Highly sensitive persons


Dear Artist,

This letter is a bit more difficult to write because it hits close to home. Apparently 15 percent of the general population are what psychologists now call “Highly Sensitive Persons,” or HSPs. Among creative types the percentage is much higher. In part, it’s the sensitivity that makes us creative. Carl Jung suggested that we are just introverted, shy or depressed. Recent research indicates that HSPs are genetically programmed to be that way. Getting rid of the condition would be like changing our eye colour. HSPs have valuable assets that have traditionally been given a bum rap by the not-so-sensitive majority. Highly sensitive persons often grow up feeling they’re outsiders. We are easily hurt, stressed, frazzled and overwhelmed. The worst afflicted don’t like loud noises, crowds, ruckus or confrontation. We are known to shut doors on others. On the positive side, we hear, see and feel more and have more empathy than regular folks. Often loners, we have vivid dreams and keen imaginations.


“To Drop the Mask” 1980
acrylic on canvas
by Daphne Odjig (1919-2016)

So what’s the problem? The trouble is that we often live and work with a sense that we are flawed. And what we do or create tends also to be seen by us as flawed. Much of the obsessive perfectionism in art comes from this source. Also, as HSPs, we tend to withdraw into the processes of our work. Withdrawal increases sensitivity. Psychologist Elaine Aron, a leading authority on HSP, and an HSP herself, says, “We are extra-sensitive when the time comes to show our work, perform it, explain it, sell it, read reviews of it, and accept rejection or acclaim.” This is a central dilemma for many artists: “How do I manifest my innate sensitivity in a not-so-sensitive world?”



“To Be Loved”
painting by Daphne Odjig

There are many ways. One of the handiest is the simple realization that many we interact with are not so sensitive–dealers and even collectors, for example. They may not know or admit it, but they couldn’t get along without our sensitivity. They need us. And we need them. A sensitive person needs to learn how to interact in this lop-sided world. Humour and playfulness are valuable. So is immersing oneself in the history of art and artists. The timeless brotherhood and sisterhood of art (which includes other HSPs) gives us a sense of community and a philosophic balance. The knowledge derived from like-minded companionship gives a feeling of “I’m okay — you’re okay.” More than that, one finds that the world needs more HSPs — these days, more than ever.


“Content Together”
painting by Daphne Odjig

Best regards,


PS: “There is an aristocracy of the sensitive. They represent the true human tradition of permanent victory over cruelty and chaos.” (E. M. Forster, What I Believe, an essay from his book Two Cheers for Democracy)

Esoterica: Elaine Aron’s self-test for sensitivity: You can do it yourself in less than three minutes. I thoroughly recommend her book, The Highly Sensitive Person. It’s a thoughtful and gently written insight based on her 25 years of counselling and therapy with artists and others in her San Francisco practice. As well as HSP facts, health issues, relationship considerations and tips on following your sensitive bliss, Aron gives solid, no-nonsense keys to thriving in what so many find to be an overwhelming world.

This letter was originally published as “Highly sensitive persons” on June 28, 2005.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“At the side of the everlasting why, is a yes, and a yes, and a yes.” (E. M. Forster)



    • I’m not a painter, a would be art quilter, but i can surely relate. Crowds and excessive noise are so difficult to tolerate. The letters that you and Robert have written are food for the soul! Thank you so much!

  1. I love this letter. It also hits close to home for me. It’s reassuring to know that I am in the very special 15% of HSP’s . I think it’s important to tell ourselves that we are not flawed, just a bit different from the “norm” and that is o.k. I have always enjoyed your father’s letters Sarah and have felt a kinship to him and the art community. Thank you for continuing the Genn legacy.

  2. Thank you. This letter hit home for me. It is so comforting to know that I’m in a category of artists with this “affliction”. Maybe that’s not the right adjective, but it does describe our dilemma to a T .

  3. Well written, yes we often feel like the outcast as we are extremely sensitive, we are told from an early age that we are different and pushed aside . But this affliction is really our superpower once you discover that there are others just like you and keep these individuals close, you are no longer the shunned and you flourish with like minded people.
    Creativity exudes from us and without us there would be nothing and we would be back in the stone age trying to figure out the wheel. It takes creativity to design everything, our homes, the furniture we sit on, the pencil had to be created in order to draw out our plans to make life enjoyable. Yeah, for the reclusive creative people of this world, as this world would be far lesser without us.

