Are HSPs The Proverbial Canary In The Coal Mine?

In his book Thrive!, which discusses the gifts and challenges of highly sensitive people, Dr. Tracy M. Cooper talks about his research on the trait of sensory processing sensitivity. What interested me most were the stories and real-life experiences of fellow HSPs. They helped to draw a picture of how HSPs as a population might think.

Dr. Cooper also included the specific percentages of people who aged or disagreed with statements in his survey, which felt quite insightful. For example, he tells us that 48% of HSPs in the survey he conducted strongly disagreed with the statement “I do not prefer for things to be well thought out” and an additional 33% disagreed. It was interesting to see this proclivity laid out so clearly. This, of course, means that even if you don’t know someone like you, there are many people out there who like to pause before they act, who like to think first and consider their options before doing something.

It means that just because you don’t follow the majority rule, doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. All it means is that you function differently.

I think this sense of belonging and the perspective that HSP-centric research gives us is what helps us accept ourselves and also have self-compassion for the old us who might have tried so hard to fit in.

Are You A Contemplative HSP?

In Thrive!, Dr. Cooper included this quote by one of his research participants, Olivia, which I really loved:

“I realized that I am very contemplative. I like a lot of my work to be big picture. I like to be reflecting on things. I am not a big doer, I mean, I am not the person who can set up big meetings and stuff like, let’s get packing or like, let’s not sit around and talk about ideas, let’s get to work…. I realize that I am much more comfortable in the world of ideas when I am in the world. In the world of action, I have no reflection whatsoever. If I have to pick one or the other, I want to be in the world of contemplation, thinking, and ideas,”    

HSPs are often the thinkers and idea generators who move to action only once they have thought things through.

In a world focused on production, this statement gave me food for thought. Of course, we need to act. We can’t stop at reflection. But in my life, it’s when my actions have been backed by reflection that I have had the most success. I am not the kind of person who moves into action quickly, and understanding that about myself is an important step for me. I need to think, consider options, weigh them and it’s only then, once I have reached a little more understanding and readiness can I act in a way that moves me forward. If I am always bargaining with myself and trying to make myself “act” in the way that others do, it just doesn’t work for me.

To take a small example, here in the States, when medicines are advertised, the long list of all the possible side effects is advertised alongside. I used to find this quite paralyzing because I am so hyper-aware of all this information, of all the possible things that could go wrong. I used to think that in such a case, I would just be caught in analysis and never be able to make a decision.

A non-HSP friend told me that it’s just more practical to ignore all this overwhelming information about possible “things that might go wrong” and just go with what the doctor recommends. But while this approach is pragmatic and action-oriented, I don’t think that sits well with me. I realize its benefits. It is much better than becoming paralyzed and scared, which I can become trapped by as an HSP.

But it doesn’t take into account my cautious nature. My real course of action in these cases is to do a lot of research, get second opinions, think about my options and then decide. Thinking and reflecting like this means that I have honored the voice inside me that tells me to pay attention to subtleties. Then, I can act and that action is based on feeling and thinking my way through. But just ignoring information that I have doesn’t work for me. Even if the chance for things going wrong is 10%, I can’t handle that risk in the same way my non-HSP friend handles it. For me, I have to think about that 10% in a different way so that I can move myself to act.

This is who I am. This is how I look at things. Although it often takes more effort and more time, this is the way I am most comfortable acting on things.

This is why Olivia’s statement felt interesting to me. On one level, it’s an acceptance of our self as HSPs, the fact that we do like to think things through. It’s validating of my own experience as someone who is most comfortable in the world of ideas. On another level, it talks of a danger that I can fall into, either comparing myself to more action-oriented types and always feeling “less than” or getting stuck in reflecting and not taking action. But realizing that I can do both, listen to the cautionary voice inside me to gather information and that I can also act helps me find a way that is authentically mine.

Are Contemplative HSPs The Canary In The Coal Mine?

I do like to think a lot, and I have to be mindful of the trap of over-thinking. But this tendency to take nuances into account can also serve me well. It can nudge me to get better information. Once I have that, what I do becomes qualitatively better.  

Depending on the context, the tendency towards complexity of thought that HSPs have can be an advantage or a disadvantage.

In work situations, for example, this complexity of thought, which can be a great quality in some situations, can sometimes act like a disadvantage. This is what Evelyn had to say when she talked to Dr. Cooper. Maybe, when you read it, you will feel the same a-ha that I did:

“It’s the old canary in the coal mine phenomenon where there is dysfunction in a work situation, somehow I would get involved, either, it will be directed at me and I was intelligent enough to see what was going on and the dysfunction under the surface. Unfortunately, most of the places I have worked, they are really not interested in that. It can be useful information or it can be the idea that we don’t want to deal with the fact that we could be contributing to or causing the problem.”

