High sensitivity – gift or curse? 

A discussion about what high sensitivity is, how to recognize it in oneself, why it's worth accepting it within oneself, and perhaps even loving it.

“Do you feel too much?”, “You worry too much”, “Why are you crying again?”, “Pull yourself together”. Do these words sound familiar? Perhaps they have been accompanying you in life for a long time, stirring up inner doubts and uncertainty. It seems that in recent years, societal awareness of high sensitivity has increased. But understanding it is just the beginning of the journey. Can one be fulfilled and happy as a sensitive person? How can we resist the pressure to suppress our sensitivity, but rather draw benefits from it? Beata Gralińska, a psychologist, and Małgosia Kwiatkowska contemplate these questions with courage, curiosity, and sensitivity. 

Małgosia Kwiatkowska: Let’s start by explaining what high sensitivity is. 

Beata Gralińska: It’s an innate, hereditary personality trait. It’s worth emphasizing that high sensitivity is not recognized as a diagnostic entity in a clinical sense. Elaine Aron’s analyses played a crucial role in research on high sensitivity, providing the basis for understanding and defining who highly sensitive individuals are. They experience sensory stimuli more intensely than others, are sensitive to stimuli, have rich inner lives, and have a greater tendency to analyze even minor details. In short, such individuals are referred to as Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP). It’s also worth mentioning that they make up about 20% of the population, confirming that it is a common trait in society. 

MK: And it seems that we are discussing high sensitivity as two people who possess this personality trait. To check your sensitivity level, you can take one of the available online tests, such as this one: https://www.idrlabs.com/highly-sensitive-person/test.php. My result in this test is 88%. 

BG: Of course, tests of this type should be approached with some distance; they don’t always reflect the complexity of human personality. But my result is 67%, surprisingly low in my opinion. It may suggest that in certain situations, I have learned to cope better with my high sensitivity, or that certain strategies help me mitigate its impact on my daily functioning. Most likely, my feelings and reactions to various stimuli also change over time. 

MK: The fact that you had to learn how to cope suggests that the journey of a highly sensitive person is not always lined with roses. I’m reminded of a quote from a movie that is also very close to our conversation. I’m referring to Amelia and the words “Times are hard for dreamers”. There’s a lot of truth in them about those who perceive the world more intensely. 

BG: I, on the other hand, thought of the title of the James Bond series film “The World Is Not Enough”. For highly sensitive individuals, it’s quite the opposite – the world is too much. In today’s world, due to technological advancement, globalization, and the vast amount of available information, our senses are bombarded with stimuli. If we don’t know how to effectively filter them, they can overwhelm us. In highly sensitive individuals, reactions to the external world are more intense due to the more delicate construction of the nervous system. And here comes another association. WWO is, in short, a highly sensitive person in Polish. It is also the name of a Polish hip-hop group that was formed by two rappers. This duo initially operated under the name “Witryny Odbicia” (Reflections in Showcases). It’s a beautiful and poetic metaphor for the functioning of highly sensitive individuals. Their mirror neurons – clusters of nerve cells in the brain – are more active. They are responsible for our level of empathy, allowing us, like a mirror, to register the moods of others but also to reflect them. The harm and suffering of loved ones, as well as strangers, move us to such an extent that it’s difficult for us to regain balance. Therefore, those of us who can selectively approach what we take into ourselves are fortunate. 

MK: So, does the ability to distance ourselves from the world support us in harmonious functioning? 

BG: Partially yes. I am grateful that I have learned to maintain a certain distance. However, not everyone has this ability. That’s why I believe it’s important for us, sensitive individuals, to share our experiences and coping strategies with high sensitivity, creating circles of mutual support. 

MK: Meanwhile, not long ago, sensitivity was considered immaturity and exaltation. Today, I have the impression that there is a revolution in attitudes towards it, and there is a greater social understanding for this trait. 

