Putting The Person Before The Sensitivity


Do you consider yourself to be a “highly sensitive person” or a “person who is highly sensitive”?

Seems like there is no difference between the two, but consider this question posed by someone named “the_singular_anyone” on Reddit:

How much does the term “Highly Sensitive Person” suck?

Much as it makes sense for me, “Highly Sensitive Person” just sounds like “weak-willed,” an overly sensitive pushover.

Whereas “Person with Heightened Sensitivity” both uses Person-First Language, and makes me sound like an X-Man.

Who names these things, anyhow?

I don’t think the term sucks, but this guy makes a good point.  The descriptor “highly sensitive person” makes us sound like we need to live in a bubble while “person with heightened sensitivity” makes us seem like we have a superpower.

Language matters.  Where you place the sensitivity when describing yourself matters.  Where you place the sensitivity in your life matters.

I needed to put the “highly sensitive” before the “person” in order to understand it.  I needed to put it first as a way of saying to everyone “You think being sensitive is lame and I should toughen up?  Well, eff you, I’m going to shove it in your face”.  Okay, that sounded kinda angry but you know what I mean.  I needed to reclaim and reinterpret sensitivity when I decided to write about it.  I needed to see everything through the lens of my sensitivity.  I go out of my way to be highly sensitive on purpose — intentionally super aware, attentive, responsive and emotional.

Ane Axford wrote about the need to put “sensitivity before our personhood” in a Facebook post:

Not too long ago, a friend talked to me about person-centered language and critiqued the label “highly sensitive person” for putting the sensitivity before the person. I tend to agree with person-centered language, yet I found myself resistant to this. And I wonder, if in a world where sensitivity is not seen as relevant, or seen as weakness, or something not real…where sensitivity is put last if at all…maybe for a time we did need to put sensitivity before the person. Maybe that was in response to a world where sensitivity was misunderstood and misused. We needed the protection of the sensitivity before our personhood. My person was too weak to come first at that time, I believe.

Children whose sensitivity is met with understanding thrive.  When their unique needs are met, they thrive. When we as adults acknowledge, understand and meet the needs of our sensitivity — or put our sensitivity first — we thrive.  I know I have.

But when do we know it’s time to put the “person” before the sensitivity?

I find I put the “person” before my sensitivity when I’m struggling and it can’t be explained or understood through the highly sensitive lens.  I’m just like everyone else fighting a hard battle. Or as Austin Kleon put it recently “Everyone’s wearing an invisible t-shirt that reads ‘I, too, am in pain'”

I’m a ‘”person who is highly sensitive” when the identity “highly sensitive person” isn’t enough. It isn’t broad or deep enough because I’m always changing.  Ane Axford again on her Facebook page:

(It is) very common for those who are sensory sensitive, who have this sensitivity that is so receptive countered with a logical awareness that is constantly trying to make sense of it all. We want to know who we are and fit in because we want to feel connected. But, as is the usual with HSPs, we seem to be (the) inverse. I have seen that trying to create one identity actually creates separation and frustration. We are connected through our sensitive presence which is fluid and ever-changing.

Writing about high sensitivity has changed me for the better.  It helped me establish a writing discipline and connect with others and create an audience for my work.  I can only hope it helped people in the process.  But I need to be more than a HSP and write about more than sensitivity. I wrote about being highly sensitive because I needed to or as Ane Axford wrote on her Sensitive TOO community blog “I was desperate to supply the things that were missing in the world because I needed them.”  I don’t know if I need to anymore.

You might have noticed that I quoted Ane Axford a lot in this post.  I just think she’s really great at articulating the HSP experience.  She hasn’t posted anything on any platform that I know of since June.  That’s like 6 years in internet time.  I want her to put her sensitivity before her personhood and speak for all of us and help us recognize, embrace and understand ourselves.

But, I understand why she isn’t doing that.  I understand her need to be a whole person and take care of herself.  I understand her desire not to be just a HSP guru.  I understand.



6 thoughts on “Putting The Person Before The Sensitivity

  1. Highly sensitive means we have more receptors that take in more information, much more. This makes us more aware of our surroundings, How we deal/cope/process this information will vary. also, for me, it varies with the amount of “strong” information I receive, raw emotion. Often in complex sessions raw emotion can be hmmm almost overpowering, when I slip in another mind. It also, for me, builds over the course of a day or week or month.

    Superpowers is a good term Joyce. 🙂 Sometimes it is like that too. The mind-reading, instant understanding of a person and so much more. But like superpowers we need to control it or we burst in flames… it is like that sometimes too. I always find being near a lake to be so calming for me, when I am closer to overloading. Lakes are harder to find in the winter. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like this post very much. It is a shame that some ppl think that HSP are weak, when in fact we do actually have heightened sensitivity, which can actually get us, and those with us, out of dangerous situations, which might not be recognized by others who do not possess such heightened sensitivity.. I like the term “a person with heightened sensitivity”. I think I will use that as a retort when some (insensitive ) person at work tells me smugly that i’m “too sensitive”. Thanks for this great post.


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