Dr Cooper goes on to talk about how the phrase “canary in the coal mine” was used repetitively by many HSPs in the initial study to describe how they often feel while at work. He says:

“Being naturally predisposed toward big picture, long-term thinking privileges one with knowing what may happen if a given course is taken or not altered. Many HSPs, however, did not report that this ability was valued by employers or understood, as in the aforementioned quote.”

Reading this brought to my mind all the times when things seemed obvious to me but other people at places I worked either didn’t see or get it or did not want to see or get it. I had never put this feeling and the huge discomfort I felt in so many words or thought about it as clearly as this statement.

If you are in a similar situation, if you are this canary in the coal mine, I think this perspective gives us another piece of information.

It nudges us to some practical questions. Are the people we want to share things with open to what we have to say? Will we become the proverbial messenger who gets killed (disliked, discounted)? Is this an environment that only talks about certain values like openness and transparency or does it actually practice those values?

Maybe, asking and answering these questions for yourself will help you navigate where you are right now.

It might help you see that what you notice is valid and real. But not everyone, everywhere, might be willing to accept or listen to what you have to say. That doesn’t mean you should doubt your own perception. It just means this is the reality of this particular situation.

It felt both sad and insightful to me when I read about how HSPs can be the canary in the coal mine. It took me back to places in the past where I felt disempowered and like an outsider. It’s not an easy problem to fix in work situations, but maybe this little piece will help you understand what you, yourself, are feeling.

What do you think? Have you ever felt like a canary in the coal mine? How might you deal with your challenges?

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

About Ritu Kaushal

Ritu Kaushal is the author of the book, The Empath’s Journey, which TEDx speaker Andy Mort calls “a fascinating insight into the life of a highly sensitive person and emotional empath.” Ritu is a Silver Medal awardee at the prestigious Rex Karamveer Chakra awards, co-presented by the United Nations in India, and given to people creating social impact through their work. Ritu writes about highly sensitive creatives on her site Walking Through Transitions where you can also get two free chapters of The Empath’s Journey by signing up for her newsletter.


  1. marian de rijk on March 19, 2018 at 6:56 am

    Thank you Maria for sharing this article. I hate the image of the canary because it feels like being a sitting duck, waiting to be shot or something like that 🙂 So I love the questions in this article which help you to define what is going on inside of you and in the situation and what you canor have to do with that information. Thanks Ritu Kaushal.

    • Maria Hill on March 19, 2018 at 7:10 am

      Thanks, Marian. I always feel sorry for the canary like you say it is a sitting duck. I am glad that you liked Ritu’s article. She is very insightful.


    • Ritu Kaushal on March 22, 2018 at 6:21 pm

      Thank you Marian. I am glad you found this piece helpful.

  2. Shannon Rama on March 27, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    I have been that canary on many occasions in my 30 year career in mental health counseling. I worked mostly with a population of folks labelled “mentally ill offenders” and “dangerous mentally ill offenders”, and several times reported feelings that I was getting from clients, when I could tell that they were “off”. Each time, I was told variations of “oh, that’s just Joe being Joe”, and generally dismissed. There are many stories that I can tell, but each and every time that I had that feeling, something dire happened. I’m talking assaults, one of which caused brain damage to a victim, and one was an actual murder. It continued to surprise me that after many of these situations, no one ever thought, “wow, Shannon knows things! Maybe we should pay attention to her intuitions! Maybe that girl wouldn’t have been killed.”. I could go on an on, but yeah, I know the feeling and I was crushed every time our clients & their victims all became victims, in a way, of my ignorant co-workers and supervisors! It has really been quite painful.

    • Maria Hill on March 27, 2018 at 2:36 pm

      This all sounds so painful, Shannon. Thank you for coming here of offering your comments. I know what you mean about being dismissed although not in a setting as you described and it is painful. I an sorry you had such an awful experience and hope you are out of that environment now. If you have a chance you might want to investigate the work of Dr. Hew Len who has popularized the Hawaiian forgiveness technique Ho’oponopono – it might help you.

      All the best,

    • Ritu Kaushal on April 2, 2018 at 2:14 pm

      Thank you for sharing Shannon. I am not even sure what to say. That is so much pain and such a terrible situation. It’s so disheartening that in their willfulness, people will just ignore warnings by other people, and especially from someone who has been right so many times before. It sounds like your intuition is right on, and that can also be a big burden to bear. Take care of yourself.

      I have been in the “canary” situation (in comparatively smaller ways than yours, of course) many times and it really feels like people often want to do what they want to do. It’s easy to discount intuitions and feelings.

      Thank you again for sharing Shannon. This is very tough and very stressful.

    • Tiffany on May 17, 2019 at 11:18 pm

      I know exactly what you’re talking about. Important insights just being brushed aside. It’s disheartening and I think makes one feel isolated.

    • Maria Hill on May 18, 2019 at 6:33 am

      It is true, Tiffany, that not everyone wants to hear our insights. It is good that sensitive people can talk to other sensitive people who get it.