The gentle power of highly sensitive people | Elena Herdieckerhoff | TEDxIHEParis


Translator: Carolina Parodi
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney I’m a highly sensitive person. What is the first thing you think
about when I tell you that? That I must be shy and introverted? Or perhaps very emotional? Or maybe even that you need
to walk on eggshells around me? The common assumption
about highly sensitive people is that we are somehow
weak and fragile creatures who picked a losing ticket
in the genetic lottery of life. You can see this in action
when you google the word “sensitive.” You will see images
of toothache, irritated skin, (Laughing) wilted dandelions, and crying people. Sensitivity clearly has a PR problem. (Laughter) Today I want to help change that. Maybe by now you’re wondering
what is it like to be highly sensitive? I invite you to imagine living
with all your senses on high alert. You also have a vivid inner world, where all of your emotions are magnified. Sadness is a deep sorrow,
and joy is pure ecstasy. You also care beyond reason and empathize without limits. Imagine being in permanent osmosis
with everything around you. Highly sensitive people
often hear things like: “You are too sensitive,” “Stop taking everything to heart,” or my favorite, “You should
really toughen up.” The fundamental message is clear: to be highly sensitive
is to be highly flawed. I used to agree with that. I always thought I should
come with some sort of warning sign or a disclaimer:
“careful; highly sensitive.” Now, let me share with you a few of the perks of being
a highly sensitive person. For one, I have an intensely
overactive mind, which means it’s impossible to switch off. That also means that insomnia
is my best friend. As you can imagine, that is particularly
handy the night before a TED talk. (Laughing) Also I cannot watch scary
or violent movies because the images haunt me forever I remember when I was a child,
I watched the movie “Jaws”. It traumatized me so much that I was unable
to go near a swimming pool, let alone the sea, for several years. And, embarrassingly enough, I do my childhood nickname
of “Princess of the Pea” proud when it comes to traveling and hotel beds. The mattress should be not too hard,
not too soft; it has to be just right. My father once jokingly recommended that I should simply start traveling
with my own bed and pillow to avoid any future travel hassles. (Laughing) I often wondered, “what good
could it possibly do me to be this way?” Well, the gifts of sensitivity
slowly crept up on me. I’ve come to learn to love that
I deeply and easily connect with others and also that I have a strong intuition
that guides me like an infallible GPS. It was only at the age of 25
that I came across a book that changed my life: “The Highly Sensitive Person”
by Dr. Elaine Aron. I could finally put a name to my overwhelmingly
technicolor experience of life, and it gave me hope
that there were others like me. In this book she describes
highly sensitive people, or in short HSPs, as people who have a genetic trait
of sensory processing sensitivity. That’s quite a mouthful. And, surprisingly, 15 – 20%
of the population is HSP. Now, she uses the wonderful acronym “DOES”
to summarize the core traits of HSPs. The “D” stands for “depth of processing”. As HSPs, we have a phenomenal ability
to deeply analyze absolutely everything. My favorite example for this is what
I call “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” (Laughing) Basically, we can take up to an hour
to read the entire 40-page menu, despite the fact that we will very likely
order our favorite dish anyway. (Laughing) The “O” stands for “overstimulation”. We get quickly overwhelmed
by the world around us. Now, I’m Bavarian
and I love our Oktoberfest, but I actually have to leave after an hour because I get completely overpowered by the mix of roast chicken
smells with candy floss, and the cacophony of songs
and the massive crowds. It is too much for my senses. The “E” stands for “empathy”;
HSPs feel what others feel. It’s like that old Hebrew saying: “When one cries, the other tastes salt.” Lastly, the “S” stands for
“awareness of subtleties”. HSPs are like a finely tuned sensor;
they can pick up on the minutest things. Unfortunately, that means
that they are also the kind of people who will wake you up at three A.M. to tell you that they hear
a tap dripping in the kitchen two floors down. As you can see, being an HSP is about
far more than emotional reactivity. I would like to address
the two big elephants in the room when it comes to HSP stereotypes. The first assumption is that HSPs
must be undercover introverts that wanted a fancier name. (Laughter) The fact of the matter is,
30% of HSPs are actually extroverts, which means we cannot park them in the convenient
“quiet wallflower” category, HSPs come in many shades of pastel. Secondly, because of the supposed
femininity of HSP traits, many assume that HSPs are women. It may come as a surprise that 50%
of HSPs are, in fact, men. In our society, men
are not supposed to be sensitive but aggressive and competitive. Sadly, the notion that men
can be both sensitive and strong is still too much of an alien concept. Now, it is a good time to tell you that I don’t think HSPs are better
or worse than anyone else; they are simply different. I would also like to point out
that despite the rumors, that they are not members
of “The Special Snowflake Society”, and also, HSPs don’t have a secret
handshake to identify each other either. (Laughing) HSPs are like everyone else except that they experience the world in a more vivid way. And if you think that all HSPs are alike, that is not true; no two HSPs are the same. Every HSP has their own
