Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Becoming The Most Powerful and Confident You”
In today’s society, being viewed as “highly sensitive” can lead to being demeaned and considered less effective or “valuable” in the workplace. Negative terms such as “overly-emotional” or “too soft” have been used to describe people who are sensitive, and sensitivity has been viewed as a liability, or a trait that can detract from experiencing the success, assertiveness and strength needed to thrive in competitive environments. In addition, in certain male-dominated work cultures and industries, being highly sensitive (for both males and females) can be perceived as a flaw. In short, for millions of people, being sensitive is something they feel they need to hide or “overcome” if they’re to succeed, be valued and respected, and reach their full potential.
But what is the true definition of “sensitive,” and what does today’s science and research reveal about highly sensitive people and the real benefits and talents they bring—to work cultures, relationships, and business outcomes and performance?
To learn more about this important topic, I caught up with Andre Sólo, founder of Sensitive Refuge, the world’s largest website for sensitive people. Researcher, speaker and co-author with Jenn Granneman of Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World, Sólo serves as editor-in-chief of Sensitive Refuge and Chief Make-It-Happen Officer of Introvert, Dear.
A highly sensitive person himself, for much of his life he thought he had to hide it, before coming to understand it is one of humanity’s most powerful—and most overlooked—traits. Now, Sólo is a recognized expert and passionate advocate for sensitive people. He writes about sensitivity for Psychology Today and other media outlets, has spoken at Amazon and internationally, and has been featured in Quartz, Bustle, The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, Time, the Washington Post, and on numerous podcasts. Sensitive teaches how to unlock the potential in this undervalued strength and leverage it across the most important areas of our lives: in friendships and relationships, the workplace, leadership, and parenting.
Here’s what Sólo shares about the benefits of being a highly sensitive person and how to leverage those benefits fully:
Kathy Caprino: What was your mission behind founding the Sensitive Refuge and how will you use your new book to further that mission?
Andre Sólo: Our mission is to change the way the world sees, and talks about, being sensitive. Sensitive people have tremendous gifts—they are the world’s innovators, deep thinkers, and compassionate advisors. And yet we’re told to hide being sensitive. We’re told it means we are weak or soft. But sensitive people aren’t weak at all—in many ways, they have a superpower. That’s what we want sensitive people to understand about themselves, and what we want the rest of the world to see, too.
Caprino: Let’s talk about ‘sensitivity’ – What are the most common traits of sensitivity that others often misinterpret?
Sólo: The stigma is that being sensitive makes you fragile or you overreact. Evidence suggests otherwise. As a personality trait, being sensitive simply means you pick up more information from your surroundings and you respond more to it. You’re the one who notices the subtle notes of oak in a chardonnay, or you’re the one who can pick up on what someone’s really feeling even when they try to hide it. Sensitive people can do this because their brains actually process information more deeply compared to other people. That’s a powerful trait. Nearly 1 in 3 people score highly for sensitivity—with equal numbers for men and women—and there’s a reason for that: sensitivity has helped us survive as a species.
Of course, like any trait, there are downsides. Sensitive people get overstimulated in hectic environments because the brain can’t go deep on everything all at once. But this is something sensitive people can overcome, and the best way for them to do that is to have more control over their environment and schedule. Give a sensitive person a quiet space and some time to think, and they’ll quickly outperform most other people.
Caprino: With the negative stigma that many sensitive males experience, how can men learn to embrace their sensitivity instead of suppress it, and why do they need to?
Sólo: Somehow, being sensitive has come to be seen as a feminine trait. That wasn’t always the case. Being sensitive is how you track animals in the wilderness, spot ambushes in the military, and figure out what the guy on the other side of the negotiating table really wants. And yes, it also means you probably have a higher level of empathy—which is a good thing for any gender. The truth is, being sensitive is not a male or female thing, and it’s nearly equally common in both. Sensitive men might value different parts of their sensitivity, but it’s something they can take pride in.
The best thing you can do as a sensitive man is to accept and embrace that about yourself and start to see it as a strength. You won’t be alone. For instance, Bruce Springsteen has said that being sensitive is one of the qualities that make up a good man, and it’s a quality he respects in his sons.
Caprino: In your book, you talk about the transition of the word “introvert” from being a dirty word to now being normal. How do you think people can ultimately learn to do the same and best add the word “sensitive” into their everyday language?
Sólo: Imagine it’s 1999 and you’re interviewing for a job. You couldn’t possibly say you’re an introvert—you might lose the job on the spot. That’s where being sensitive is today.
