The 5 Superpowers of Highly Sensitive People

Illustration: Getty Images.

Like introversion, being highly sensitive has traditionally been thought of as a weakness. A new book argues it’s actually a superpower.

A decade ago when Susan Cain published her bestseller Quiet, the world sat up and rethought the value of being an introvert. Suddenly thousands of think pieces appeared extolling the benefits of quieter personality types and those who need a lot of alone time to recharge got a hefty boost to their self-confidence (and PR).

Is something similar about to happen for highly sensitive people?

Like introversion, high sensitivity is a scientifically validated personality dimension. And like introversion, being more reactive to your surroundings has traditionally been seen as largely a negative. The highly sensitive have long been derided as thin-skinned, over-emotional, dramatic, or fragile.

But a series of articles and experts have lately been arguing that highly sensitive people might face challenges in a world not necessarily built for them, but their acute sense of the world around them also gives them huge if often undersung advantages in both life and work. And now a new book, Sensitive by Jenn Granneman and Andre Solo, may be poised to take the conversation more mainstream.

In a recent article for Greater Good, writer Jill Suttie delves into the new book, mapping out exactly what it means to be highly sensitive as well as the advantages being on the high end of the sensitivity spectrum gives people. Here are the five “superpowers” of the highly sensitive in brief:

1. Empathy.

“Sensitive people have empathy in spades, so much so that the difference can be seen in brain scans,” the book’s authors write. The ability to sense and understand what other people are feeling is great for personal relationships and good citizenship, but a boatload of studies (and experts) insist empathy is an essential foundation for excellent business leadership as well.

2. Creativity.

“A mind that notices more detail, makes more connections, and feels emotion vividly is almost perfectly wired for creativity,” write the authors. We think of ideas as appearing out of thin air like some sort of holy inspiration. But the testimony of many of history’s most creative people reveals creativity is often about blending observations and perceptions in fresh ways. The more you perceive, the more you have to work with.

3. Sensory intelligence

“Sensory intelligence means taking in more information from your environment and making good decisions based on that information, explains Greater Good. This ability might not be that important in the boardroom but it’s greater for athletes, the site notes, who can use their high sensitivity to quickly grasp what’s going on around them and respond before the competition.

4. Depth of processing

“Not only do sensitive people take in more information, they also process it more deeply. This means that they often see patterns that others don’t see and are able to ‘connect the dots,’ which can make them good planners,” explains Greater Good. It doesn’t take much explaining to see how this could be a key skill for excelling at work generally and as a leader in particular.

5. Depth of emotion

At first sight having your feelings turned up to 11 sounds like a downside. And certainly strong emotions can be uncomfortable sometimes. But intense feelings also make for a richer life and stronger relationships, two factors psychologists tell us are key for happiness and satisfaction.

And that skill with relationships probably spills over into the office. “If you’re sensitive, your deep emotionality is why you’re an exceptional listener, why people naturally trust you, and why you’re probably the go-to confidant when anyone in your friend group needs advice,” write the authors.

Not sure if you’re highly sensitive? This quick quiz can start to give you some idea.