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What do you think of when you hear the word “sensitive?” Is it a word to describe someone who can’t take criticism, or a person who cries easily?

Those connotations may soon be changing, as recent research has led to a new way of thinking about the term “Highly Sensitive.” For artists especially, being Highly Sensitive can work in your favor. Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of being Highly Sensitive may empower you to make the kind of choices that nurture your creativity and improve your ability to connect with others as an artist.

What is “Highly Sensitive?”

Psychologist Dr. Elaine Aaron has written many books on the subject of Highly Sensitive Persons, or HSP’s. It is estimated that anywhere from 15-20% of the population fit the criteria for HSP.

According to Dr. Aaron, a Highly Sensitive Person tends to absorb stimuli on a much higher level than the average person. Some shared characteristics of HSP’s include sensitivity to loud noises and bright lights, difficulty dealing with crowds, strong emotional responses to violent scenes in films, difficulty making decisions on short notice, a high level of empathy for others, a rich inner life and imagination, creativity, and the ability to read subtle cues and signs when interacting with others.

Are all artists Highly Sensitive Persons?

As an artist, it’s likely that you have at least a few Highly Sensitive qualities, because processing the details of visual stimuli is part of being a visual artist. Many artists also react strongly to their surroundings, and benefit from periods of quiet solitude.

Highly Sensitive Persons tend to enjoy a deep connection with nature (plein air, anyone?) and work more productively when following a routine. They often need time to recharge after social situations.

A small percentage of Highly Sensitive Persons are extroverted, and enjoy risk-taking as an enrichment of their life experiences.

How do you know if you’re Highly Sensitive?

Take a little time to evaluate the situations you face on a regular basis and think about how those situations make you feel. Do you crave quiet, or need a simple, clean environment to think? Do you feel mentally drained after social activities, even if you enjoyed them? Do you find yourself feeling overstimulated and tired after looking at just a few pieces of artwork in a museum or gallery?

If you feel like you need to put up walls between yourself and all the sensory information you’re bombarded with on a daily basis, chances are you’re a Highly Sensitive artist. You can also find self-tests and questionnaires online that will help you determine how sensitive you are to outside stimuli.

Maybe you are Highly Sensitive. What now?

The modern world sometimes seems to have little use for Highly Sensitive Persons. Thanks to technology, we’re constantly being barraged by information, much of which we really don’t need.

If you recognize some of the Highly Sensitive qualities in yourself, the first step is to be proud of those traits and own them. Being a thoughtful, empathetic, and creative person makes you unique. Acknowledging the need to make choices throughout the day to support your creativity (rather than drain it) will make your life easier, and also provide a better opportunity for you to be productive.

Of course, there’s much more to talk about. . . read up on HSP’s if you’d like, and in my next article, I’ll discuss some specific tips for those of you who want to make the most of your Highly Sensitive qualities in your art.

Sometimes, even creative people can suffer from a lack of ideas. This happens often as an artist is building a following—he/she starts to feel the pressure to create, and the creativity doesn't come. It’s important not to get frustrated, but instead to use the opportunity to refresh your inspiration and gain some new ideas for further artworks. Taking a break from your studio, office or. . . read more

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