Do you ever find yourself wondering why you’re so sensitive? If you feel things deeply, you may be a highly sensitive person.
Sensitivity is often framed as a negative personality trait. You may have been told that you’re too sensitive or overemotional and that you need to “toughen up.” Maybe you wonder, why am I so sensitive?
It’s important to understand that sensitivity is a personality trait. Being “too” sensitive is not a disorder. Like being quiet or being thoughtful, it’s not necessarily a bad trait, even though each can pose its challenges.
Several potential causes of sensitivity exist. For example, if you have a neurodevelopmental disorder like autism or ADHD, you might be more sensitive to certain stimuli.
Your sensitivity may not be linked to any particular disorder, though. If you feel things deeply, you could be a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Do you feel a cold coming on before outward symptoms show up? Do you notice that a lamplight is about to go out a day or two before it does because of slight dimming? Or are you deeply moved by someone else’s good or bad news just by picking up on their subtle expressions?
Why am I so emotional?
There can be many different reasons. Sometimes, we become more emotional when we go through difficult or stressful times. Recent bereavement, trauma, and stress can make us feel more emotional.
Some people tend to be emotionally sensitive because it’s a part of their personality. A highly sensitive person is someone who feels things strongly, whether those things are positive or negative. This can include their own emotions, the emotions of others, and sensory stimuli in the world around them.
A note on being highly sensitive vs. exceptionally emotional
We often use the words “sensitive” and “emotional” interchangeably. And indeed, highly sensitive people are more attuned to emotions.
One of the main distinctions between being exceptionally emotional and being highly sensitive is that highly sensitive people are very attuned to their emotions as well as the emotions of others.
Highly sensitive people also tend to be more sensitive to external stimuli, like lights, noises, and colors, as well as internal stimuli, like hunger and pain.
Another difference is that being highly emotional could be temporary while being a highly sensitive person is a part of your personality.
If you’ve been feeling emotional lately, several stressors could be contributing to it.
Highly sensitive people often feel emotions and respond to stimuli — both in themselves and others — profoundly.
About 15–20% of the population is thought to be highly sensitive.
While many highly sensitive people are dismissed as “too sensitive,” their perceptiveness can be a strength.
The discovery of the HSP
The term “highly sensitive person” was popularized by clinical psychologist Elaine N. Aron, who wrote the book “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.”
First published in 1996, this book is based on years of Aron’s research into being a highly sensitive person herself.
Sensory processing: Like being a human sponge
HSP are folks who are strong in a personality trait known as sensory processing sensitivity. This is not a disorder or a mental illness, but rather a part of your personality.
Sensory processing relates to how you take in stimuli, including sounds, sensations, others’ moods, smells, and more. HSP often experience these stimuli easily, absorbing like a sponge.
In daily life
If you’re highly sensitive, you might be deeply bothered by violent movies or graphics. You might also be easily overwhelmed by a busy or noisy environment, such as a crowded mall or business conference.
Or, you might be able to savor pleasant stimuli intensely — a good meal, a wonderful song — on a deeper level. Your sensitivity to others’ feelings might help you cultivate strong relationships.
Understanding your sensitivity can be the key to managing overwhelm and leaning into the pleasurable aspects of being an HSP.
Aron’s research found being an HSP is an innate trait, identified in over 100 species.
However, others might learn to be sensitive for several reasons. A traumatic event might put them on high alert, for example. Being sensitive to stimuli is also a symptom of conditions like ADHD and autism.
Over years of research, Aron identified a few common characteristics among highly sensitive people.
These traits include:
- having empathy toward others
- engaging in people-pleasing
- being sensitive to loud noises, chaotic scenes, and busy crowds
- often feeling overwhelmed by sensory stimuli or emotional experiences
- being sensitive to caffeine and medication
- having increased self-awareness
- being able to deeply savor and appreciate pleasant sensations
- avoiding violent and tense movies or books
- avoiding overwhelming situations
- often needing to retreat into a relaxed, quiet space
- having strong emotional responses
Not all HSP will have all the above traits. Therapy and self-work can help you address some of the more harmful tendencies or unpleasant experiences.
Contrary to what many people assume, highly sensitive people are not always introverted. It’s estimated that around 30% are extroverts.
If you think you might be a highly sensitive person, you can take the official quiz on their website here.
To be clear, you can’t (and might not want to!) stop being sensitive, but you can manage your responses to your sensitivity.
While many people may ask themselves “Am I too sensitive?,” it’s important to note that being a highly sensitive person is not a disorder and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s simply a unique trait, just like being tall or light-haired.
Being a HSP can be difficult and overwhelming for some people, especially if you don’t understand your sensitivity. But you might find it liberating to harness and channel that perceptivity.
Psychotherapy to help channel your sensitivities
Talk therapy, also called psychotherapy, can help you learn to cope with the challenges of being an HSP while cultivating the positive parts of your sensitivity.
The official highly sensitive person website has directories of therapists, coaches, and medical professionals who are knowledgeable about HSPs. This can be helpful if you’re looking for a therapist for yourself or a highly sensitive loved one.
Your sensitivity can be a superpower. There are many benefits of being a highly sensitive person:
- being very empathetic to others, fostering deeper connection
- being highly self-aware
- being observant when it comes to yourself and others
- profoundly appreciating pleasant stimuli, including food, fragrances, music, textures, and more
- being deeply moved by heartwarming and positive stories, books, and movies
- cultivating gratitude for the “little things” in life, in part because you notice and experience them keenly
Learning to route your sensitivity toward something positive can be extremely helpful. Often, this starts with accepting your heightened perceptivity and reaching out for help if you need it.
If you feel that you’re “too sensitive,” there might be reasons for your sensitivity. In many cases, it’s simply a part of your personality and not something to try and change.
While your sensitivity can cause overwhelm and lead to challenges, it can also be a strength. Learning about your perceptivity can help you harness this strength to benefit yourself and others.
If you feel that you need emotional support, you can start by reaching out to a therapist.