How are HSPs Portrayed in the Media? Let's Take a Look - Touchy Feely

How are HSPs Portrayed in the Media? Let's Take a Look

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) have been portrayed in popular media for decades, though not always accurately—or kindly. To better understand how HSPs are understood by the public, it's important to take a closer look at how they are represented in recent books, film, and TV. Here’s what we’ve noticed so far: 

#1 White Lotus, Season 1 

Olivia and Paula at the pool in The White Lotus

Olivia and Paula in White Lotus (HBO)

In White Lotus season 1, college student Olivia describes her friend Paula as a clinically diagnosed HSP. Olivia’s mother then says, “Who’s her physician, Lena Dunham?” 

The entire exchange points to the generational difference in how HSPs are perceived. To the college-aged characters, Olivia and Paula, it’s a valid clinical diagnosis. To Olivia’s mom, it seems like an issue only the “snowflake generation” would have and she dismisses it entirely. The term “snowflake generation” is a derogatory way that older generations describe younger generations who they view as less resilient, more sensitive, and more likely to be offended than earlier generations. 

In White Lotus, we see that not everyone believes HSP is a valid diagnosis, nor relevant. Not every age group is taking neurodivergent brains as seriously as others, which makes it more difficult for people to talk about in certain spaces, such as with older family members or coworkers. 

While HSP is a diagnosis, “sensitivity” is also considered a personality trait. Both generations would agree that “sensitivity” can be a part of someone’s personality; however, older generations see it as a negative trait, while younger generations are more likely to view it as a positive trait. This different viewpoint is clear in this scene in White Lotus. 

We can also take away from this that HSPs are entering the mainstream. It’s being talked about now more than ever, and the dialogue is just getting started. 

#2 Eleven from Stranger Things

Eleven, a character in Stranger Things by Netflix stares into the camera with a concerned look on her face

Eleven in Stranger Things (Netflix)

Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown, is a young girl with telepathic and psychokinetic powers. Like most HSPs, Eleven is highly attuned to her surroundings and intuitive. 

Highly Sensitive Refuge describes Eleven’s story well: 

“Evil Dr. Brenner, the scientist who exploits Eleven’s powers, reminds me of energy vampires, or narcissists who might seek to take advantage of an HSP’s empathy and willingness to help others. Luckily, in the end, Dr. Brenner and his posse are no match for Eleven’s powers, but they do not leave her unmarked. It takes a lot for Eleven to open up to the residents of the town where she goes to escape — and she eventually sees that they only want to help her. 

Because HSPs experience things more deeply than less-sensitive people, we may be more susceptible to the negative effects of unresolved trauma. Like Eleven, we might feel tempted to withdraw socially or refrain from opening up but we must remember the importance of connection. Eleven taught me that love, among other things, can counteract the effects of past abuse and trauma.”

Eleven’s story throughout the four seasons reveals how her sensitivity is part of her superpower. 

#3 Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet by Susan Cain

Released in 2012, the book “Quiet” ignited a movement. While the majority of the book is dedicated to introversion, Susan also touches on the overlap between introverts and HSPs. She describes her core audience as “the highly sensitive introverts.” Here’s how she describes their traits:

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, and physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions--sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments—both physical and emotional—unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss—another person's shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

The workforce traditionally celebrates more extroverted and loud qualities, but Quiet proves that introverts bring their own unique skills that are essential to organizations. Similarly, some people simply work and learn differently than others, so it’s important that ‘quiet’ learners aren’t penalized for not showing up the same as their louder peers. 

The book became core reading for many organizational leaders and teachers. Suddenly, HSPs were being seen for their unique superpowers. And in a world that “can’t stop talking,” it feels good to let others (like us fellow HSPs) be seen and heard. 

#4 Selling Sunset, Season Five 

Netflix Selling Sunset: Davina sits facing Chelsea with her back to the camera

Chelsea and Davina on Selling Sunset, Season 5 (Netflix)

In season 5 of Selling Sunset, Chelsea and Davina are trying to clear the air on a recent argument. Then, Chelsea calls Davina “overly sensitive” and Davina storms off. 

It’s common for people to call others “too sensitive” when they don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions or faults. Rather than taking ownership, they deflect onto the other person for having a fault, i.e. being too sensitive. There’s even the term “sensitive Sally” to mock people for being overly sensitive. As we saw in this scene, Chelsea deflects by calling Davina too sensitive, which led Davina to walk out on her. 

This behavior is less tolerated now than it used to be, but as we see in Selling Sunset, it’s still a common manipulative tactic. Hopefully through media portrayals like this, we can increase awareness: it’s not okay to call someone sensitive as a tactic to dismiss and deny their valid feelings. 

#5 Grey’s Anatomy, Season 16

Shoshannah Stern as Dr. Lauren Riley in 'Grey's Anatomy, ABC.

Dr. Lauren Riley in 'Grey's Anatomy' (ABC TV)

In Episode 13, a deaf character, Dr. Lauren Riley, is introduced. Instead of showing Dr. Riley's disability as a liability or victimizing her, we learn how it makes her a skilled Master Diagnostician. 

In a heated moment where her medical advice is challenged, Dr. Riley replies, "You may have noticed that my ears don't work. Because of that, I've learned to listen with my whole body."

This statement highlights how deafness has contributed to Dr. Riley's heightened sensitivities that enable her ability to read non-verbal cues and observe patients with heightened sensory perception. 

This type of energetic diagnosis is not commonly taught in medical school, but it’s becoming more and more prevalent. Dr. Neil Nathan, a family practitioner with an impressive track record of treating chronic illness, shares his experience with this type of diagnosis in his book, “Energetic Diagnosis: Groundbreaking Thesis on Diagnosing Disease and Chronic Illness.”

At Touchy Feely, we believe that sensitive practitioners who use this type of approach are the future of medicine. 

Next Steps

While some of the media portrayals of HSPs are a bit ambiguous, like in White Lotus, the majority are clear about their message: HSPs don't just have challenges, they have superpowers! Here at Touchy Feely, we want to make the world more accommodating and inclusive for them.

We strive to empower those who possess perception superpowers. We also want to promote a better understanding of HSPs in the media, so that everyone can appreciate their unique and valuable perspective. 

If you’re an HSP, check out these five grounding techniques and subscribe to our newsletter to stay in touch.

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