Are You a Dandelion, a Tulip, or an Orchid?
Have you ever been told you are too sensitive? Too often this statement is used as a criticism and you end up feeling weak, flawed, and “less than.” The truth is, being sensitive means you notice things, you care about people’s feelings, and you think deeply before you speak. It means taking the time to absorb and process, rather than rushing to make a decision. These individuals are sometimes described as Highly Sensitive People (HSP).
High sensitivity is a normal trait found in about twenty percent of the population. Psychotherapist Dr. Elaine Aron writes that being sensitive is not a flaw and HSPs are often intellectually gifted. “In the past HSPs have been called “shy,” “timid,” “inhibited,” or “introverted,” but these labels completely miss the nature of the trait. Thirty percent of HSPs are actually extroverts. HSPs only appear inhibited because they are so aware of all the possibilities in a situation. They pause before acting, reflecting on their past experiences. If these were mostly bad experiences, then yes, they will be truly shy. But in a culture that prefers confident, “bold” extroverts, it is harmful as well as mistaken to stigmatize all HSPs as shy when many are not.” Dr. Aron has been studying the innate temperament trait of high sensitivity since 1991, and even now, she, along with her husband, continue to be pioneers in this area of study. Dr. Aron uses the acronym “DOES” to summarize the characteristics of high sensitivity–D: depth of processing, O: overstimulation, E: emotional responsivity/empathy, and S: sensitivity to subtleties.
The tendency to process information more deeply is at the foundation of the trait of high sensitivity. At times, HSPs may appear slower in their response or decision-making process, but that is due to their thinking through all the options very carefully. HSPs have good intuition because everything is thoroughly processed. HSPs relate and compare what they notice in a situation with their past experiences and with other similar situations. Much research is being done on brain activity and HSP; for example, research done by Bianca Acevedo and her associates has shown more brain activation in HSPs than others in the area of the brain called the insula. This part of the brain was an enigma for quite some time, and it was not until advances in functional brain imagery that we could identify this tiny structure and understand its role, which is providing an emotional cognition to physiological experiences. Simply put, it is because of the insula that you know how to react when your body is experiencing different emotions.
Because HSPs notice every little thing in a situation, they tire out more quickly than individuals who are not as perceptive. For example, if the situation is intense (noisy, cluttered, etc.), an HSP might need some quiet space to recharge due to having so much to process. Because of this tendency to be overstimulated, HSPs may become more stressed than non-HSPs and feel the need to avoid intense situations. Thus, self-care needs to be a priority. More on self-care will be discussed later.
Research has shown that HSPs react more to both positive and negative experiences than non-HSPs. Recent studies by Jadzia Jagiellowicz have shown HSPs react more to pictures with a “positive valence” and even more so if the HSPs had a good childhood. These findings relate to the idea of “vantage sensitivity,” a concept by Michael Pluess and Jay Belsky that emphasizes the benefits of positive circumstances and interventions for HSPs.
A study was done by Bianca Acevedo which consisted of HSPs and non-HSPs looking at photos of loved ones and of strangers expressing happiness, sadness, or a neutral feeling. HSPs showed increased activation in the insula in all situations where an emotion was in the photo, as well as increased activity in their mirror neuron system. Dr. Aron describes mirror neurons as, “When we are watching someone else do something or feel something, this clump of neurons fires in the same way as some of the neurons in the person we are observing. Not only do these amazing neurons help us learn through imitation, but in conjunction with the other areas of the brain that were especially active for HSPs, they help us know others’ intentions and how they feel. Hence, they are largely responsible for the universal human capacity for empathy. We do not just know how someone else feels, but actually feel that way ourselves to some extent. This is very familiar to sensitive people.” Overall, HSPs had increased brain activation when looking at photos of faces showing strong emotion of any type.
Sensitivity to Subtleties
HSPs notice subtleties that others miss, and the brain areas that are more active are those that do the more complex processing of sensory information. This is helpful in many ways, from knowing what brings pleasure in one’s life to choosing how to respond to an individual’s nonverbal cues. On the flip side of things, when an HSP is tired, all these subtleties will be missed and the focus will be more on taking a break to recharge.
