Andre Sólo is the force behind Sensitive Refuge, the world’s largest website for sensitive people. An author, researcher, and speaker, Sólo serves as the voice and editor-in-chief of Sensitive Refuge. A highly sensitive person himself, for much of his life Sólo thought he had to hide it, before coming to understand that sensitivity is one of humanity’s most powerful—and most overlooked—traits. Now, Sólo is a recognized expert and passionate advocate for sensitive people. As an authority on topics surrounding sensitivity, Sólo writes for Forbes and Psychology Today, has spoken at Google and Amazon, and has been featured in Time, Quartz, Fast Company, The Washington Post, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and Oprah Daily, as well as numerous podcasts. Andre can be found in both New Orleans and Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he over-waters his houseplants and chases after an extremely plucky toddler.
Jenn Granneman is the founder of the world’s largest online community for introverts, IntrovertDear.com, and the co-founder of HighlySensitiveRefuge.com. An educator and a journalist, she is the author of The Secret Lives of Introverts. Jenn has been featured in HuffPost, the Washington Post, the BBC, Oprah Daily, Buzzfeed, Glamour, and more, as well as numerous podcasts.
Below, Andre and Jenn share 5 key insights from their new book, Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World. Listen to the audio version—read by Andre—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. “Sensitive” doesn’t mean what we think it means.
When we hear the word sensitive, we tend to think of being weak or fragile, or maybe someone who overreacts to things. But that’s not what sensitive means. As a personality trait, being sensitive means you take in more information from the world around you and you do more with it. Sensitive people are actually wired at a brain level to process information more deeply than others do. That means they tend to notice things others miss, and they make connections between ideas that other people might overlook.
What’s cool about this sort of deep information processing is that there are so many different kinds of information. To the brain, information can be sensory, so sensitive people tend to notice the scratchy texture of a fabric or the subtle notes of apricot in a fine white wine. But information can also be emotional, which is often the most important information we have, and if you’re sensitive, you might be the only one who spots that slight hint of a smile that flashes across someone’s face before they hide it. That’s why sensitive people tend to have very high levels of empathy: they can’t help but notice what others are feeling.
It turns out these two kinds of sensitivity, the physical and the emotional, are actually two sides of the same trait. They’re so closely linked that if you take a Tylenol to dull your physical pain, you’ll actually score lower on an empathy test until it wears off.
Of course, we’re all sensitive to some degree, but some people are more sensitive than others. Like most human traits, sensitivity is a continuum, and you can be anywhere from low to average to high. Roughly 30 percent of people score high for sensitivity, and those numbers are the same for both men and women, and for people of all genders.
“Sensitive people are actually wired at a brain level to process information more deeply than others do.”
When you understand it that way, being sensitive is a powerful trait that comes with a lot of gifts. For example, sensitive do people tend to be very creative, but that doesn’t just make them good artists, it means they’re good innovators and problem solvers, which is why a lot of the most celebrated names in history are sensitive people. In fact, without sensitive people we wouldn’t have Germ Theory, the Theory of Evolution, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the theme music from Star Wars, the Declaration of Independence, or the first NFT.
The great thing about this insight is it means our sensitivity isn’t a “weakness” at all. It’s a fundamental part of what makes us human. And it’s something you can recognize in yourself and take pride in.
2. You might be more sensitive than you realize.
Just as “sensitive” doesn’t mean what we think it means, sensitive people don’t always look the way we expect them to look. You might picture someone who’s sensitive as being warm and fuzzy and openly gushing emotion, and yeah, a lot of sensitive people do fit that image.
But a lot of other people mask their sensitive traits, sometimes without knowing it, because there’s a stigma around being sensitive. That stigma comes out differently for men and women. Men are told not to be sensitive at all. Women are told to stop being “so sensitive,” a phrase which ought to be retired. But we all get the same message: either stop being sensitive, or hide it.
I fell into this trap myself for a big chunk of my life. I never thought of myself as sensitive, and I certainly didn’t think of myself as having super high levels of empathy, not more than anyone else. What I did know is I’m good at reading people, I get a gut feeling about what they’re really thinking. That’s just empathy by a different name, but it’s a more socially acceptable way to say it.
We also know that even though men and women are equally likely to be sensitive, they tend to check different boxes on a sensitivity test. For example, men may be less likely to say they have strong emotional reactions, even if they do, but they relate a lot to the physical side of sensitivity. And that makes sense—one of the greatest strengths of sensitive people is what we call Sensory Intelligence, or being highly aware of your environment. Well, the military calls that situational awareness, and it’s something that keeps people alive, because it’s how you notice that slight rustling in the brush that might mean there’s an ambush.
“Don’t dismiss that ‘overthinking’ or those nagging hunches.”
Of course, the trait that all sensitive people share is the most invisible one of all: the ability to go deep. You can see that in Frances Perkins, a labor activist who spent years of her life working with the poor. But Frances Perkins didn’t just have strong sense of compassion, she was also a visionary, and she could see a different way of doing things. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited her to be his Secretary of Labor, at the height of the Great Depression, Perkins didn’t accept right away. She told him she would only take the job if he promised to back all of her policies. He agreed, and Frances Perkins went on the write the New Deal. Her work established a social safety net for the first time in U.S. history, and is credited as one factor that helped end the Great Depression.
