Who is a supersenser: the gifts and the challenges of emotional sensitivity

DBT-C, English, Supersensers / By Francheska Perepletchikova

You all have probably heard this one many time “Stop being so sensitive!” Emotional sensitivity has a negative connotation of being touchy, defensive, uptight, paranoid, neurotic, a drama queen. All of these terms are simply harmfully invalidating and one-sided. Like everything else, emotional sensitivity has two sides, as it comes with challenges as well as gifts. There is a better term that we use to describe people who are born with emotional sensitivity – supersensers. This term avoids pathologizing and highlights the dialectic of emotional sensitivity. In today’s discussion we will talk about supersensitivity, so we can better understand our sensitive children and ourselves, as emotional sensitivity is not something that we can grow out. 

The challenges of emotional sensitivity

  1. Reactions may have a very low threshold for occurrence

The intensity of a supersensor’s reaction may not be commensurate with the situation, and it is frequently not even obvious to others what may have caused such an outburst. It can be a thought or a memory or an external event that is so minute, that observers may not even register what happened.

  1. Reactions are intense (from 0 to 100)

Supersensers often describe their emotion as tsunamis that are overwhelming and cause intense emotional pain. Such states can be described as emotional intoxication, where a person (who is kind and empathic in balanced moments), starts to rage, using obscene language, personal malign attacks, threats, physical aggression and destruction of property.

  1. Reactions happen very fast (from 0 to 100 in a split second)

Emotional reactions of supersenser are not only sudden and extreme, but they also happen very rapidly. Within seconds, supersensers can jump from a neutral or positive mood to an uncontrolled rage.

  1. Reactions take a long time to subside

It usually takes a considerable amount of time for an emotional reaction of a supersenser to go back to the baseline. Thus, corresponding behaviors may continue for 20-30 min, and sometimes for hours. 

Double Gravity Effect

Because of this high reactivity, supersensers not only have to withstand the impact of facing a challenge, but they also need to deal with their extreme emotional reaction associated with this challenge. This is like walking this Earth, carrying your own body weight on your shoulders. We call it a Double Gravity Effect that supersensers have to face every moment of every day. 

Emotional sensitivity frequently come in a package with other difficulties:

  • Hyper-reactivity 

As we can imagine, high emotional reactivity would have associated behavioral dyscontrol,  such as verbal and/or physical aggression, suicidal ideation, self-injury. These behavioral manifestations of emotional dysregulation are not problems in themselves. They are solutions to problems. Yelling, punching, self-harming or thinking about death provides relief from emotional suffering in the short-term. The immediacy of this relief reinforces using these maladaptive solutions in the future, even though they backfire in the long-term.

  • Avoidance of tasks that require effort

Parents frequently describe their supersensers as lazy. Well, this is not laziness per se. If you had to carry your own body weight on your shoulders, would you look for opportunities to run or would you prefer to lay down somewhere? Supersensers walk in double gravity, so they tend to avoid effort and do not welcome challenges, as they bring uncertainty. 

  • Easily bored

At the same time, supersensers are easily bored and require stimulation, but on their own terms. They want to do what they want to do and be in control. They may avoid new, unfamiliar activities, even if they may be potentially fun and exciting.

  • Difficulty with transitions and change 

Transitions and change bring uncertainty. Supersensers have tremendous difficulty tolerating uncertainty, as they have a very vulnerable sense of safety. Their sense of safety is particularly vulnerable because they cannot control the only thing that we can possibly control to a reasonable degree – ourselves.  Sense of safety is about control and predictability. Supersensers usually have difficulty with predicting how they will react the next moment and controlling their impulses. That is why they attempt to control other people by using force (e.g., screaming, punching, threatening) and dislike change. This applies to potentially negative, as well as positive changes. Parents are frequently surprised that they need to drag their supersensers to a fun activity week after week, even though once they get there, they enjoy themselves. What is happening? Well, having fun during that activity last week does not guarantee fun this week, while whatever a supersenser is doing right now is safe in a certainty of it already happening. 

  • Low tolerance for delayed gratification

Difficulty with tolerating uncertainty also affects the supersenser’s ability to delay gratification. They want what they want and when they want it. They describe experiencing the not knowing if they can have a desired object or an activity as a physical pain.

  • Rapidly shifting attention

Rapid shifts in attention are hardly surprising when little things grab attention and lead to a heightened emotional response, things get boring quickly and difficulties are avoided. 

  • Hyperactivity

Supersensers experience intense emotions on an hour to hour and day to day basis. Emotions bring energy. They are our main source of motivation. All this energy needs to be released. Thus, supersenser are frequently more active than children with average emotionality. 

  • Impulsivity (acting before thinking)

Impulsivity is acting without thinking. For us to decide for ourselves, we need to introduce a pause between a stimulus and a response and evaluate whether an action urge of an emotion fits demands of a current situation. This is what is called an emotional regulation. But emotions cannot evaluate. Their functions are to tell us what to do and bring energy for us to follow their action urges. Evaluations happen in our frontal lobe. Further, emotions are very persuasive in pushing us to do what they tell us to do, as they are the organizing force behind our actions. E-motion is evoking motion. The stronger the emotion, the more persuasive it is.  Supersensers have emotional tsunamis, so they get pushed into impulsive responding time after time. Without learning specific techniques, supersensers will have little chance to stand against their emotional tsunamis and may continue to be impulsive.

