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.
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.
I'll freely admit that I've on occasion behaved very sulky and quiet when I'm being abused. That's because I see no other way at all. I clearly am not good at confronting people head on, I've tried, it doesn't work. There are times I'm successful in talking things out nicely... but if someone really hates you, then you know as well as I do that we'll feel very down and depressed.
Maybe I'm not explaining it clearly above. I like most of your other articles, but this one was very offensive to me personally and disappointing. Especially considering that I look to these sort of articles as a form of insight and solace.
IS on October 01, 2012:
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I've often wondered if I'm HSP, but have absolutely shied away from it because of what you've just written - what with the Naomi Campbells of the world claiming it as an excuse to act any way they want and vomit their emotions all over everyone else, making the rest of us 'contain' what they refuse to learn how to handle. "Oh, I got in a rage/stopped talking to you b/c I'm an HSP and your disagreeing with me upset me more than it would most people." I know it's a very non-HSP reaction, but mine is usually, "Bite me and grow up." My job to be here for you and support you; not my job to contain your emotions.
@book - I'm sorry you feel that way, but your defensiveness may point to the fact that this article hits close to home, and there's a reason you don't want to examine it too closely. Best of luck.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on June 05, 2012:
@Book: I'm sorry that you felt offended by the article, and I am sorry people have hurt you so badly, in the course of your life. That said, your strongly worded response, suggests that something within these words must have sounded familiar, or struck close to home.
I also feel sad because it seems like you didn't *read* the article except very superficially, or you might have noticed that this is not an article about "ALL HSPs" as your tone suggests, but a small subset who hide serious issues behind the HSP label. A subset, I might add, that the person who originally coined the phrase "Highly Sensitive Person" even talks about, in her own workshops and lectures. AND a subset whose conduct makes it more difficult for the majority of well-adjusted and functional HSPs to get taken seriously.
No, I don't see HSPs as "bad," you are absolutely incorrect in making that assessment. For one, I AM one, myself as is my wife (who's a life coach for HSPs) and one of my adult sons. 90% of my friends are HSPs, ... by CHOICE. So to suggest that I am "jealous of HSPs" makes no sense to me whatsoever.
This article was not written as a criticism of HSPs, but as an invitation to examine certain unhealthy behavior patterns sometimes found in SOME HSPs, and as a "reality check" to see where/if we are "falling asleep" on our journeys of self-development. This is something I do vis-a-vis my OWN journey, on a regular basis.
Sorry, again, that you found this offensive... and I honor your right to freely offer your opinion!
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on June 05, 2012:
@The Happy Sensitive: Agreed. It is very important for HSPs to recognize narcissists, and it's also important to be aware that HSPs can BE narcissists. In a manner of speaking. We spoke a bit about this at one of the HSP Gatherings, during Elaine Aron's post-presentation Q&A session, which is the first time I heard her use the terms "little princes" and "little princesses" about certain HSPs from toxic childhoods.
@lovelylovergirl: I hope you will find ways to not hate yourself for feeling sensitive. It can feel very bad to compare ourselves to others... and then we start "shoulding on ourselves." HSPs are NOT like other people, and when we start thinking we "should" be, life becomes pretty miserable.
Book on June 05, 2012:
I am an HSP and can say that this article is very far off. I was offended and to say they project, manipulate and pout to get their way sounds like you are describing sociopaths. You sound jealous of hsp's and feel the need to put our sensitive gift down. This is why we are so cautious because people either love us or hate us and you try to make people think we "fake illnesses for attention". HSP's don't live in denial like most of the world. We get sick because we are always helping others and get nothing in return from a mostly selfish world. You are too shallow to understand an HSP so you only see them as bad which is probably your own projection.
lovelylovergirl on March 26, 2012:
I will agree with this article. I think I am highly sensitive. I honestly hate being this way. I feel like I am gigantic sucker for others. I know I can like what you stated above. I do not like being highly sensitive. I wish there were a way to be otherwise. I am always the one crying to movies. I kind of feel like everyone else can deal with life better than I can.
The Happy Sensitive on August 28, 2011:
Hi Peter, I would interprete such extremely touchy behaviour as narcissistic. However, a very overwhelmed and stressed-out senstive person can also behave rather narcissistically (but that would be temporary). So I'd say it's important to determine whether such extremism seems to be a character trait vs. temporarily exaggerated response due to a lot of stress. Narcissists can be very touchy when things don't go their way, but in my opinion, that has nothing to do with being HSP and, narcissists are not interested in self-growth. We're having a big discussion on the topic on elise le beau's empath forum and are concluding it is essential for HSP's to recognize narcissists, since they seem very much like HSP's, but are actually quite "dangerous" to hang out with...
lula may on June 30, 2009:
Great article, loved it!
KateWest from Los Angeles, CA on August 30, 2008:
Very hard to step outside of yourself and see things objectively. Kudos.
Jewels from Australia on August 25, 2008:
Nice hub my friend. Isabella Snow has not long written a hub about Empathic Sensitive people. Your hub encompasses more angles. No doubt there are difficulties encountered by sensitive people (I'm one of them) but being sensitive can be used as an excuse for not breaking through the limitations of our 'emotional' standpoint. In fact we use our emotional dramas as an excuse for not engaging in the world and not achieving the great things we are truly capable of.
One of the most positive qualities of sensitive people is their ability to really feel what other people do feel, and can therefore use that empathic ability to help others. Instead of hiding away. Though easier said than done, learning to stand in the vulnerability of hurt feelings while being effective and strong can often seem miles away. But this is where we need to understand what is our stuff and what is not. We can't always say it's someone else's stuff that's causing our issues. Have to learn how to manage our own energy in order to LIVE in the world.
The 'touchy' trait is our crap and must be overcome. I'm coming to understand that being sensitive is wonderful when I am strong enough to hold my centre among all the waves. Being touchy is often a victim trait and it is generally a victim's persona not to take charge of life and turn it around to be advantageous.