While some aspects of our HSP sensory sensitivity can be annoying, inconvenient, or downright unpleasant, our sensitivity to subtlety is a gift—a key element of our unusual capacity for empathy and imagination.  

On weekday evenings I always keep an eye out for the New Yorker’s cartoon feature, “One from the Archives.” This particular cartoon left me howling (with laughter, that is.)  A stern-faced woman points at a dog. Looking up at her, he says, “I may want to sit. Just give me a chance to process this.”

“Just give me a chance to process this.” That’s the life of a highly sensitive person, captured in a mere eight words. I could write all day about our need for deep processing, but I’ve already done that here, here, and here. Instead, I’d like to explore another HSP characteristic: sensitivity to subtlety.

In fact, I’d like to go beyond exploration, into appreciation and celebration of our gift of sensitivity to subtlety. Why? Because it is a notably positive aspect of the HSP characteristic of sensory sensitivity, which too often gets a bad rap.

No wonder sensory sensitivity isn’t popular

HSPs understandably associate sensory sensitivity with discomfort and overwhelm: scratchy tags, irritating wool sweaters, painfully bright lights, intolerance for loud sounds, and so on. For some of us, the list gets even longer. In her psychotherapy practice, Dr. Elaine Aron has observed that

…sensitive persons have more contact allergies in particular…sensitive patients often report effects of their low pain threshold…back and neck problems, migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, unusual allergies, environmental sensitivities, or extreme premenstrual syndrome….you may hear of extensive use of alternative medicine, in part because the treatments and those offering them take sensory sensitivity more into account.” (page 35*)

Fortunately, not all HSPs suffer from all these challenges. However, in addition to dealing with our individual manifestations of our sensory sensitivity, we may also have to deal with our own or others’ judgment that we are “too sensitive.” 

Sensitivity to subtlety can be a wonderful thing

No doubt, being very sensitive to sounds, light, smells, textures, temperatures, etc. can feel like a physical and emotional challenge. For this reason, HSPs urgently need to stay conscious of the upside of our sensory sensitivity: namely, our sensitivity to subtlety.

In fact, our ability to notice subtleties others might miss is the mother wellspring of our empathy, our creativity, and our imagination. It even informs our sense of humor. As I laughed over that New Yorker dog cartoon, I realized how much the subtle details were contributing to my enjoyment.

Take the dog’s expression, for example. Is that a tear forming under his eye? He looks abashed, and no wonder, with that imperious finger in his face. On the other hand, he stands his ground, four feet firmly planted. Add the caption, and the cartoon gets truly subversive: a dog, demanding time to consider a command to sit? Outrageous…and hilarious.

Wanting to savor more of this subtly edgy wit, I dug around and found a very funny podcast of the cartoonist, Bruce Eric Kaplan, being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. He’s also a successful screenwriter and producer for TV shows like Seinfeld, Six Feet Under, and Girls.

Subtle observation + deep feeling = empathy

I don’t know whether Bruce Eric Kaplan is highly sensitive. But I think the way he draws on empathy to enter a character’s world is a perfect example of the power of subtle sensing.

Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” As a child, Kaplan did exactly that during countless hours spent in front of the TV. He tells Terry Gross,

Of course I loved “I Love Lucy” and saw every episode over and over again. I found it heartbreaking that Ricky got to be famous and have an exciting life at the Tropicana while Lucy was stuck in that terrible apartment with the Mertzes. Her pain was too much for me. I guess I identified.

How is this related to sensitivity to subtlety? Because true empathy is deeply nuanced. To empathize deeply, we have to sense and observe closely: the more you notice, the more keenly you can empathize with another person. As Jiddu Krishnamurti put it,

…when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.

Krishnamurti applied this insight to spiritual realization. Kaplan inhabits the human condition in a way that makes us laugh…and that helps him process his own “stuff.” He comments that

The cartoons have always been this great thing for me because you can hide in them…. And what I mean is that they’re very autobiographical and very personal… They’re what I’m seeing. But you put them through a prism of, you know, goldfish or about children or about two women on the street. And then that’s the freeing part.

Attunement to subtlety = artistic sensibility

No wonder so many highly sensitive people are attracted to and excel at creative pursuits like art, music, writing, photography…and cartooning. As we attune to subtleties of color, sound, texture, taste, expression, and verbal nuance, we also meet a need for self-expression and self-understanding.

In fact, three of the items on Dr. Aron’s HSP self-quiz refer directly to this positive aspect of our sensitivity to subtlety:

“I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.”
“I am deeply moved by the arts or music.”
“I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art.”

The second and third of these statements describe positive things that can happen when my sensitivity to subtlety interacts with my HSP deep processing. I can savor or be deeply moved by what I’ve seen, smelt, touched, or tasted.

In addition, I can empathize. My brain’s capacities for subtle observation and deep processing give me the ability to enter the world of another person. Or the world of a dog. Our conscientiousness shares these same roots, too.  Conscientiousness is a form of proactive empathy. It manifests as we think and feel our way through the possible outcomes of our actions.

Managing our sensitivity to subtlety requires skill

Like any powerful ability, however, our sensitivity to subtlety can have a dark side. For example, if we’ve suffered trauma, the resulting chronic dysregulation can distort our perception. We may see a fleeting expression cross our partner’s face, interpret it as angry or attacking, then plunge into painful rumination.

That’s why self-regulation, a healthy inner relationship, and a sturdy routine of self-care are key elements of a sustainably sensitive life. These skills give us the ability to enjoy the wonderful gift of sensitivity to subtlety, while minimizing the downsides.

*Aron, Elaine (2010): Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, New York: Routledge
Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash