What is high sensitivity?
What is high sensitivity? What does it mean to be a highly sensitive person? Why does life as an HSP often feel so difficult? How do I know if I am highly sensitive? What do highly sensitive people need to thrive?
This is a foundational article on high sensitivity and will attempt to address the questions above. It was last updated in December 2021 and is always kept up to date and expanded. It is written and updated by Nazım Kılıç MSc Psy, who is an expert on the field of high sensitivity.
What is high sensitivity?
What is high sensitivity? What does it mean to be a highly sensitive person?
High sensitivity, also called hypersensitivity or neurosensitivity, is a term for living beings that are significantly more sensitive than the vast majority of their species. High sensitivity is not a disease, but a natural predisposition, and according to current scientific studies it even seems to offer an evolutionary advantage as long as the number of highly sensitive individuals remains below a certain threshold (approx. 15-20%).
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) work in creative professions, are self-employed and entrepreneurs, but also as employees; They have families or are alone, are parents, or prefer to live with animals - so at first glance they don't seem to be any different from others. Most highly sensitive people don't even know they are highly sensitive.
This is because the biggest difference between highly sensitive and non-highly sensitive people lies in their inner experience. Highly sensitive people have an intense, complex inner world because life moves them deeply. They have an intuitive grasp of things that are not obvious. For example, they come into a room full of people and just feel the atmosphere there. They can tell if something is wrong. For many highly sensitive people, it feels so normal and natural that they think everyone is like them.
But it is not just the perception of the outside world that is more intense. It is also the inner world: Mental health problems, crises, rejection, and injuries hit highly sensitive people particularly hard. Things that seem to bounce off others can tear them down and cripple them for days - sometimes even weeks.
Although many highly sensitive people try to create their own oases, they still live with all other people in the same world: a world that is dominated and shaped by the vast majority of the non-highly sensitive. HSPs are influenced and shaped by the same social norms and have learned the same survival strategies as everyone else. They have received a certain standard of sensitivity that they have internalized as "normal". Their own sensitivity therefore often feels too much, thinking that they are too sensitive, too easily offended.
The highly sensitive people are one of the last large global minorities who not only find very little or no recognition in society but have not even come together to stand up for their own cause. There was and is (luckily) a feminist movement, a movement against racial discrimination, a movement for LGBT+ - but so far there has been no comparable movement for the highly sensitive. This is not least due to the fact that highly sensitive people tend to wait and see and not push themselves to the fore.
Often, highly sensitive people go against themselves instead: They think something is wrong with them because they don't feel and act like others. Many begin psychotherapy, some end up in psychiatry or in the day clinic. But here, too, they seem out of place. The psychotherapeutic strategies and tools do not help them because they do not have a mental disorder - they are just highly sensitive.
Even the realization of one's own high sensitivity can surprisingly have a great liberating effect on HSPs: Suddenly it becomes clear that they are not crazy or wrong, but just different. More sensitive, more profound. Different from most of the others, but not entirely different.
What does it really mean to be highly sensitive?
To be highly sensitive means to be special - in a way that less sensitive people cannot understand. It means experiencing life more intensely. It also means experiencing the facets of life that are not obvious and on the surface - whether you want to or not.
It means, for example, during a party where everyone seems to be having fun, to feel that there is actually a very tense atmosphere. It means looking for real encounters in a friendship and a deep understanding that cannot be conveyed through words. It also means feeling a great need for harmony in love and a strong fear of loss (and rejection, as a single). At work, a competitive atmosphere that motivates other people can be experienced as great torment, and in nature contact with animals and plants can be beneficial.
Music can develop a healing effect inside, which makes the HSP feel connected to the world. Standing in front of an imposing work of art can move them to tears, as can the suffering of a televised person.
Why does life often feel so difficult as a highly sensitive person?
The highly sensitive people are usually the most delicate souls among us. They are often very empathetic, conscientious, sensitive, and give others a lot of space. These are fantastic properties and high qualities that were valued and honored by the high cultures of Ancient times - but today, in our cold, competitive world, they are mostly seen as weaknesses.
Highly sensitive people are the early detection systems of society. Researchers in Africa carried out an experiment on monkeys in which the more sensitive monkeys were removed from a pack in order to observe the fate of the pack. The entire pack was dead within a few weeks. It was found that the more sensitive monkeys tended to show symptoms - e.g. by depressive mood - when something went wrong in the pack. Without these highly sensitive monkeys, it was not possible for the pack to recognize in time what is harmful.
There are many things that go wrong in our society: we have traded human warmth and authentic humanity for morality and obedience. We have replaced real relationships with social contacts. We have been waging wars inexorably for millennia, in which millions of people have died. What we do with nature, the climate, and animals can hardly be put into words. There are very large numbers of oppressed minorities who are being marginalized and persecuted. Women are severely discriminated against, sexualized, and viewed as objects. Men are pressured to have to be tough and strong. People are divided into social gender roles and subtly forced to behave accordingly. At the same time, scientific and technological progress is hailed as great salvation, although it mainly solves problems that it has created itself.
In short: our society, our civilization, is sick. As the Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti said: "It is not a sign of sanity to be well adapted to a sick society." With that in mind, highly sensitive people need to show symptoms when they are in this sick society. It is their job to do so and is an indicator of the faults in society - and not in people.
But instead of the symptoms of the highly sensitive being heard and seen so that society questions and realigns itself, these sensitive people are stigmatized: They are blamed for their symptoms and sent to psychotherapy. Yet their suffering is not caused psychologically, it is sociological. The founder of Classical Sociology, Émile Durkheim, wrote about this in great detail (including about suicide as a result of sociological rather than psychological processes).
It is therefore not only important for highly sensitive people on a personal level to assume their natural role as early detection systems - they are even the only way for our society to bring about a revolution and to become a humanity that really deserves this name.
This process will not start from the outside. The health system and society as such will not change the way they see things on their own. It has to start with highly sensitive people stopping blaming themselves for their symptoms, problems, and crises and starting to read them as signs. Much like digestive problems after a bad meal should be used to question the ingredients in that meal (instead of complaining about one's own gut), highly sensitive people should learn to read their symptoms in such a way that they understand and uncover where a process is misleading or stuck. This requires development, radical self-acceptance, and inner strength. A highly sensitive person who reaches this level can use their sensitivity for the benefit of all.
What do highly sensitive people need to thrive?
As a clinical psychologist specializing in consciousness development, mindfulness, and high sensitivity, it became clear to me early on that the prevailing psychological and psychotherapeutic understanding does not offer any space for growth for highly sensitive people. It may sound like a generalization, but it is important to understand that psychologists, psychotherapists and doctors are neither sociologists nor philosophers, although high sensitivity is above all a sociological phenomenon. Psychologists and doctors do not learn to examine the depths of the world and life, love and the search for meaning. Nor do they learn to fathom the sociological connections between symptoms and social norms. They are limited to the human psyche - the area that is least related to the underlying problem in highly sensitive people.
What highly sensitive people need in order to have a full life is self-development. Self-development means letting our own individuality, integrity, and self-acceptance grow at the expense of social adaptation and our ego. This is only possible through awareness of what is supplied from the outside and which releases stuck processes such as patterns, trauma, brooding, negative spirals, etc. and frees us from them. In addition, this awareness work must be accompanied by systematic, differentiated self-observation (directed inward as mindfulness, and directed outward as philosophy).
The result of such continuous inner work is a natural inner order that allows highly sensitive people to live a spontaneous, inspired, fulfilled, self-determined life in a flow.