  4. John Francis on

    Reading this was not unlike looking in my own mirror. I was going to say that I ‘fall into this category’, but it would be more accurate to say I was ‘tossed’ into it. Repeatedly. I’m now 68, living on a meagre pension in ‘public housing’. After being diagnosed with PTSD in 2K1 and undergoing two years of therapy, following an aborted suicide attempt, I was able to give my ‘muse’ a much longer leash. I’ve been an actor, a musician, dabbled in Abstract Expressionism and then finally settled on Photography as my vehicle. My childhood was a combination of being bullied at school and a family that would redefine the term ‘dysfunctional’. In my late teens I discovered Theatre. Acting. The next decade was spent being in plays with a University drama group. For them, the fact that I wasn’t even a student was irrelevant. The social activities surrounding various productions were an entirely new experience. I was talented. I was accepted by all. This reprint of Robert’s letter from 2K5 comes at an interesting time. Today is Tuesday. Last Saturday I had brunch with one of the people I first met in that University drama group, which was in 1970. I had not seen Al since 1985 and we only recently reconnected via LinkedIn. Back in the day, he was a mentor to me and was like the ‘older brother’ I lacked when I was growing up. I now find myself most comfortable being an Urban Hermit. It works really well for me and I’m proud of the Photography I create, the writing I’m attempting and rarely socialize. I’m content but poor, in financial terms. I will always remember something that Al said to me after we had known each other for a few years and both had decent jobs. He said: Everyone who knows you, is waiting to see you bloom.

    • We call ourselves different things to try and comfort ourselves in this in- your -face world. John describes himself as an Urban Hermit . I use the term recluse to describe my need to hide away …. I do take refuge in reading about others – particularly artists – and their letters and diaries … I am currently re-reading Emily Carr’s ” Hundreds and Thousands” and I would highly recommend it for every HSP artist. It brings me comfort and a sense of belonging to this community to hear her thoughts and struggles and views of the outside world that seem to echo my own .

  5. I have always been sensitive but since my brain injury I now speak out when someone offends me or hurts me. I never use to do this. And I suffer for long periods of time for speaking out to defend myself now since the accident. IT is not who I was. And the worst thing is after the injury I lost my passion for painting. Then my art friends started to leave me because I no longer painted so they said they had nothing in common with me. With the confusion in my brain it is hard to deal with emotions and I have read that this is quite common from an injury but put that with a highly sensitive person and it is not a good thing. I have left Facebook because of some of the aritsts there. I felt abandoned by them when I needed them most for encouragement to get through this. Instead they pushed me off the cliff I was so desperately hanging on to. This is common and those I have spoken to others who have similar stories. Please be more understanding if you are an artist and your art friend suffers a brain injury or stroke. We are coming back hopefully but it can take a long time…for me the trip is now over 3 1/2 years. I now consider painting again so that is progress. Thank you for writing about this…I hope many people read this and try to understand this more…we are tender hearted and the cruelty people dish out is unreal…especially when my brain could not figure out any emotions…it left me angry and confused. My anger is better because I am accepting whatever this injury now brings to me but the loss of ones passion is tough and a little understanding would be nice and nice behavior of so called friends would really help.

    • carolyn weber on

      I have your book “A Celebration of Light” and have gained a lot from your techniques and hints. I wish you much continued success in your recovery.
      Carolyn Weber

      • Thank you so much Carolyn!!! I think I will get there in healing but having started a group for brain injury and stroke artists I have discovered how similar our stories are and how sad this has to happen. I just encourage people to please help us recover as we surely did not ask for this and our friends can make such a difference in our recovery! I hope to get back to painting yet sometime this year! Thank you for your kind words!

    • Jane, Clearly your “friends” were just self serving people that fed off of your creative energy. It’s hard to be in a position of need and then find that out. Equally hard: you’re better off without people that just use you. Perhaps your loss of passion to work is more a need to heal from your accident. Injury and illness do play havoc with creativity. Some of us do not create our best work out of pain. That fact that you are inching back to creativity after your extended healing time lends evidence that you create best when you are physically well and are in a positive frame of mind. Trust in yourself and your inherent worth. Best wishes on your continued recovery!

      • Thank you so much Sherrie for you kind words! I think you are right. when I am feeling better I will paint. The left and right side need to connect better. Thank you!

