In recent years the concept of being a highly sensitive person has gained strength in counseling and psychic circles -- with some confusion.
Psychics may relate to a finely attuned sensitivity or empathic ability to connect with others' emotional and energetic vibrations as useful in understanding experiences of non-ordinary consciousness.
Psychotherapists on the other hand may be more inclined to view this as a kind of fear-producing over-reactive response to environmental and interpersonal stimuli.
Which is true? Well, in my view, both.
Researchers estimate that about one-fifth of adults could be described as highly sensitive, meaning that they are bothered by things like:
loud noises, bright lights, strong smells
confrontation, argument, strong language
the feel of rough, scratchy textures and harsh colors
difficult emotions experienced by others
more than the norm because of a biological difference in the nervous system. It may well be that this sensitivity is an evolutionary survival trait pointing to how over-stimulating life in the 21st century is.
I think there is difference between being sensitive and being anxious, although they can go hand in hand. Sensitivity -- whether to environmental energies or interpersonal interactions and emotional energies -- is a matter of perception. Highly sensitive persons notice more than others, and in a more acute way.
Are Being Highly Sensitive and Empathic the Same?
Probably, yes the may be the same, when what is felt is an emotion rather than a response to a physical stimuli. Normally when someone is uncommonly bothered by the sound of a leaf blower, for example -- as I was this morning -- we don't label that reaction as being empathic because it's not about the perception of an emotion.
But, I notice that while the sound is present in the atmosphere around me, I feel a type of anxiety, as if my nervous system is reacting and resisting the experience of the sound.
Anxiety is one particular kind of response to the noticing of these environmental and emotional energies. Typically the response is worry. Sometimes it is fear.
Sometimes it is intense dislike coupled with the knowing that there is nothing that will stop the perception, and therefore no control over the experience. And the realization of having no control pushes the anxiety closer to the edge of panic.
When the energy is emotional or attitudinal, highly sensitive persons may feel an intense negative energy being given off by others so profoundly that it feels like their own emotion. If you are ever worried about feeling depressed, outraged, or pessimistic, etc, when around other people, it's likely the emotion does not belong to you.
Watch how easily you can join others in their emotions -- not just agreeing that their feeling is justified but feeling it yourself, in your own body -- to gauge how much of the response is really yours.
If you find that you are more empathic than you'd like to be, or more bothered by it than you'd like, ask me about techniques you can learn to tame and transform this kind of perception.
Some critics of the concept of highly sensitive persons would say that we have simply become a culture that has a low tolerance for emotional and physical discomfort.
This idea is that we have been raised to believe that we are supposed to never be bothered by something, never be inconvenienced or distracted, never have to deal with something we don't like. Framed that way, it's a very narcissistic view of highly sensitive people.
But, there may be some truth to this position on the point about intolerance of discomfort. A lot of anxiety does come from the inability to accept the reality of the moment, of wanting it to be different from what it is, or being dissatisfied and impatient with reality not changing back fast enough to something comfortable for us.
These are mental interpretations of the perceived energetic experience. And fortunately, when we recognize these as mere thoughts than are open to being instantaneously amended, that recognition gives us a lot of control over how we can respond to the bothersome stimuli.
Are Highly Sensitive Persons Just Introverts?
It certainly makes sense to think this, but some research shows that extroverts can also be highly sensitive.
The difference is that extroverts take in energy from highly stimulating environments with lots of sound, color and people, while introverts are drained by interaction with other people, and usually need to replenish their personal energy with solitude, introspection, and soothing quiet.
But introverts don't usually get energetically anxious about environmental stimuli, or about dealing with people one-on-one, although just being alone in crowds such as going to a store or restaurant during a busy hour can deplete us.
Figuring out what gives you energy and what drains it is essential to taming worry and gaining inner peace. If you need help in making these distinctions for yourself, I'm happy to schedule a consultation with you.