A neuropsychologist explains why being highly sensitive is actually a superpower, and how to harness those strengths.
“You’re overthinking it,” “Don’t take things so personally,” “You’re being too sensitive,” are scolds many of us are extremely familiar with.
According to research by Dr Elaine Aron, who coined the term, 15-20% of the population are HSPs, aka highly sensitive persons, meaning that they feel ‘too deeply’ but often hide their emotions from others. HSPs may feel out of place or uneasy in over-stimulating situations, such as at a busy work meeting or at parties, and tend to seek validation and reassurance more often.
We’re conditioned to associate sensitivity with weakness, as something we should be ashamed of rather than empowered by. Being overly sensitive has negative connotations of being unequipped for reality and needing to toughen up.
But while it may not feel like it in a world that seems to reward the loudest, boldest and brashest among us, being highly sensitive is actually a strength. And, according to neuropsychologist Nawal Mustafa, The Brain Coach on Instagram, we should be recognising and celebrating it more.
“Many HSPs consider this sensory processing sensitivity to be something they hate about themselves because most cultures or communities do not value sensitivity or emotions,” Mustafa writes. “Being told ‘Stop crying’ and ‘You’re overreacting’ can make HSPs feel like something is wrong with them and potentially lead to low self-esteem, self-doubt, feelings of being misunderstood.”
Mustafa’s post highlighted seven key strengths that highly sensitive people possess, and how those traits can have a positive impact on their lives.
HSPs are naturally more empathic and caring to the needs of other people
“In an fMRI study, researchers found that HSPs have more activation in brain regions involved with awareness, integration of sensory information, empathy, and preparation for action in response to emotionally evocative social stimuli,” explains Mustafa.
HSPs are trusted by their peers because of their honesty and conscientiousness
Dr Aron’s research on HSPs indicates that being highly sensitive can actually be of great value in the workplace.
In The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr Aron writes: “[HSPs] are intuitive visionaries, able to see the big picture, creative, aware of and thoughtful to the needs of others, good influences on the social climate, vigilant with quality, highly conscientious, loyal, able to pick up on subtleties in the environment and in interpersonal communications, and are often gifted. In short, they are ideal employees.”
HSPs notice little details that others might miss
Highly sensitive people attune to and process noise, chaos, disorder and other external stimuli intensely, so what may be an error, mistake or major annoyance could go pretty much unnoticed by a non-HSP.
HSPs are very creative and can appreciate things at a deeper level
According to VeryWellMind, highly sensitive people tend to feel deeply moved by the beauty they see around them. “They may cry while watching particularly heartwarming videos and can really empathise with the feelings of others, both negative and positive.”
HSPs have more insight into their mental and emotional processes
Because the mind of a HSP is always racing, it means that they are also more introspective and self-aware. So while they may experience more overwhelm, they are also able to identify any potentially triggering situations or processes early on and attempt to deal with them.
HSPs feel more connected to the world around them
Research has found that highly sensitive people are more prone to adopt pro-environmental actions and behaviours. Studies from University College Cork indicated that nature connectedness increases with higher sensitivity because, given their tendency to be overwhelmed by busy urban environments, highly sensitive people are particularly connected with nature, where they can find restoration and stress relief.
“Being a HSP is not a disorder,” Mustafa stresses. “I am a strong advocate for accepting ourselves for who we are, as we are,” she concludes. “Being aware of what parts of us need work and actively healing them is always encouraged, but I don’t think we should ever shame ourselves for being a certain way.”