The Invisible Trait of Being Highly Sensitive

Are you highly sensitive?  Do you think deeply, feel strongly, have unusual empathy, notice subtleties, and become easily overstimulated? If so, you might be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). High sensitivity is inherited by about 20 percent of people, including introverts and extroverts, and as many men as women. A similar percentage is found in over 100 other species, as it is a clever survival strategy—but only when a minority employs it. 

Have you ever felt invisible as an HSP? Of course you have. You are.

I have sometimes said that high sensitivity affects all aspects of life, social and otherwise, as much as one’s gender affects one’s life, but gender is visible and sensitivity is invisible. Other examples of fairly permanent characteristics that are largely invisible are high IQ, being wealthy, being color blind, or having a prosthetic limb or breast reconstruction. These can give the people possessing the invisible characteristic the feeling that they carry a secret that eventually must be disclosed to intimates, but when? And what about the reaction?

Of course, now and then, we who are highly sensitive ourselves can tell when someone else is. However, people who are not highly sensitive have often asked me, “So how do I know if someone is highly sensitive?” They are finding us to be invisible.

I find that difficult to answer, since we really are not visible in the ordinary sense; but I try because I do not want us to be so totally invisible any longer, at least to those who are interested in finding us. So I say that, as you get to know someone better and better, the signs are clear. Highly sensitive people are typically good listeners, need more downtime, are bothered by noisy or crowded places, may want to do novel things all day (they can be high sensation seekers) but then want to rest in the evening, notice things that others miss, cry easily, are upset more than others by injustices, feel more joy and compassion, are conscientious and loyal (fussy, too), tolerate caffeine poorly, feel pain more, are slow to make decisions, and see the larger consequences of plans and actions. None of this can be seen right on the surface, but it does not take long to find these qualities if you are looking.

Often, at least in the past, we have preferred to be invisible. Many parents have asked me if they should tell their highly sensitive child or their teachers or relatives that this child is highly sensitive. Others ask me if they should tell the person they are dating, or even engaged to, about their trait. Some people have read The Highly Sensitive Person with a brown paper cover so that no one would know. Clearly, we have felt that we needed to be invisible.

Our invisibility may have some good evolutionary reasons. If highly sensitive animals, including humans, were always the ones to spot the good stuff, such as the most nutritious food, our going off to enjoy our cache required that we be invisible, in the sense that the others did not notice us leaving. A mating strategy for sensitive males in some species is to mate with the choicest female while the other males are off fighting or recovering from fighting. That works better if the tough guys have hardly noticed you. Sensitive animals may generally feed in more hidden places, yielding the best dining spots to the pushy ones in order to avoid a fight and possible injury. However, during a food shortage, these sensitive animals are the only ones who know the hidden spots where food can still be found. At those times, it’s best to be invisible as you sneak off to eat.

Or there’s my favorite. We often know shortcuts to get around traffic jams, but they are not shortcuts if everyone knows them. If your car had a red flag on it, signaling “HSP Driver,” you would have every car following you as soon as you made a turn off the main highway. In short, if all HSPs were taller, shorter, fatter, thinner, or had redder hair than others—or had any other sign of our trait—it would be less of an advantage.

Now, however, using all sorts of media, including a documentary under production, Sensitive: The Untold Story, and in our day-to-day lives as well, we HSPs are choosing to tell the non-sensitive 80 percent of the world’s population that we exist, so that they can now follow our lead to the better things in life that we have noticed and they have not, so far. The problem is that they cannot find us unless we continue telling them that we exist and who we are. We still have the choice, however, as to when and where to say we are highly sensitive and what good stuff we will tell about, and when we will keep our little secret!

This article is reprinted from Elaine Aron’s blog. Find out about programs with Elaine at Kripalu, where you can learn how to make the best use of your trait, and meet others like yourself who have this secret gift.

Elaine N. Aron, PhD, author of The Highly Sensitive Person series, has spent more than 20 years researching and writing on this topic.

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