Peter has written extensively about high sensitivity since 1997 when he learned he was an HSP.
Highly Sensitive... or just "Touchy?"
As a Highly Sensitive Person, I am acutely aware of not only my own but also other people's feelings. Feeling other people's moods—to the point of being what some might call an "empath"—is part and parcel of being an HSP for many people.
At the same time, I also am well aware that part of the HSP trait, for many people, involves some variation on the theme of "easily hurt feelings."
In her books about high sensitivity, Elaine Aron does not actually list "easily hurt feelings" as part of the trait, and it's not. However, to put things in perspective, it's more a case of experiencing things deeply, which also means experiencing pain more deeply. There are many highly sensitive people who do not get their feelings hurt easily, as well as some who do.
Personally, because I am aware of feeling moods and not wanting to cause pain, I tend to be extremely careful about not hurting anyone else's feelings. So where am I going with this?
Well, being an HSP myself who's both a writer and a long-time student of the HSP trait, I also know that the information I share, however factual it may be, may become the source of hurt feelings, for some people.
How does that happen? Well, some people are more attached to their closely held points of view than they are to dealing with the facts that might help them heal from past hurts. In a broader sense, many people prefer to live with "a pretty illusion" rather than "an ugly truth."
In this article I will be exploring something that can be a difficult topic for many HSPs—namely, the delicate balance people sometimes walk between merely being "highly sensitive" (in a positive way) and slipping over into the negative pattern of being "highly touchy."
It is very important here to keep in mind that this particular issue only applies to some people. Let me state that one more time: some people.
A large part of what can make this a "difficult" topic for HSPs is that we have often spent much of our lives being told, "Oh, you're just too sensitive!" Now I'm going to talk about ways in which sensitivity can manifest in a toxic way that's often very difficult for other people to be around.
Not All Sensitivity Is the Same
If you're reading this article, there's a high likelihood you're an HSP. There may also be a good chance that your feelings get hurt easily.
However, we need to take a closer look at what is actual sensitivity, and what may be reactivity and old programming that is not related to being an HSP. This can be a very important distinction, because whereas there is no "treatment" for sensitivity, there are ways to deal with healing old wounds-—and doing so can help us lead more fulfilling lives.
Again, please keep in mind that this is something that only applies to some HSPs. What's described in this article may not apply to you. On the other hand, if you find yourself getting really angry at some of the things you read here, please consider it an invitation to have a deeper look at where that anger is coming from. I personally experienced some of this myself, during my early days of learning about being an HSP.
Also keep in mind that some people who identify with the HSP definition are actually "situationally sensitive," which is quite different from the inborn genetic trait. Most often, situationally sensitive people are experiencing temporary and typically environmentally induced sensitivity, anxiety and even hyper-vigilance as a consequence of being in severely abusive situations, and not as a result of having a permanently, highly tuned central nervous system.
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Again, this is important because there are psychological approaches to helping people who suffer from complex PTSD.
Exploring Differences Between "Sensitivity" and "Touchiness"
Let's take a moment to examine some of the characteristics I'm talking about. Perhaps you know someone who:
- Makes you feel like you constantly have to tiptoe around them, leaving you with a sense of "walking on eggshells," because almost anything you do is "wrong" and "upsetting" to that person.
- Is never happy with anything, unless things are done and unfold precisely according to their wishes.
- Indirectly intimidates you or other people by making a "dramatic scene" or "having a meltdown" unless the "needs" of their sensitivity is catered to, to the letter.
- Frequently makes statements that end with the words "...but I can't, because I'm highly sensitive."
- Incorrectly identifies actual pathologies (social anxiety, agoraphobia, shyness, lack of impulse control, ADHD, PTSD, and others) as "part of being an HSP," or as "being caused by sensitivity," thereby granting themselves license to not deal with their own deeply rooted problems that exist beyond high sensitivity.
- Although appearing passive and compliant, subtly manipulates group situations to unfold according to their "needs, as an HSP," even if detrimental to the group, as a whole.
- Steadfastly refuses to participate in any form of social activity (usually in work settings), but pouts and "emotionally punishes" everyone in a group of peers if not invited, even after saying, "no thanks," for the 20th time.
- Uses illness, chronic ailments, or personal crises as "attention-getting" tools, then subsequently blames these on "being an HSP."
- Engages in black-and-white thinking, incorrectly perceiving that anyone who sees them as "less than wonderful" must, by definition, "hate" them.
- Insists that they "became an HSP" at some point in life, even though the trait is genetically inborn.
If any of the above sound familiar, you might be dealing with a "highly touchy person." Now, I should add that this doesn't mean they are not an HSP—it merely means they are probably facing underlying psychological issues that extend far beyond high sensitivity. The problem is that such a person may be using the words, "I'm highly sensitive," to mask and thereby avoid addressing some serious personal problems that may require the help of a mental health professional.
Now, this is not merely based on my own 18+ years as a member of the global HSP community. Elaine Aron, research psychologist, HSP, and author of the groundbreaking book The Highly Sensitive Person, states that some HSPs who are the product of dysfunctional upbringings can sometimes turn into what she characterizes as "little princes and princesses."
HSPs, "Victimology," and Toxic Patterns
There is a high correlation between people who come from abusive backgrounds, which could have been in their family-of-origin or in past relationships, and a tendency to not only embrace the idea of being highly sensitive, but to additionally wear the trait as a coat-of-armor against the world.
