I’m the kind of person who absorbs the emotions of other people. If someone I know is stressed out or depressed, I feel it, too, resonating with their pain. Sad movies—heck, even sappy commercials—can bring me to tears. And I often complain about sounds, smells, or tastes that don’t seem to bother those around me.
According to a new book, Sensitive, by Jenn Granneman and Andre Solo, this suggests I may be a highly sensitive person (HSP)—among the 30% or so of the population with that characteristic. Granneman and Solo, who’ve created the website Sensitive Refuge for HSPs to learn about their condition and connect with others, have turned their knowledge into a book, explaining this trait in detail. By fusing research with testimonials, they hope to bring attention to the ups and downs of being sensitive, correct misunderstandings, and end the stigma that sensitive people sometimes face.
What makes someone highly sensitive
Sensitivity can come in different flavors, argue Granneman and Solo. It can mean having strong emotions—“crying for joy, bursting with warmth, wilting from critique”—or having physical sensitivities to temperature, odors, or sounds (or all of the above). Overall, sensitivity is a heightened “ability to perceive, process, and respond deeply to one’s environment,” which means sensitive people absorb more sensory information (often unconsciously), think more deeply, and find more interconnections among disparate things than less sensitive people typically do.
“If you are a sensitive person, your body and mind respond more to the world around you,” the authors write. “You respond more to heartbreak, pain, and loss, but you also respond more to beauty, new ideas, and joy.”
No doubt, sensitivity evolved to help people survive. If you could easily absorb information from your surroundings, you could be more alert to dangers and opportunities—like an approaching predator or a nearby water source.
There is some evidence that genetics plays a role in whether you are prone to high sensitivity. But, sometimes your environment can produce more sensitivity in you or exacerbate a genetic predisposition. For example, if you grew up in an abusive household, you might be able to recognize almost imperceptible changes in a parent’s moods—a warning to seek safety before the danger escalates.
Being sensitive can sometimes mean that you shut down when facing stressors or difficult transitions. But it can also mean that, given the opportunity, you’re skilled at learning how to handle challenges in the future. For example, research found that sensitive kids benefitted from a depression-prevention program more than less sensitive kids. Similarly, in one study, married, sensitive adults got more out of a relationship-strengthening program than less sensitive spouses.
This is because sensitive people take in information—good and bad—and process it more deeply. As long as their sensitivity is valued and supported, it can be a bonus when it comes to personal growth and achievement.
“Sensitive people get a bigger boost from the same things that help anyone: a mentor, a healthy home, a positive group of friends,” write the authors. “This boost allows them to do more and go further if they are given a nudge in the right direction.”
The particular strengths of being sensitive
Sensitivity can come with other “superpowers,” write Granneman and Solo, that help sensitive people experience the world deeply. For example, they tend to have high levels of the following:
Empathy. “Sensitive people have empathy in spades, so much so that the difference can be seen in brain scans,” write the authors. This means sensitive people tend to “feel for others” more than less sensitive people, which can encourage them to be more compassionate and take action in the face of suffering.
Creativity. “A mind that notices more detail, makes more connections, and feels emotion vividly is almost perfectly wired for creativity,” write the authors. The brains of sensitive people can grow and change in ways that may allow for more creative associations.
Sensory intelligence. Sensory intelligence means taking in more information from your environment and making good decisions based on that information—a defining characteristic of highly sensitive people. Great athletes, for example, often have this same ability—to sense what’s going on around them and to rapidly process it—allowing them to make intelligent plays in the heat of competition.
Depth of processing. Not only do sensitive people take in more information, they also process it more deeply. This means that they often see patterns that others don’t see and are able to “connect the dots,” which can make them good planners. They prefer to engage in deeper, more meaningful ideas and activities, as doing so calls upon their strengths.
Depth of emotion. While many would see this as a hindrance, a sensitive person’s depth of feeling makes for a richer life and is a boon for forming strong relationships—one of the keys to happiness. “If you’re sensitive, your deep emotionality is why you’re an exceptional listener, why people naturally trust you, and why you’re probably the go-to confidant when anyone in your friend group needs advice,” write Granneman and Solo.
