Therese Borchard of Beliefnet interviewed me about the trait; her article [on Beliefnet] is titled 5 Gifts of Being Highly Sensitive and 5 Curses.
She also published it for her Huffington Post column with the title 5 Gifts of Being Highly Sensitive – which has over 100 comments.
Here are her two questions, and my responses:
1) If you had to name the top five gifts of being highly sensitive, what would they be?
One of the prominent “virtues” of high sensitivity is the richness of sensory detail that life provides.
The subtle shades of texture in clothing, and foods when cooking, the sounds of music or even traffic or people talking, fragrances and colors of nature.
All of these may be more intense for highly sensitive people.
Of course, people are not simply “sensitive” or “not sensitive” – like other qualities and traits, it’s a matter of degree.
Years ago, I took a color discrimination test to work as a photographic technician, making color prints.
(But I decided I did not want to work all day in a darkroom.)
The manager said I’d scored better, with more subtle distinctions between hues in the test charts, than anyone he had evaluated.
That kind of response to color makes visual experience rich and exciting, and can help visual artists and designers be even more excellent.
The trait of high sensitivity also includes a strong tendency to be aware of nuances in meaning, and to be more cautious about taking action, and to more carefully consider options and possible outcomes.
We also tend to be more aware of our inner emotional states, which can make for richer and more profound creative work as writers, musicians, actors or other artists.
A greater response to pain, discomfort, and physical experience can mean sensitive people have the potential, at least, to take better care of their health.
Psychologist Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, estimates about twenty percent of people are highly sensitive, and seventy percent of those are introverted, which is a trait that can also encourage creativity.
As examples, there are many actors who say they are shy, and director Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Academy Award, has said, “I’m kind of very shy by nature.”
The star of her movie The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner (who was reportedly shy as a child) has commented that “in social situations she can be painfully shy.”
High sensitivity to other people’s emotions can be a powerful asset for teachers, managers, therapists and others.
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2) And, if you had to name five curses, what would they be? And how best do we overcome them or co-exist with them?
The biggest challenge in high sensitivity is probably being vulnerable to sensory or emotional overwhelm.
Taking in and processing so much information from both inner and outer worlds can be “too much” at times and result in more pain, fatigue, stress, anxiety and other reactions.
An intriguing neuroscience research study I came across that may explain some of this said people with nervous systems having decreased latent inhibition are more open to incoming stimuli. Which can be a good thing, or not so good.
Actor Amy Brenneman once commented, “I’m too sensitive to watch most of the reality shows. It’s so painful for me.”
That kind of pain or discomfort can mean we don’t choose to experience some things that might actually be fun or enriching.
But I don’t mean reality shows.
Another aspect of sensitivity can be reacting to the emotions – and perhaps thoughts – of others. Being in the vicinity of angry people, for example, can be more distressing.
As actor Scarlett Johansson once put it, “Sometimes that awareness is good, and sometimes I wish I wasn’t so sensitive.”
We may need to “retreat” and emotionally “refresh” ourselves at times that are not always best for our goals or personal growth.
For example, being at a professional development conference, it may not be the most helpful thing to leave a long presentation or workshop in order to recuperate from the emotional intensity of the crowd.
There can also be qualities of thinking or analyzing that lead to unhealthy perfectionism, or stressful responses to objects, people or situations that are “too much” or “wrong” for our sensitivities.
Living in a culture that devalues sensitivity and introversion as much as the U.S. means there are many pressures to be “normal” – meaning extraverted, sociable and outgoing.
Psychologist Ted Zeff, author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide, points out that other cultures, such as Thailand, have different attitudes, with a strong appreciation of sensitive or introverted people.
Jenna Avery, a “life coach for sensitive souls,” counsels people to accept or even pursue being “out of sync” with mainstream society, and be aware of other’s judgments of people as too sensitive, too emotional, or too dramatic.
[Learn about the services and programs of coach Jenna Avery, especially for sensitive creators: mentoring, courses, the Writer’s Circle and more, at her site JennaAvery.com.
And if we are sensitive, we may use those kinds of judgments against ourselves, and think, as Winona Ryder said she did at one time, “Maybe I’m too sensitive for this world.”
Certainly there are extremes of emotions that are considered mood disorders, for example, and should be dealt with as a health challenge.
But “too emotional” or “too sensitive” are usually criticisms based on majority behavior and standards.
Overall, I think being highly sensitive is a trait we can embrace and use to be more creative and aware. But it demands taking care to live strategically, even outside popular values, to avoid overwhelm so we can better nurture our abilities and creative talents.
Here is a related book you might like: A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman.
[Amazon summary:] “One of the real tests of writers,” notes Ackerman in this liveliest of nature books, “is how well they write about smells. If they can’t describe the scent of sanctity in a church, can you trust them to describe the suburbs of the heart?”
“Ackerman passes the test, writing with ease and fluency about the five senses. Did you know that bat guano smells like stale Wheat Thins?
“That Bach’s music can quell anger around the world? That the leaves that shimmer so beautifully in fall have “no adaptive purpose”? Ackerman does, and she guides us through questions of sensation with an eye for the amusingly arcane reference and just the right phrase.”
Also see article: Being Highly Sensitive and Creative – excerpts from my book. Of course, being creative is not limited to people identified as artists, or just those who are pursuing creative ventures. Both creativity and being sensitive are on a spectrum – a range of different levels.
Psychologist Elaine Aron declares, “I know ALL HSPs are creative, by definition. Many have squashed their creativity because of their low self-esteem; many more had it squashed for them, before they could ever know about. But we all have it…One of the best ways to make life meaningful for an HSP is to use that creativity.”