High Sensitivity is a group of traits that make up a temperament shared by about 20% of people. There are a lot of things that go into any one genetic trait, so there are a huge number of factors which affect what High Sensitivity is and how it works. I want to share just a few that I think are easy to understand and really interesting.
1. Dopamine - this is your 'reward' chemical. You probably know that it affects motivation and feelings of accomplishment or reward. It also works with each person differently. A Highly Sensitive person is driven less by external rewards and more by internal rewards; so they will be more motivated to avoid certain situations, like loud parties or crowded places, and seek out others, like natural settings and calm environments. These are the things which allow them to process well and use their gifts positively, while those they're motivated to avoid are the things which depress their gifts and overwhelm their senses.
2. Mirror neurons - these are what help us to understand and be empathetic towards others. We observe people and compare our takings with our own experience. These neurons are more active in HS people, along with other areas that process social and emotional data. This means high levels of compassion and empathy, along with a lot of concern about and interest in others' wellbeing. It allows them to be insightful and caring about others' experience.
3. Emotional regulation - the vividness of a person's experience during emotional moments is increased in HS people, meaning they feel things more strongly/vividly than others in response to their environment. Now, we all feel things deeply/strongly at various times; this doesn't mean that HS people are the only ones to experience things deeply. What it does mean is that they experience them more vividly. They're having an immersive experience while someone else is having a pleasant time.
4. Awareness - Highly Sensitive people are more alert and conscious - more aware - in various situations, especially those involving others. In the brain, this can be seen as more activity in the cingulate and insula, which are responsible for consciousness and moment-to-moment awareness.
Information adapted from 4 Brain Differences of Highly Sensitive People
Responsive and Un-Responsive
In any workplace, you're likely to have two groups of people, speaking about temperament.
What does this mean? Responsive people are responsive to the inner (intrapersonal) and outer environment. This means that they:
(When I use these terms, they don't have moral value - an 'Un-Responsive' person refers to biological elements in how they naturally respond to the environment. 'Non-Sensitive' is the same - it's the name used for their temperament).
Not less resilient
Due to the effects of these two factors, it can seem like those with a Responsive temperament are less resilient or more sensitive, in the negative way in which that term is taken, than those who are Un-Responsive. This is because they're more affected by seemingly the same things or situations. But they're actually having a different experience.
The result is that the Responsive group is seemingly more easily overwhelmed by apparently the same things - the same data. In fact, they're taking in more and processing it more deeply, meaning that they're experiencing more. This is energy-intensive, as you can imagine. It's draining. And that is why they are overwhelmed seemingly more easily. It's just that it's all happening within, so it's not visible to others.
We could also say that Responsiveness means having a wider range. They are more positively and negatively affected by situations. So they will thrive in good environments and languish in the poor. Said another way, Responsive people do better than Non-Responsive people in a positive environment, and worse than them in a negative one.
Those who are Unresponsive are less affected, both positively and negatively, by their situation. This is why we could say that they have less range.
This is all part of the Responsive experience. You can see, I hope, the sorts of consequences of such a range. Perhaps you can see the possibilities - the potential in that for your organisation. I can!
More than that, though - beyond what you or your group can gain from helping them to thrive (so they can experience and produce more of the positive end of their range), how right and good it also is. How much they can bring, of this light and potential, to the rest! And because they are so responsive, the changes one needs to make to help them thrive at work, for example, don't need to be enormous or difficult. They will respond to the smallest differences, and the benefits for them and everyone will be exponential.
This is the exciting thing about the wider range of experience that Responsive people encompass. What possibilities there are!
If we recognise that those in the Responsive group have an essential service to perform in our society, and provide the space for them to do what they do, they can provide those services as they're meant to. Without that space, everyone misses out on the best form of those services, and people with this temperament miss out on fulfilling their potential.
If organisations, governments, and individuals can recognise and celebrate what those in the Responsive group have to give, then
We're Simply More Responsive for an overview of the research about the two traits of responsiveness and unresponsiveness (otherwise known as sensitive and non-sensitive). Easy read.
Vantage Sensitivity: Individual Differences in Response to Positive Experiences - research regarding differential susceptibility, which is what leads to this difference in range that I've described. Psychological journal article.
Also this journal article, about Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Differences.
In this video interview, Julie Bjelland provides some explanatory background for the Highly Sensitive temperament and shares how to understand it, benefit from it, and be resilient within it.
Julie is a 'sensitivity expert', with a website, juliebjelland.com , where she shares insights and tools regarding the temperament, manages an online community (via subscription) of those with the trait, and other resources, such as interviews, podcasts, a blog, and mindfulness exercises.
This is a good introductory video if you've just heard of this temperament, and want to know for yourself or someone you know how to (a) appreciate its benefits and no longer feel ashamed of how you experience the world, (b) know how to deal with stress and chaotic circumstances, and (c) learn some of the facts about where it comes from.
So why would you want to spend the money and effort to provide a workplace where Highly Sensitive people thrive? What do these people offer your organisation - and the world? Well, here are the reasons why it's a smart choice (there are a lot of reasons. Just read a few if you can't manage them all right now. I'm confident it'll be enough to convince you).
