The Self-Awareness of High Sensitivity
15th April 2023 - By Dr Natalie Banek
About the authors
Dr Natalie Banek is a project coordinator at the Leibniz School of Education at Leibniz Univer-sity Hannover in Germany. There, she completed her doctoral thesis at the Institute for Voca-tional Education and Adult Education in the field of vocational (teacher) education with a focus on high sensitivity in the school-to-work transition.
This qualitative study has led to the development of a new theoretical aspect of sensory processing sensitivity: The self-awareness of High Sensitivity. This perspective aims to explain the process through which highly sensitive people go in order to become aware of their sensitivity.
Although between 20-30% of the general population are highly sensitive, many of them only find out over time that their behaviour and experiences can be explained by sensitivity. In other words, becoming self-aware of one’s own sensitivity and starting to identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP) reflects a process.
In this qualitative study (1) I conducted a series of interviews in order to explore how highly sensitive people manage the transition from school to work with a specific focus on their awareness of their own sensitivity.
I applied Grounded Theory Methodology (GTM) (2), which involves development of an object-oriented new theory based on empirical data. I conducted four expert interviews (3), including a professor, two PhD students with a research focus on sensitivity, and a coach for HSPs with many years of experience. Following analysis of these interviews four additional interviews were carried out with highly sensitive individuals.
The results of the interviews led to the development of a new Grounded Theory (GT) named “The process of self-awareness of high sensitivity” (PSH).
According to this perspective, a sense of otherness can be seen as the causative condition that triggers the process of self-awareness in HSPs. This feeling of otherness, which often accompanies HSPs from childhood, is formed from their highly sensitive perception and the comparison with less sensitive people.
Those affected problematized their perceived otherness, explaining that they felt “not normal” or “strange” before knowing about the existence of sensory processing sensitivity. Thus, the feeling of otherness often provided the impetus to deal with their highly sensitive personality.
A condition that often seems to result is that of isolation. In their perceived otherness, HSPs often withdraw and end up having a rather small peer group compared to other adolescents. Especially when concomitant conditions such as an anxiety and panic disorder or depression are added to the mix, HSPs tend to become more easily isolated from their peers.
This tendency combined with the sense of otherness then tends to motivate those affected to explore their own high sensitivity.
There are a number of other important factors that emerged, such as physiological symptoms (e.g. chronic fatigue, or muscular tension), fear of stigmatization (especially the fear of being seen as too sensitive, or too emotional by society), general difficulty in making decisions (such as the choice for a study programme or an apprenticeship), and a lack of career prospects (especially not being able to imagine “working like the others”).
These factors contribute to specific actions of HPS, namely accepting support (e.g. the support of parents in career orientation and choice), talking about sensitivity (e.g. communicating about one’s own sensitivity as well as sensitive ways to communicate with others) and various coping strategies of distancing (e.g. distancing oneself from one’s own sensitivity in order to function in a non-highly sensitive society, by repressing one’s own high sensitivity, emotional blanking to not feel over-whelmed all the time, or a general lack of willpower).
Finally, this results in the reassessment of biographical key moments in light of their discovered high sensitivity, which is an independent reflexive process, and a realignment of life including a professional reorientation.
The process of self-awareness of high sensitivity (PSH)
The final PSH is a three-phase model (see Figure 1). In each phase, a dimensional continuum spans between two poles. In the first phase, the phase of initial contact, there is usually an impulse from outside (i.e. the HSP learns about the personality trait of Sensory-Processing Sensitivity). The im-pulse from within describes an inner readiness of the individual, which influences whether and how the impulse from outside is perceived and processed.
In the second phase, the phase of testing, the dimensional continuum spans between feelings of relief and feelings of defence. Feelings of relief arise as a consequence of the feeling of otherness, when the HSPs realize that there is such a thing as Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and that they are not alone in their perceived otherness. Feelings of defensiveness can arise when those affected do not want to self-identify as highly sensitive, for example, due to fear of stigmatization.
In the third phase, the phase of self-awareness, there is finally either acceptance of one’s own high sensitivity or rejection of it.
The three phases allow for pendulum movements within the dimensional continuums such as a fluctuation between feelings of relief and feelings of rejection, but also switching between the phases, some of which are passed through several times.
The PSH divides the life of an HSP into a before and an after. Before the PSH, the feeling of otherness and the tendency for isolation can lead to a lack of a sense of belonging. Particularly with regard to career orientation and choice, HSPs can experience a lack of orientation and perspective, which can often lead to feelings of being overwhelmed or even to an attitude of refusal.
In an attempt to fit in with others, there is often a distancing from one’s own needs, desires, and goals in life. As a result, prior to their PSH HSPs often make career choices that are not well suited to them.
Only after the PSH can there be a reassessment of biographical key moments including reinterpretations and a reorientation of life. This often includes a professional reorientation, which usually follows an orientation according to one’s own sense of meaning.
Through the PSH, a reflection of the criteria for satisfaction with work is started, which in turn enables an adaptation of the work conditions to highly sensitive needs. In this context, it is not uncommon that the idea of a dream job is (further) developed, while HSPs nevertheless want to maintain a certain professional openness and flexibility.
Thus, the new GT of self-awareness of high sensitivity identifies the PSH as being a key moment in the life of HSPs during the transition phase from school to work, being of particular importance for the processes of career orientation and choice (4).
- Banek, N. (2022). Die Selbsterkenntnis der Hochsensibilität. Eine qualitative Studie am Beispiel hochsensibler Menschen im Übergang Schule-Beruf. Springer Nature VS. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-39358-8
- Strauss, A. L., Corbin, J. M. (1996). Grounded Theory: Grundlagen Qualitativer Sozialforschung. Weinheim.
- Meuser, M., Nagel, U. (2002). ExpertInneninterviews – vielfach erprobt, wenig be-dacht. Ein Beitrag zur qualitativen Methodendiskussion. In: Bogner, A., Littig, B./Menz, W. (Hrsg.): Das Experteninterview, 71-95. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-322-93270-9_3
- Witzel, A. (2000): Das problemzentrierte Interview. In: Forum Qualitative Sozi-alforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 1(1), Art. 22, S. 1–13. https://doi.org/10. 1007/978-3-8349-9441-7_29.