Are HSPs Aliens or Superheroes?
How highly sensitive people can feel superhuman but segregated.
Posted June 30, 2019
Imagine that you’ve discovered you’re a highly sensitive person. You’ve done some reading, learned about your trait and understood how your sensitivity can affect your life. It would seem like the hard part is over. But for many HSPs, the struggle has just begun. That’s because being a highly sensitive person can make you feel special but strange, unique but isolated, talented but different. Having a highly sensitive nervous system can make you feel like someone with the ability to solve problems one minute and a person who doesn’t belong the next. So which one are you? Superhero or alien?
Highly sensitive people have brains that are structured a little differently from other people. They are wired to absorb more information from the world around them, such as colours, sounds, scents, tastes and other people’s feelings. This is what Elaine Aron calls ‘depth of processing’, which is the tendency to process information more deeply. A study by Jadzia Jagiellowicz found that highly sensitive people use more of the parts of the brain associated with deep processing, especially those that involve noticing subtleties. We absorb information and then we think about it, sorting it, categorising it and comparing it to other things. Sometimes we are aware of this process, but it also happens subconsciously, beneath our awareness, which is why we can feel surprised when we are overwhelmed by all this information we’re absorbing.
The HSP Superhero
While our extraordinary sensing can feel overwhelming at times, this natural ability can also make highly sensitive people feel like they have special powers. Here are some of the ways our special trait can allow us to contribute to the world like a superhero:
- Recognize other people’s true feelings and motives. Most people develop a public persona to mask their true selves and their real emotions. We often create this façade to hide our fears and insecurities, our anger and shame, our self-doubt and resentment, so that we can present a stronger image of ourselves to the world. HSPs can usually see past this camouflage and see the real person underneath.
- Help people understand themselves. HSPs are very insightful, especially when it comes to understanding people, because we are constantly absorbing information about them. But we like to use this special ability to help people understand and feel good about themselves. We’re good listeners and when people open up to us, we offer understanding rather than judgement.
- Show empathy. Highly sensitive people have an unusual ability to feel empathy. A study by Bianca Acevedo revealed that sensitive people showed more activity in the mirror neuron system, which helps us to know how others feel and to feel that way ourselves.
- See the big picture. Empathy and depth of processing abilities in HSPs allow us to understand not only our own views, but to recognize the perspectives of other people as well. Even when those vantage points differ from our own, we can easily put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and appreciate where they’re coming from.
The HSP Alien
Having qualities and abilities that other people don’t have can make us feel special, but they can also make us feel like we don’t fit in. Despite their many unique talents and positive traits, many HSPs struggle to feel good about themselves and can often feel like an alien in a strange land. Here’s how:
- Feel unacceptable. Being different is great, but it’s not easy. Human beings are social animals and we all need to feel like we belong. For many HSPs, this sense that we’re not like other people has been with us all our lives. Without understanding why we’re different, we can easily feel like there’s something wrong with us, something that needs to be changed, and that we’re inherently flawed. Unfortunately, people around us can encourage us to be someone else. And that can lead to self-doubt, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and a lack of belief in ourselves.
- Feel isolated. HSPs often become overwhelmed in overstimulating environments. Anywhere that is too noisy, too bright, too busy, too energetic or has too many people will send us running for a safe haven. Living a modern life means that this kind of hectic environment is hard to avoid, whether we’re working in an open concept office or shuttling our kids to sporting events. For many HSPs, the answer is simply to not go out, to retreat to a safe place. We stay home, where we know we have some control over the noise and we can shut out all the distractions and stressors that keep us on edge and where we can recover from the frenetic feeling of the outside world. But while HSPs prefer some peace and quiet, we still like to feel connected and we’re often forced to choose between being alone and being overwhelmed.
- Feel negative emotions. Our empathy allows us to understand other people and what they’re feeling, even when they don’t know it themselves. HSPs are like emotional sponges, naturally absorbing the feelings around us. But when those emotions are negative, we take on that pain, until we feel paralyzed, spent and exhausted and we have nothing more to give.
- Feel misunderstood. HSPs are usually soft-spoken, gentle, caring individuals with a depth of understanding, insight and intelligence that many people miss. Non-HSPs often assume that our sensitive personality is indicative of a frail, weak, helpless creature who needs looking after and fail to recognize the reflective, intuitive, and capable person inside.
So are highly sensitive people superheroes or aliens? Are we superhumans who are meant to use our special talents to help others? Or are we strange, insecure beings, destined to live in isolation? As a highly sensitive person myself, I think we can often feel like both. Sometimes I feel like I have superpowers when I understand and empathise with someone and other times, when I rush out of a roomful of people who are all talking at once, I feel like an alien, a different species that no one understands.
But while we can experience both of these identities, what’s important is the way we feel about ourselves. High sensitivity is a trait you were born with and it’s something to be embraced and valued. It’s not always easy, but when you recognize that there are other people out there just like you, you realize you’re not as strange or isolated as you might have imagined. We are part of the human race, just like everyone else, and we’re here to show others that understanding, compassion, empathy and humanity are just what this world needs.