We all know people who we think of as super-sensitive. We probably know people who might think of us as a little on the sensitive side. But how does our perception of ourselves and others' sensitivity stack up against the science? According to Dr Ann-Marie Creaven from the Department of Psychology at the University of Limerick, who, along with GP and mental health specialist Dr Harry Barry, joined Claire Byrne to discuss the subject, studies have shown that as many as one in five people will be highly sensitive. So what does it mean to be a highly sensitive person? Ann-Marie gave Claire the medical definition:
"It refers to what we might call in research a sensory processing sensitivity. So that’s differences in how people process sensory information from their environment. So people who are highly sensitive, they might be very easily stimulated by strong smells, tastes, sounds and so on. They might be more emotionally reactive."
It’s that last piece of the definition that people might think of when they suggest that someone is a sensitive person. But, Ann-Marie says, although there are some people who have challenges with their environment but who are not emotionally reactive, the people who fit the highly sensitive profile have both the sensitivities to stimuli and the emotional reactivity. And, Harry says, a lot of people in this profile regard their sensitivity as a weakness or a failing:
"The reason that it’s an issue for so many of them, it’s firstly, they go into themselves, their own internal critic just starts saying, 'I’m just weak. I’m a softie. I’m an easy touch.’ And they also believe, they also get quite embarrassed and feel that other people will feel that they cry at the smallest thing, that they have to retreat out of certain films or things that they see or that they seem to be picking up all the emotional – if they’re in a conversation, they’re bawling crying with the person. It’s like as if everybody thinks that they’re over-sensitive and of course what do we do if we start to feel like that? We become what we call a bit phobic to those situations and we start to try to avoid them and we start to try to hide it."
This inevitably creates a multitude of problems. And there’s also the people who live with the 20% of highly-sensitive individuals who might struggle to understand why the person they love is so seemingly over-reactive all the time. But why regard the condition of being highly sensitive as a weakness instead of regarding it as a strength, Claire wonders. Harry agrees:
"The wonderful strengths of the person who sees something in the conversation that the other people don’t, who listen, who get the emotional nuances, who are very highly sensitive in all kinds of situations and good listeners and very good friends. So they have all these positive advantages, but the difficulty for the person is they don’t look at those advantages, they try to hide this condition."
A lot of the time children who exhibit signs of being highly sensitive are told to toughen up by their parents or teachers or peers, but this is not useful advice for someone who’s more sensitive than most. Ann-Marie told Claire that some researchers call children or adults who exhibit signs of high sensitivity "Orchid Children":
"So they need a particularly nurturing environment to thrive and they’ll do really well in that environment. In contrast, most of us are ‘Dandelion Children’ – we will do well regardless."
In other words, Orchid Children do very well in nurturing and supportive environments, but they find environments that are not nurturing more difficult than Dandelion Children do. And Harry stressed what he thought should be the core message of the discussion:
"The biggest problem we have is we don’t recognise this condition. We don’t discuss it, we don’t discuss it amongst ourselves and we’re not open as a society to say, ‘Look, there are lots of people who are hyper-sensitive and we must absorb them in a loving kind of way, not regard them as softies or weakness, or whatever like that,’ because these people are stronger actually than we are because they’re picking up lots and lots of information and they’re coping with it much better, so actually they can teach us a lot because as a society, unfortunately, we often miss the nuances emotionally."
Harry’s advice for hyper-sensitive people? Learn a little bit about this trait of your personality. Learn about its strengths as well as what you might perceive as its weaknesses. And remember, orchids are more beautiful than dandelions. Hard to argue with that assessment.
You can hear Claire’s full conversation on highly sensitive people with Dr Harry Barry and Dr Ann-Marie Creaven by going here.