In order to change that, we sensitive people need to start owning the term and saying it proudly. It’s okay to tell your boss, “I’m sensitive to my environment, so I do my best work when I have uninterrupted quiet periods to focus. What’s a good time for me to schedule those?”
You can use similar language if you have a sensitive child. Try telling their teacher, “So-and-so is a sensitive kid, and that’s something we’re trying to encourage.” That really changes the conversation. The teacher might ask questions, and you can explain that sensitive kids given support and encouragement actually outperform other kids academically. In fact, that’s true of sensitive adults, too—with a supportive environment, they tend to be top performers.
The key is to show that link. Sensitive people can offer these gifts because of their sensitivity, not in spite of it. And the world wants what sensitive people have to offer—creativity, compassion, and the ability to make connections that other people miss. The more we can talk about sensitivity in that way, in connection to its gifts, the more we will normalize it.
Caprino: You have shared that empathy and sensitivity are different. Can you share how? And empathy is often seen as a vulnerability. How can highly sensitive people transform empathy into a gift rather than a perceived weakness?
Sólo: Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and, to some extent, mirror them. If someone is sad, and you feel sad for them, that’s empathy.
Sensitive people report having higher levels of empathy than other people, and that’s borne out by brain studies. One 2021 study went so far as to show participants pictures of their own loved ones looking happy or sad, as well as strangers. Over and over, the highly sensitive people had a stronger empathy response than average people, even toward strangers. In other words, highly sensitive people are wired to care.
The problem is that high empathy isn’t always easy to live with. Many sensitive people find themselves “absorbing” the emotions of others and carrying a lot of stress because of the stress of people around them—again, even from strangers. But some have the opposite experience. They are able to respond positively and helpfully to other people’s difficult emotions, without sacrificing their own wellbeing. My co-author Jenn Granneman and I found that the difference comes down to one thing: compassion.
If empathy means mirroring someone’s emotions, compassion means responding with warmth and caring. One compassion expert put it this way: if a baby is crying, it doesn’t help to cry right back. Instead, you need to figure out whether they need a burping or a bottle or something else. That desire to act and help is what we call compassion.
When empathy is harnessed to compassion, it becomes a world-changing force. In many ways this is how our species has survived, by helping each other. Even Charles Darwin didn’t agree with the way people interpreted “survival of the fittest,” and believed that survival of the kindest is what really helps species get ahead.
Caprino: How is sensitivity a powerful advantage that can ultimately help people survive in a variety of environments?
Sólo: If being sensitive wasn’t a survival advantage, we wouldn’t see 30% of people testing as highly sensitive today. Our sensitivity is one of the traits that brought us to where we are.
That’s easy to understand in the Ice Age. Sensitive people are wired to notice things that other people miss—whether that be a lurking predator, a change in the wind, or the barely perceptible tracks of a tasty rabbit. When I think of sensitive people in prehistory, I picture the person watching the ocean and figuring out the cycle of the tides, rather than just jumping in and hoping for the best.
Today, being sensitive is a superpower for a different reason: our entire economy is built on the things that sensitive people do best. Creativity is more valued than ever, technological advancement is the backbone of growth, and there is an urgent need for nurses, doctors, childcare workers, and caretakers. There has never been a better time to be a creative deep-thinker with a high level of empathy.
That doesn’t mean all sensitive people have to be AI engineers or work in the ICU. In fact, I think those industries are going to miss out on a lot of the best talent they could recruit unless they can start to offer an environment that works for sensitive people. But I do want every sensitive person to know that the world wants more of what you have to offer. Not only are you not weak, fragile, or “too” sensitive—not only are you normal. You have an advantage.
Caprino: Any last words to help highly sensitive people—and those who work and live with them—thrive in a higher way in life and work?
Sólo: Sensitive people are built to thrive and actually outperform others, if they have a healthy, supportive environment. So the single most important thing you can do as a sensitive person is to take control of your environment. The way you do that is by eliminating the people in your life who bring you down, spending more time with the people who understand and encourage you, giving yourself downtime each day, and seeking out programs that will help you develop yourself further—whether that’s a class, a coach, therapy, or finding a mentor. Do that, and you will see yourself rocket forward and start to achieve your goals.
For the friend or loved one of a sensitive person: accept them. Think about their strengths and remember that these strengths come from their sensitivity. And maybe consider the phrase, “I like how sensitive you are, because…” It might be the first time they’ve ever heard it.
For more information, visit Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World.