unique sensitive fingerprint alongside other identity markers like gender, ethnicity, and cultural
and personal background. I would also like to point out
that being an HSP is not an illness, and it is also not a choice. It is a genetic trait. We are essentially born to be mild. Everytime you tell an HSP
they are “too sensitive”, it’s like telling someone with blue eyes
that their eyes are too blue. Chances are, no matter how often you tell them, you’ll still have the same
blue eyes looking back at you. As a society, we have come to think
of sensitivity as a flaw; an unfortunate, emotional Achilles heel, that tempers with our ability to become
evermore optimized, detached, and robotic. We all too readily belittle the idealists,
the dreamers, and the creators. This was, however, not always the case. In previous centuries, philanthropists,
philosophers, poets, artists, and painters were all venerated for their
sensitive contribution to society. Who would we be without Leonardo Da Vinci
or without a Mozart? Without Anaïs Nin or Balzac? Or Mother Teresa or Ghandi? Our world would certainly be
a shade darker. Now, I’m not suggesting that all HSPs
are geniuses that shape the world. But, most HSPs have a genuine urge
to create connection and meaning. Because they feel every pain they see, they want to elevate the forgotten
and save the misfortunate. When HSPs try to hide
their sensitivity to fit in, we all lose. For would a society not be poorer that lacks the beating heart
of sensitive creation? That discredits imagination,
intuition, and empathy? I believe so. That is why I think
we need to urgently start to accept and appreciate sensitivity for the temperature regulating effect
it has on an often hot headed world. I believe we’re all sensitive to different degrees
and in different ways. HSPs are simply
at the far end of the spectrum. That is why how we think and
talk about sensitivity concerns all of us. We need to come together as a society to rewrite the negative
cultural narrative about sensitivity, and turn it into a positive one. We need to erase the notion
that sensitivity is a weakness to finally benefit
from its many strengths. By doing so, we will create an environment where everybody is safe
to express their softer side, not just HSPs. How can we go back to creating
more positive awareness and acceptance for sensitivity? On a public level, I believe the two most urgent changes
need to happen in schools and workplaces. In schools, we need
to better train our teachers to recognize and understand
sensitive children. And for parents and teachers alike, the often well-meant desire
to toughen them up, to survive in the big,
mean world out there, needs to stop. We should not try to force sheep
into wolves’ clothing. On a corporate level, the system is set up to favor
those with steel elbows. Because sensitive people typically are more soft spoken
and co-operative instead of competitive, they often get left behind
on the corporate ladder. To change this, we need to create an environment
where all personality types can flourish, and not just a select few. That is why I believe, for corporations,
it is in their own best interest to invite sensitive people to the table. Because without sensitives
they risk lacking innovation, integrity, an, ultimately, humanity. On a personal level, we can all make an impact simply by refraining from judging
the delicate difference of the sensitives around us. The next time you feel like
telling someone, “You’re too sensitive!” I would ask you to stop and pause. Fill that pause with understanding. You will see that the simple act
of acceptance will uplift both of you. To my fellow HSPs, I say: Take heart and be unashamedly yourselves. Stop trying to toughen up. Stop hiding; you’re beautiful as you are. Don’t feel weird, because it’s not you
who can be considered wrong but rather a world in which corruption, violence, and greed are the norm. As Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted
to a profoundly sick society.” When I was a little girl, I loved chasing butterflies in our garden and I admired their fragile beauty. I felt a deep urge to protect them, so I decided to trap them
in little mason jars filled with grass and flowers, to keep them safe with me in my room. I quickly understood: butterflies do not like captivity. This made me understand:
they did not need to be rescued, Their colorful contribution
to the natural ecosystem was exactly as it should be. Similarly, HSPs should not hide away from the pain of this world
in a protective incubator. It is their role to step up and share their sensitive gifts with all of us. I believe, as humans, we are all united by our experience
of sensitivity and empathy. Also I don’t believe you need to be an HSP
to care and to make a difference. We are facing grave political, cultural, and environmental
problems today. Now, more than ever, we need the contribution
of sensitive minds and hearts to pave a path for troubled times ahead. The more we all allow ourselves to connect to our innate sensitive gifts, the more we can heal ourselves
and the planet we live on. Inspired by John Lennon – who perhaps wrote the biggest
sensitivity anthem of all times with “Imagine” – let me close by saying: Please, don’t tell me I’m a dreamer, for I know I’m not the only sensitive one. Have faith that you’ll join hands with me to make this world a gentler one. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause)

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