Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?

Do life insurance commercials move you to tears? You might be an HSP.

Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?
Credit: iStock/DelmaineDonson

If you often find yourself feeling deep emotions at the drop of a hat, you could be a highly sensitive person (HSP). It’s estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of Americans are HSPs, though most of them don’t know it. Like introverts, they can be misunderstood and even marginalized for their inward-looking tendencies. Also like introverts, HSPs have many gifts to offer the world once they embrace what makes them unique. Read on to learn more about what it means to be highly sensitive, and why it’s cooler than you might think.

What is an HSP?

Highly sensitive people display characteristics associated with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). Both terms were coined in the 1990s by psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron and popularized in Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. SPS refers to how sensory information — light, noise, and other stimuli — is processed by the brain. Those with SPS exhibit “an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli.”

Put simply, HSPs tend to feel and experience things, both positive and negative, on an especially deep level because of how their brains are wired. A recent study concluded that HSPs in negative environments (like abusive homes) may experience greater psychological suffering than non-HSPs, while those in positive environments are more likely to do exceedingly well.

How it Feels to Be an HSP

Broadly, there are three characteristics that underpin Sensory Processing Sensitivity:

  • Being especially moved by the arts and music
  • Having a low tolerance for bright lights, loud noises, and social overstimulation
  • Feeling easily overwhelmed

Other tendencies of HSPs include having a rich and complex inner life; noticing and appreciating subtleties (yep, they’re those annoying people who can actually taste the notes of oak in that glass of red wine); being easily affected by others’ moods; and requiring a lot of downtime to recharge. While many of these characteristics overlap with those of introverts, that doesn’t mean that all HSPs are introverts or vice versa. But like introverts, HSPs can feel like they’re struggling to get by in a world built for people who are wired differently than themselves.

Grammy-winning musician Alanis Morissette has shared that discovering she was an HSP “normalized a part of me that I have felt both ashamed and proud of my whole life.”

Simply being able to put a name to what they are can help HSPs contextualize their experience, leading to a greater appreciation of their emotions and helping them navigate the challenges of being hypersensitive in an often insensitive world. Elaine Aron’s work has focused on enlightening people about SPS, helping those who have it understand its advantages so they can stop feeling like square pegs.

Being an HSP Can Be Overwhelming

The deep-feeling natures of HSPs make them prone to stress, anxiety, and holding on to negative thoughts and memories more strongly than other people might. Because they’re hyper-aware of things like tone of voice and facial expressions, and since they experience strong emotional reactions in general, they may fear even minor criticism and have a habit of taking things personally. They can also feel awkward or self-conscious in group situations. These tendencies, when unchecked, can result in regular feelings of insecurity and even antisocial behavior.

But There’s Also Plenty to Celebrate About Being Highly Sensitive

Many famous creatives are believed to be HSPs. The HSP’s ability to be deeply moved and to pick up on subtleties means that many — if not all — highly sensitive people are also highly creative. Hobbies like art, music, writing, and design can be great outlets for the heightened emotions that HSPs are prone to. And of course, creative professions are also ideal for them.

It’s not just creative roles where HSPs thrive, though. Several famous politicians and social activists, including Abraham Lincoln and MLK, Jr., are believed to have been HSPs. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since high sensitivity correlates with a concern for the wellbeing of others and a passion for creating positive change. 

Many people equate being highly sensitive to being irrationally emotional. In reality, highly sensitive people have a range of qualities that make them the most empathetic people you’ll ever meet. These include being highly observant, being able to easily interpret others’ emotions, feeling those emotions as if they were experiencing them personally, and having a personal interest in lessening the suffering of others. For this reason, HSPs who have a healthy hold on their own emotions can make ideal romantic partners, friends, and coworkers.

How to Thrive as an HSP 

The current body of research assures us that highly sensitive people can enjoy perfect psychological and emotional wellness. But to do so, they may need to take time to understand themselves and what it means to be highly sensitive. They must be generous with themselves, avoiding or managing situations that cause their emotions to go into overdrive. Most importantly, they should learn to manage their negative emotional responses — like being excessively vigilant in large group settings or misreading harmless comments as deep criticisms. By doing this, and further developing the sensitive qualities that make them special, HSPs can thrive!

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Freelance writer, bookworm, passionate about sustainability and promoting the rights of all living creatures.