Watch and read the full transcript of Elena Herdieckerhoff’s TEDx Talk: The Gentle Power of Highly Sensitive People at TEDxIHEParis conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: the-gentle-power-of-highly-sensitive-people-by-elena-herdieckerhoff-at-tedxiheparis
Elena Herdieckerhoff – Founder of Entreprincess
I’m a highly sensitive person. What’s the first thing you think about when I tell you that? That I must be shy and introverted? Or perhaps very emotional? Or maybe even that you need to walk on eggshells around me?
The common assumption about highly sensitive people is that we are somehow weak and fragile creatures who picked a losing ticket in the genetic lottery of life. You can see this in action when you google the word ‘sensitive’. You will see images of toothache, irritated skin, wilted dandelions, and crying people. Sensitivity clearly has a PR problem. Today I want to help change that.
Maybe by now you’re wondering what is it like to be highly sensitive? I invite you to imagine living with all of your senses on high alert. You also have a vivid inner world, where all of your emotions are magnified. Sadness is a deep sorrow, and joy is pure ecstasy. You also care beyond reason and empathize without limits. Imagine being in permanent osmosis with everything around you.
Highly sensitive people often hear things like: “You are too sensitive,” “Stop taking everything to heart,” or my favorite, “You should really toughen up.” The fundamental message is clear: to be highly sensitive is to be highly flawed. I used to agree with that. I always thought I should come with some sort of warning sign or a disclaimer: “careful; highly sensitive.”
Now, let me share with you a few of the perks of being a highly sensitive person. For one, I have an intensely overactive mind, which means it’s impossible to switch off. That also means that insomnia is my best friend. As you can imagine, that comes in particularly handy the night before a TED talk.
Also I cannot watch scary or violent movies because the images seem to haunt me forever. I remember when I was a child, I watched the movie ‘Jaws’. It traumatized me so much that I was unable to even go near a swimming pool, let alone the sea, for several years. And, embarrassingly enough, I do my childhood nickname of Princess on the Pea proud when it comes to traveling and hotel beds. The mattress should be not too hard, not too soft; it has to be just right. My father once jokingly recommended that I should simply start traveling with my own bed and pillow to avoid any future travel hassles.
I often wondered, “What good could it possibly do me to be this way?” Well, the gifts of sensitivity slowly crept up on me. I’ve come to learn to love that I deeply and easily connect with others and also that I have a strong intuition that guides me like an infallible GPS. It was only at the age of 25 that I came across a book that changed my life: The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron. I could finally put a name to my overwhelmingly technicolor experience of life, and it gave me hope that there were others like me. In this book she describes highly sensitive people, or in short HSPs, as people who have a genetic trait of sensory processing sensitivity. That’s quite a mouthful.
And surprisingly, 15% to 20% of the population is HSP. Now, she uses the wonderful acronym “DOES” to summarize the core traits of HSPs. The “D” stands for depth of processing. As HSPs, we have a phenomenal ability to deeply analyze absolutely everything. My favorite example for this is what I like to call Chinese restaurant syndrome. Basically, we can take up to an hour to read the entire 40-page menu, despite the fact that we will very likely order our favorite dish anyway.
The “O” stands for overstimulation. We get quickly overwhelmed by the world around us. Now, I’m Bavarian and I love our Oktoberfest, but I actually have to leave after an hour because I get completely overpowered by the mix of roast chicken smells with candy floss, and the cacophony of songs and the massive crowds. It is too much for my senses.
The “E” stands for empathy; HSPs feel what others feel. It’s like that old Hebrew saying: “When one cries, the other tastes salt.”
Lastly, the “S” stands for awareness of subtleties. HSPs are like a finely tuned sensor; they can pick up on the minutest things. Unfortunately, that means that they are also the kind of people that will wake you up at 3 A.M. to tell you that they hear a tap dripping in the kitchen two floors down. As you can see, being an HSP is about far more than emotional reactivity.
I would like to address the two big elephants in the room when it comes to HSP stereotypes. The first assumption is that HSPs must simply be undercover introverts that wanted a fancier name. The fact of the matter is, 30% of HSPs are actually extroverts, which means we cannot park them in the convenient “quiet wallflower” category, HSPs come in many shades of pastel.
Secondly, because of the supposed femininity of HSP traits, many assume that HSPs are women. It may come as a surprise that 50% of HSPs are, in fact, men. In our society, men are not supposed to be sensitive but aggressive and competitive. Sadly, the notion that men can be both sensitive and strong is still too much of an alien concept.
Now, it is a good time to tell you that I don’t think HSPs are better or worse than anyone else; they are simply different. I would also like to point out that despite the rumors, that they are not members of “The Special Snowflake Society”, and also, HSPs don’t have a secret handshake to identify each other either.
HSPs are like everyone else except that they experience the world in a more vivid way. And if you think that all HSPs are alike, that is not true; no two HSPs are the same. Every HSP has their own unique sensitive fingerprint alongside other identity markers like gender, ethnicity, and cultural and personal background.
I would also like to point out that being an HSP is not an illness, and it is also not a choice. It is a genetic trait. We are essentially born to be mild. Every time you tell an HSP they are “too sensitive”, it’s like telling someone with blue eyes that their eyes are too blue. Chances are, no matter how often you tell them, you’ll still have the same blue eyes looking back at you.
As a society, we have come to think of sensitivity as a flaw; an unfortunate, emotional Achilles heel, that tempers with our ability to become ever more optimized, detached, and robotic. We all too readily belittle the idealists, the dreamers, and the creators. This was, however, not always the case.