Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter, from Volume II, Issue II: May 1997.
Your Questions Answered:
Reader from Los Angeles asks: How can I describe being highly sensitive to other people?
A Generic Explanation
To start, use a generic explanation like this one:
“This is a normal biological individual difference in personality and physiology inherited by about 15 to 20% of just about all higher animals. Those with this trait notice more subtleties and process information more deeply.”
You can also add, or not, that “anyone noticing more subtleties would logically also have to be more easily overwhelmed than others by prolonged, intense, or chaotic sound, sights, etc.”
If they are still interested, you can add that “the difference is quite profound, affecting everything HSPs do and many bodily responses—for example, as a group we are more sensitive to pain, caffeine, medications, temperature, light, and hunger. We are more reflective, learn more slowly but thoroughly, and tend to be unusually conscientious.”
If Attention Deficit Disorder comes up (because it is another trait receiving a lot of press), say they are unrelated and possibly the opposite, although HSPs may be misdiagnosed as ADHD because overstimulation can sometimes make us “hyper” or unable to concentrate.
If shyness, fearfulness, or the like comes up, you can add that about two thirds of HSPs do reduce the stimulation in their lives by being introverted—preferring a few close friends rather than being in groups or meeting strangers. But about a third are extraverts. As for being more fearful or timid, it’s just that we pause to check things out a little longer, which can look to others like fear.
Tailoring Your Response
However, before you recite all of that to just anyone, you might want to consider two issues: Why are you telling this person and what is their likely reaction to what you are going to say?
There are so many reasons for you to be speaking about your trait—perhaps you want someone to treat you differently, or you want to be closer to someone through talking about something deeply important to you, or you think the other person is an HSP too and you want to share the information you have. Different purposes require different strategies.
Then there are the reactions you may get. A person you want to treat you differently may be delighted to oblige, once you explain what you require. Examples are service persons, health professionals, and friends. But a few are bound to see it as an excuse for wanting special treatment. Or something you (or I) made up—they aren’t sensitive so it doesn’t exist. I know I can sometimes sense when I’m going to get that reaction. In those cases I may choose a different approach, or not speak at all.
Finally, some people may be offended that they aren’t being considered “sensitive,” in the sense of empathic or caring. Tell them it has both meanings, but you mean sensitive to sensory stimuli. Reassure them that they are empathic, if they are, and that HSPs when overaroused may not be very empathic at all. If they still can’t let you be different and have your trait, well, grr.
Approaches That Suit Your Goals
When you are speaking to people because you want them to treat you differently, you might think about what they are already gaining from your being highly sensitive. Let them know about the trait in a way that makes them want to protect you so that you can continue to be useful to them. And be specific about what you do and do not need them to do.
By the way, if you want a whole group of people to treat you differently, try talking about your trait to an extravert among them who is fond of you—that person will tell everyone for you.
In the case of someone with whom you want to feel close, you ought to be able just to plunge in and speak openly. But every now and then you will find that you have actually made the other person feel more distant and shut out because of this strange new difference between you. He or she may deny the difference, or try to claim to be highly sensitive too, although you know it’s not the case, or feel threatened or disappointed because things he or she looked forward to doing with you may not be possible. In this case, emphasize your similarities in other areas, and how you will make a good team because of the ways you complement each other. And be careful not to use your trait as an excuse for avoiding doing what the other likes or needs when your sensitivity is really not the issue.
When you are talking about the trait to other people whom you think are also highly sensitive, they are usually glad to hear the information. But remember some of your own ambivalence at first—they may feel they are being too neatly labeled, trapped by their own physiology, or found out as the defective person they always believed they were. You must accept their word for it if they feel it is not them, or too limiting. And always, always emphasize the positive aspects.