I Am A Highly Sensitive Person. Here's What I Wish More People Knew About HSPs

Photo: Maximilien T'Scharner

I can’t stand chaos. I hate loud environments. Art makes me cry. Bright lights hurt my eyes. Were you just maybe kind of a little bit rude in that email you just sent me? I’ll have a bad taste in my mouth about it for, oh, probably about a week (*cough* a month) now.

To address what you are no doubt thinking: No, I am not a frigid, antisocial, boring buzzkill. In fact, if I do say so myself, I’m actually quite fun and outgoing when I need to be. I am, however, a very deep processor, extremely aware of the emotions of myself and others, and an avid appreciator of little things in life that often go unnoticed—in other words, I am a textbook example of what is referred to as an HSP, or a highly sensitive person.

If you, like myself and 20 percent of the population, fall into this category, you likely often feel isolated because you’re unable to enjoy (or even simply tolerate) certain tasks and activities in the same ways that your peers do. The good news: this isn't because you're disdainful or just plain difficult. Recent research has shown that these reactions are actually due to a slightly different chemistry in the brains of HSPs—notably, increased blood flow in the areas that process emotion, awareness, and empathy. So while your aversions may be difficult to accept at times, it’s important to understand that this is truly just the way you’re wired, and you honestly probably aren’t quite as weird as you think.

Are you an HSP?

Think about someone you’d consider to be highly sensitive—I’m guessing you probably brought to mind someone who always sobs at chick flicks or is immediately offended by a seemingly harmless, offhand remark from a friend or colleague. While this type of emotional sensitivity is often apparent in an HSP, it’s not as simple as being "overly emotional." In fact, there is one huge indicator of a true HSP that you may not be aware of—physical sensitivity. Among other telltale signs, HSPs exhibit a high measure of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), which is a personality trait that has been described as having hypersensitivity to external stimuli, high emotional reactivity, and greater depth of cognitive processing. So basically, an HSP is someone who is extra sensitive to all internal and external stimuli, and he or she is probably thinking just a little more about, well, everything, than your average Joe.

Here's what it feels like to be a highly sensitive person.

From an emotional standpoint, a careless heckle from a road-raging stranger can leave an HSP shaken for hours. Being given an overwhelming assignment at work may cause them to have a mini breakdown—though likely not until later, once they are alone. On the other hand, the sight of a grandfather playing with his grandkids or an unexpected compliment from a friend can leave an HSP elated for days. Personally, for reasons I have yet to understand, whenever I walk into an extraordinarily designed church (even though I am not religious) or hear beautiful, symphonic music, I immediately start to tear up and have little control over it.

From a physical standpoint, sights, sounds, smells, textures, physical pain, consuming too much caffeine or sugar, not getting enough sleep, or even feelings of hunger can really throw an HSP for a loop. When an HSP experiences any of the above beyond a threshold that would seem quite low to a non-HSP, it makes it nearly impossible to concentrate or feel comfortable in their surroundings—and often, for reasons that may come off as bizarre to "outsiders." Perhaps an HSP can’t stand a stranger’s perfume at the grocery store, so they switch lines at the checkout. Or maybe they always need to be wearing sunglasses, even on the cloudiest of days, in order to shield their sensitive retinas from the sun. Maybe an hour or two into a party, they’ve disappeared to a quiet corner with fewer people or have even gone home because it was just too noisy. While this all may seem like odd or anti-social behavior, it likely isn’t because they are either of those things—it’s simply because of their characteristically low tolerance for external stimuli that often feels like it's attacking from every angle.

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Being an HSP: the good & the bad.

It’s definitely true that we all have our sensitive moments. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t been devastated by a breakup or saddened by harsh criticism. But for HSPs, the bad news is that their physical and emotional experiences are always processed at such a constant, high intensity, that it can really shape their lives—often as much as gender and race do—and often in ways that don’t adhere to the expectations of an extroverted society. Things like job performance, friendships, and romances can be greatly altered when one feels all these stimuli so deeply. Also, because one is so highly aware of his or her surroundings at all times, HSPs do tend to have an increased risk of depression and anxiety—but there are a few ways to fix that.