Dandelion, Tulip, or Orchid
Now that we have some of the basic information, let’s go a bit further. Like most other common human traits, sensitivity is partially genetic; 47% is explained by genetic factors, while the remaining 53% are due to non-shared environmental influences and measurement error. There is no single “sensitivity gene,” but rather hundreds or thousands of genetic variants. Sensitivity involves an intricate interplay between our environment and genetics; it begins in the mother’s womb and continues throughout one’s life.
You are reading this post and probably wondering, “Am I a Highly Sensitive Person?” Recently, Michael Pluess and his team launched a website called SensitivityResearch.com to help individuals (and their children) identify where they are on the sensitivity spectrum by means of various tests. You can complete the assessment(s) and receive the results immediately, and if you would like, you can anonymously share your results with the academic research team. The results explain where you (or your child) fall on the “sensitivity continuum,” which is divided into 3 categories, low sensitivity (“dandelion”), medium sensitivity (“tulip”), or high sensitivity (“orchid”). These plant-based metaphors are described in a 2005 paper by W. Thomas Boyce and Bruce Ellis. “A Swedish idiomatic expression, maskrosbarn (dandelion child), refers to the capacity of some children, not unlike those with low reactive phenotypes, to survive and even thrive in whatever circumstances they encounter, in much the same way that dandelions seem to prosper irrespective of soil, sun, drought or rain. Observations of such children have generated, for example, an extensive amount of developmental literature on the phenomenon of resilience, the capacity for positive adaptation despite experiences of significant adversity. A contrasting Swedish neologism, orkidebarn (orchid child), might better describe the context-sensitive individual, whose survival and flourishing is intimately tied, like that of the orchid, to the nurturant or neglectful character of the ambient environment. In conditions of neglect, the orchid promptly declines, while in conditions of support and nurture, it is a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.” In a 2018 study published by Pluess and colleagues, “tulip” was added to the mix as a third floral metaphor representing “medium sensitivity” on the continuum. Tulips are less delicate than orchids but not as resilient as dandelions in the horticultural world. Where do you fall on the sensitivity continuum? Are you a dandelion, tulip, or orchid? To access this assessment, go to sensitivityresearch.com.
Self-care is a critical component to your overall wellbeing, and this is especially true for HSPs. Due to the biological differences in the nervous system, HSPs process stimuli deeply, and as a result, can easily be overwhelmed. By practicing self-care, you are allowing yourself to recharge; you are investing in yourself which will lower your stress, help keep you healthy, and allow you to be present for others. If you are not practicing self-care, start now and make it a part of your daily routine. Need some ideas? Practice mindfulness (listen to your body, how are you breathing? are you tense anywhere?), breathe intentionally, go for a short walk or exercise, garden, read a book for pleasure, make art (draw, paint, write, sculpt, bake, cook, etc.), take a bath/shower, drink non-caffeinated tea (peppermint, chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, etc.), spend time with a good friend or pet, listen to music, travel, take a nap. Do some brainstorming and find ideas that work best for you!
Imagine viewing sensitivity as a superpower… being conscious of other people’s body language (the largest factor in communication), having a strong ability to feel what others are feeling (loved ones and strangers), having a strong ability to navigate black and white situations without judgement, being extraordinarily perceptive and intuitive (noticing little details about your surroundings that others miss), being highly creative and an imaginative thinker, an out-of-the box thinker. HSPs have the incredible ability to “hold the space” for others in conversation—they are genuine listeners, while the other individual feels supported. HSPs have the ability to embrace meaning in life’s obstacles and fully experience the depth of human emotions. Lastly and so powerfully, HSPs love deeply. As Melissa Noel Renzi so beautifully stated, “Highly sensitive people love a lot. We really do. We feel love in our bodies. We love with our eyes. We love with our touch and we love with our souls. No one feels love in the heart center like sensitives do.”
Dr. Aron’s HSP website https://hsperson.com
The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron
Alison Curtis, MS, Resident in Counseling, provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to clients in the state of Virginia. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Alison!