Why Being Sensitive Is a Strength

6 minute read
Sólo is the force behind Sensitive Refuge, the world’s largest website for sensitive people, and the author of Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World, which he wrote with co-author Jenn Granneman

When was the last time you bragged about being sensitive?

Most likely, the answer is never. There are plenty of traits we take pride in but being “sensitive” is usually perceived as a weakness. It’s used to mean you’re fragile, thin-skinned, or just overreacting. Men are told that they shouldn’t be sensitive at all, whereas women are told not to be “so” sensitive—an infuriating set of words that ought to be retired.

Either way, the message sensitive people get isn’t to celebrate who they are. It’s that they should “overcome” their sensitivity and “toughen up.” Putting aside that this approach doesn’t work, it’s wrongheaded. Sensitivity is largely genetic, and not something you can turn off. It is a trait linked to giftedness and something we ought to embrace. In fact, according to three decades of research, it’s not only a healthy trait, it also serves as a a powerful asset.

As a personality trait, being sensitive means you take in more information from your environment, and you do more with it. Sensitive people are wired at a brain level to process information more deeply than others do. That includes sensory input (like noticing the texture of a fabric), emotional input (reading social cues), and ideas (spending a longer time thinking things through and making more connections between concepts).

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If you’re sensitive, this deep processing changes the way you see the world. You probably notice what others miss, think, and feel deeply, and have a vivid inner life. You probably also get overstimulated in situations that don’t bother anyone else. If so, you’re not alone. Roughly 30% of all people, regardless of gender, score high for sensitivity. These individuals, sometimes called highly sensitive people (HSPs), are wired to go deep. And that depth comes with gifts.

The most well-known and celebrated sensitive gift is creativity. It’s perhaps the one generalization that’s true: Sensitive people tend to be highly creative, and many—perhaps most—artists, musicians, and actors are themselves sensitive people.

But creativity doesn’t end with the arts. The same ability translates to innovation. Many of our greatest thinkers and scientists throughout history have been sensitive people, including Charles Darwin, who was not only creative but contemplative, humble, conscientious, and full of strong emotions — the model of a sensitive person. Sensitive people have this capacity for innovation because they tend to be deep thinkers who spend more time and energy turning problems over in their heads—and end up seeing more possibilities and solutions.

A second strength sensitive people have is their decision making ability. In studies involving both humans and monkeys, the subjects who are sensitive—based on having gene variants associated with sensitivity—tend to outperform others on a variety of cognitive tasks, particularly those that require noticing patterns and using them to predict outcomes and make smart decisions.

This decision-making ability may give sensitive people an evolutionary advantage. In a 2008 computer simulation of natural selection, creatures who spent more resources considering their options and comparing them to past results, as sensitive people do, came out ahead long-term compared to less-sensitive creatures. They amassed more resources over time and out-survived others. In the wilderness, that might mean tracking down game when everyone is hungry. In the boardroom, it means steering companies to the top of their industry.

But perhaps the greatest advantage of sensitive people is what we call the “Boost Effect.” The “Boost Effect” means that sensitive people get more of a boost from the same things that help anyone. For example, a 2022 study looked at hundreds of couples at risk of divorce. The couples had been given a relationship training to improve their marriages, and at a glance, it seemed to help: The couples who received it were more likely to stay together. But when researchers gave the subjects personality tests, they found that it was the sensitive people who were most likely to use the training to save their marriages. Not only that, the couples where at least one person was sensitive reported an improvement in relationship quality overall—they became happier with each other. Other couples got no such benefit.

The Boost Effect isn’t limited to relationships. Over and over, researchers find that sensitive people are supercharged by any form of training or support. If you’re a sensitive person, you can activate this ability by curating a supportive environment around yourself—such as a group of supportive friends—and by seeking out resources such as mentoring, training, therapy, or coaching.

Sensitive people do pay a price for these gifts, however, by becoming overstimulated. Overstimulation is what happens when there is simply too much information for the brain to keep going deep. It feels like brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, and a sense of overwhelm; it happens in situations that are too loud, too chaotic, or too emotionally intense. (A rushed day at work and a conflict with a partner are both common triggers.) This is the only time when sensitive people really might seem less “tough” than others, but sensitive people can learn to largely prevent it—particularly by building time into each day to simply let the mind process and “catch up.” For sensitive people, even sensitive extroverts, a little bit of quiet alone time goes a very long way.

If any of this sounds like you, you might be more sensitive than you realize. If so, you have probably felt the pressure to hide it. But that’s a trap. You cannot make yourself less sensitive than you are and trying to do so only cuts you off from your gifts.

Instead, the single most important step you can take for yourself is what society has told you not to do your whole life: Stop hiding from your sensitivity. Embrace it, and show it to the world.

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