And why the trait can actually be an advantage
Growing up, I was constantly labeled as the “good listener.” I was also told to stop “taking things so personally.” I can read other people without them saying a word. I feel everything. All the time. Really deeply.
That’s because I’m a highly sensitive person, or HSP. Sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) is the trait’s scientific term, and while it’s greatly misunderstood and often mischaracterized, it’s found in 15 to 20 percent of the population.
The terms HSP and SPS originated in the mid-1990s by research psychologist Elaine Aron, who theorized that it’s an inherent trait — an “innate survival strategy” designed to help people with more sensitive nervous systems better cope with the world by being “observant before acting.”
Studies indicate that HSPs actually exhibit increased blood flow in the areas of the brain that process emotion, awareness, and empathy. Since the advent of research into HSPs, biologists have discovered that more than 100 species of animals, including dogs, cats, horses, and even fruit flies, can possess sensory-processing sensitivity.
What High Sensitivity Is (And What It Isn’t)
Over the years, I’ve come to realize what a powerful advantage sensitivity can be. Today, as a coach and writer, empathy is part of my job description, and I view my sensitivity as a gift. But it wasn’t always that way. I used to beat myself up and feel like I was operating by a different set of rules. That’s another common experience for HSPs: internally struggling with self-doubt and low esteem because you feel broken.
First of all, it’s important to understand clearly that high sensitivity isn’t a disorder. It also isn’t the same as being introverted or shy. In fact, about 30 percent of HSPs are extroverts. It’s part of who you are — not a flaw that needs fixing or something you just snap out of, despite endless comments from family, friends, and strangers telling you to grow a thick skin and stop taking everything so seriously.
In general, HSPs are more aware of and affected by external stimuli than non-HSPs. They are often empaths, meaning they possess a keen ability to sense others’ feelings, needs, and insecurities. HSPs have rich inner worlds and, as a result, internalize everything more deeply — from social interactions to emotions to physical and visual sensations. (That pen you’re tapping during a meeting doesn’t go unnoticed by an HSP.)
The downside to these perceptive abilities is that HSPs can easily become overwhelmed. Criticism can be hard to swallow, as not everyone communicates with the same thoughtfulness and tendency for nuance as HSPs. Certain environments, like open floor-plan offices or crowded streets, can send an HSP running for refuge.
Because high sensitivity is widely misunderstood, the behavior of HSPs can confound (and even frustrate) others. Being highly sensitive doesn’t make a person weak, but it does mean HSPs have to manage themselves and their relationships, work, and lives differently than most people in order to thrive.
How to Tell If You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
When I first encountered a description of what it means to be an HSP, it was like looking at myself in the mirror. I hadn’t realized there was a specific term to describe my way of perceiving the world. It brought me incredible relief to know I wasn’t alone.
If you suspect you might be an HSP, see if you relate to the characteristics below.
- Your empathic nature makes you a master of emotional intelligence and relating to others.
- You have a vibrant inner life. For you, being alone is grounding, not lonely.
- You think before you act. This means you excel at strategy and planning — that is, if you can move past second-guessing yourself and perfectionism-induced procrastination.
- You are conscientious and prepare, which makes you trustworthy and reliable. But if you’re caught off-guard in a meeting or conversation, you get easily overstimulated and may recoil.
- You’re able to sense conflict and mitigate it before it becomes a problem (and often before others are even aware of it). This is one reason HSPs are great problem solvers and team members.
- You have a low annoyance threshold. It’s particularly hard for you to work in noisy (sirens going by are the worst), overly bright, or aesthetically abrasive environments. You have trouble concentrating if you feel slightly uncomfortable. You also might be extra-sensitive to fragrances or coarse fabrics.
- You love connecting with people, but at a big party you’re most likely to be found in a quiet corner chatting with a few people, getting into deep, far-ranging topics (or hanging out with the resident dog or cat).
- You are deeply moved by art, literature, or music and often unexplainably affected after witnessing the pain or suffering of other human beings. This is why HSPs tend to excel in careers like medicine, teaching, and even social entrepreneurship, but it also means HSPs need to be mindful about the news and content they consume.
- You cry more easily, both from sadness and happiness.
If you relate to most or all of the qualities above, chances are that you possess the unique brain chemistry that’s innate to HSPs. You can take a self-test designed by Elaine Aron here.
While a single assessment won’t give you an full picture of your entire personality, it’s still a useful tool and often marks the beginning of a life-changing journey to navigating the world with newfound self-awareness of your HSP status.
The Stigma of Being Sensitive
Being sensitive is stigmatized in some cultures and not others. For instance, according to Aron, studies showed that shy and sensitive children in China were “among those most chosen by others to be friends or playmates.” In Western societies, it’s common to view high sensitivity as a flaw. Crying, frequently feeling deep emotions, or needing to retreat and recharge are seen as weaknesses, whether in the context of the workplace, romantic relationships, or beyond. This is particularly tricky for men who face intense bias and shame when it comes to being open and honest about their sensitivity.
For HSPs to thrive, they have to shift their mindset to view their high sensitivity as a gift rather than a curse, despite cultural norms and naysayers who tell them otherwise. Contrary to popular belief, embracing HSP qualities like deep self-awareness, emotional intelligence, stress management, and thoughtful communication are the hallmarks of healthy functioning — not signs that you lack the grit and competitive drive needed to succeeded.
I’m the first to admit that high sensitivity is a double-edged sword. It can be frustrating to be hyper-attuned to every minor criticism or conflict. Even happiness and joy can be draining for the HSP mind! But thanks to a growing awareness, this unique trait is gradually moving into the collective consciousness, allowing HSPs to better understand themselves and communicate their differences to others.
Until they learn about the presence of other HSPs, most people don’t realize how much their heightened sensitivity shapes the way they move through the world, which we’ll explore more in Part 2.