Are You a Highly Sensitive Person? (You Might Be Surprised)

What comes to mind when you hear the word sensitive?

Tears. Low tolerance. Thin skin. Easily offended. Inflexible. Weak. Shy. Anxious. Emotional, or exaggerating the effects of pain?

How often do you hear “sensitive” used as a criticism? Something that people need to get over or toughen up to overcome.

Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of thing yourself, told you need to grow up, be stronger and to stop being so sensitive to things that seem to affect you more than other people.

Highly Sensitive - Brandon Warren (https://www.flickr.com/photos/92694860@N00/5038539555/)

Do you think about and notice little details that others seem to ignore? Perhaps you long to get away from loud noises, bright lights, and overwhelming situations? And you spend a lot of time worrying about how other people are feeling?

Don’t worry, there is nothing wrong with you.

Until I read this blog post I had no idea what processing sensitivity was. And I’ll be honest, I wasn’t particularly attracted to the idea of being a “Highly Sensitive Person” until I delved deeper into it.

A big “aha!” moment came when I read The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine Aron. The book introduces the concept of ‘high sensory processing sensitivity’, and debunks a lot of the stigma surrounding what it means to be sensitive.

Me? Sensitive? Surely not…

The word ‘sensitive’ is loaded with negative connotations, which is one of the reasons it took me so long to pay attention to the concept of the highly sensitive person. But as I’ve learned more about the trait, I’ve come to see it as a deep well of strength.

I think we have a tendency in Western cultures to equate sensitivity with weakness and the inability to function socially in an ‘appropriate’ or clear-minded way. It is seen through a lens of emotion, which should be treated or reined in. Rather than the innate and natural way in which a person interacts with and processes the world.

Research and Scientific Basis

HSPs have often been called “shy,” “timid,” or “inhibited”, but Dr. Elaine Aron contends that these labels completely miss the nature of the trait. She argues that sensitivity is anything but a flaw. She notes that HSPs are often unusually creative and productive workers. They are attentive and thoughtful partners, and intellectually gifted individuals.

According to the research that Elaine Aron and others have done over the past few decades 15-20% of the population are what she describes as Highly Sensitive People.

Carl Jung called it ‘Innate Sensitiveness’, referring to people who ‘may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems’.

Sensitivity boils down to the way you process sensory input from the world. Like it or not, it’s a big part of who you are.

Sensitivity is Found Everywhere

High processing sensitivity has already been found it in over 100 species including flies, birds, and fish and dogs. These highly sensitive beings have a different survival instinct, being observant before acting.

Your brain processes information and reflects on it more deeply as a HSP. This has been key to the survival of humans throughout our history.

  • Those who process sensory stimuli at a deeper and intuitive level are voices worth listening to.
  • They sense danger before it’s too late.
  • They sense changes in the weather, which can help the community prepare for a coming storm. And they can sense the needs of a group even if no one has verbalised an issue.

Survival and Sensitivity

This is one of the most valuable human traits. And yet because of its flip-side, it has been misunderstood and under nurtured by our busy modern world.

The result of deeper processing is that you get more easily overwhelmed. When things are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time a HSP gets over-stimulated. If they are constantly taking in lots of new information their nervous system can feel frazzled.

Sensitive Misunderstandings

Society commonly misunderstands the trait. Sensitive people often get called “shy” because they prefer to look before entering new situations. But shyness is not innate, it is learned. It has also been compared to introversion, so you may be surprised to know that 30% of HSPs are extraverts.

In cultures where it is not valued, HSPs tend to have low self-esteem. They are told “don’t be so sensitive” so that they feel abnormal.

Sensitivity is holistic and it covers the biological, physiological, and cognitive. It is not something you can change. It is the foundation of your experience and interaction with the world. However, being aware of your high sensitivity will help immensely.

We need to increase our awareness and understanding of high sensitivity. This needs to occur for us as individuals as well through society. Otherwise we will fail to appreciate and enjoy the many wonderful gifts that the highly sensitive among us can bring.