This combination of abilities can make sensitive people good leaders, as they combine their hearts and heads in the service of others. As the authors note, slowing down to reflect and lead with compassion is “exactly what our divided, rushed, and too-much world desperately needs.”
How to handle the downsides of sensitivity
Of course, emotionality also has its downsides—as does being more sensitive to your physical environment. One of the biggest challenges is overwhelm. Many sensitive people feel uncomfortable in chaotic environments with lots of sensory stimulation—like loud parties or busy city streets. They may become overwhelmed by their emotions or the emotions of others, which they tend to absorb.
While this can happen to anyone, it’s more likely to happen to sensitive people, who find it hard to block out ambient noise or ignore the suffering of someone around them. Luckily, there are ways to avoid overstimulation and to soothe yourself when you can’t avoid it, explain Granneman and Solo:
1. Look for early warning signs of overstimulation—whether that’s feelings of restlessness, irritation, or a desire to shut out all sensory information. This can be your personal signal to take note and change direction to avoid overwhelm.
2. Take a break from whatever’s causing overstimulation. That might mean closing a door, taking a walk, or letting someone know that you need to pause a conversation. Just shutting out stimulation for a bit can help you recharge before reentering the situation.
3. Give yourself calming sensory input. If you can’t escape sensory overload, try interrupting your body’s stress response by doing something physically soothing, like lying on your back or giving yourself a hug.
4. Move your head less. If you move your head a lot, your brain works harder and your senses become more heightened, explain the authors, which can add to overstimulation. They suggest doing things like sitting at the head of a table at a party (so you don’t have to move your head back and forth) and gathering ingredients before cooking dinner (to reduce repeated trips between the fridge and the stove).
5. Set healthy boundaries. “Chronic overstimulation often occurs because our boundaries have holes, that is, places where we haven’t set or communicated a clear limit,” write the authors. Learning how to say no to requests more often can help sensitive people avoid taking on too much.
6. Make time to laugh and play. As the authors write, “you can’t laugh at something funny and feel overwhelmed at the same time.” So, try to do things that feel playful, whether that’s singing in the shower, skipping, or putting on a silly puppet show for your kids.
Misunderstandings around sensitivity
Even though many people have this trait, it’s not uncommon for sensitive people to be criticized. People may say you’re “too sensitive” in a pejorative way, assuming it’s a weakness—especially if you’re a sensitive boy or man. This can lead some people to hide their sensitivity or overcompensate by trying to act “tough,” lest they become targets of shaming or bullying.
To illustrate this, Granneman and Solo share the story of Bruce Springsteen, who famously confessed that, as a child, he was very sensitive and fearful. His father often made him feel weak and hounded him to toughen up. But his sensitivity came in handy as a musician, allowing him to delve deeply into the human experience and produce songs that many consider among the best of American rock.
“Although being wired for strong emotions comes with challenges, it also makes you exceptional,” suggest the authors.
I feel lucky that I wasn’t bullied out of being sensitive, as others have been. But I’ve often been embarrassed by my easy tears and felt the need to get away from everyone just to recharge—something that has caused people in my life to feel left out or rejected. Reading this book was like getting a window into myself, explaining why things affect me the way they do. It also helped explain why I love solitude so much. It rejuvenates me when life becomes too much.
For those who find sensitivity a lot to manage, there are many more tips in this book than I’ve mentioned here, including ideas on how to turn empathy into compassionate action, make use of your heightened ability to love and form close relationships, and protect yourself from people who drain you. If you can accept the gifts of sensitivity and recognize your superpowers, while mitigating the challenges, you may find yourself enjoying a richer and more meaningful life.
“Rather than seeing sensitivity as a weakness, we need to start seeing it for what it actually is—a strength,” write the authors. “It’s time we embrace sensitivity and all it has to offer.”