Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Understanding the Gift of High Sensitivity

by Elizabeth Venart, LPC

If you are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), chances are that you grew up being called “too sensitive”, “too deep”, and “too emotional” by people who didn’t understand you. Most people are not highly sensitive and can’t comprehend that feeling everything around you as if it were you is not a choice but an inborn gift you had no power to turn off. High sensitivity is a gift that brings wisdom, deep compassion, an ability to understand complexity and multiple perspectives, and a deep sense of how and why things are connected.  But, it also brings its struggles.

The fifteen to twenty percent of people who have an inherited trait of high sensitivity have highly sensitive nervous systems and process information deeply. In addition to feeling the moods of others, HSPs observe the world around them, tuned into the nonverbal and unspoken, observant of subtle changes in the environment, deeply moved by the arts and music, and able to form strong connections with animals and the natural world. They ask the tough questions and have uncanny insights into patterns of behavior.

Because empathy happens automatically for the HSP, boundaries are challenging. An HSP feels the sadness of their opponent who is losing a game, connects to the wound underneath the angry mask of a teacher who is yelling, acutely sense the overwhelm of a parent whose attention is desperately wanted but feels out of reach, . . . It is hard for HSPs to stay present for their own emotions and advocate for their own needs.  It is as if the barrier that others have – to keep perspective on “what is me” versus “what is you” doesn’t exist. They feel what others feel, sometimes bombarded by the intensity of an emotion (that is not theirs) without being able to identify its true source. An HSP walks into a bar and. . . .feels the mood of the place, senses the depressed old man at the bar, notices the fake quality of the laugh across the room. 

HSPs contemplate the deepest questions about meaning, justice, right and wrong, compassion – and share these deep questions as soon as they are able to speak – if they feel safe to ask. Highly Sensitive Children can be unnerving to adults, because they see and understand things far beyond their years. They often see things adults cannot – or that adults wish they didn’t.  
Noticing so much, they can get overwhelmed, overtired, exhausted, and inconsolable if they don’t have the quiet time their sensitive systems demand. 

HSPs are often shaken by violence in movies, loud noises, bright lights, scratchy fabrics, crowds, chaos, and the push to do many things quickly, all at once. HSPs can get unglued when a lot is happening around them and by any big changes. They are conscientious and work hard to avoid making mistakes. Striving to avoid overwhelming situations, they often need time to themselves after a busy day, to be quiet and get relief from too much stimulation. They are also more sensitive to hunger, have more allergies, and are more sensitive to medications, caffeine, and alcohol. 

It is challenging for HSPs to make it through their childhoods without internalizing the criticism from the 85% that are not highly sensitive – and this goes double for highly sensitive males (the trait is just as common in boys as girls) who are taught to be “tough” and whose ready emotions are often scorned and ridiculed. Many HSPs internalize this scorn and struggle with an inner critic who tries to silence and squash what they know and what they feel. 

Researcher Elaine Aron first discovered and wrote about the trait of high sensitivity nearly twenty years ago, and several books have been written and communities formed since that time. Yet many highly sensitive persons (HSPs) are unaware that their experiences are normal and even a sign of giftedness. 

The highly sensitive long to be understood and to connect deeply with others, but, too often, they have trouble identifying other HSPs and, over time, learn to keep their experiences and gifts to themselves. Finding support and a community of other HSPs is important on the journey to empowerment and acceptance. If this description reminded you of yourself, a child, or a loved one, take the quiz (online at, check out the links, and consider joining us for our workshop on March 1st. 

You and your gifts matter. My work supporting HSPs in embracing their gifts, releasing their burdens, learning to set healthy boundaries, and stepping into their power brings me tremendous joy and meaning. If I can support you on your journey, please reach out to connect at or 215-233-2002. You can learn more about me on my website at



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