Now, going back to the thought that HSPs aren't actually buzzkills, I’d like to address all of the good things about being an HSP—because while this personality trait may sometimes seem like a curse, it is indeed a gift. Here are the top 10 reasons I couldn’t be more grateful to be an HSP:

1. HSPs really, genuinely care—and they are good at it.

If a loved one, colleague, or acquaintance is going through a tough time, it’s very difficult for an HSP to walk away from the emotional situation without getting invested, thinking deeply about the issue, and offering their insights.

2. HSPs tend to be highly creative.

They are attuned to subtleties of all kinds, and a richness in things that others may overlook. They draw inspiration from their complex inner lives, and in turn, create beauty, joy, and inspiration for others.

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3. HSPs are incredibly conscientious and take great pride in their tasks.

They work very hard to make sure things are done right and make great employees in roles that allow for autonomy, space, and time to ponder.

4. HSPs feel more deeply.

While this can be a bit hindering when negative emotions arise, it also means that feelings of elation can reach a higher intensity than in non-HSPs.

5. HSPs are very sensitive to animals.

Because they are so in tune with energies, emotions, and the lesser-noticed things in life, they are often especially sensitive to animals and how they are handled.

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6. HSPs have passion like no other.

It’s often very easy for an HSP to experience genuine, blind passion for a topic—so much so that it seems they are almost bursting with it.

7. HSPs are a genuine bunch.

They have a hard time faking interest in topics, people, tasks, and activities that don’t suit them, leaving more time to cultivate themselves, friendships, and the interests that help them to feel fulfilled.

8. HSPs make life about finding meaning.

They are often driven by an internal search for meaning, and if something doesn’t feel meaningful, they can’t just "do it anyway"—they need to silence or filter it out.

9. HSPs are great at having deep, meaningful conversations.

They often loathe small talk and unnecessary discussions because really, who has time for that?

10. HSPs are amazing problem solvers.

HSPs are extremely contemplative and will often take time to process and ponder an issue following a conversation. They're not "out of sight, out of mind" types of people, and will keep cognitively working on solving problems and coming up with ideas if a conversation hasn't completely resolved a question (bringing us back to No. 1).

Here's how to know if you're an HSP.

Thinking you might be a highly sensitive person? Here are a few simple questions to ask yourself to better assess:

  • Do loud environments make you want to run and hide?
  • Do you get really irritable when you’re hungry?
  • Does attending a musical, visiting an art gallery, or reading poetry stir up your emotions?
  • Does having several different tasks to complete actually make you less productive because you become overwhelmed and stressed?
  • Do you consider yourself abnormally empathetic?
  • Does it take you longer than most to make decisions?
  • Do you hate open office plans and prefer to work in private, calm environments?
  • Do you despise violent movies?
  • Do you easily sense when other people are feeling overwhelmed?
  • Does presenting to an audience often go poorly because you loathe working in front of watchful eyes?
  • After a long day, do you need solo, quiet time to recharge?

If you answered yes more times than not, chances are you’re an HSP. Congrats! You’re part of a club of deep-thinking, creative doers who might just need a little more quiet time than most.

If you’d like to take a slightly more official self-assessment, check out this quiz created by Dr. Elaine Aron, who began studying the innate temperament trait of high sensitivity back in 1991. Dr. Aron is the reason for my interest in HSPs, as I discovered I was one after reading her book, The Highly Sensitive Person—I couldn’t recommend it more.

Embrace your sensitivity!

Being a highly sensitive person doesn't mean there's something wrong with you—it simply means that you process sensory data more deeply than most, and while this has its drawbacks, it also has many beautiful and unique advantages. Recognizing that you're an HSP is the first step to embracing it and to learning how to better care for you sensitives. Now get out there and make that hypersensitivity work for you!

If you suspect you're a highly sensitive person, here's a guide to thriving in any environment plus daily self-care rituals written just for you.

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