When I speak of a highly touchy person, I am speaking of the small number of HSPs who are actually using the HSP trait as their primary rationale for why everything bad happens in their lives. This person doesn't actually use understanding of high sensitivity as a tool for personal growth and self-development; rather, they adopt the HSP label as a way to avoid dealing with any of their own difficult issues, while blaming others, or their environment, for their difficulties. I should know—as I mentioned previously, I went down that road once upon a time. In many ways, these folks put themselves in a "one down" situation, where they feel like they are the perpetual victims of their own circumstances. Ultimately, high sensitivity becomes their justification for not engaging in life.
In extreme cases, this can turn into a form of emotional bullying or emotional blackmail. For example, I have been told on several occasions, that I was "obviously not an HSP" because I was unwilling to validate (and enable) the other person's self-destructive behavior as a "natural" part of the HSP trait. I have also met people—who were very obviously HSPs—whose feelings were hurt by the mere fact that my opinion about a topic was different from theirs, and they subsequently attempted to convince me that I was insensitive for not seeing the world as they did. Merely honoring their opinion as theirs was not enough; I was expected to adopt their opinion as my own.
Understanding High Sensitivity as a Neutral Trait
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron repeatedly stresses that high sensitivity is a neutral trait. Although HSPs may experience the world as difficult from time to time, sensitivity itself is neither good nor bad.
Self-exploration involves many challenges, not least of which is the difficulty of remaining objective about oneself. As we explore this thing called "being a highly sensitive person," it becomes important to stop and consider whether we are actually using our learning to grow as individuals, or have we slipped into a pattern of allowing ourselves to disengage from life in the name of "protecting" our sensitivity? Moreover, are we using what we know to manipulate others into accepting our point of view at the expense of their own?
Learning and understanding as much about the trait as possible tends to be helpful. Often those who slide into a pattern of "high touchiness" use limited and incomplete parts of the overall picture to create an unhealthy personal reality.
This article is part of an ongoing series about the joys and challenges of life as a highly sensitive person (HSP). For more background information about HSPs, please read The Highly Sensitive Person: An Introduction.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Ellen on May 21, 2015:
I believe 'highly sensitive people' may be capable of wounding others to a higher degree (intentionally or un-intentionally)
Mark on July 07, 2013:
This was a very helpful article. I've recently discovered the HSP diagnosis, and am still learning. Speaking as an HSP, I can say that occasionally I can also be Highly Touchy, and this article was a valuable warning to watch out for those times when it seems that Self Pity + HSP = Highly Touchy.
Nucky on May 29, 2013:
Excellent article Peter. I recognized myself in some of the "touchy" traits and it is definitely NOT the person I want to be. It's a long process to overcome these habits. I think I'm doing a little better though.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on May 29, 2013:
@IS - Thank you. I like to think we are all striving to be our "best selves" and that would include being honest with ourselves about some of the things we may not like about our behavior.
@Roland82 - I do honor your feelings and your honesty; I can only point out that this article was not intended to imply ALL HSPs are like this-- just that SOME use the "label" as something to hide their deeper issues behind. And yes, there are people who are affected by "situational" sensitivities-- usually as a result of prolonged abuse-- who are NOT actually HSPs, but "adopt" the label as a means of not facing their "inner demons."
@Kimberly - I think we all have our "moments" where we can be real "pills" to the rest of the world. I know I do. The problem is when someone becomes a passive-aggressive manipulator...
@HubAmeliaJ - part of the challenge with high sensitivity is that it is not a "condition" so there is no formal "diagnosis" only people who self-evaluate. However, I have to disagree with the assertion that I am "identifying the touchiness as an HSP trait." No, I am not. I am saying that SOME HSPs exhibit this behavior. In addition SOME people (who are not all HSPs) use the HSP "identity" as a "meal ticket" to give themselves "permission" to not examine their own deeper issues. Personally, I am about a medium-to-strong HSP... and I have my issues and baggage like everyone else. I have VERY strong responses to something... but I categorically do not believe that grants me license to start demanding "special treatment" from people around me... what it DOES do is offer me an invitation to examine my "stuff" in a deeper fashion and manage my responses in a more positive fashion when testing situations arise.
HubAmeliaJ on February 11, 2013:
Hmmm. I'm not sure what to think of this article. Up to 20% of people are HSP, but some answer yes to every question on the HSP tests and others barely make this category. Who would be the highly touchy? I've met many very touchy people who are not HSPs. They are extremely insensitive to others needs and emotions, are very demanding, self-absorbed and are oblivious to the fact that their bad moods and whining affects the people around them. But the author is really identifying the touchiness as an HSP trait. How does the author define 'touchiness.' It just sounds like the author is maybe not an extreme HSP, because if they were, they would be more sensitive in writing this article.
Kimberly on January 13, 2013:
This is SUCH a fantastic, insightful article. This describes my mother to a T, and myself also being an HSP, I can see that at times I can fall into this trap of being a little princess as well. When I am stressed out and not able to deal with things, while I am an HSP, I can become extremely rigid and controlling to try to minimize the "icky" feelings of sensory overload. I am so interested in breaking this cycle as I despise when I behave this way and am fully aware it is unfair and destructive to those around me. Thank you again for another brilliant article.
Roland82 on December 05, 2012:
I signed up just to respond to this. I also feel that this article is extremely offensive. Not so much that it is completely inaccurate, but that it could be written better. I'd say that it's an ineffective coping mechanism and not out of any real desire of any HSP to abuse it.... The way you say it makes some of us sound like people without the trait who genuinely are abusing any label to get things their way... sounds like a psychopath. Then they'd do that sort of thing whether they do or do not possess any sensitivity.