The Highly Sensitive Person: Finding Strength in Sensitivity

“Toughen up!” “Get a thicker skin.” “You’re too emotional.” “Don’t take things so personally!” Do these comments sound familiar? If so, you may have what is called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) along with 15-20% of the population. Those of us with SPS are often called HSPs, which stands for Highly Sensitive Person. HSP was coined in 1996 by Dr. Elaine Aron in her book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. HSPs are highly attuned to thoughts, emotions, sensations, people and the environment around them. Research shows that HSPs have more brain activity in the areas responsible for attention, emotion, action-planning, decision-making and reading social cues (known as “the seat of consciousness”). So, what does a HSP “look” like? Keep in mind that no two HSPs are the same, but here are some common characteristics:
  • Extreme Empathy Research shows HSPs have more mirror neurons than average, enabling us to better observe, understand, and feel the emotions of others.
  • Highly Observant and Reflective HSPs are often deep processors, aware of nuances, patterns, voice inflection, gestures, facial expressions etc. that often go unnoticed by others. We often process things at a much deeper and more detailed level.
  • Sensing Superpower By noticing things others miss, the HSP can often be skilled at predicting things and show incredible insight and perception.
  • Seek Depth and Meaning Through taking in so much information and connecting to things so deeply, the HSP often seeks meaning in all parts of their world and ways to connect with it. HSPs often love connecting with animals and nature.
  • Big Feelings Whether happy or sad, emotions are felt intensely and deeply. Viewing art or listening to music can be incredibly moving.
  • Emotional Exhaustion It can be draining to constantly be on high alert in every interaction and environmental situation while sensing others’ emotions as well as our own.
  • Difficulty with Intense Sensory Input Loud noises, strong smells, bright lights, new environments, and crowded places are often overwhelming for HSPs.
  • Words Matter HSPs are very conscientious and mindful of meaning. Conflict with others or hurtful words can cut deeply. Confrontation can often be so painful it makes a highly sensitive person physically ill.
  • Dislike Violence and Cruelty HSPs have a difficult time seeing or even hearing about these situations. Inequality and mistreatment can have a deep impact on us as well.
  • Time Crunches are Hard Being deliberate in making decisions often leads to difficulty in making choices because we weigh out all options, possible outcomes, and impacts on those involved.
Challenges of Being an HSP HSPs are often prone to being misunderstood and there is no shortage of misconceptions about them. They are frequently seen as shy or anxious introverts; however, many are not. HSPs can enjoy the company of others immensely, but generally prefer one-on-one conversations or longer periods of solitude between social interactions. High sensitivity can also be incorrectly seen as a mental health condition. It can occur alongside a disorder, but sensitivity is a normal human experience occurring on a continuum. HSPs are simply situated at the high end of the scale. Perhaps the most important misconception is that the HSP chooses to be “overly emotional.” Being highly sensitive is a genetic trait impacted by the environment. Telling a HSP to “toughen up” is like telling a person to try not being so tall. As HSPs we often face unique challenges. It’s important to know our limits and to practice proper self-care. Saying “no” can be hard for us because we don’t want to sense disappointment in others. We frequently go above and beyond to meet expectations and needs of others, often to our own detriment. It is easy for an HSP to overextend oneself to the point of burnout. Learning to set that boundary is crucial and to be cautious around those that make high demands of us. HSPs should develop calm home environments, manage their schedule to avoid being overly busy, allot time for quiet reflection, and most importantly, manage stress. Stress can come from pressure to meet expectations of others and ourselves, conflict, separating others’ feelings from our own, dealing with intense emotions, and having difficulty accepting help versus being the helper. Our Secret Weapon In a world where toughness is often overvalued and terms like “snowflake” are used as an insult, it can be easy to see sensitivity as weakness and a flaw to be changed. However, this high level of sensitivity has been linked to giftedness and can lead to some incredible strength! Being an HSP can mean you:
  • Are detail-oriented and perform at a high level.
  • Notice others’ feelings and offer needed support and empathy.
  • Are creative, innovative, and instill meaning in all that you do.
  • Value bettering the world for everyone.
  • Have very close relationships with those in your life.
  • Are psychic? Nope, just very perceptive to your inflection, gestures, words, and patterns of behavior.
  • Are the beating heart of humanity and empathy within our society!
Think you might be an HSP? Take Dr. Aron’s HSP quiz here If you need additional help with managing stress, anxiety, or depression, or want to uncover your unique strengths, contact us here to learn how we can help! -  By Carissa Funk-Wojciechowski, Social Worker Intern