In our culture, it’s not often a compliment to be told “You’re too sensitive!” But the fact of the matter is, some people are much more sensitive than others and live with a chronically heightened ability to feel, both physiologically and emotionally. This enhanced sensitivity is not a disorder but a personality trait and it’s been recognized and studied since 1996, when it was first identified by Elaine Aron, Ph.D.
According to Amanda Chan at HuffPost, being a highly sensitive person (an HSP) isn't the same as being an introvert. It’s more like having especially acute mental, physical and emotional responses to all of the various stimuli in your environment — including those inside yourself (if you’d like to know whether you are a highly sensitive person, you can take Dr. Aron's self-test.)
Highly sensitive people differ from those with normal sensitivity levels in many subtle ways. Not only do they process information more thoroughly, but Dr. Aron says they also feel more easily overstimulated — for example, by loud noises or chaotic environments. For this reason, they often avoid violent television shows or horror movies, and they prefer to exercise alone rather than join team sports. GoodTherapy.org reports that HSPs may even react more intensely to alcohol or caffeine than people of average sensitivity. They may also prefer to work alone, rather than in open-plan offices. Dr. Aron points out that they especially dislike being asked to accomplish too many tasks in too little time; after a busy day, they may need to withdraw to themselves to seek a calming, centering place to process what they’ve been through. Sometimes, they are able to schedule their lives around this need to review their experiences. And yes, as children they were very likely told they were too sensitive, or easily upset.
It isn’t always easy to be so much more emotionally reactive than the average person. Being highly sensitive may mean you will be more quickly brought to tears if you believe you’ve made the wrong decision, or if you are criticized by others. Again, according to Amanda Chan at HuffPost, HSPs do tend to take criticism very personally, and when something goes wrong, they have a harder time getting past these low moments. Chan goes on to report that HSPs may be more likely to experience anxiety or depression than people with a typical level of sensitivity. Although these qualities may also describe people who are not highly sensitive, HSPs often feel tense or nervous and are easily startled (as Preston Ni reported on Psychology Today.com). They may worry a lot about what other people think about them, become highly distressed by feelings of rejection, or beat themselves up when they don’t fulfill their own expectations. In addition, Ni states that HSPs often feel awkward in group social situations or self-conscious at times of romantic intimacy. They’re quite likely to worry about being judged by their partners and peers.
But being a highly sensitive person isn’t all about challenges — far from it. Andrea Wachter, also on HuffPost, writes that because HSPs process their thoughts and feelings so much more thoroughly than the average person, they are often able to tap into a deep well of creativity when they “go inside” to fully understand themselves. Wachter says they are also able to experience positive emotions more strongly than others — not just the negative ones. Moreover, on HuffPost, Chan suggests that being closely tuned in to their own emotions allows HSPs to feel powerful empathy and compassion for the people in their lives. (Similarly, Wachter indicates that they attend very closely to their own needs, and therefore tend to be good at maintaining routines of self-care like nutrition, sleep, and exercise.) They’re perceptive, detail-oriented, and alert to changes in their environment, as reported on GoodTherapy.org; they may be the first people to spot something beautiful, or the first to call attention to signs of danger. Chan also notes that HSPs can be extremely conscientious, meaning they care about expressing themselves politely and do not like to be perceived as rude. Finally, Elaine Aron reports that HSPs often have rich, rewarding inner lives.
Given that only about a fifth of all people can be described as highly sensitive, it’s easy to agree with Dr. Aron, who believes that most of our society’s rules, customs, and behavioral norms are designed for those who are not. For this reason, being an HSP may always feel like an uphill climb — a struggle to make other people understand what it feels like to be you. Even so, anyone who has been told they’re taking something too personally, or that they are wrong to have their feelings hurt by someone who didn’t mean it, may have an inkling of what it’s like to be an HSP. So take heart: the phenomenon of the highly sensitive personality is better understood now than ever before, and with this understanding should come greater tolerance and acceptance.
Aron, E.N. The highly sensitive person. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://hsperson.com/
Chan, A. L. (2014, February 26). 16 habits of highly sensitive people. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/highly-sensitive-people-signs-habits_n_4810794
GoodTherapy.org. (2015, November 12). 8 Ways Highly Sensitive People Make the World a Better Place. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/8-ways-highly-sensitive-people-make-the-world-a-better-place-1112157
Ni, P. (2017, November 5). 24 signs of a highly sensitive person. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201711/24-signs-highly-sensitive-person
Wachter, A. (2014, November 12). Advantages of being highly sensitive. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/advantages-of-being-highl_b_6141146