‘Condition’ or ‘character’? How language impacts our understanding of the high sensitivity personality

By Cat Robson

In her Marie Clare article Are You Too Sensitive?, Helen Kirwan-Taylor discusses her process of self-discovery related to her own highly sensitive personality.

“Once upon a time, HSPs might have been written off as shy or even neurotic, but Aron [Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person] believes these labels are demeaning and inaccurate. Shyness, she says, is a learned response; HSPs are born with a heightened sensitivity meter.”

Kirwan-Taylor notes that an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the population suffers from the condition, a choice of phrase indicative of our cultural tendency to pathologize sensitivity.

“I should confess that when I first heard about HSP, it reminded me of the first time I learned about ODD (oppositional defiance disorder), which I felt was just another way of saying “bratty child.”

This time, my thinking went something like, “They’re trying to turn those irritating people who force others to walk on eggshells into bona fide victims.”

But I kept reading, and the more I read, the more I began to think that the HSP label explained a lot — about me, about my siblings, and about many of my friends.

Aron’s argument is that there are a lot of us whose feelings get hurt easily, and that this huge sector of the population is mistakenly being written off as weak and thin-skinned.

But as with ADD (attention deficit disorder) and even ODD, sooner or later society catches up with science and accepts that these terms are more than a fashionable excuse for being difficult or neurotic.

Though not currently classified as a disorder, HSP will, I suspect, soon become a part of the psychological lexicon.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (where you challenge your negative thoughts with logic), as well as antidepressants, can also help.”

Sadly, sensitivity may indeed become part of the canon of psychiatric disorders as psychiatry expands its definitions of mental illness and narrows the range of normalcy.

Highly sensitive persons, or HSPs, can be misdiagnosed with mental illnesses by professionals who are unfamiliar with the characteristics of sensitivity.

In spite of growing evidence that they are both ineffective and toxic, psychiatric drugs are often prescribed, sometimes resulting in permanent disability.

Ane Axford, LMFT, of SensitiveAndThriving.com, has another take on sensitivity in her blog post High Sensitivity vs. Disorder — Autoimmune, Emotional, Mental, Relational:

“It is healthy to be sensitive.

Disorders are not a natural result of sensitivity and they are not the same thing as sensitivity. Disorders develop as a result of the context and highly sensitive people are the most vulnerable.

Everything can go REALLY deep when you are highly sensitive and it’s not healthy for everything to enter you.

Care for your highly sensitive self and respect your sensitivity.

Know that you are just right as you are and you can meet all of your own needs.

Understand yourself, connect to your self, and accept yourself completely…

You will see that not only can you function with sensitivity, you can thrive.

In fact, thriving is THE way to combat disorder. You thrive by being fully you.

Your joy, peace, talents, and authentic expression will come out and it will feel fabulous.”

Language impacts our perceptions. The choice to describe our sensitivity, to ourselves and others, as part of our character versus a mental health condition, will have an effect on our capacity to flourish as highly sensitive people.



Woman interrupted: misdiagnosis and medication of sensitivity and giftedness

Misdiagnosis of the Gifted

Highly Sensitive People – Traits and Characteristics


Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America


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Originally posted 2010-12-02 13:19:22.


  1. This was a revealing and unfortunate line: “They’re trying to turn those irritating people who force others to walk on eggshells into bona fide victims.”

    If you are responsible for the eggshells, then don’t be surprised that you are crunching them under your feet.

    I like to think of sensitive people as those who would like the bull to exit the china shop and quit breaking things.

    How could we have any advances in psychological fields (and many others) without perceptive and sensitive people?

What do you think about these topics?