So You’re Highly Sensitive? What does that really mean?

 High sensitivity has almost come to feel like a buzz word, thrown around the internet like the newest diet fad. Except it isn’t a fad, it’s genetics. But you might not yet know that.

So what does it mean to be highly sensitive?

First, some facts:

  • High sensitivity is a physical trait. It’s in your DNA. It’s not a mutation or a pathology. It’s like blue eyes or blonde hair.
  • High sensitivity means that your nervous system is built to process more information at a deeper level than those without high sensitivity.
  • This deeper processing can be felt in the way that highly sensitive people (hsps) process sensory and emotional information, which may lead to sensory or emotional overwhelm when sensations aren’t able to be regulated.
  • High sensitivity is found in 20% of all mammals – not just humans. There are highly sensitive zebras, elk and elephants.
  • High sensitivity is not a pathology (I know I already said that, but it’s worth repeating), a problem or something to overcome. Just like the genetic trait of blue eyes might require someone to wear sunglasses for protection from the sun, the trait of high sensitivity might require its own set of management tools.

You might be thinking, Sure, but if it’s all good, why does it feel so hard?

I’ve been working with high sensitivity and highly sensitive people for three years, and studying it for five. In that time, I’ve seen several patterns emerge.

We take it all in, and that doesn’t feel normal.

As stated above, our nervous systems take in more information on a deeper level that 80% of the population. This means that we might cry more easily, become more agitated or overwhelmed in crowded situations or in environments that have large amounts of sensory stimulation, like crowded shopping malls. We might literally feel the emotional pain that others experience and not recognize it for what it is. We might feel exhausted by the end of the day, or after being around lots of other people.

And for all of this, we might feel really, really weird.

Remember, 80% of the population doesn’t feel the world like we do. That doesn’t mean that either of us is wrong, it just means that our bodies function differently and create different experiences about the world. While hsps might be focused on the overall emotional tone, comfort level, or conversational patterns in a situation, a person with a hardy nervous system might be focused more on the content, words and faces in the room. Neither is wrong, it’s just that the focus is different.

We are focused on the subtle, while others are focused on the dense.

A great observation that therapist Ane Axford of Sensitive Leadership made was that hsps tend to naturally focus and be aware of the subtle aspects of the world, whereas hardy folks tend to naturally focus and be aware of the dense aspects of the world. Hsps, then, could be called “subtle sensors” whereas hardy people could be called “dense sensors.”

There are very dense and physical aspects to our world, and we have needs relating to these dense aspects. Parts of the dense world would include basic physiological needs like warmth, shelter, food and money; basic needs for connecting to others such as trust; and personal drive, passion and will power associated with moving forward and accomplishing in the world and being seen for those accomplishments.

There are also very illusive and subtle aspects to our world, and we all have needs relating to these subtle aspects. These include loving and being loved or otherwise having value in the world, the freedom and confidence to speak our truth and be heard, the need to be self-actualized or to see our potential reached and appreciated, and our transcendental needs – to see ourselves as part of a greater whole.

Highly sensitive people tend to naturally be more focused on the latter set of needs, while dense sensors tend to naturally focus on the first set of needs. We all need all of the needs fulfilled, but where we start and work from will naturally be different.

However, when you’re part of a minority who is working from the subtle toward the dense, while everyone else is focused on the dense and wondering what the hell you’re doing getting caught up in self-actualization when you haven’t nailed down a job, then that can make you feel like you’re doing life wrong, which is what I hear over and over again from hsps.

You’re not doing life wrong or backward or in the wrong order. You’re doing it your way.


We tend to feel like our emotions and sensations are bad, wrong, or not as valuable as our thoughts.

We live in a culture that values thought and opinion, regardless of how valid those thoughts or opinions are. Thoughts are valued because they’re seen as rational, structured, critical and less biased than feelings or sensations. This view is, however, an incomplete human model of behavior, treating the human more like a computer than the information system that we are.

As humans, we all receive sensory information that most often enters the body first – before the thoughts kick in. You can see this in our reaction to placing a hot hand on the stove – before we cognitively know that we are burning ourselves, our hand is yanked back off the hot object. You can also see this in how our sensations will alert us to danger, say when we’re walking down a familiar street but something is different, even while our rational mind tries desperately to tell us that nothing is, in fact, wrong.

As highly sensitive people, we receive more of these sensory experiences than dense sensors, because we are always picking up on the subtle information in any situation. If we’ve been taught that our sensations are bad or not to be trusted, then we will often discard the information we receive and instead learn to rationalize – which may or may not be a better, more reliable form of information.

Our thoughts are often products of our experience, and our subconscious mind runs on the patterns and programs learned in early childhood. Our thoughts will often lead us to the same kinds of conclusions, keeping us in similar patterns of behavior over time.

Sensations are neutral, but we often negatively associate with them. Sometimes sensations are linked with uncomfortable emotions, like fear, danger, anger or grief. Our culture and, very often, our parents, will have influenced how we view these uncomfortable emotions – as “bad” things that should be stopped or overcome, or as natural, human sensations to be worked through. Usually, the former.

For example, if we’ve been told over and over to “stop crying, right now!” or that “real men don’t cry,” or that crying makes other people uncomfortable, then we’ve learn to accept a story that grief is bad and to be avoided. This story plays in our subconscious mind. Each time we have a sensation that starts to lead toward grief, we’ll immediately latch on to this story, more importantly, what it means about us if we disobey it. If we were punished for having grief, or diagnosed for having grief for too long, or otherwise punished for that emotion, then we will short-circuit our sensation and fall into the trap of the story instead.

This creates a pattern where we don’t trust our sensations, or learn anything new from them.

