Being Sensitive Is Seen as a Weakness. Is It Actually Our Greatest Human Strength?
This excerpt was adapted from the bestselling book SENSITIVE: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World by Jenn Granneman and Andre Sólo, the creators of Sensitive Refuge.
The year was 1903. Picasso danced at the Moulin Rouge, electric lights burned at all-night clubs, and Europe’s cities thundered into a new era. Streetcars rushed commuters down buggy-packed streets, telegraphs connected faraway places, and breaking news crossed continents in minutes. Technology charmed its way into people’s homes, too, with phonographs squawking out music on demand for parties. The songs may have been a prelude to an evening at the picture house—or they may have covered up the sound of streets being ripped up to install modern sewers. Even the countryside was abuzz, with farmers using mechanized equipment for the first time. Life was changing, and progress, it was believed, was good.
The German city of Dresden wasn’t about to be left behind. Its leaders wanted to show off their own steps forward and crib achievements from other cities. Votes were held, committees were formed, and a citywide expo was announced, complete with a series of public lectures. One of the speakers was the early sociologist Georg Simmel. Although little known today, Simmel was influential in his time. He was one of the first people to apply a scientific approach to human interaction, and his work tackled every part of modern life, from the role of money in human happiness to why people flirt. If city officials hoped he would praise progress, however, they were badly mistaken. Simmel took the podium and promptly threw out the topic he’d been given. He wasn’t there to talk about the glories of modern life. He was there to discuss its effect on the human soul.
Innovation, he suggested, had not just given us more efficiency; it gave us a world that taxed the human brain and its ability to keep up. He described a nonstop stream of “external and internal stimuli” in a loud, fast, overscheduled world. Far ahead of his time, he suggested that people have a limited amount of “mental energy”—something we now know to be more or less true—and that a highly stimulating environment consumes far more of it. One side of our psyche, the side built around achievement and work, may be able to keep up, he explained, but our spiritual and emotional side was absolutely spent. Humanity, Simmel was saying, was too sensitive for such a life.
Of particular concern to Simmel was how people coped. Unable to react meaningfully to every new piece of information, overstimulated citizens were apt to become “blasé” or, simply put, apathetic. They learned to suppress their feelings, to treat one another transactionally, to care less. After all, they had to. They heard terrible news from around the world daily, like the eruption of Mount Pelée, which killed twenty-eight thousand people in minutes, or the horrors of British concentration camps in Africa. Meanwhile, they tripped over homeless people and tuned out strangers packed tightly in the streetcar. How could they possibly extend empathy, or even simple acknowledgment, to everyone they met? Instead, they closed off their hearts out of necessity. Their demanding outer world had devoured their inner world and, with it, their ability to connect.
Simmel warned that by living under such overload, we face “being levelled down and swallowed up.” As you might expect, his words were initially met with scorn. But once published, they became his most talked-about essay. The piece spread quickly because it put to words something that many people secretly felt: The world had become too fast, too loud, too much.
That was more than 120 years ago, when much of life still moved at the speed of the horse and buggy. It was before the invention of the internet, the smartphone, and social media. Today, life is even busier, as we work long hours, care for our children or aging parents with little support, and squeeze friendships into text threads between errands. No wonder we are stressed, burned out, and anxious. Even the world itself is objectively more overstimulating than in Simmel’s day. By some estimates, we are now exposed to more information each day than a person living in the Renaissance encountered in their entire lifetime: As of 2020, we produce 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data per day. At that rate, roughly 90 percent of all the data in human history has been created in the last five years. Every scrap of this data, in theory, is aimed at someone’s brain.
The human animal is not designed for such unlimited input. Rather, our brain is a sensitive instrument. Researchers who study that instrument now agree that, just as Simmel warned, it can only process so much. Push its limit, and everyone, no matter their personality or how tough they are, eventually hits overload. Their reactions start to slow, their decisions suffer, they become irate or exhausted, and if they keep pushing, they burn out. This is the reality of being an intelligent and emotional species: Like an overworked engine, our big brain eventually needs time to cool off. Humanity really is, as Simmel knew, a sensitive creature.
What Simmel did not know, however, is that not everyone is sensitive to the same degree. In fact, there is one group of people who are wired to be more physically and emotionally responsive than others. These people—the sensitive people—feel our too-much world very deeply.
The Stigma of Being Sensitive
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.
- A sensitive subject is one that is likely to offend, hurt, anger, or embarrass the listeners.
- Likewise, the word sensitive is often paired with an intensifier: Don’t be too sensitive; why are you so sensitive?
In light of these definitions, it makes sense why you might bristle at being called sensitive. Case in point: As we wrote this book, curious friends and family asked us what our book was about. “Highly sensitive people,” we’d reply. Occasionally, people would get excited because they knew what this term meant. “That’s me!” they’d tell us enthusiastically. “You’re describing me.” But the vast majority of the time, people had the wrong idea of what we were talking about, and their misconceptions about sensitivity became clear. Some thought we were writing a book about how our society has become too politically correct. Others thought we were giving advice on how to be less easily offended (the word snowflake came up more than once).
Another time, we asked a friend who is an author to read an early draft of our book and give us feedback on it. While reading, she realized that she herself is a sensitive person and that the man she is dating fits the sensitive description as well. For her, this revelation was deeply affirming. Yet when she broached the topic with her boyfriend, he got defensive. “If someone called me sensitive,” he retorted, “I’d be really offended.”
Sensitivity, then, as a dimension of human personality, has gained an unfortunate reputation: It has wrongly become associated with weakness. It’s seen as a defect that must be fixed. Just type the word sensitive into Google, and you’ll see what we mean: As of December 2021, the top three related searches were “suspicious,” “embarrassed,” and “inferior.” Or, type the phrase “I’m too sensitive,” and you’ll find articles with titles like “I’m Too Sensitive. How Can I Toughen Up?” and “How to Stop Being So Sensitive.” Because of the misconceptions around sensitivity, even sensitive people themselves have internalized a sense of shame about who they are. For years, we have run an online community for sensitive people called Sensitive Refuge. Although there is growing awareness around the topic, readers still frequently ask us, “How do I stop being so sensitive?”
The answer, of course, is not to stop being sensitive—because, in reality, these shame-based definitions are not what sensitive means at all.
What It Really Means to Be Sensitive
Instead, sensitivity is defined as the ability to perceive, process, and respond deeply to one’s environment. This ability happens at two levels:
- Perceiving information from the senses, and
- 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, we prefer 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.
You can listen to our full conversation with Andre Sólo on our podcast here.
Andre Sólo is the author of Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World and the cofounder of Sensitive Refuge, the world’s largest website for sensitive people. He is an author, speaker, and researcher, and serves as the Chief Make-It-Happen Officer of Introvert, Dear, the world’s largest website for introverts. A sensitive person himself, Sólo has spoken about sensitivity at Google, Amazon, and Paypal and writes about sensitive people at Quartz, Forbes, and Psychology Today. He has also been featured in Time, Oprah Daily, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bustle, CNBC, The Telegraph, and numerous podcasts. Sólo divides his time between New Orleans and Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he stays up too late, overwaters his houseplants, and chases after a very plucky two-year-old.