    • Jane I too had a brain injury when I was 19. Partial amnesia for 5 years, having to re-educate myself, a two year process and re-identifying who I am. Things I have learned are you will never be the old you, you can only go forward, and learn who you are or have become and embrace them. Learn their strengths and weaknesses and continue. I have a few precious friends I make time for and one of my four sons, who makes time for me. I am seml-reclusive and live in the country with my yorkipoo who honors me with her presence. Do not be afraid. Go forward. Looked at your site. There is a meditative joy there and your work is beautiful. It says much . It speaks of a found peace. Nice beginning. Continue.

      • Gosh Gene thank you. Yes I have found we tend to isolate ourselves…I guess it is very common….but I hope to get back into the social part of things within the year as 4 years is too long. Thank you for your lovely words! Best wishes to you on your journey!

    • I’ve been addicted to these letters from the first one, oh so many years ago. But this one is truly a
      “mind blown” experience. I’ve been one of the HSP’s always. Directed it into many creative works and professions. And then … Transient Global Amnesia hit me 6 months ago (at 68), which has flipped my life greatly. I am left with residual memory challenges, and times of high anxiety, both of which are subsiding a bit. On the positive I’ve become organizationally compulsive, introspective and gentle with myself. Because I’m off work now for the first time it has pushed my “loaner” status pretty much to “hermit”. I’m considering taking classes for social benefit, but would rather push farther into finding the new lanes into creativity this condition has opened up. Seeking balance!

      Thank you, my peeps! Robert, Sarah, Jane and everyone responding.

  6. Valerie Malley on

    ✔️ ✔️ ✔️ Another book to consider,: QUIET by Susan Cain, quietrev.com. It was in my 80’s that I said “Well! Hello there!” to me.

  7. Not only was Robert a great artist, he was also an amazing writer. I hope too with his sensitivity, he was also a terrific Dad. Everything I read written by Sarah indicates this, also the knowledge that she too has become an artist and writer in her own right. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree in the Genn family for Sarah or her brother. Robert has always had a way with relating to how many of us feel, and sensitivity has always been on top of that list. When we share our art, we are pleased to show our creations we spent so much time develop[ing and completing to our own standard of perfection. Yes we all obsess over those details and hope it will be a remarkable piece when our last brush stoke or pass with pastel says done! Our sensitivity kicks into high gear when we hear the responses of people viewing our work. Some comments make us cringe, others make us glow. Some make us want to run and hide. All part of that sensitivity that is built into us. How easily those remarks can affect our day. All I can say is take a deep breathe, and keep painting! Use those gifts you have to brighten this world with your creations.

  8. My “Artist’s Statement” is:

    I was a loner as a kid, an only child, the kind that grow up to be terrorists, bank robbers or artists. I wasn’t interested in terror but tried robbery, stole a watch in the third grade but got caught and took up art. They haven’t caught me at that yet.

  9. I just wish I had passed on joy and not just sadness with my very talented son. I made my way through humor let’s hope he finds his way as well and begins to go easy on himself. Thanks for this blog post it explains a lot about my child I finally met just 8 years ago.

  10. Thank you for this message. I have often wondered if I’m creative because I’m sensitive or sensitive because I’m creative. I’ve tried to squelch the sensitivity so I don’t feel hurt. That doesn’t work well, either. I’ve often wondered what is wrong with me compared to those around me. Thank you!

    • “I have often wondered if I’m creative because I’m sensitive or sensitive because I’m creative.” Yes! I too have queried the same … and painting is the best self-therapy I ever found. Yet there’s a hidden danger for me in that question, namely the potential rider that we are not really artists, just sensitive (AKA weak). That’s when I hear myself rebel to my own tendency to turn any argument into self-critique. Closer to the truth may be that there is no creativity without sensitivity. And … if there is no outlet to our creativity, then highly sensitive people really suffer.

  11. I remember this message from the first time it was published and made sure to buy the ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ and ‘Quiet’. These sure go a long way in explaining why we ‘creative’ personalities are the way we are. My mother’s nickname for me was, “The Thinker” because I could observe and study ordinary things my siblings took little notice of during the course of the day. Like those who’ve written comments, I could become a serious hermit if I didn’t force myself out to spend time with people! Seems the older I get, the more selective I get in that area. What a delight it is to meet another HSP along the way.

  12. Wow! this explains a lot! I was drawing & painting & designing complex mechanical devices at 7 years old. But due to horrible things that happened in my childhood, I drew away from others as a loner, or acted out on stage where I was concidered a prodegy & got the love I so desperately needed. Finally had to run away to the other side of the country to get some peace of mind & quiet where I could do my artwork as a set designer, sculptor & painter while working full time. Now that I am retired I live in the country away from the crowds, where I can concentrate on my photography, painting, and have discovered I love creating gardens & taking pics of them. I have only a few friends, but I don’t need a lot. Too many hurt me, so I stay away from them. Once bitten, twice shy. Peace & creativity is more important to me.

