Some people are just sensitive.
They’re easily overwhelmed by crowds and noisy, chaotic environments.
They’re sensitive to things most people tolerate just fine: chemicals, fragrances, violent movies, the news.
You could say they’re sensitive to negativity in general.
They like nature and peace.
They see the best in everyone.
They want to heal the world.
These sensitive people quickly learn that the world isn’t safe for them.
They need to toughen up. Grow thicker skin. Get a reality check. Deal with it.
And so they learn to hide who they really are.
They have a small circle of friends they trust.
They love animals. They feel animals understand them in a way other humans cannot.
They enjoy thinking about things most people don’t talk about. Things like philosophy and psychology. Even out-there stuff like energy healing, past lives, angels.
Who are these people?
They’re empaths, also known as high sensitives.
And many of them have no idea WHY they are the way they are.
The Science of Sensitivity
Dr. Elaine Aron is one of the foremost scholars on highly-sensitive people.
She studies sensory processing sensitivity, a trait found in 15 to 20% of the population.
Highly-sensitive people are born with brains that wired a little differently. Their senses are quick to pick up subtle changes in their environment. Because their senses are so finely attuned, they become easily overstimulated by strong smells or loud noises.
These are the babies that cry all night and day. The kid who’s driven to distraction by an itchy label in his shirt. The teen who becomes a vegetarian because she can’t stand seeing animals hurt. The freelancer who works from home because she can’t focus in an office.
They grow up feeling that something is wrong with them. Why are they not like other people? Why do so many things bother them?
They feel emotions more intensely. They’re deeply moved by music and art. They gravitate towards jobs where they can express their creativity, think deeply, and help others.
They may need special treatment—a room of their own, a chemical-free workplace, a quiet environment—but they’re an asset to any community or organization. Their gifts of perception and acute awareness are exactly what the world needs.
Being a Sensitive Kid
As a highly sensitive kid growing up in redneck culture, I always thought there was something wrong with me.
I didn’t like it when people shouted at each other. I hated action movies. I didn’t like driving fast. I wished people were nicer to each other. I didn’t like guns—or the fact that those guns were used to kill animals. I couldn’t stand anything that smelled, including city water and car exhaust.
I was a weirdo. I was too sensitive. And so I retreated inward. I read a lot of books and spent a lot of time in my bedroom.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned I was not alone.
Empaths were all around me.
They weren’t waving flags. Like me, they’d learned to stay under the radar.
I found them at the library. I found them at meetups. I developed a sixth sense about them.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on how I knew. Maybe it was something about their shy manner, or the way they looked me in the eye, or the thoughtful approach they had, or the deep and meaningful subjects they talked about.
But I knew one thing:
They were my tribe.
Among them, I was safe.
The Spiritual Side of Sensitivity
Dr. Judith Orloff is the author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, a lifesaver for many highly sensitive people.
As an intuitive psychiatrist, Dr. Orloff approaches sensitivity from a more metaphysical angle.
She believes that highly sensitive people don’t just have exquisitely sensitive brains. We can actually feel other people’s energy fields. We can feel what they’re feeling as if those feelings were our own.
This is sensitivity taken to a whole new level.
We don’t just empathize with other people. We become them. We soak up their feelings, their mood, their pain, and their problems.
The empath’s generous nature can attract energy vampires, who take everything she has to give and demand more. She has a hard time setting boundaries and saying no, which makes her the perfect target for people with less-than-savory intentions.
Because of this acute sensitivity, empaths often suffer from depression, anxiety, autoimmune conditions, and adrenal fatigue. In their attempt to be like other people, they push themselves too hard. They may overeat as a way of coping with other people’s stress.
In a dysfunctional family or workplace, empaths are the canary in the coal mine. They’re the ones who get sick, overwhelmed, exhausted. They don’t have limitless internal resources. They need peace and solitude to recharge.
No wonder so many empaths retreat from the world. It’s all too much. Only in solitude or communion with nature can the empath breathe.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
“Empathy is the medicine the world needs,” argues Dr. Orloff.
We need people in leadership roles who care deeply about others. We need advocates for the animals, the children, and the most vulnerable. We need storytellers who can stand in other people’s shoes.
But to get empaths out of their quiet, peaceful havens and into the hustle-and-bustle of politics or the corporate world, their sensitivity has to be recognized and honored.
Do you think you’re an empath?
Have you felt acknowledged or scorned because of your gifts?
How would you like to see the world change to make it safer for highly sensitive people?
Let us know in the comments.