Someone said to me recently that parents of Highly Sensitive Children may be reluctant to have their child labelled as ‘Highly Sensitive’, due to the stigma attached to the word ‘sensitive’… The sensitive-reactive side of me was immediately indignant – ‘REALLY???!!!’ I thought. And I think I went into a bit of a rant. The sensitive-measured side of me went off to do some research.
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘sensitive’ as:
‘Quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences’
which is positive, and I would wholeheartedly agree with.
Then the definition goes on to:
‘Easily damaged, injured, or distressed by slight changes’, and ‘Easily offended or upset’.
It is these less positive definitions that I’m guessing some people focus on when they see the term ‘Highly Sensitive’. A bit of a dilemma then!
Here’s why I think we needn’t be afraid of the term ‘Highly Sensitive’:
- The trait has also been termed ‘Sensory Processing Sensitivity’ which is more of a mouthful. To my mind this may be more likely to be confused with ‘Sensory Processing Disorder’ – a separate condition which is a disorder and not a normal trait as High Sensitivity is. (Find an explanation of the differences between the 2 here – http://www.hsperson.com/pages/2Feb09.htm).
- The High Sensitivity trait is completely normal, found in 15-20% of Humans, and in similar ratios across many animal species, meaning it’s a natural temperament variation that has evolved for a reason.
- Neuroscience research suggests that the brains of Highly Sensitive People are wired differently, Brain imaging studies have shown that the cortical areas linked to attention and processing perceptual data in HSPs show more activity in response to all kinds of stimuli than in non-HSPs.
So, being a Highly Sensitive Person has sound foundations in both biological and evolutionary terms. In fact, it is the HSP’s unique ability to detect and respond to slight changes that has kept mankind safe throughout history and no doubt continues to do so to this day. If the flipside to this is the tendency to become easily damaged, offended or upset, can we really complain? It’s a small price to pay for helping to keep mankind going!
If it helps, think of being Highly Sensitive as similar to being left-handed: (With thanks to Colleen O’Rourke and Elizabeth Walsh for this brilliant analogy). Both:
- are normal, natural and healthy conditions of the nervous system resulting from the way our brains are wired
- occur in a minority of the population
- suffer or have suffered stigmas due to their differences
- have beneficial traits that are a direct result of this different makeup of the brain
In the same way that the World is set up for the majority right-handed users and left-handed people just struggle along, Highly Sensitive People are forced to live, work and study in highly stimulating environments. Widespread recognition of High Sensitivity as a normally occuring trait will be the first important step towards providing the 15-20% of us currently dealing with overstimulation the equivalent of left-handed scissors! Little things to make our lives easier.
So please, don’t shy away from calling either your child or yourself Highly Sensitive. It really isn’t something to be ashamed of.