Sensitivity: Stigma or Superpower?
Although you are reading this book, you may not want to be called sensitive, let alone highly sensitive. To many people, sensitive is a dirty word. It sounds like a weak spot, a guilty admission, or, worse, an insult. In common usage, sensitive can mean many things, and most of them are based in shame.
When we call someone sensitive, what we really mean is they can’t take a joke, are easily offended, cry too much, get their feelings hurt too easily, or can’t handle feedback or criticism. When we refer to ourselves as sensitive, what we often mean is we have a habit of overreacting. Sensitivity is associated with softness and femininity; in general, men especially do not want to be seen as sensitive.
No matter what you call it, sensitivity is defined as the ability to perceive, process, and respond deeply to one’s environment. This ability happens at two levels: (1) perceiving information from the senses and (2) thinking about that information thoroughly or finding many connections between it and other memories, knowledge, or ideas. People who are sensitive do more of both. They naturally pick up more information from their environment, process it more deeply, and are ultimately more shaped by it. Much of this deep processing happens unconsciously, and many sensitive people aren’t even aware that they do it. This process applies to everything a sensitive person takes in. However, the author prefers a simpler definition: If you’re sensitive, everything affects you more, but you do more with it.
In fact, a better word for sensitive might be responsive. If you are a sensitive person, your body and mind respond more to the world around you. You respond more to heartbreak, pain, and loss, but you also respond more to beauty, new ideas, and joy. You go deep where others only skim the surface. You keep thinking when others have given up and moved on to something else.
As you consider whether you are a sensitive person—or whether someone you know is—keep in mind that sensitive people don’t always look like sensitive people. A sensitive person might look like a man who feels out of sync with the dating game because of his uncommon desire for emotional depth and intensity in romantic relationships. Or a new mother who wonders why she can’t handle the demands of parenthood the way that other mothers seemingly can. A sensitive person might look like an employee who feels distressed by the competitive nature of her work environment or by the unethical behavior of her boss. Another sensitive person might look like a soldier whose intuition keeps his whole unit safe. Or a scientist whose nagging questions lead her to an important medical breakthrough.
In other words, sensitive people aren’t always easy to spot. In many cultures, society requires that we hide our sensitivity. We call this attitude the Toughness Myth. The Toughness Myth tells us: Sensitivity is a flaw. Only the strong survive. Being emotional is a sign of weakness. Empathy will get you taken advantage of. The more you can endure, the better. It’s shameful to rest or ask for help.
As a result, many sensitive people downplay or deny their sensitivity. They may put on a mask to appear like the majority, even though they have known from a young age that they stand out. They go to another exhausting party or take on another demanding work project, even though their bodies are begging for rest. They pretend they are not moved deeply by a beautiful song or a poignant movie. They may cry, yes, but in the privacy of their own home, away from intrusive stares.
The Sensitive Way
The Sensitive Way is the belief, deep down, that quality of life is more valuable than raw achievement, that human connection is more satisfying than dominating others, and that your life is more meaningful when you spend time reflecting on your experiences and leading with your heart. In contrast to the Toughness Myth, the Sensitive Way tells us: Everyone has limits (and that’s a good thing). Success comes from working together. Compassion pays off. We can learn a lot from our emotions. We do bigger, better things when we take care of ourselves. Calm can be as beautiful as action.
What would happen if we started listening to the Sensitive Way instead of the Toughness Myth? What would happen if sensitive voices began to speak out? If we stopped hiding our sensitivity and started to embrace it?
Sensitive People Should Feel Empowered to Lead
Without consciously being aware of it, many sensitive people put themselves in a position of low status in their interactions with others. Status is not necessarily determined by how much money you have or your job title (although those things do play a role); it refers to how you carry yourself in the world, including the way you stand, talk, and appear. In this case, status means influence, authority, or power.
Many of the qualities that make a great leader, like empathy, come naturally to sensitive people. Sensitive people are the varsity athletes of empathy, which allows them to understand the people around them more deeply. And the ability to “step into” other people’s experiences has significant benefits for leaders. According to one study, empathetic leaders encourage higher levels of innovation, engagement, and cooperation in the workplace. When leaders include empathy in the decision-making process, employees are more likely to follow suit—empathy begets more empathy—and are more likely to stick around. Similarly, empathetic leaders help create and maintain more-inclusive workplaces by understanding and supporting different people’s experiences.
Sensitive people also project warmth, which makes their followers trust them. When Amy Cuddy and her team at Harvard Business School examined the effectiveness of different types of leaders, they found that those who project warmth (like Dr. Humboldt) are more effective than those who appear unapproachable. One reason is trust. Sensitive leaders tend to make it easier for their followers to approach and confide in them, fostering relationships that are more authentic.
Finally, sensitive leaders tend to be reflective. They are more likely to analyze every detail to determine what works and doesn’t work, adapting and evolving as needed. Moreover, they have a sharpened intuition and can sense when something just doesn’t feel right. Being creative and innovative allows them to see problems from many angles and offer fresh insights. Where some leaders only highlight their successes, many sensitive people try to learn from their failures, to avoid making mistakes in the future. Because they take criticism to heart, they will deliver it more constructively to others, holding themselves and their team to a higher standard of self-improvement.
