Is There Really Anything Wrong With Being a Highly Sensitive Person?

Highly sensitive person illustration

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

SPS vs. SPD

This article deals with sensory processing sensitivity, also known by the acronym SPS, or being an HSP, the acronym for highly sensitive person. Sensory processing sensitivity is considered a biological trait that stems from a hypersensitive nervous system. SPS does have some similarities to sensory processing disorder (SPD), but the two are quite different. Unlike SPS, SPD originates in the brain, and it involves a neurological difficulty with detecting and organizing sensory signals. It is a formal condition, whereas SPS is not.

In a world where children are highly encouraged to perform extroverted and sensory-stimulating activities like playing sports, my childhood could be considered fairly abnormal. My mother never pushed me to do any extracurriculars I didn't want to, and she proudly informed anyone who would listen that I eagerly read 100 books every summer. As a health enthusiast who ran a co-op out of our basement, my mom wasn't concerned with fitting in, and she didn't impress upon me that I had to, either.

Eventually, though, I grew up, and fitting in became important in ways that I didn't want it to. While I avoided societal norms appearance-wise, which began with getting the first of what would be dozens of tattoos the very day I turned 18, there were a lot of ways in which my preferences for life didn't jive with others. Much of my 20s were spent in arguments with partners and friends about how dim I wanted lights to be, how quiet I demanded music be kept, and all the crowded outside-world activities I didn't want to participate in.

I have sensory processing sensitivity, and I thought it was something I had to fix. Always one to put my all into anything I do, I spent about 15 years doing exposure therapy, and it was quite effective at making me more "normal" in many ways. Then the pandemic happened. I spent a year at home, and I became an advocate for neurodiversity. I have a different relationship with my sensory processing sensitivity now, and I no longer want to change.

How I Discovered I Have Sensory Processing Sensitivity

It was during a disagreement with others about how I wanted the environment to be, versus how they did, that the term "HSP" was first uttered to me. A friend told me she was a highly sensitive person and she thought I was one too. She'd recently read a book on the subject, and she said it was a condition that could be fixed. Similar to how you can get over your fears simply by facing them, you can make yourself less sensitive by entering overstimulating situations and forcing yourself to stay in them.

Within months, she told me, you'll be indistinguishable from everyone else.

Sensory processing issues can occur randomly in people, but can also be the result of birth trauma, as the two are highly correlated. My birth was induced, and I turned blue upon arrival into this world. Birth asphyxia can have lasting effects on the hippocampus, and studies have shown that the hippocampus is involved in SPS. By entering the world before I was ready to, my nervous system was thrust into high alert. For life.

Why I Decided to "Fix" It

Tired of being the odd person out in every social setting, I thought fixing my sensory processing sensitivity sounded like an awesome idea. It's exhausting to be so affected by everything in your surroundings! The notion of being able to put a stop to that was an incredibly appealing one.

By entering the world before I was ready to, my nervous system was thrust into high alert. For life.

Immediately I set out on a path of desensitizing myself. I went to clubs that had thumping, blaring music, and I danced through my discomfort. I attended protests and pride celebrations, and I didn't leave early even though I wanted to. Bright lights at big box grocery stores? Annoying crowds of kids at Disneyland? No problem! The more I did exposure therapy, the less it felt like work, and the less downtime I required to calm my body after every activity.

I continued exposure therapy regularly for 15 years. As effective as it was, it's like a prescription medication: It only works for as long as you keep with it. As soon as you let yourself get too cozy at home in a wonderfully dimly lit room with a comfy, quiet cat at your side, you start to re-sensitize. 2020 happened, and while everyone around me was crying about missing life, I got cozier, and cozier, and cozier.

The Benefits of Being Highly Sensitive

There was a lot I missed during quarantine, like being served food at restaurants and hanging out with my close friends. But I didn't miss most of the stuff that others did, like ever leaving the house to work or shopping for my own groceries. The more comfortable I got at home, the more I began dreading the inevitable exposure therapy I'd have to restart when everything opened back up.

I continued exposure therapy regularly for 15 years. As effective as it was, it's like a prescription medication: It only works for as long as you keep with it.

Fearful of how painful that therapy would be on my nervous system, I began to wonder: Is there really anything wrong with being a highly sensitive person? Did I have to go back to killing a big piece of myself, over and over, just to fit in? I looked into studies on SPS, and I found out some surprising info. These are a few of the characteristics associated with being highly sensitive.

  • Strong empathy
  • High responsiveness
  • Increased depth of processing
  • Openness

In addition to these traits, the same studies have shown that SPS is helpful for human survival. By being able to notice, and then remember so much about our environments, and other people, highly sensitive people have been key to the positive outcomes of society in numerous ways over the years.

Understanding SPS Within the Context of Neurodiversity

Even if sensory processing sensitivity wasn't helpful for humanity, that doesn't mean there's anything implicitly wrong with it. By attaining a better understanding of the fact that countless people's brains work in ways that aren't "typical," we can move into the awareness that typical does not equate to better.

SPS is yet another way neurodivergence presents, just like autism and ADHD. And being an HSP is not uncommon: Studies estimate that roughly 20% of the population is highly sensitive. Many of those likely don't even know it, so accustomed they've become to fighting their way through their sensitivities in order to have a "regular" life.

Why I Won't Return to Exposure Therapy

Recent years have seen endless pushback from neurodivergent communities, specifically in relation to how they don't want or need to be changed. We've learned that the standard way of doing things isn't necessarily better and that neurodivergent people can thrive equally if we set them up to succeed. For example, when we restructure how we teach to better serve their needs, we discover that neurodivergent folks learn just as well as neurotypical ones.

I want to be a functional member of society, but I'm old enough now that I get to dictate those terms. And if I choose to watch a movie at home rather than in a theater so that I can be content with the volume instead of feeling like my nerves are in the epicenter of an earthquake, I'm not hurting anyone. Rather, I'm honoring my body and its needs, which is far more important than forcing my body to adapt to a situation that isn't ideal for it.

I'm honoring my body and its needs, which is far more important than forcing my body to adapt to a situation that isn't ideal for it.

Every person in the world is different in countless ways from any other person, and it's in our differences that most of our beauty lies. I'm sensitive as all get out. I hate crowds, I like home lighting to be synced with circadian rhythms, and I'd rather put the closed captioning on the TV than turn the volume up.

I'm also highly empathetic, deeply passionate, and so speedily solution-oriented that I can fix a problem before you even realize there was one. Who I am is a gift, and it'd be ridiculous of me to try and give it back.

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