BG: Not only is an increasingly large group of people objectively becoming sensitive, even very sensitive, but also it can be observed that the world is moving towards greater sensitivity. This thesis is developed by American psychiatrist and psychotherapist David R. Hawkins in the book “Transcending Levels of Consciousness”, in which clear principles supporting spiritual evolution are outlined. But I also have the impression that today sensitivity is understood as a gift of feeling deeply, as a unique trait of a more conscious connection with oneself and one’s emotions. Seeing and feeling a greater number of stimuli, understanding the external world, and having high empathy are not associated with shame or undesirable behaviour for which people are punished. We, the sensitive ones, can take off the mask and stop being afraid of our sensitivity. We can feel our value, even uniqueness. 

MK: But still, despite the growing awareness of HSP, we encounter opinions like: “You’re always overreacting”, “You’re too sensitive”, and “Don’t get so worked up, it’s all right”. 

BG: “Just don’t take it personally”. Exactly, statements like these can be very hurtful to highly sensitive individuals. And unfortunately, let’s emphasize this, they most often target women. 

MK: Yet, according to research, up to 50% of highly sensitive individuals are men. However, our culture often doesn’t favour the expression of this trait in the opposite gender. 

BG: Moreover, the power of creation and self-presentation sometimes obscures it. A man is supposed to be associated with strength and courage, not sensitivity. It’s also important to debunk another myth that sensitivity is a trait reserved only for introverts. It cannot be denied that the description of characteristics indicating high sensitivity overlaps with introverted traits, such as a focus on internal experiences, deep analysis of every decision, and avoidance of excessive external stimuli. However, research indicates that 30% of extroverts possess high sensitivity. Highly sensitive extroverts can be socially active, energetic, and open to new experiences, while also being sensitive to subtle signals from their environment. It’s a kind of paradox they have to deal with – on one hand, they feel a great desire for contact, and on the other hand, they may feel overwhelmed by frequent and intense contact. 

MK: The subtle changes you mentioned are one of the four parameters identified by Elaine Aron as those that unite all highly sensitive individuals. 

BG: These four parameters, in addition to the already mentioned sensitivity to subtlety, include depth of processing, which refers to analytical thinking, depth of emotional experience, which denotes an above-average reactivity to stimuli, and highly developed empathy. They have many advantages, but often also pose challenges. On one hand, highly sensitive individuals can be very meticulous and thorough, sensitive to the suffering of others, and adept at reading their emotions. Thanks to their analytical abilities, they can connect facts in a very precise manner, possessing highly developed logical thinking. On the other hand, however, multitasking, which is preferred in Western culture, often doesn’t serve them well. 

MK: Of course, there’s a possibility that HSPs will find themselves in positions requiring multitasking, but it’s likely to be very exhausting for them and associated with a high energy cost. 

BG: And here we move to the darker side of high sensitivity. The price for deep analysis, functioning at high speeds, and having a delicate nervous system that perceives stimuli both externally and internally more intensely than average is high. I have the impression that even slight differences in the intensity of sounds, temperature, or smells, as well as the reception of negative emotions from others, while simultaneously noticing seemingly insignificant details and deeply analyzing them, can cause discomfort and agitation. Overstimulation, heightened sensitivity to criticism, and negative evaluations may occur. 

MK: I would also add, from my own experience, the difficulty in adapting to change. Even the smallest modification to a planned schedule is associated with significant stress. And on top of that, I’m often exhausted by prioritising others’ needs over my own. 

BG: And at this point, I’ll note that the level of difficulty you encounter depends on your current level of development. I’d like to present high sensitivity in the context of vertical development, a division of which I cite from Bill Torbert (Leadership Development Framework, LDF). Vertical development is a process in which people begin to realize that their way of thinking and perceiving the world may be limiting and inadequate. As a result of this process, people begin to change their view of the world, themselves, and their relationships with others. Earlier, more stereotypical levels are called conventional, and higher, more complex and subtle levels are referred to as post-conventional. 

MK: So let’s start with the first conventional level. 