Instead, we attach to the story about the sensation. This creates problems for us subtle sensors because our systems rely so much on sensation in order to gather information. One of the best things that we can do for ourselves as highly sensitive people is to undo this attachment to our stories about sensation and instead learn to trust them. This can also be thought of as learning to trust our intuition.

When we get stressed or overwhelmed, we eject.

Consider again the idea of dense verses subtle values and needs. If we were to create a diagram of these things, we might naturally place dense needs closer to the bottom of the page since they’re “heavier,” and subtle needs closer to the top of the page, since they’re “lighter.” In fact, this is exactly what both Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the chakra system naturally do.

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 11.56.55 AM

Ane Axford’s Highly Sensitive Hierarchy of Needs – Modified from Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs

Chakras- general need

As subtle sensors, we naturally hang out in the upper part of our energy body – from about our chest upward. This is our natural focus, the natural space we like to take up – and remember, there’s nothing wrong with it. There is value, however, in taking up all of the space of our energy and physical body. In fact, when subtle sensors learn to occupy the denser chakras and approach their denser needs, we are able to finish projects more easily, bring our creative ideas to fruition, and feel more stable in the world. Usually, this must be learned and worked on.

Until we make the choice to work on those dense needs, we continue hanging out in the canopy of our energy system. When we get stressed, it’s often because we feel like we don’t understand how to get our dense needs met – we can’t get a job that works for us, we can’t make money, we feel like we’re failing at relationships, we don’t seem driven in the same way that others do. In other words, we feel like we’re failing at the basics of life that everyone else seems to “get.”

So what do we do? We jump back into our happy place. Except that we usually over shoot it a bit, and nearly eject completely. How do we know that we’ve ejected from our energy space? We feel spacey, disconnected, anxious, overwhelmed, caught in relentless and circling thought patterns, and retreat from the rest of the world.

The thing is, we’re not actually failing. We’re just going about things in a different order than most people – the 80% of the population who are dense sensors. I’ll tell you a quick story about myself, because I find that many hsps relate in some way or another to it.

I have always been highly sensitive. I have a great family, but I have a tough family – one in which achievement is praised and failure is disapproved of. I learned to associate love with achievement. In order to receive love, I had to over-compensate for sensitivity by turning myself into an achievement machine. Which I did, all through grade school, high school and college. Name an award, I probably had it. Scholarships, check. Two advanced degrees in science complete with an array of minors, check. A job straight out of graduate school, check.

Also, an eating disorder, depression, several therapists, nutritionists, healers and doctors. When I tried to do everything “the right way,” i.e. the dense-sensing way, it didn’t work for me. It worked, but it didn’t work for me. I was dying while I was succeeding.

So I quit my job and pursued yoga, Ayurveda, meditation and intuition. My family stopped praising me because they didn’t understand what I was doing. And then I went further – I divorced, moved across the country with no job and no prospects, and started doing things my own way. I struggled, but I was happy. I still didn’t get calls of praise, but I learned to live without them. Most of my family still don’t understand what I do or why I do it, but they’ve learned to accept it because I’m happy.

You can do things the “right” way – the way that dense sensors have done things and the way that our culture’s story says to do things. But ultimately, it might not work for you because as a subtle sensor, your needs – while not different from dense sensors – do need to be met in an order that is unique to YOU.


We are looking for sovereignty – the ability to define ourselves, rather than be defined by how we relate to the outside world – but we don’t know how/are scared to find this.

 At our core, we want to be the fullest expression of ourselves. But we’ve often grown up thinking and believing that we are doing it all wrong, and if we just learn to do all the things right then we will be happy and have success. The problem with this idea is in the definition of right and wrong, which is usually defined by the prevailing cultural story, which was written mostly by dense sensors and their processes.

The key to happiness and freedom for hsps is not in doing it right – it’s in finding our own way of doing things and trusting ourselves to do them that way. It’s in the permission to have a period of trial and error while we figure things out. It’s in the confidence to say, “No” to the prevalent story and to write our own.

So many hsps who do this feel like pioneers – like they are the first people to be doing what they’re doing in the way that they’re doing it. And they very well might be. But who drives the world forward? The pioneers, or those who come after and write the story about the pioneers?

Part of finding sovereignty, ironically enough, is in connecting with other hsps. This can be tricky and kind of scary, as many hsps tend to be introverted types (not all of us!), but it’s also crucial to feeling like you have a valued place in the world with a tribe that supports you. This supplies a dense need of belonging, which anchors you to your place in the physical world and supports you in your journey.

You are not alone, you are not weird and you’re not doing it wrong.

Okay, let’s be honest – you might be weird. I’m weird. I’m over it.

But you are absolutely not alone. And you aren’t doing anything wrong. You’re doing the best you can with the information you have. I hope this article has given you more information to work from. Let it sink in to your whole body, let it penetrate more than just your mind. Then go outside. Play in your body and feel the wonderful sensations of movement and sunlight, and see what insights you get.  Start to trust them and then, when you’re feeling good and ready, ACT on them. 

Want more? Check out my book, “Embracing High Sensitivity: Your HSP Guidebook to Eliminating Overwhelm, Handling Difficult Emotions, and Becoming the Boss of Your Life”

3 Comments on “So You’re Highly Sensitive? What does that really mean?”

  1. Oops! Hi, sorry, me again. Just casually checking out your blog and realizing that we are basically the same person. I’m really really glad I found your site.

  2. This was SO needed right now. It literally and figuratively gave me a really validating sigh of relief (really, I was able to take a real breath from a diaphragm)! Thank you.

  3. I will echo, and say how much I needed this too today. It was like a sign, the sign, the one that I so desperately needed right now. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am breathing easier as well

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