Hi Monique,

    It often does feel like I live with an onslaught of simplicity. By that I mean that the nuances I sense and the viewpoints I have are so much more nuanced than what is common. I do see the big picture in personal concerns and in the larger issues of society. I am also aware that I am unique and that to allow myself to become frustrated over the reduction of complex issues would be futile. This awareness helps me to recognize when the potential for frustration is very near.
    I do not watch a lot of television, or go to the movies very often, because the broad implications of their influences – sexism, dysfunctional relationships, and violence, really disturb me. So much of what is promoted is very negative and what I call low-vibrating. I really am dismayed at popular appeal these types of films have to the general public. But there again, I am dismayed at lots of human behavior, of which I’ve always been as astute observer.
    I have a deep reservoir of strength which I didn’t know about until I was in my twenties and became a victim of different kinds of ostracizing from family and friends for being different. This may sound “out there”, but I felt as if I really was walking through the valley of death as I identified with Jesus. And, I held on to the faith that I would exit it in spite of the violent threats and abuse. I did have the fortitude to move on and I used anger as my strength to prove that I was worth much more that inferior person that those loved ones were trying to portray.
    I’ve never understood how people can “follow the program” at the expense of self-expression. I’ve learned to rely heavily on my inspiration and unique viewpoints for guidance. I have often been perceived as a “high-maintenance” person because my sensitivities to my environment are so acute. It has interfered with relationships and for many years I too was very frustrated with myself and I am often perceived as somewhat of a burden. For many years I thought that I was extremely neurotic and it is only by learning about HSP’s that I realize that I am not. It has been difficult to maintain long term relationships because generally people don’t understand the way that I process so many physical influences in addition to my very active mind. (I’m always getting new ideas). I’ve had to refuse and cancel many plans because I can be overcome with fatigue and it’s often misinterpreted as a personal rejection or disinterest. It is painful to know that this is such a huge consequence of my constitution. And it can make for a lonely life. I have a rich internal life and this is my strength. I’m friendly and most people are surprised when I tell them I’m an introvert. I’ve performed dance and acting professional. But as an introvert I expend energy when around a group of people and regain it when I am alone. I prefer socializing with one person. I need lots of self-maintenance and rest. Such is the life of an individual with the quintessential artist’s temperament, which I happen to think is the one area that society appreciates when it comes to the struggles of someone who walks to a different beat. I am looking forward to the wider awareness of HSPs because I know that it cause many people to suffer in silence and to succumb to isolation.
    I have suffered from debilitating anxiety and depression and monitor my mental health very closely. But, I have conquered, again with my strong insights, the stereotypes of these medical conditions and have no shame. I have moved up in the social order having come from humble and destructive beginnings and I now enjoy a very stable and supportive relationship with my significant other. He has a sense of humor about my needs and does not ever criticized me. The triggers that I have from the past, most notably my fear of abandonment are always raw. I have learned not to compromise my authenticity even when it has meant going it alone.
    With education as one of my many tools for managing life, I am living a very comfortable lifestyle and enjoy many new and frequent experiences. I am a Life Coach for Human Sexuality which I discovered is truely my mission. In essence I am an archetypal “Wounded Healer”.
    I am one of the fortunate ones and while I accept the accolades that I give myself I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a force greater than I and all of the wise and supportive people who have come across my path (and who’s guidance I’ve trusted). I must also quote the inspiration voice of Blanche DuBois who said in A Streetcar Named Desire: “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers”.

  • bart

    bart

    November 14th, 2015 at 9:22 AM

    These are the people who tend to keep the world, when they can, a kind place. The rest of us are just running aorund doing our own thing paying little attention to others and what could be going on in their lives. These are the people who are paying attention, offering compassion to others, and while some may see this as a weakness, I look at them and think that I should do more to be like them.

  • Sheryl J

    Sheryl J

    November 16th, 2015 at 3:10 AM

    I’m so glad I read this! It describes me perfectly. I’m 55 years old and I’ve always thought something was wrong or off with myself. I’m sharing this link to help others like me. Thank you! Sencerely Sheryl Johnson

  • Gwen

    Gwen

    November 16th, 2015 at 6:35 AM

    When did it all start to be assumed that sensitive people are the weakest link?

  • elaine m

    elaine m

    November 16th, 2015 at 11:55 AM

    Hi Gwen,
    Society caters to extroverts and many introverts feel very out of place. Others think that being so particular about who they spend their time with and the external stimuli are very strange. It gets tiresome to be misunderstood. I’m sure you are aware of all the instances of bullying for those who are different from their peers.

  • Harris

    Harris

    November 17th, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    I would have to say that out of all my friends and family I am probably the most sensitive but at the same time I think that I am always the one who is most in tune with their thoughts and feelings so who do you think that they naturally run to when they need some help?

  • Amy

    Amy

    November 21st, 2015 at 1:48 PM

    Most of these characteristics very much remind me of my daughter

  • Ruth

    Ruth

    July 30th, 2016 at 10:32 PM

    I’m highly sensitive and have tried to deny it my entire life to fit in because I saw that I was socially rejected when I was a sensitive adolescent. Now as an adult and having experienced a lot of grief, I haven’t been able to deny my high sensitivity or build walls around it. Instead I am coming to embrace and understand it. And at this time it has meant a year apart in another country to process everything in my life that I built walls about and make friends with and integrate the vulnerability of how I truly feel which I tried to block out. Now that I’m opening to my true nature instead of living in denial and projection, I find that even a half hour walk on a busy street can feel overwhelming and loud. But I’m coming to balance, embrace and make friends with my feelings and myself, my rich internal life, my extraordinary creativity. This time alone and learning through articles such as this is so necessary to me now so that I can return to the world with an integrated sense of self and also to totally accept how deeply I feel in a world that, let’s face it, feel very severe and harsh for those who sense everything. I believe that the greatest gift of sensitivity is what we can teach others who don’t see, hear and feel what we do.

  • Reese

    Reese

    October 30th, 2017 at 2:38 PM

    Great article! I found glimpses of myself in the various traits of highly sensitive people. I have depression and anxiety. I don’t think that I’m that sensitive all the time. It depends on the situation.

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