  • Problematic relationship with parents, siblings, and peers

Reactivity, impulsivity, low tolerance for delayed gratification, difficulty with self-control, tendency to attempt to control others though force, are bound to lead to interpersonal problems and difficulties with forming and maintaining healthy relationship with other people. And the more safe supersensers feel around a person, the less motivation they have to appear in control, the higher the change of emotional and physical aggression. That is why supersensers may have more problems at home than at school. 

  • Extreme thinking style (e.g., black and white thinking, catastrophizing)

Emotions love themselves, so they want us to do and think whatever will keep them going. Strong emotions in particular will make our thinking sticky and rigid, where only thought corresponding to a particular emotion will be allowed and retained. This is called rumination. We start chewing and re-chewing on the same thoughts, with low ability to get unstuck and see what is being left out. Thus, strong emotions lead to black-and-white, either-or extreme thinking.

  • Difficulty with normative responding to social cues

We communicate on several levels – the level of words and the level of emotional undertones. We do not trust words, as we lie to each other all the times. We trust more readily how the words are being said. Emotional undertones allow us to appreciate the underlying intentions and motivations. These social cues are very important to attend to in order to effectively communicate. Supersensers may be seen as “failing to respond normatively and miss social cues.” They may even be misdiagnosed as having an autism spectrum disorder because of this issue. Actually, supersenser are like human x-rays. They can read other people’s emotions and small changes in emotional states very well. They may misinterpret what they read or not trust what they perceive (due to a pervasive invalidation that they encounter), but this is a different issue. Being able to read into the underlying intensions and motivations may result in a non-normative responding in social situations. Imagine two boys, one supersenser and another with average emotionality. A third boy passes them by and is saying “Hello” but thinking “I hate you!” A child with average emotionality may not be able to clearly read “I hate you!” and is likely to have a normative response of saying “Hello” back. A supersenser child will be able to read “I hate you” and, at the least, will be confused and, at the most, may have an aggressive reaction, thus “missing social cues.” 

  • Sensory sensitivity (visual, auditory, touch, smell. taste)

Supersensers tend to have sensory processing problems to a slight or to a significant degree. This includes sensitivity to bright light, sharp and loud sounds, taste and texture of food, strong smells, tight or loose clothes, scratchy fabric, etc. There seems to be a high correlation between emotional and physiological sensitivity, that only adds to the complexity of withstanding daily challenges.

  • Difficulty with personal hygiene

Supersensers are notorious for avoiding brushing teeth, taking showers, cleaning their room, etc. It takes effort, it is boring, it does not grab attention and there are so many other exciting things to do. So how else can it be?

The benefits of emotional sensitivity

Everything has two sides, including emotional sensitivity. Emotional sensitivity brings wonderful gifts. 

  • Enhanced ability to experience strong positive emotions 

Supersensers can experience positive emotions on a high level as well. They can even go all the way to acting silly. 

  • Enhanced ability to read other people

As mentioned before, supersensers are sometimes called human X-rays or described as having a “sixth sense.” They can easily read other people’s emotions, which plays an important role in interpreting information. As we said, emotion recognition helps identify underlying intensions in communications, evaluate the genuineness of responses and motivation behind actions of other people. So being able to read emotions is like being able to read other people’s minds. Once supersensers learn to trust themselves and their perception, without misinterpreting them, an ability to read other people’s mind can be quite an asset. 

  • Enhanced empathy

Supersensers can read others well and they know what misery feels like. So, emotionally sensitive people are usually more responsive to distress signals from others. In balanced moments, supersensers can be very caring, understanding, and empathetic. Empathy is an ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. 

  • Enhanced creativity

Emotionally sensitive people experience much higher highs and much lower lows than people with average emotionality. Thus, they often pick up the little cues in the environment that others may miss. They can see patterns whether others see randomness. They can find meaning in the minutiae of everyday life and experience a world in which there is more information and more opportunities to create a new synthesis. Supersensers can be gifted dancers, singers, writers, mathematicians, artists. But most importantly, they can readily think outside the box.

In the words of Pearl S. Buck…

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.”

What is our goal?

We cannot relieve supersensers from their Double Gravity and from having strong emotions. This is pre-programmed into their hardware. Even if we could, we would not want to do this, as we would also loose the gifts. What we want to do instead is give our supersensers enough attention muscles, emotion regulation muscles, cognitive restructuring muscles, and all other muscles, to withstand the pressure of their emotional tsunamis, so that instead of crumbling under pressure, they would benefit from the gifts. Supersensers need to remember that emotional sensitivity is a special ability and not a problem to correct. Supersensers need superskills to get in control of their special powers and superparents to help them along. 


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