A huge amount of research has been carried out in an attempt to understand the traits of a highly sensitive person. These traits, found in around 15-20% of the population, are associated with greater sensitivity (or responsivity) to environmental and social stimuli, greater brain responses connected with awareness, memory, self-other processing and empathy.
Research has shown that these innate traits have a genetic, biological basis and exist in over 100 other species – such as dogs, fish and birds. High sensitivity is not a disorder, and it exists on a spectrum with around 30% of the population being highly sensitive, 40% moderately sensitive and 30% low on sensitivity. It is believed the traits have evolutionary purposes in terms of survival - Highly sensitive people are not only more aware of dangers and threats but are also more alert to opportunities and resources.
Beyond Neurobiological Explanations
From my personal experience and professional work as a coach, I have understood that being highly sensitive has a purpose that goes beyond evolutionary advantages. In other words - being highly sensitive isn't only an adaptive trait that has evolved for our survival, but sensitivity is connected to an innate soul purpose which, for many highly sensitive people, is related to a desire to heal and help ourselves and others.
I believe it's important to address sensitivity from a holistic perspective so that we don't simply explain the traits in terms of genetics or neural networks within the brain. From a holistic and transpersonal perspective, I'm curious about how sensitivity relates to the idea that we are spiritual beings having a human experience and whether highly sensitive people are drawn towards a path of significant healing and transformation? Could being highly sensitive be a fundamental aspect of our innate soul purpose in life?
The Impact of our Environment
The trait of high sensitivity may have advantages or disadvantages depending on the environment a highly sensitive person finds themselves in. Suppose a highly sensitive person experienced a lot of trauma as a child - this can result in symptoms of anxiety or a struggle with emotional overwhelm and burnout later in life. Unfortunately, many highly sensitive people see themselves as flawed, vulnerable or weak – they may want to get rid of their sensitivity or think their traits need to be 'fixed'.
However, being susceptible to burnout and emotional overwhelm may also serve as a catalyst for many highly sensitive people: their struggles propel them onto a psycho-spiritual path of significant healing and growth. In other words, it may be because of our struggles that we are led to heal, transform and potentially become guides for others – this is akin to the path of the 'wounded healer'. It's important to note that those who become spiritual teachers, therapists, or even shamans of this world don't step into these roles overnight! They have often faced a huge amount of suffering and struggle and have overcome many ordeals in order to be guides for others.
When Highly Sensitive People honour their traits - instead of trying to fit into a lifestyle that doesn't align with who they really are - they are more likely to access their gifts and fulfil their greatest potential in life. As Elaine Aron referenced in one of her articles on, The Highly Sensitive Person and the Numinous, perhaps,
'we were created by the divine in order to bear witness to or guide others to the numinous.'
Is There a Purpose?
The idea that we are born into this world with a specific purpose is supported through the ideas of Carl Jung. Carl Jung was interested in our connection to the sacred and how numinous experiences can heal us. Through my personal experience and client work, I have found that we are drawn to more spiritual types of experiences. For example, highly sensitive people are more likely to have intense dreams and be highly intuitive. We can often tap into a greater wisdom and collective truth, accessing what Carl Jung referred to as the collective unconscious. When Highly Sensitive People recognise these gifts, they have the ability to bring this truth into the world and become guides, healers or visionaries for others. There is the potential to bring greater harmony and peace into the world.
Bringing in the Soul and Sacred
Bringing in the concept of the sacred, spiritual, and soul purpose when exploring what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person can help us connect with a deeper meaning and purpose behind our traits. Highly sensitive people are often on an accelerated path of healing and transformation - what Carl Jung referred to as individuation.
One of the reasons I believe this to be the case is that Highly Sensitive People process their experiences on a deeper level and are more in tune with subtleties in their environment. This includes a connection with the spiritual dimension of our human experience, and this connection leads many highly sensitive people on a search for deeper meaning and purpose.
Approaching the topic of sensitivity from this holistic and spiritual perspective doesn't deny the importance of genetics and the neurological explanations of sensitivity. However, our attempt to understand high sensitivity shouldn't end there. Sensitivity doesn't mean we are born fragile, weak, or broken; our sensitivity isn't an illness or a flaw! When we tap into our soul purpose, we learn to embrace our authentic selves and channel our sensitive traits into the incredible gifts they are. Remember, if you are highly sensitive, you have so much to offer this world.
Are you a highly sensitive person, and are you drawn towards a spiritual path? Do you relate to the archetype of the wounded healer? Have your struggles as a highly sensitive person led you onto a path of significant healing and growth? I'd love to hear from you about your experience!
About the Author
Jules De Vitto is a transpersonal orientated coach and educator who is experienced at helping Highly Sensitive People overcome anxiety, stress and burnout.
Jules is Highly Sensitive herself and is also passionate about helping Highly Sensitive People to step into their authentic power and allign with their true purpose in life. She lived in Asia for eleven years before moving to London and integrates Eastern practices and modern-day mindfulness into her work.
She has a degree in Psychology, an MA in Education and an MSc in Transpersonal Psychology, Consciousness and Spirituality. She’s a published author through Changemaker Books and John Hunt Publishers and wrote Resilience: Navigating Loss in a Time of Crisis to help people through the Covid-19 Pandemic available here.