Do you often feel like you don’t fit in? We have all experienced that at times but when it’s the norm, maybe something else is going on. 

Early the 1900’s it was surmised that some people are born with an exceptionally high level of emotional sensitivity. Since then, biologists have actually found the trait in over 100 species. Recent estimates suggest that 15% -20% of many creatures are born with a more sensitive nervous system than their cohorts. Simply put, a fifth of the individuals within a herd, pack, troop, pride, pod, colony or human community are more responsive and reactive to stimulation from their environment.  

Over long periods of time, Mother Nature has proven to be amazingly astute! She gives her organisms what they need, but little more. That frugality, almost by definition creates a struggle to survive. If a species becomes too successful and multiplies out of control, it can throw the environment out of balance. Hence, the competition between hunter and prey is keen. A generally accepted explanation is that a minority of highly sensitive individuals within a population offers a survival strategy.  

Imagine a herd of thirsty Zebra cautiously approaching a water hole known to attract predators. The entire herd has superb eyesight and hearing together with an acute sense of smell and taste. Alas, a hungry lioness concealed in the bush is aptly equipped in her own right.  

As the Zebra warily drop their head to the water, each of their eyes independently, scan the landscape while rotating ears probe for suspicious vibrations. Even a few molecules of feline scent wafting through the air are detectable. Not to be outdone, the queen of beasts instinctively stays downwind, blends into the background and pursues with cat like stealth. From the Zebra’s point of view, having extra sensitive companions unconsciously on the lookout may be a lifesaver.  

It is hypothesized that highly sensitive creatures are not necessarily gifted with super-hearing or hyper-acute vision but rather, they have nervous systems and minds which permit more stimulation to enter without automatically and unconsciously shutting it out. Further, they mentally process the stimulation received in more detail.

According to leading experts, an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), of the 20% variety, share a number of characteristics. They are often: 
more sensitive to physical pain or the effect of stimulating substances (e.g. caffeine)
more aware of subtleties in their environment
respond to lower doses of medications than most people
feel overwhelmed by loud sensory inputs, violent films or large crowds
tend to be more cautious when facing new situations
are highly conscientious and have a tendency to be perfectionistic.  
are easily shaken up and distressed by changes. 
sensitive to loud noises, strong scents, coarse fabrics or         bright lights 
tend to be "cooperative," rather than "competitive

get easily rattled in stressful situations and under time pressure
are highly empathic and frequently "pick up moods" from other people
show a tendency to think deeply about things
drawn to the arts, music and spirituality 
perform poorly when being observed or "evaluated" by others

Empathy for others can be a powerful asset for teachers, managers, therapists and others. In a world with its share of cruelty and ugliness, however, empathy without limits can be acutely painful. Being particularly cautious about taking action and carefully considering options has benefits but may also induce stress and anxiety. Being conscientious is admirable but in the extreme can lead to perfectionism and depression.  

Our western Clint Eastwood / John Wayne / Rambo culture often depicts high sensitivity as a character flaw, especially in males. Woe to the guy seen by peers crying during a sad movie or after losing a big game. A “real man” is seldom depicted as intolerant of pain or susceptible to stress. I would suspect few American males are anxious to be publically identified as an HSP. Women are much more likely to worry that disclosing their emotional distress may lead them to be told that they're "thin-skinned" which adds insult to injury.

Interestingly, HSP’s are much more accepted in eastern cultures. A study comparing Chinese and Canadian elementary schoolchildren found that sensitive, quiet children in China were among the most popular of their peers. In Canada, they were among the least popular.  

A trait that makes us extra sensitive begets the very qualities that can give us inner strength. The key therefore, is not in trying to be less sensitive, but recognizing that sensitivity can be a strength. Instead of hiding one’s sensitivity, acknowledge and harness it to one’s advantage. To feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness, it is the trademark of the truly alive and compassionate.

Perhaps Shakespeare and Popeye said it best!  
“…to thine own self be true” / “I am what I am”

Lou is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Pueblo.