BG: The first level is Opportunist. They are guided by personal benefits and focused on meeting their own needs, but the group, or herd, they belong to is important to them. I remember how sensitive I was as a child to the world around me and to other people. The peer group was of immense importance to me. Rejection by this circle was very painful. To this day, I can’t forget the despair when a friend wouldn’t speak to me for a week. With adolescence comes the next stage of development. The Diplomat adapts to social norms and expectations, guided by social acceptance, striving to maintain harmony and avoid conflicts. During adolescence and early adulthood, I was a rebel, so I faced exclusion from the family circle. I was a poor diplomat, experiencing it acutely, despite my apparent toughness. But even in adult life, the role of the Expert is difficult. They base their actions on social norms and strive for knowledge and specialisation in a specific field. Here, professional frustration can be a barrier. When we care deeply about something, create something, and it turns out that our project doesn’t work, and causes losses, then the sense of failure once again leaves a mark. 

MK: Can you also use an example here? 

BG: Already during my studies, during clinical internships and professional training, it turned out that I wasn’t suitable for work in a psychiatric hospital, which I experienced as a failure and a loss of hope of becoming an outstanding clinician. The last level in this conventional development process is the level of Achiever. Here, a serious problem can be the competitive environment. High competitiveness is primarily encountered in sports, although I am aware that in practically any company, the struggle for position is unavoidable. I wasn’t cut out for that either. Just the word “outstanding” itself seemed like a misunderstanding to me. When I once participated in equestrian competitions, I realized how pointless and fraught with terrible stress winning was. 

MK: Sensitive individuals often struggle with competition. Even if they engage in it, they again pay a high energy price. But some people resign from this conventional fight. So where do those who are not experts or achievers find themselves? 

BG: Once we have passed the conventional era, we enter the first post-conventional phase: Individualist. Here, both paradise and hell open up for sensitive individuals. Individualist intensely experiences their situation and evaluates it through the lens of their own value system. They feel increasingly that focusing on their inner self is more important than ever before. Social norms cease to matter. But as a result, there is also misunderstanding. The conviction arises: “I don’t fit into this world, I experience everything more intensely”, but at the same time, there is also growing freedom in expressing all, even those intense emotions. Recently, I went to the cinema with a group of friends, and while watching a movie that deeply moved me, I cried without considering whether it was appropriate. 

MK: I can even get emotional watching commercials. I don’t watch horror movies, and I can’t read too much news about others’ misfortune either. 

BG: I avoid reading about violence against animals because it affects me the most. And here we step in, we sensitives, into the “seismically active,” highest post-conventional levels, where the Strategist is found, and above it, Alchemist. The Strategist operates according to ethical principles and long-term strategies for sustainable social progress. Alchemist has a holistic approach to life and seeks transcendence, spiritual development, and service to others to achieve the fullness of their existence. At this stage, there is a sense of unity with the world, empathy, and harmony with every living being and with nature. At the same time, every cell of such a person’s body feels the suffering of the entire collective, which can be unbearable. Perhaps this is what artists experience when unable to bear the burden of this world, they commit suicide. At this level, high sensitivity becomes a path to enlightenment, the highest gift. But there is also a huge risk – looking into the core of all-encompassing pain can lead to a sense of being cast into nothingness, where only death remains. 

MK: It’s gotten quite serious. Tell me, can one take care of their sensitivity to make it easier for themselves? How can one take care of themselves at this level? Is every person with developed sensitivity to the world partly condemned to such suffering? 

BG: The remedy for particularly sensitive individuals experiencing strong arousal is self-work. We need to thoroughly understand and analyze the answers to questions about our identity and what matters most to us. However, let’s emphasize that this cannot be done overnight; it’s a process that requires time and often therapeutic support. Transitioning from external control to internal self-awareness can bring relief and help us establish boundaries. On the internet, we can find very standard advice about respecting our own boundaries, which contains a grain of truth: “Separate your needs from the needs of others. Just because someone else needs something doesn’t mean your needs are less important”. The key is realizing that we matter, sometimes even more than the people in our surroundings – family, friends, or work colleagues. It’s about learning assertiveness, defining our values, expressing our unique style, and defending it. 

MK: It seems to me that before understanding one’s own needs, accepting one’s sensitivity is important. To accept it, you have to recognize its uniqueness rather than perceive it as a curse. 