Vision and Meaning
I mentioned on my About page that HS people are the dreamers, wise counsellors, visionaries, artists and poets. They are the ones who'll make your organisation look good to others, with their words, images and other creative gifts. More importantly, they'll help provide vision and meaning for your group; a place where people come because they care, are involved, and know why they're there.
Highly Sensitive people are conscientious, reliable, responsible, caring - about their work and about others - internally-motivated, able to see consequences, honest, and determined. This is a great list, especially for managers and other leaders, who need team members who do their work to the fullest extent possible, and provide an example for those who might struggle with or be less motivated in these areas.
Do you need more reasons? There are more! Let's keep going.
The big picture and the details
HS people see more about a situation, and they make decisions based on all the factors they can see (which are often many). This means their decisions are considered, with good foundations - decisions that can be trusted. It might take them more time to make them, but you can depend on the result. It's an important aspect of a smart team; you'll have the fast-actors, who can choose quickly and confidently, moving things forward and acting when action is needed, and the considered, reflective ones, who you trust to make the more consequential choices with more variables. Their ability to see more about a situation (HS people notice and are responsive to subtleties) includes seeing more than one aspect of an issue in which people disagree. They can hold those differing views in their minds alongside their own, which helps them be understanding of other viewpoints, guide their colleagues to do the same, and come to conclusions which are more likely to satisfy everyone.
Improved processes & results
If you allow them to, your HS team members will refine the organisation's processes until they run smoothly, help ensure it's a fair place to be, keep the leaders on their toes, never settle for less than is possible, and help others to craft their jobs as they do theirs. In the end, they help you get the best out of everyone. If it sounds like they might be a bit annoying to have around, from a manager's point of view, then you're probably right! But you want that. You don't want to become complacent, or have a team who are. You want to be kept on your toes, having ideas for improvement and refinement, people who care and are interested, people who won't stop at mediocre or 'just enough'. Who don't need to be in the limelight, get fancy rewards, or have all the perkiest jobs.
They don't take sick days unless they really need to, they don't slack off at work or try to do the minimum that's required. They care about getting the job done - well - and take pleasure in completing things to a high standard. They won't easily gossip, and will respect the authority of their supervisors - unless that authority is misused or their trust unearned.
Nurture their gifts
All of these, as I consider, remarkable benefits of having Highly Sensitive people on your team don't just come magically, though. They come when conditions are right - not perfect, but good enough. If these people lack freedom and autonomy, don't have space to be creative or use their other gifts; if they have heavy-handed, restrictive or unimaginative managers and operate in inflexible environments, then the results you'll see in them will be worse than for their non-sensitive colleagues. Rather than inspired work, it will be lacklustre. Instead of caring about others, they're likely to retreat into themselves, becoming rigid and even difficult to work with. They might just do their required work and no more. In short, nurture their gifts and you'll have magic. Fail to, and both your organisation and they will languish behind their true potential and endure needless distress.
Your Highly Sensitive workers might not be the most obviously social (although some will be), and they often won't do things in traditional ways. They won't act for appearances, and you can't make them do something they don't believe in. So get their hearts and minds involved, and you'll have them on board to the end.
I can help
If this captures your imagination, but you don't know how to make it happen, that's where I come in - I'll look at your workplace, assess its current suitability for nurturing HS workers, and help you plan how to create the conditions where all the positive things I've detailed here can exist. Find out more on my Services page, and contact me for a discussion with this form. I look forward to creating magic together!
There's a lot of information out there about High Sensitivity, the temperament upon which my consulting service is based. As with most topics, though - especially those recently 'discovered' by the rest of the world - it includes misinformation; some innocent, and some that's wildly incorrect.
You'll find people claiming that High Sensitivity gives a person magical-like powers of discernment, empathy so intense it's crippling, or that they're just the most wonderful, lovely, angelic people you'll ever meet. The last would be nice, but... it's not true, and neither are the others, along with the rest of the false advertising. I think some people have grasped the idea, and run away with it, adding on bits and pieces that sound nice and exciting, or that they've observed in themselves or others. Things which aren't connected to the HS temperament or are even made up. As I said, some of this is porbably motivated by good intentions, while others have less innocent reasons.
So I've made up a list of some of the best places to find real - and accessible - information regarding High Sensitivity. You should find enough in these sources to satisfy your interest for a while.
A great place to begin is the book that started it all, popularly speaking:
There are also a variety of good articles available, including those which focus on the world of work. Here are some I like:
Tamara - Sensitive Thrive is my consulting business. I believe that the world needs Highly Sensitive people who are flourishing. We need their hope, insight, wisdom, and awareness of beauty and possibility. My vision is to help create a culture where this temperament is known, understood and valued; where organisations seek Highly Sensitive people to work for them, because they know what they can do. Where HS people feel like they fit in their workplaces, because those workplaces also fit them. A world where HS people belong, thrive, and flourish, and the world is better for it.