  13. I wrote a poem once called “The Fox and the Trout”. The fox was 100% HSP, bounding from ledge to ledge, looking, never happy. It was my mother. The trout, my father, was just the opposite…. a trout resting in the cool blue water of the gentle stream. I’ve always known I was exactly half of each: restless, wondering, unsatisfied…. then calm, happy and accepting. Does that make me well balanced… or just an undiscovered, and maybe harmless case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)? My next poem: ‘We All Are Acronyms’.

  14. It’s no surprise that I know I fall into this HSP group, and used to joke with my sister that I had no friends, so I didn’t have to worry about the problems she was dealing with because of her friends. I cherish my sibling friends, who are also creatives, and reach out to other artists now, more frequently, because of Facebook, online things, etc.

    Basically, I just want to spend my free time painting, but lately, I have realized it has been a lonely lifestyle for somany years, and I need more balance and interaction with people. I crave meeting people with the creative mindset, but I’m just so picky sometimes. I like to get to know people who can be good friends, and not ones who only talk about their own problems and don’t exchange in two way conversation.

    Maybe it would be good to try and be open to meeting new art friends, and I have met some in workshops, etc. “It is not good for man to be alone,” said the verse. I believe the ones here who said that we artists have much to offer society. If we reach out to share our art, it will come back to us with good rewards, and even inspire us to keep creating and sharing. After all, that is a good legacy left by Robert and now Sarah. Thank you, Sara.

    • Karen, I totally relate to what you said. I keep thinking I should make more friends and be more social. But I am picky too and I interact with others when I get the chance but it’s harder as one grows older. In an unconscious way I think I am constantly looking for that one special friend that I can relate to and share life with. I have had a handful of these special people in my life and they do make life less lonely. But ultimately I have come to realize I am my own best friend and happiest when I am creating alone. I feel like I’m finally understanding who I am and my meditation group has helped me tremendously in my quest to find contentment in life.

    • I f this reassures how you are feeling, yesterday I had on my mind “Highly Sensitive Person” as I was contemplating why I have shut out all the noise of the outside world and have started to be gentle with my ‘self’. Being this way, so to speak, made me feel vulnerable to others who see me as an easy target to do more for them, (caretaking, favors, time), often out of feeling obligated.
      Now the time is for me, as an artist, to validate my ‘self’worth’, and if that means shutting others out, that so be it. Yes, creating art is a lonely lifestyle, but I’ve found out that there comes a time in one’s life, when its okay to just ‘Be’. I was not feeding my spirit and handing out my soul (heart) to others. (People pleaser). Great minds think alike, so continue to be picky….

    • Hi Karen,
      I think alot of us feel the same way you do regarding meeting people. Seems too many only want to whine or don’t pay attention to what you want to say, so I think they’re wasting my time. I think meeting fellow artists through art leagues, societies, etc. is a good way to go. These places are where I’ve found some of my favorite people to spend time with, when outside my studio!

  15. Jan Christie on

    “Withdrawal increases sensitivity. ” So true. …it’s like the longer I stay in the dark, coming out into the light becomes more intolerable. I seem to have become addicted to solitude. Not sure if it’s healthy.

  16. As an artist HSP in a relationship with another artist HSP, we often shut the doors on each other, but the great thing is we understand why we are doing it and it causes no conflict! In fact, no conflict is a hallmark of our relationship as it is important to both of us to avoid it unless there is a topic where we really, really feel the need to stand our ground. Then the other respects that this is an issue, belief, topic, or situation that they need to respect and not debate or try to change.

  17. This is a great forum. Not only the articles are always interesting, sometimes positively liberating, often inspiring, but so are the comments. Somebody mentioned Robert’s legacy … and surely this quality of sustained conversation speaks for itself.

  18. “We are known to shut doors on others. On the positive side, we hear, see and feel more and have more empathy than regular folks. Often loners, we have vivid dreams and keen imaginations.” I so relate to this quote from Robert’s article
    and this comment from Rose Monzyk: “I’ve often wondered what is wrong with me compared to those around me.” So today based on this article, and as a creative type, I’ve learned that there is a definition for the person I am in the 15% population, an HSP. Thank you for this insightful article and to those of you who have left comments. Now back to the easel I go.

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