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Are you sensitive or sensitised?

You’ve heard it too many times already. “Urgh, you’re so sensitive” “Why do you have to take everything so seriously? So personally?” “What are you worried about that for?”

Annoying, right? Downright irritating.

You’ve heard it before, you are who you are, and this is how you roll. Yet other people are still taking issue with it – with you – and you’ve had it. Enough already!

Let’s press pause and look at what’s going on here.

Being sensitive is about how you sense and experience the world. A lot of people – even other highly sensitive people, especially those who haven’t yet recognised their sensitivity – have no clue about the merits and drawbacks of sensitivity. Like a seismograph which is a highly sensitive piece of kit to measure vibrations at the earth’s surface, and hence predict and monitor earthquakes, a highly sensitive person notices things that other people don’t.

Your sensitivity is an enormous asset – when you handle it well. But the people around you don’t always register this, and they attack you or try to humiliate and shame you for your sensitivity. This sucks and, over time, you become sensitised to the criticism, and your sensitivity and sensitising get conflated. “Oh, they’re just so sensitive, too sensitive for their own good.”

Being sensitive and being sensitised are different.

Sensitivity is an innate quality of your lived experience: your physical sensitivity/ies, your emotional sensitivity, your perceptiveness. It is how you are and how you experience the world around you.

Being sensitised comes from trauma – minor or major. It comes repeated microaggressions. Or from significant events in your history. It is how you react, informed by what you’ve live through so far.

Let’s slow it down a moment: Sensitivity is how you are, sensitised is how you’ve become because of what you’ve been through.

Being sensitised is when you’ve had so many repetitions of a minor irritation – like someone criticising you for being sensitive – that you’re sensitised to it. Even the slightest whiff of the same old criticism brings up all the previously stuffed-down irritations. And you explode, or implode, depending on your anger style.

Being sensitised also come about from bigger traumas. The man who can’t eat raspberry yoghurt because it’s too strongly associated with an episode of vomiting. The woman who was assaulted, and now avoids the place where it happened, at all costs.

Now we’ve drawn sensitivity and being sensitised apart, we can take a look at the combinations.

  • Not highly sensitive, not sensitised
    Hoorah, go straight to Go, collect $200. No issues from high sensitivity, no unresolved issues from minor or major trauma. Relax, take it easy. Enjoy your happy fortune.
  • Not highly sensitive, sensitised
    You”ve been through some stuff that”s got stuck in your system. Everyday sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, [whatever]-ism: you notice it. Sometimes, it gets you down.Or you had something traumatic happen that you’re still processing. The father whose child died is sensitised to stories about children and cries when he sees children of the same age on the TV. The woman who had a motorbike accident, who suffers flashbacks and nightmares when she hears the noises that remind her of it.

    There’s also the sustained fear and complex responses (possible complex PTSD) that arise when you live in an unbearable and inescapable situation. The grown-up child of a violent, alcoholic mother: now the adult child can’t bear booze or being around drunken people, and is terrified of being hit, even in ‘safe’ situations. The person in an emotionally abusive marriage.

  • Highly sensitive, sensitised
    You sense much more than most other people. You notice more, you experience more, so there’s more incoming experience data for you to be affected by. All the fun of high sensitivity.You notice injustice more, and it affects you more because you feel it more keenly – a sharper sense of what’s ethical is often part and parcel of high sensitivity. You’ve also got a fair amount of Stuff stuck in your system. Being highly sensitive tends to do that, unless you’re super-lucky (see Highly sensitive, not sensitised – below).

    You may be highly sensitive through genetics – your system is wired like that with super sensors for external and internal sensations, including emotional ones. You may have become extra sensitive through traumatic childhood experiences, always having to be on the alert for danger or threat.

    If you’re genetically sensitive, and also had traumatic experience/s (see descriptions in Not highly sensitive, sensitised), you have it more than twice as hard. You have so much more coming in through your senses than a non-highly sensitive person, and you feel the effects more.

    Add race, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation etc etc to the mix, and you have a motorway pile-up of sensitivity + childhood sensitisation + everyday microaggressions and threats + + + . This is a lot to handle, especially if/when you don’t have much support or understanding around you.

  • Highly sensitive, not sensitised
    The holy grail!! Keeping and making full use of your highly sensitive perceptual equipment, while not being reactive to what you experience. I imagine that straight, able, cis, white, [insert societal defaults here] highly-sensitive guys who had good parenting and no traumatic experiences are in this category.

    You can increase your sensitivity, should you be curious about doing so, through mindfulness meditation and other activities where you focus on your experience and become more and more familiar with it.

Moving from being sensitised to not sensitised needs you to work through and release the traumas you’ve stored up (not consciously stored up, for the most part). This needs patience, persistence, effort. Sometimes help, too.

Some everyday microaggressions will just keep on coming, unfortunately. No matter how much you work through and release, the everyday traumas will keep on coming. As long as our system gives men bonuses for being male, and white people bonuses for being white, and and and… the everyday trauma of microaggressions will keep on coming.

This is where the optics change. It’s no longer about you, your sensitivity, your sensitisation. It’s about how the system is set up. It’s about how you play your role in perpetuating it – or the role you take to remove what isn’t true, what doesn’t serve. Thread by thread, the binding ropes of institutional prejudice are weakened and destroyed.

Are you sensitive, sensitised, or both?

The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this webpage are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this webpage. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this webpage. Sue Mahony PhD disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this webpage.

Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, giftedness group programmes, speaking and bespoke support for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.

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