Setting the Sensitivity Record Straight by Theresa Cheung

I sincerely want to help gentle people recognize their own true worth and feel empowered and at peace, rather than fragile and conflicted and ashamed of feeling things deeply. I would like to offer gentle people coping tools to help them manage their emotions and navigate insensitive environments. I would also like to help sensitive people identify the red flags of toxic relationships.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that sensitives typically attract self-serving narcissists and energy vampires into their lives, and in some cases, it can take their forgiving hearts a long time to wake up to the damaging emotional abuse. Last, but by no means least, I also want to eliminate damaging misconceptions about being sensitive.

Here are the most common and frustrating misconceptions about sensitivity or being sensitive, followed by some facts that challenge them:

  • Sensitive people are shy and introverted. There are sensitive extroverts, too – about 30 percent of sensitives are extroverts.
  • Sensitives are fragile, ineffective “snowflakes”. Many defining characteristics of sensitive people, such as their empathy, passion and creativity, make them exceptional business leaders or influencers on the world stage, for example, Walt Disney, Jacinda Arden, John Lennon and Princess Diana to name but a few.
  • Sensitive people are pushovers who have no firm convictions of their own. Empathy is a defining characteristic of sensitives, but it is not an endorsement of another person’s viewpoint; rather it’s simply respecting and listening to that viewpoint.
  • Sensitivity is a women’s issue. Up to 50 percent of sensitives are men.
  • Gay men are prone to being sensitive. This is a social stereotype that equates being gay with being more feminine and, as just stated, sensitivity is not a feminine issue.
  • Highly sensitive people are prone to depression and anxiety. There may be an increased risk of anxiety and depression, but it is important to point out that depression is a serious medical condition that needs treatment and many factors contribute to the likelihood of depression, including past trauma, chemical imbalances and genetics. Lack of self-awareness, whether a person is highly sensitive or not, can also increase the risk.
  • There is a strong link between hypersensitivity and autism. Those with autism may well have sensory issues, for example, finding things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, but this does not mean that everyone with sensory issues has autism. There are major differences between high sensitivity and autism, but chiefly autism comes with “social deficits” (less response in brain areas associated with empathy) and high sensitivity does not.
  • Sensitive people are too weak and self-doubting to become effective leaders, stand up to narcissists or succeed in a harsh and critical world. Not so. Once they are armed with self-awareness and the tools and techniques to turn their gentleness into a strength, sensitive people are an unbeatable force.
  • Sensitive people are empaths because they feel what others feel. But not all empaths are sensitive, i.e. they soak up emotions but not all the other stimuli from an environment as sensitives tend to do.
  • Sensitive people need to “toughen up”. They can’t, because being sensitive is who they are. They are born that way.

I used to buy into all these negative associations – until I knew better. This is all fake news, especially the notion that a sensitive person needs to “toughen up”. They simply can’t. It’s like telling someone who is taller than average that they should be shorter. Just as being tall is not a flaw, being sensitive is not a flaw. It is not an illness, or a choice people make, either. It is how they are born. According to experts, it is an innate trait with research indicating that at least three sets of genes may contribute to it. Some highly sensitive people may have all or some of these “sensitive” genes and intriguingly all three impact the brain and nervous system in some way.

Sensitive people are born to be gentle and to experience life on high alert through the lens of their feelings and senses. They are not better or worse than anyone else, just different. Although they may have traits in common, they are not all the same. Every sensitive person is unique, just as every person who is taller than average is unique. Indeed, the fact that the genetic coding for sensitivity continues to survive natural selection suggests that for evolutionary reasons, for the survival of the human race, it is beneficial that some people can see, feel and sense things others cannot. It offers an evolutionary advantage and exists and will continue to exist because it is the one true force that drives humanity towards greater connection. Empathy, intuition, creativity, gentleness and compassion are personality traits that unite rather than divide, and they are all defining traits of the highly sensitive individual. In a nutshell, we are all born with a unique genetic code.

To identify whether a person or a child is highly sensitive, psychologists from the American Psychological Association use a special identification or measurement scale, which asks simple questions to identify highly sensitive traits. Examples include: Do the moods of others impact you? Are you aware of subtleties in your own environment? Do you often feel the need to withdraw? Are you easily overwhelmed? Are you highly sensitive to pain and hunger?

However, according to Aron, all highly sensitive people, whether introvert or extrovert, possess four main traits, which can easily be remembered by the acronym DOES:

D: Depth of processing – highly sensitive people analyze everything, considering every possible scenario before making a decision O: Overstimulation – they can easily get overpowered by sights, sounds and the environment they are in. E: Empathy and emotional responsiveness – they don’t just identify with what others are feeling, they feel it themselves. S: Sensitivity to subtleties – they hear, see, feel and sense tiny details that others easily miss.

The implication of Aron’s research is that the remaining 80 percent of the population do not possess the four defining DOES traits. I am not a scientist or a psychologist, but I have been writing about and collecting stories from sensitive people for decades now. I have come to the conclusion that although the remaining 80 percent may not display DOES traits as consistently or acutely as a person who is born highly sensitive, they still have the potential to manifest highly sensitive traits. Sensitivity can be triggered in anyone, whether diagnosed highly sensitive or not, by traumatic events, such as bereavement, heartbreak or other life crises, or simply by a sudden and unexpected desire to go within and find deeper meaning.

Excerpted from The Sensitive Soul, by kind permission of publisher, Bookoutre.

Theresa Cheung is a Sunday Times bestselling author. She has over two decades experience, both personal and professional, with a Master’s degree in Theology and English from King’s College Cambridge. Theresa has had her work featured in the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Guardian and appeared on ITV, GMTV, BBC radio and Russell Brand’s Under the Skin podcast. Most recently, Theresa has her own podcast, White Shores, interviewing some of the world’s greatest minds and sharing inspiration on personal growth. More about Theresa :




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