Let Your Intuition Lead the Way
Remember, leading doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a corporate CEO (although we talked to several CEOs who found their sensitivity to be an asset even in this role). There are many ways to lead, whether you’re heading up a sales team or reaching out to your friends or family to plan the next social event. Leadership can be as simple as noticing problems that others overlook and then speaking up about them.
In this way, being a strong, sensitive leader starts with listening to your intuition. It starts with honoring the voice in your heart and your head that you may have previously silenced, downplayed, or dismissed. This voice notices gaps, red flags, annoyances, or problems—or when something just seems off. It makes predictions—often accurate—about what might happen next or how a certain situation might unfold. As a sensitive person, you possess secret knowledge. You know things that other people don’t know. You may find that less-sensitive people aren’t even aware of these issues, and their lack of awareness is not necessarily because these issues are unimportant or insignificant. When you notice something, speak up with courage and kindness.
You can also lead by example, like by speaking up when you see an injustice. In one small Midwestern town, for example, a school bus driver was harassing Somali students who rode his bus. Other teachers and community members dismissed the young students’ complaints of racial discrimination. It took a sensitive teacher to believe them, speak up, and demand the bus company put a stop to it. The teacher did so even when colleagues warned her that her actions might put her own career at risk of backlash from the school administration. “I couldn’t not do something,” the teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, told us. “Kids were being abused and discriminated against, and it was severely affecting their lives and education.” Even though she had never thought of herself as a leader, she became one when she listened to her intuition and spoke up on her students’ behalf.
Sensitive people are the leaders our world needs. But before they can step into this purpose, they must learn to embrace their sensitivity and end the cycle of shame.
Breaking Free of the Shame Cycle
The Toughness Myth teaches us sensitive people that our natural state is something that should be changed. As a result, we may question ourselves about how we interact with the world. From needing extra time to write an email or taking a snack break at work to keep our blood sugar stable, we often become conditioned to move through the world carefully. While there’s nothing wrong with being cautious, the problem is that we may feel we must warily conceal our true nature from the world.
The antidote is to change how we view ourselves in the context of society. One way to make this change is to stop apologizing for what doesn’t warrant an apology. Sensitive people should not apologize for needing downtime or rest, for saying no, for leaving an overstimulating event early, for crying or feeling things deeply, or for other needs related to their sensitive nature.
Just as some people are naturally athletic, talkative, or tall, some of us are naturally more sensitive. There’s nothing to adjust—it’s just who we are. Within this mindset, there’s no reason to make excuses or beat yourself up because you supposedly can’t handle what other people can. (And when you act this way about your sensitivity, others are more likely to view it as a flaw, too.) Rather, you can choose to see sensitivity as your greatest strength (as it is), and that attitude will help others follow your lead. Remember: Sensitivity is genetic, healthy, and even linked to being gifted.
Now, the natural question becomes, how can you change the way you see your sensitivity? How can you stop thinking of it as bad and shift your perspective to see it as a strength?
Know the Benefits of Your Strengths
Feelings are—and always have been—important. Even more important is the ability to recognize those feelings as valid, to express them, and to know they are being acknowledged and heard.
Take a moment to write a list of your sensitivity-related traits that help you or others. Then, keep this list in mind when interacting with others or talking about sensitivity. If you need inspiration, here are some aspects of sensitivity that provide true benefits to the world. (Remember: These statements aren’t bragging; they’re positive self-talk.)
“I help those around me feel heard and understood.”
“I catch important details that others might miss, whether in my work, my relationships, or other parts of my life.”
“I can more quickly notice when my energy is low or when I’m getting run down. This awareness helps me avoid the point of burnout that others might reach.”
“My mind doesn’t stop at shallow answers. It looks at the big picture as well as the nitty-gritty, and it keeps going until it has breakthroughs. This depth helps me come up with solutions that others don’t see.”
“Since I feel things so strongly, anything I do or create carries that intensity, which permeates my values, passion projects, work, art, relationships, and more.”
“I cry easily (or show big emotions in other ways) because I’m so easily moved by life, and not everyone feels the beauty of life in this way.”
“I can see connections between information that seems unrelated to others. When I follow those connections, I can easily see truths that don’t occur to other people. It makes me creative and, with practice, it can make me wise.”
Practice Embracing Your Sensitivity
Make a point to notice the strengths of your sensitivity throughout the day. Even if you find yourself feeling frustrated about something related to your sensitivity—for example, if you become drained after running errands—make a mental note to pause and reframe. Nudge your brain to notice the positives of the situation, too. You might think, “I’m thankful I have the self-awareness to notice when I’m feeling tired and need to head home,” or “Because of my sensitivity, I noticed beauty in my surroundings, such as all the different colors in the sky at sunset.”
This change probably won’t happen overnight. In fact, it might take months or even years to embrace your sensitivity. But that’s okay; a lengthy transition is normal! You’ve had years and years of practice responding to a society that doesn’t get sensitivity in many ways. Give yourself time, starting with small steps that get you comfortable with revealing your sensitivity. In doing so, you’ll pave the way for all sensitive people—now and in the future—to embrace who they are and make the changes our world needs.