Knowing why you experience overwhelm, frustration, and those moments of “transmarginal inhibition” (when you just seem to shut down because it all feels too much), helps you to care for yourself. It enables you to keep a sense of internal balance, and put yourself in more effective/less destructive situations.

To see if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person, take Elaine Aron’s free self-test.

Over to You

Do you think you’re a highly sensitive person? What might this knowledge make possible for your life? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please share in the comments below.

25 comments
  1. Hey Andy I had no idea about this HSP but i know i had that,after read ur blog i just realized that i was totally a HSP. I’ve been in my hard time for a couple months ago,i feel like i can’t control my emotion. I thought that i was depressed but recently i just notice that i’m a HSP,I really need a support group that had same experience like me and wanna go through this situation together. I need ur suggestion to make my emotion stable and motivation for make me proud coz of my situation. Thanks alot 🙂

    1. Hi Mecca, it’s so nice to hear from you. I’m really glad that you see yourself reflected in the HSP trait and that you’re realising that it’s natural and that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with you. Allow yourself to explore it, be gentle with yourself and surround yourself with voices of others who experience the world in the same way. There are a number of online communities for HSPs, the Haven (on this website) will be re-opening doors towards the end of October – it’s great! There is also The Happy Sensitive (http://thehappysensitive.com/), HSP Health and others on Facebook (though these can be quite overwhelming at times because of all the info). If you like to read then there are some really good books on the subject. Elaine Aron, Ted Zeff, Tracy Cooper to name a few authors.

      I hope you find somewhere to give you the support and encouragement you need to flourish! Identifying the trait is a very good start 🙂

  2. Thanks for your informative site! I recently added HSP to who I am (what I am). Haven’t dug deep into HSP info and readings, but fits me quite well. Your video above really captures what being HSP means. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Bob. Really glad you identify with the HSP traits! Hope you have many happy hours discovering more 🙂 I really appreciate your kind words too.

    1. Yeah, it’s incredible how many of our most treasured entertainers put themselves in those categories. It is so reassuring! The quotes you have on that page are fascinating!

  3. Thanks for that list of traits Andy. I’ve only recently discovered the term HSP and it is a blessing to realize that although I may seem odd to others it is my natural self and that is OK. I was beginning to think that I suffered from PTSD from my reactions to certain situations and a history of critical events. There is nothing more reassuring than to grasp an understanding of one’s self.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Susan. I’m so glad the list of traits was helpful! And I’m really happy anytime I hear a story like yours – realising that there is nothing wrong, especially when you’re beginning to look for answers in other things as you had. I’m totally with you there, very reassuring! Thanks so much for your comment 🙂

  4. Hi Andy it all made sense for me when I read Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Child. My 7 year old daughter is highly sensitive reading this book and looking after her confirmed my own suspicions that I too am highly sensitive I suspect it’s hereditary. Anyway it’s inspired me to set up a parent community which has grown on facebook at a surprising rate nearly 5000 likes in just 3 months there are lot of parents out there struggling and many of them are HSP’s.

    1. Hi James! Yeah, I have the HSChild on my reading list. That’s really interesting that you and your daughter share the trait. I definitely see it in others in my family too. I just looked at your Facebook community and website. Really interesting discussions and useful resources on there! Thanks for pointing me in that direction. I imagine it must be pose many challenges raising a HSChild, especially if you can see your own traits in them. Often it is what we struggle with about ourselves that we see and potentially want to change in other people. I look forward to following your community! Thanks for getting in touch.

      1. Thanks Andy you know it is kind of challenging but it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I feel like I understand myself more than ever and have a true purpose in life,couldn’t be happier. Although at times it is so so painful watching my daughter trying to grapple with her strong emotions.

      1. actually I believe its been classed as an innate trait – one which you either have or don’t. Rather than the intoversion/extroversion model which allows for a mix of different traits in different measures in each individual.
        I don’t fully understand it as I haven’t seen much addressing it, but research is still very new in this area and much is speculative. Check out Elaine Arons website if you want to follow up on it.

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