I Was Taught That Being a Highly Sensitive Person Is a Problem

Now that I understand neurodiversity better, I'm rethinking that.

Ariane Resnick

Byrdie / Ariane Resnick


This story features a few personal, anecdotal experiences and should not substitute medical advice. If you're having health concerns of any kind, we urge you to speak to a healthcare professional.

I've always been a little odd. Despite living in the heart of Los Angeles and having cooked for many A-list celebs, I tend to be pretty clueless about what's going on in the world around me. That isn't because I don't care. Rather, the world is just a bit too much for me.

The term "highly sensitive person"—an individual with a high measure of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS)—was brought to my attention in my mid-twenties when a friend used it to describe me. She'd recently read a book that centered around how not to be a highly sensitive person and recommended it to me. I began looking into it and soon got on board with exposure therapy to help "fix" my condition.

Exposure therapy for HSP is effective, but it also requires ongoing work. To accomplish it, you must desensitize yourself through exposure to everything you're sensitive to. For me, this involves a gamut of tasks: putting myself in situations with bright lights, crowded places, loud people, noisy music, strong smells, and more. I was able to upkeep this exposure fairly regularly, save for my chronic illness years. And then 2020 happened. 

I stopped being able to expose myself regularly to overwhelming stimuli. But during that quiet year, I began writing numerous articles about neurodiversity. The more I learned about the naturally variegated nature of human brains and nervous systems, the less convinced I became my condition requires fixing. Ahead, learn more about my journey having SPS and why I'm no longer seeking to cure it. 

How It Began

My HSP story began a week before I was due to be born. My mom's ob-gyn had upcoming vacation plans, so they decided to induce her. Six days after I was scheduled to be born, my mother went to the hospital and was given Pitocin. A few short hours later, I was shot forth into life and promptly turned blue. My dad says I was quickly whisked away to be revived, which was obviously a success.

Birth trauma and sensory processing issues are directly related. Additionally, birth asphyxia affects the hippocampus (the part of the brain that plays a role in emotions, learning, and memory). Some people are simply born highly sensitive, but I'm content with the explanation that being thrust into the world before I was ready is why my senses have always been on ultra-high alert. 

As a child, I was shy, overly polite, and quiet. I wrote award-winning poetry, often about death and loss, starting at age eight. I read at least 100 books a year, and I was never a "cool" kid. I felt a strong need to visually express how different I was from everyone else, which began with asking my mother if I could pierce my nose when I was twelve.  

I'd come into my own by my early twenties, and years spent as a commercial model gave me all the self-confidence a person needs. But no matter how outlandish I looked, I still wanted to spend most of my free time in a faintly lit, quiet room reading a book with my cats at my side. Despite being content with myself, when my friend told me about SPS, I immediately saw it as a problem to be solved. 

Despite being content with myself, when my friend told me about SPS, I immediately saw it as a problem to be solved. 

Why I Tried To Become Less Sensitive

I’d never have guessed my friend was highly sensitive herself, and I was eager to learn her secrets. I was tired of being considered high maintenance by the partner I lived with and their friends. They often said I was a buzzkill because I didn’t want bright lights on after a certain hour and always turned the music down. I was at an age where being liked felt important, and having SPS made me feel vulnerable. So, I set out to become less sensitive.

Exposure therapy didn’t turn me into a different person, but it considerably muted my sensitivities. I could go to nightclubs and dance for hours no matter how loud or awful the music was. I could keep up in a conversation with a group of people. In more recent years, exposure therapy turned into occasionally going to a grocery store that wasn’t Whole Foods to experience overwhelming fluorescent lighting or going to crowded protests. Until the pandemic, I thought I’d continue exposure therapy indefinitely. 

Recognizing Being Highly Sensitive Is A Gift

It took learning more about neurodiversity advocacy to understand differences in our brains and nervous systems are only in need of "fixing" if we continue to regard neurotypical people as qualitatively better than those of us who are neurodivergent. There is a strong movement to squelch that vantage point, which was dominant in our culture until recently. The more I began to understand operating differently than what's considered typical isn't a bad thing, the more skeptical I became of returning to exposure therapy.

It's no secret neurodiversity comes with countless gifts. Autistic people often have high visual learning capacity and excellent attention to detail; those with ADHD can be great problem solvers; dyslexic people tend to have strong spatial awareness. As for SPS, one study notes it's "a stable trait that is characterized by greater empathy, awareness, responsivity, and depth of processing to salient stimuli." The study also concluded SPS "serves species survival via deep integration and memory for environmental and social information that may subserve well-being and cooperation." If a study can conclude we are vital to the future of humanity, maybe we should stop trying to change ourselves.

If a study can conclude we are vital to the future of humanity, maybe we should stop trying to change ourselves.

Final Thoughts

Even if you haven't heard about SPS or HSP, we comprise more than a small portion of the population. Studies have shown up to 30% of the population has SPS. Low-end figures in studies estimate closer to 20%. Research collectively confirms there are wonderful attributes to being highly sensitive. According to one study: "SPS has also been reported as a marker of behavioral plasticity in response to the environment, with high SPS individuals experiencing fewer behavioral problems and better socio-emotional wellbeing in response to supportive conditions."

Society is capable of countless paradigm shifts, and we can stop thinking of our variances as problems to be solved. We've come incredibly far with our collective understanding that it's our differences, more than our similarities, that make us valuable. The more we speak proudly about how we function— and specifically, the more we speak about how the ways we function haven't fit in with the world—the more we can expand perspectives. I'm a highly sensitive person, and I finally understand my sensitivities are integral to my empathy, talents, and wellbeing. Why would anyone want to change that?

Article Sources
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