The other day I was procrastinating on Facebook (as you do) when I came across an article that made my jaw drop. I read The Huffington Post’s 16 habits of Highly Sensitive People because I was bored – but came away with a life-changing realisation about myself. I am one of these Highly Sensitive People the article references.
A quick disclaimer, I am not a psychologist. I don’t like to put labels on people nor do I pretend to have a deep and profound knowledge of the human mind. What I do know is that this personality type is me to the last detail.
I am easily overwhelmed by stimuli – a loud noise or a bright light can completely throw me. I’m uncomfortable in highly social situations, an open-plan office was always far too much for me to cope with, and emotionally I’m extremely sensitive. I cry at the drop of a hat, I can’t watch gore on TV and I have a lot of empathy for other people’s problems.
So what are the pros and cons of being a Highly Sensitive Person as outlined by the article?
Pro: empathy is a vital tool
Empathy is a wonderful thing. Understanding and caring what others are going through means that I can help when others can’t. It means I can listen and give sound advice, it means I am often there for my friends when others aren’t.
It also gives you a strong social conscience. Highly sensitive people are the first to try and help in a crisis, the first to stand up against injustice and the last to judge when someone is in trouble.
Con: there is such a thing as over-empathising
I’m sure over the years I’ve been walked over or taken advantage of because I don’t like to upset people. Not because I’m scared they won’t like me, but because I genuinely hate the idea of causing someone else pain, even if they’ve lashed out at me first. I’m also the first to offer to pay for a meal, or be more generous than I can afford to be, both with my time and my money.
It is also annoying that I can’t watch horror or war movies because I empathise to the point where I start to feel whatever is happening on screen. I was physically ill when we watched The Impossible, even comedy gore has me cringing in my seat and I have to look away.
Pro: being sensitive allows you to really experience the world
Every emotion, every sound, sight and smell, all the ups and downs of life – being highly sensitive you don’t miss a thing. I have more vivid and deep experiences than I can count, and I count myself extremely lucky for those.
Con: being sensitive can be equally limiting
My whole life I’ve mostly encountered the word “sensitive” when it was sneered as an insult. Like, “God, why do you have to be so sensitive?“ Crying at the drop of a hat? Extremely annoying and very embarrassing, particularly in a work or social environment. Even harder to explain that you’re not weak, your face just leaks when you get worked up.
It can also be limiting when I want to drive somewhere and I’m so photosensitive that sunlight makes me feel queasy – or when I want to eat but one smell can put me right off my food.
Pro: social dynamics are easy to read
I remember coming home from a dinner party where tensions were rising between a friend of mine and her boyfriend. I turned to John and said “wow, there’s going to be a blow up when they get home.” John turned back to me, completely surprised and asked me why I thought that. Sure enough I had a phone call from my friend the next day telling me all about the argument that had taken place after the party.
I pick up on things that go over lots of people’s heads, tone of voice, body language, glances between people, simmering anger – social dynamics are almost palpable to me. This is good in a way, as it helps me diffuse situations before they happen or makes me aware that someone might need support.
Con: social situations are stressful
Someone once asked me if I could have the ability to read thoughts, would I take it? Trick question – I can’t read thoughts, but I can read people, for the most part. And no, I wouldn’t take it – sometimes I’d give it back if I could.
Imagine being able to really tell (not in a paranoid way) when someone is unhappy with you or dislikes you. Or when you’ve said the wrong thing and made someone uncomfortable. Being able to quite easily read how people are reacting to you can make social situations really stressful.
Equally stressful is the amount of noise and hubbub, which given how overwhelmed Highly Sensitive People are by stimuli is really unhelpful.
Pro: Highly Sensitive People have great manners
Highly Sensitive People are so aware of everything going on around them that they truly value social etiquette and politeness. I break out in a sweat at the thought of being late and keeping someone waiting, or at the idea of making people uncomfortable with poor table manners. We are constantly analysing ourselves and looking at ways to improve our social skills and grow personally.
Con: professional situations can be challenging
It’s not that we lack professionalism, it’s that the multiple challenges presented by being in an office environment can hold us back in our careers. Highly Sensitive People find open plan offices impossible to navigate, with their complex social dynamics, lots of noises, sights sounds and smells and lack of space to retreat and recover.
Working from home is the perfect solution for me as I can pick who I see and when I see them, but not everyone has that luxury. If you’re a Highly Sensitive Person, try smaller environments or cubicle offices if you can – it will make your life a lot easier.
While I could talk for hours about the pros and cons of being highly sensitive, now is as good a place as any to stop. If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re a Highly Sensitive Person too! I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comment box below.