Highly Sensitive People

by Dr. Elaine Aron

One out of five people are “highly sensitive.”  The evidence is, about 20%.  Quite a few, yes?  If you are not highly sensitive, someone you know surely is–a child, parent or sibling, close friend, or valued employee.  The highly sensitive have a great deal to offer, but also need to be better understood, about themselves and from the other 80%.  Creating that understanding is our task.


What is “high sensitivity”?  Scientifically its name is “sensory processing sensitivity” or “environmental sensitivity.”  It is a trait present from birth–an innate survival strategy found in over 100 other species, always in a minority of individuals, and equally in males as in females. The strategy is to pay more attention, to be more aware you might say, which has its costs as well as benefits, of course.  It is not about being “sensitive” in the sense of caring–many of the “80%” are sensitive in that sense.


Like gender, it has a profound physical and psychological impact on everything the highly sensitive do.  Yet unlike gender, it is invisible.  If it’s invisible, how do you recognize it in yourself or others?  Four ways, all through having observed them awhile.  By the way, everything I am about to say is based on research, which you can read if you wish. It will not all be true of every one with the trait, of course.  But without some of all four of the following, it is probably not high sensitivity.


First, the highly sensitive process their experience of situations more deeply than others.  How does that look?  This one is especially hard to actually see, but they have a lot of ideas, some of them excellent. They are often leaders in their field, whether that’s the arts or science and technology.  They think more about the meaning of life.  They can be very slow at making decisions–they want to think it over.  They are easily bored by “small talk.”


Second, they have strong emotional responses and unusual empathy.  (This appears to be why they process things more deeply.)  They cry easily.  (Although men often hide that.) They care about the suffering in the world.  They feel good things more deeply, too. They also have more active “mirror neurons” in the brain, so sometimes it is almost as though what someone else feels is what they are feeling.


Third, they notice subtleties–small changes, delicate beauty, or things that are a little “off” or that could be done better.  They deeply appreciate the arts and music, or simply something well done.


Fourth, because of all of the above, they are easily overwhelmed.  They can’t tolerate noise or crowds for very long.  They need downtime even more than others.


In addition, also because of these four qualities, they are more affected by their environment.  They can be “better than average” in a good one and truly suffer in a bad one.  This is especially true in childhood.  With a painful childhood, as adults they can be depressed, anxious, shy and “overly” sensitive to criticism. (Sometimes these are the sensitive people we are not so invisible, creating a stereotype.)  With a relatively good childhood, highly sensitive people adapt well to the other 80%, although they may struggle with this adapting privately.  Plus, they are more productive and enjoy life more because they are so tuned into the positive as well as the negative around them.  This part of sensitivity is called “differential susceptibility.”  Hence, it truly matters how we raise sensitive children.


My work does not mean that I “discovered” a new trait.  It has always been there, but called shyness, introversion, inhibitedness, “being difficult,” and the like.  It can show up as these or look like these, but it is not.  No one is born shy, and 30% of highly sensitive people are actually extraverts.  Many are even “high sensation seekers”—easily bored and liking some excitement in their lives.  But these can be highly sensitive, too.


I wrote the book The Highly Sensitive Person in 1996, almost against my will!  (I am foremost a researcher; I did not plan to be a “self-help author.”)  The numbers of people who read that book is still growing, and it has been translated into 17 languages. This growth has mostly been by word of mouth.  And now Alanis’ lovely voice has joined in.  I hardly knew of her, but have come to like her very much, as she became part of a movie made by Will and Diana Harper.  They are two Hollywood movie types who kind of “dropped out” of all that, and then found out that they are highly sensitive, too.  From me, their neighbor.  So they wanted to make a movie about it, and I gulped and said yes.


Through Kickstarter they raised most of the money—mostly “grassroots” again–and today the film is being released to the public.  Will and Diana decided not to wait for some big company or network, but rather get it to you now online.  The physical DVD will be available (in several languages) before the holidays, perhaps truly a kind gift for certain people in your life.

To learn more about high sensitivity, look at the self-test (based on scientific research), which you can take or just read to understand the trait better.

To learn more about Sensitivity the Movie you can go to the website where you can watch the film now.