If you tend to be a deep thinker, if you spend extra time ruminating on things, or if you’ve ever been accused being an “overthinker,” you might be more sensitive than you realize. Don’t dismiss that “overthinking” or those nagging hunches. Act on them. Because you are seeing things that others don’t.
3. Being sensitive is an advantage.
There’s a reason 30 percent of people are highly sensitive. It’s because the groups of cavemen who didn’t have sensitive people died off. Actually, it goes back much further than that—other primates also developed sensitivity, as have more than a hundred other species. Sensitivity appears to be an evolutionary advantage that keeps paying off.
Why? One reason is what we call the sensitive “boost effect.” The boost effect means that when you give a sensitive person a supportive environment, the kind of thing that would help anyone a little bit, they don’t just benefit a little bit, they take off like a rocket. For example, in children, a supportive home environment means any kid will get better grades, but it often puts sensitive kids at the top of their class. Or, in teenagers with depression, researchers found that a therapy program did help overall, but it was the sensitive teens who used it to actually overcome their depression and stay depression-free long-term. And in adults, researchers took hundreds of couples at risk of divorce and put them in a program to teach relationship skills. The program was successful in reducing divorce rates, but not for everyone. When the subjects were given a personality tests, it turned out that it was mostly the sensitive people who went on to save their marriages. And not only that, they actually improved their relationship quality overall, which most of the couples did not. That’s the sensitive boost effect.
What’s great is you can take the boost effect and apply it to anything your life. That might mean finding a mentor, getting a coach, taking a class, joining a mastermind group, or being very careful in who you choose to spend your time with, and cultivating a group of friends who support and believe in you. You will get ten times more out of these things than anyone else will. Because if you’re sensitive, you’re walking around with a rocket engine strapped to your back, and all you have to do to light it is cultivate that supportive environment.
4. There’s a cost to being sensitive.
The cost of being sensitive is overstimulation. Sensitive people get overstimulated easily in situations that are rushed, crowded, too loud, too bright, or just emotionally intense. This is the price we pay for having a mind that’s built to go deep on everything—there’s no off switch, and when the stimuli start to pile up, the sensitive brain overloads.
You may have seen something like this if you’ve ever had too many programs open on your computer. It starts to lag or freeze up, and you might even restart it. For humans, cognitive overload or overstimulation means brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, and even physical symptoms, and there is no easy restart button. The only solution is to take time in a calm environment and let the brain process.
“Sensitive people need a calm, quiet environment to be at their best.”
This overstimulation is part of the reason sensitive people are often mistaken for introverts. In reality, many are extroverts, but they may not do the same activities other extroverts do. For example, a sensitive extrovert probably won’t do well at a huge networking event with 200 people in the room, because it’s overstimulating. Instead, they might fill their social calendar by meeting just one or two friends for deeper conversation, in a quiet restaurant rather than a noisy bar.
Overstimulation is also part why sensitive people are sometimes seen as being easily overwhelmed, or thin skinned. In reality, it’s not their skin that needs to change—it’s their environment. Sensitive people need a calm, quiet environment to be at their best, and when you take control and start to curate that environment in your own life, overstimulation becomes less common. One of the best ways to do that is to build space into your schedule. Have a set time each day when you sit quietly in your room or your favorite chair and just let your mind run. You might journal, daydream, listen to music, but the point is to let brain process everything it’s not caught up on. Not only will this prevent overstimulation, it’s also be when you have breakthrough moments. You’ll come up with a solution to a problem, or figure out the right way to approach a situation. Your brain is finally getting to connect the dots, and it will hand you the answers you need.
5. The most powerful thing you can do as a sensitive person is to embrace being sensitive.
If the strengths of being sensitive sound like superpowers, in a way they are, but it’s not always an easy road. Many sensitive people spend our entire lives being told there’s something wrong with us, that we need to change, to be less sensitive.
But trying to be less sensitive never works. Your sensitivity is largely in your genes, and when you try to stifle it, the only thing that happens is you become cut off from your gifts. You’ll still have the strong emotions, you’ll still get overstimulated, but you won’t be able to activate the boost effect and take off.
Instead, you have to lead with your sensitivity. That’s what Bruce Springsteen figured out as a child. He was always the sensitive kid, who didn’t measure up to his father’s macho expectations, and Springsteen’s father tried to scream, shout, and occasionally hit the sensitive out of Bruce. But instead of trying to downplay his sensitivity, Bruce just spent more time at his grandmother’s house, where he could be himself, and used rock ‘n’ roll as a way to explore not conforming. Springsteen remains openly sensitive to this day, and it’s the key to his success as a musician.
This is a truth that all sensitive people must realize, sooner or later: the world doesn’t need you to be less sensitive. We’ve tried “less sensitive,” and it’s not exactly working out. Throughout history, sensitive people have been our innovators, our sages, our changemakers, and often, our most effective leaders. Embrace your sensitivity. Show it to the world. Because sensitive is strong, and the world needs more of what sensitive people have to offer.
To listen to the audio version read by co-author Andre Sólo, download the Next Big Idea App today: