In a loud and fast-paced world filled with constant stimulation, being a highly sensitive person (HSP) can sometimes feel like a challenge. There are days on which you might feel that your high sensitivity is a blessing, but on other days, you wish you were as unaffected as others may seem. But what does the Bible say about high sensitivity? And what tools does God’s Word provide when it comes to navigating this overstimulating and often upsetting world?
What does it mean to be Highly Sensitive?
Being highly sensitive means that in certain ways, you perceive the world in more detail and depth than most people. If you are highly sensitive, you might, for example:
- Pick up on subtleties that others don’t necessarily perceive with such ease. Like how a person feels about something, group dynamics, or inaccuracies like typos in written text.
- Feel more deeply moved by music or even a well-made TV commercial than most people you know.
- Enjoy in-depth conversations and think more deeply about many things (even your own thoughts and feelings) than most.
- Be very empathetic and sympathize with people more deeply.
- Have a physical sensitivity that allows you to taste and feel more than others.
- Be more accurate, detail-oriented, and driven to do things with a high level of excellence.
But, as you know, there are downsides to this too. An HSP might:
- Become quickly overstimulated by external stimuli that others find acceptable or pleasantly exhilarating, such as light shows, loud music, large crowds, or intense smells.
- Change their mood based on other people’s feelings.
- Overthink things, and as a result, feel anxious or succumb to procrastination.
- Fail to prove their competence, as other people watching them or measuring their competence stresses them out.
- Feel a deep need to have power and control, so that the world around them doesn’t overwhelm them so much.
- Struggle with pain, allergies, and skin irritations more than others.
- Become irritable, withdrawn, depressed, or even sick when overstimulated.
Of course, all of these are different for everyone; one HSP might not be disturbed by loud sounds, but feel overstimulated by the sound of trickling water or bird song. Another might get migraine headaches from the smell of perfume, while the smell of old books sets them at ease.
Being Highly Sensitive is not rare
Being highly sensitive is more common than one might think. Since various HSPs have told me that they believed that I am “one of them”, I began to do some research. During that research, I learned that research psychologist Elaine N. Aron found that about 15 to 20% of people are highly sensitive. And there I was thinking that I was the odd one out! Apparently, it isn’t any more unusual than being taller or shorter than other people, so pretty normal really. And definitely not something to be ashamed of.
Highly sensitive by design
From what I remember from my research, you can be born highly sensitive, or you can become more sensitive due to (childhood) trauma, which can heighten your senses. But God has created everyone with a purpose. That means that your sensitivity also serves a purpose. Only you can do what God asked you to do your way, and your level of sensitivity is part of that.
As you may have experienced, high sensitivity is not appreciated in every culture. Some may mistake your tenderheartedness for weakness or think that you are a softy. I’ve heard that a lot as a child, especially from grownups who wanted me to “toughen up”.
Due to my circumstances, I did toughen up and made my heart as hard as stone and as cold as ice for years. For a while, that felt great. I felt almost invincible. But in reality, it led to being out of touch with other people’s feelings and my own. My attitude was aggressive, my relationships were bad, and in my job as a manager, I was task-oriented more than people-oriented. I was not a loving person; I didn’t even know what love was.
But the moment Jesus laid His hand on me and saved me (exactly 7 years ago 😊) He opened up my heart and filled it with His love. That led to a tremendous transformation in which everything around me became clearer and more colorful. I felt that I was back to being the person I was supposed to be: observing and learning with all my senses, being fully alive, loving God and people intensely, experiencing profound joy, and using all of that for God’s glory.
That doesn’t mean that I never run into any emotional issues. Constantly feeling and absorbing a lot can wear you out making you less effective rather than more effective. That is why we need Biblical guidance to allow our high sensitivity to become a strength rather than a weakness.
Three Biblical keys to thriving when you are highly sensitive
1 Don’t let your sensitivity rule over you
In my upcoming book “Overcoming Burnout through Biblical Tactics” I explore, among other things, why and how we can rule over our emotions. We should rule over our emotions. Not only as a tool to prevent and overcome debilitating conditions like burnout and depression but first and foremost because God commands us to.
The first time that we explicitly read that God commands someone to take control over their emotions is in Genesis. Before Cain killed Abel, God said to Cain: “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door and it desires for you, but you should rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)
If you don’t do what God instructs, sin has a foothold. Sin desires to have you on its team and to rule over you, but instead, you should rule over it.
ESV translates the last sentence to “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” I like the crouching bit of that translation since that seems to be a reference to his parent’s encounter with the snake.
But whichever way you translate it: God gives Cain the cure against his anger. The cure is that he must not desire what is sinful, but rule over it. As you know, Cain disobeyed God and instead of doing what God said, he let his anger fester and killed his brother.
We must take hold of our emotions and not let them define how we act. Instead, we rule over them, by making them obedient to Christ. We can do that by wearing the armor of God.
2 Don’t focus on your sensitivity
Years ago, I was struggling with my sensitivity. Some comment about how I was not supposed to be in ministry since I was a weak woman, really got stuck in my head. I experienced severe depression during that period. I had started to feel that the task that Jesus had given me, was way too big for me: I was too sensitive and too frail to do what He asked me to do. I thought that perhaps those people were right, and I had no business teaching from the Word.
Then one night, Jesus came to me in a dream. This is what happened:
In my dream, Jesus took me to see the events of Acts 10 as if I were there. It was an amazing experience: I stood next to Jesus and saw Cornelius, the God-fearing centurion, before and after he accepted the gospel. He showed me how Cornelius had played an important role in sharing the Gospel throughout the world. A role that he was being prepared for, even before he knew about Jesus. I remember that I could see Cornelius and others standing in the water, bending over to fill a bucket. Jesus and I stood right there as onlookers, but nobody was aware of my presence. Then Jesus turned to me and spoke in a soft and tender voice (as if to show me His own tender-heartedness): “What does it matter being soft? It doesn’t matter being frail; all that matters is to do what I tell you to do.”
Then I woke up and immediately wrote that down. I understood that the centurion had faced a trial that was, in a way, similar to mine: he was a Gentile calling for Peter who was a Jew. And Jews were not supposed to associate with Gentiles. The Christians of those days still believed that Jesus only brought salvation for the Jews and not for the Gentiles. But even though it went against cultural norms and beliefs, Cornelius obeyed God. Then Peter, instructed by the Holy Spirit, also obeyed God over what they, up to that moment, believed was God’s command. It seemed that the time had come for the Holy Spirit to reveal His true intention of reaching every nation and tribe with the Good News.
This means that Cornelis played an important role in changing the perception of the first Christians, which changed the world for all Gentiles, and eventually brought the Gospel to you and me!
That dream was a huge encouragement to me. I felt emboldened and ready to go. It became very clear to me that we should not focus on our limitations, or on what other people think we cannot or should not do. We should only focus on what God tells us to do. And His abilities are limitless.
3 Find your calling
This closely relates to the previous point. We need to do what God called us to do. That is the only way that we can thrive. God created each of us in a unique way and gave us talents, experiences, spiritual gifts, and provisions to do what He wants us to do. God does not make mistakes, and therefore your innate sensitivity is definitely not a mistake.
There are times when your sensitivity may seem to be an obstacle, but depending on how you use it, high sensitivity creates countless opportunities to glorify God.
Being highly sensitive doesn’t make one better, or worse, for that matter; it simply adds another dimension to the way we do things and it defines the tasks we would flourish in most.
Just like a fingertip is more sensitive than the nail on the other side, both are important to the body in the role they are assigned to. Just consider what you can use your fingers with all their senses for. Exploring how something feels, checking if something is safe, creating art, typing a letter, wiping away tears, preparing food, the list goes on and on. And all of that can be done best when your senses work properly.
At the same time, the insensitive fingernail protects the finger, gives it sturdiness, and enables you to scratch and hold things firmly. In the same way, all parts of the body of Christ serve a purpose, whether they are sensitive or not. And all of us become more effective when we work together and do what we were created for.
If David wasn’t a sensitive man, we would never have had his amazing Psalms that help us navigate the hard times we face in life. And Jesus wasn’t ashamed of His sensitivity either: He was openly moved by people, even to tears (Mark 1:41, John 11:33-38). And if Jesus wasn’t ashamed of His feelings, why should we be?
Instead, use your sensitivity to the glory of God. For example:
- Comfort and encourage in a way that only you can.
- Use your ability to think deeply for teaching.
- Create expressions of worship that are moving and draw people to Christ.
- Use your observation skills to unite people and eliminate division due to miscommunications.
- Take evangelization to a new level by addressing underlying issues only you can spot.
The way you and I see the world creates numerous possibilities for doing things in a unique and creative way. If you don’t want to feel like a fish on dry land, explore the vast ocean of opportunities in which you can thrive while staying true to God and yourself.
Being highly sensitive is not uncommon and just like any other God-given personality trait, it can be used as a strength or become a weakness. God gives us grace, but also the tools and tasks that enable us to not only function well in society but also to thrive as highly sensitive Christians.
You might also like the articles about the Armor of God.