BG: Of course, although there is a paradox in this. It can be said that at each level of sensitivity I mentioned, there are moments when we feel the burden of this unique personality trait. We feel unaccepted in the group or family because we are more reflective, we react emotionally in different situations, take on too much, and suffer when our plan doesn’t bring the desired outcome. We set ambitious goals, but by avoiding competition, we don’t succeed. To appreciate the highs and lows of sensitivity, one must love the process of development and change itself. Experiencing the process, the journey is the goal. 

MK: You mean that even from difficult experiences or failures, one can learn, and it’s important to remember that difficulties are often an inherent part of development? 

BG: Yes. That’s why it’s important to notice even the smallest successes and to do things every day that bring relief and serve us. After some time, I returned to the practice of using a sheet where I mark off what I’ve accomplished every day. These are details from various areas of life, such as punctuality, taking care of health and physical fitness, or, for example, creating a pleasant environment for work or relaxation with favourite music. A kind of routine helps me distance myself from everyday life and rewards me for what I consider good for myself. From my own experience, I recommend this practice, which is both meditation and a moment of gratitude for the opportunity for development. Noticing the elements that I have already mastered is the starting point for further training. And even if something didn’t work out for me today, I have another chance tomorrow. Such thinking and acting in one’s favour can, I believe, help us overcome any oppression. 

MK: However, I can’t shake the feeling that you have more tools to cope with your sensitivity, while I sometimes feel completely helpless. Perhaps this stems from the fact that awareness of my sensitivity came relatively late to me. I’m at an early stage of understanding how to deal with it. Learning to listen to our own needs is also something we have to learn. 

BG: That’s a very difficult lesson. Certainly, we can’t accept advice like “Don’t take it to heart, dear.” To begin with, you must accept the fact of having this trait. Then you can try to select external stimuli – sounds, information, smells, and even people. It’s important to separate yourself from things that are difficult for you. Additionally, it’s worth aiming for a 3:1 ratio, meaning three positive emotions for every negative one. Interestingly, research on the optimal emotional state suggests that many positive feelings don’t guarantee success. It’s better when joys are accompanied by those difficult, often suppressed feelings – anger, sadness, fear. Let’s develop our own beliefs, refrain from complaining about our sensitivity, be grateful for what we have, and make decisions in harmony with ourselves. The awareness that the number of sensitive individuals is increasing can add courage to overcoming difficulties. 

MK: Telling oneself, “I am who I am, and that’s good, it’s enough, and sometimes even beautiful,” is a key element. Understanding one’s sensitivity, and accepting that we see more and that the world is too much for us, can bring new opportunities and open the door to personal development. 

BG: We’ve talked a lot about the challenges contained in the words “too much”. However, within those words, let’s emphasize, that there is also richness. It’s sensitivity to the beauty of the world around us – art, music, nature, or literature. Intense aesthetic experiences can lead to deep experiences and inspiration. Openness to new ideas fosters creativity. A deeper reflection on one’s emotions, thoughts, and experiences provides an opportunity to understand one’s motivations and life goals. Thanks to the ability to process sensory stimuli in detail, highly sensitive individuals can perceive subtleties that others might overlook. This enables a better understanding of situations, making more accurate decisions, and effectively solving problems. Greater sensitivity to subtle emotional signals provides tools for empathetically understanding the needs and feelings of other people and non-human beings, which in turn contributes to building deeper, more meaningful relationships. 

MK: Let’s not be afraid to look deep within ourselves, to touch our most tender strings. Let’s look through a microscope at what we carry within us. 

BG: High sensitivity can be both a gift and a curse, and the ultimate assessment depends on how we cope with its effects and the context in which we find ourselves. We just need to give ourselves a chance and look at this trait with care. Lack of acceptance can exacerbate its negative effects. This acceptance applies to both the individual and society. Otherwise, shame and fear grow. It’s worth looking at ourselves with kindness, working on the areas where we feel worse, and developing our potential where we feel good with sensitivity. 

MK: I believe that then we will see something that positively surprises us, even captivates us. And over time, sensitivity may become our friend and ally. I know it’s not always easy. But no one promised it would be. I feel that the world needs sensitivity like never before. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *