- Highly sensitive people comprise 15 to 20 percent of the population, according to research.
- Such people may struggle with overstimulation or navigating intense emotions, and it's not something they can easily stop or control.
- Being highly sensitive comes with great strengths, too—including heightened attention to detail, creativity, and a complex inner world.
- Just because someone is highly sensitive does not mean they are not capable.
Growing up, I was a quirky kid. I hated anything that was tight around my waist, so pantyhose was purchased three sizes too big. I could sense when my parents were fighting, even when no words were exchanged. Busy, crowded places—like the classroom—left me worn out and desperately wanting to retreat to the quiet of my bedroom at the end of the day. My mind never shut off, chewing on emotions and ideas long after everyone else seemed to have moved on. I felt things deeply, from music to movies to words spoken by my peers.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a highly sensitive person (HSP). Highly sensitive people are the 15 to 20 percent of the population who process stimulation deeply, from sights to sounds to emotions. Also called Sensory Processing Sensitivity, being an HSP means you experience life “turned up” more than others do. High sensitivity is not the same as introversion, depression, anxiety, or even autism—due to a biological difference, our nervous systems simply “digest” information more thoroughly. Although this trait can create some problems for HSPs (such as overwhelm), it also produces incredible strengths. (Not sure if you’re an HSP? See my post, "21 Signs That You’re a Highly Sensitive Person.")
What is it really like being an HSP? Here are five truths that describe my experience—and that will likely hit home if you’re also an HSP.
1. I feel things deeply—but you may never know it.
When the movie soundtrack soars, I feel it. When I pass a person begging for money on a street corner, I feel it. When you hurt my feelings or insult me, I feel it. I feel it all, very deeply.
When I was younger, my emotions came out in dramatic poetry or an existential crisis alone in my bedroom. (Sometimes they still do.) Sometimes I cry or even shout, but more often than not, I appear calm on the outside as I experience explosive emotion on the inside.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to set better boundaries, do self-care, and talk to myself in more positive, practical language instead of in emotional extremes. But even with these coping mechanisms, my feelings can still be huge and sometimes overpowering.
You may never know it, though, because usually, my emotions feel too big to fully share. As a result, I may come across as cold or even indifferent, when really, I’m trying to manage and protect my heightened HSP senses.
2. It’s not you, it’s my environment.
The environment really matters to an HSP. It hits us right away, and with intensity. We’re usually the ones who can tell you exactly why any given space is uncomfortable or just isn’t “working”—the chairs are too hard, there aren’t enough private spaces, the lighting is off, etc.
My sensitivity to my environment is most obvious when I’m in a loud restaurant or bar. The hard surfaces that reflect sound, the closely packed tables, and conversation coming from every direction can leave me wanting to flee. I hardly ever go to a bar on a Saturday night anymore (maybe it’s also because I’m in my 30s); the bodies and noise and sense of drunken wild abandon, this place is about to erupt, are just too much. Although I’ve developed a better relationship with my emotions, I’ve become even more sensitive to my physical surroundings as I’ve gotten older.
The same can be said about my work environment. These days, I’m grateful to work from home (in my opinion, the ideal set-up for an HSP). But not too long ago, I was a teacher in a classroom, and before that, a nine-to-fiver in an open office. The noise, the activity level, so many bodies and so much going on often made it hard to concentrate and do my best work.
And like many HSPs, I can feel the eyes upon me when I’m being watched and evaluated, whether it's my boss or simply a coworker walking by and seeing what's on my screen, and it’s overstimulating. When I worked as a journalist in an open office, simply the thought of other people listening to my interviews was too much, so I grabbed the phone the moment the guy sitting behind me went on break.
So, if you see me somewhere zoning out, looking disinterested or disengaged, I may not be at all. If I skip the party or cut and run right after tipping my server, I’m not trying to be rude. It’s not you, it’s my environment.
3. I can’t control or stop it.
I’ve learned coping strategies to stop absorbing other people’s emotions and soothe overwhelm. I’ve started saying no to things that aren’t right for me and putting myself in environments that generally feel good, not draining. I’ve designed my relationships and work around supporting my HSP nature rather than exacerbating it.
But I’m still a highly sensitive person.
Sometimes days or weeks go by and I don’t even think about being an HSP. But then I walk into a loud restaurant or need my sheets untucked at my feet just so, and I remember my sensitivity. I especially feel it when I fight with my partner and his words cause a flash reaction in me and stick around for days.
According to researcher and author Elaine Aron, being highly sensitive is a biological trait, meaning it’s something HSPs are born with, and it’s not going away. It’s a trait found in more than 100 other species, from cats to birds to horses. Research shows that there are actually differences in highly sensitive people’s brains compared to those of non-HSPs. (Read more about the four key differences here.)
Sadly, highly sensitive people (myself included) are used to being shamed and misunderstood for our trait. We’re told to “toughen up” or it’s implied that our sensitivity makes us weak. But it’s not something we’ve chosen, and it’s not something we can simply will away. Learning to embrace it—and harness its incredible strengths—is a lifelong process.
4. I notice the tiniest little things about people.
Highly sensitive people notice details that others miss, and research shows that people are essentially the "brightest thing" on our mental radar. Combine these two traits, and the result is someone who can read others very well, notice subtle shifts in mood, and “hear” what’s not being said.
In other words, I notice lots of little things that people think they’re keeping on lockdown. Had a bad day? I can tell just from your vibes. About to blow? I can feel your anger chugging down the tracks like a train.
Sometimes this ability is great, because it helps me connect with others better. But other times, it would be nice to shut it off. It gets tiring being hyper-aware of everyone around you.
5. Just because I’m sensitive doesn’t mean I’m not capable.
It’s true that we HSPs face challenges that others will never experience and may never fully comprehend. It’s true that little things can stress us out, we may cry easily, and feel physical and emotional pain deeply.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t be capable, confident, and in charge of our lives. Highly sensitive people are artists, creators, and healers. According to one source, Nicole Kidman, Albert Einstein, Mozart, Deepak Chopra, and many more are thought to be highly sensitive. HSPs are making a difference in the world, despite the obstacles we face.
And you can too, dear HSP. I’m rooting for you.
What are your experiences as a highly sensitive person? Let me know in the comments.
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