Are you a what?!
I have recently learned a description for myself that is so accurate I couldn’t help but yell, “OMG, Where has this been my whole life!?”
Have you ever heard of a “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP)? Me neither, but when I did, it completely changed the way I viewed myself, my child (who is one too), and why I have the strengths and challenges I do…
But before I tell you what it is, let me ASK you...Do YOU:
Get easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sounds?
Get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
Make a point of avoiding violent or scary movies and TV shows?
Need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
Make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
Have a rich and complex inner life? (Elaine Aron, 2020)
If you have answered yes to more than one of these questions, chances are you ALSO are a HSP. Perhaps you have called yourself a “sensitive”, an “empath”, or something else, but I have found HSP to be so much more encompassing than any other explanation I have found.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
Made popular by the work of Dr. Elaine Aron, a HSP is someone who feels the world around them very deeply. HSPs would feel so much more deeply than a non-HSP if the two were in the same space at the same time, their perceptions would be dramatically differently than if two non-HSPs shared the space.
Interestingly, 15-20% of the population are HSPs and while not a disorder (the scientific term for this is “Sensory-Processing Sensitivity”), Highly Sensitive People can both THRIVE in and become OVERWHELMED by the depth of their intense inner-life.
HSPs are both introverts and extroverts (about 30% are extroverts). HSPs are successful in high-functioning, intimate roles such as teachers, health-care workers, therapists, (or coaches), and more, but also run the risk of burning out when they feel the world around them too strongly.
HSPs are not necessarily intuitive or psychic, but they can be because they feel the world in a deeper, more in tuned way.
What’s it like being a Highly Sensitive Person?
As a self-described HSP (who scores very highly on this test) I will offer a snippet of a day-in-the-life of how I experience the world (and maybe you will resonate).
(If you want more than a snippet, I wrote a whole blog on it here!)
Sometimes just the smell of coffee can wake me up (without even drinking it!)
If it is a low pressure day I will have a headache that is impossible to get rid of. Getting dressed, I must wear a soft fabric (NO polyester!) and if there is a tag on my clothes, I will have to cut it out or will be bothered by the sensation all day.
When I pass a crowd on the street, I can feel each person’s emotional vibration as they pass-- worried, busy, tired-- I pick up on their energy and the more people I cross, the more intense I feel everyone (which is why high-density cities like Hong Kong can be so exhausting!).
Luckily if I walk by beautiful street-art, or a stunning natural view, it takes my breath away and I feel a deep love for the world.
I feel the view in my whole body, not just my eyes, allowing me to remember every detail and describe it thoroughly months, or even years later.
Watching film/television is like living the experience in real time: which is why I cannot watch medical shows because I feel the injuries as my own (oh the blood!), but some shows are fun--like I recently enjoyed a kid’s show about petting animals' fur and I could feel the sensation on my own skin! Crying from an emotional commercial? That’s me 100%.. (this one gets me every time).
If I join a concert or live event, I feel “high” on the excitement of the crowd (and often can’t sleep at night I am so high!), but when I am in a socially/politically unstable environment or (even reading the news about one) it will infiltrate my emotions so deeply I feel like I personally am experiencing the whole world’s pain at once (which is why the HK protests hit me so hard). The term I resonate with for this is “weltschermz”--world pain in German.
I am an extroverted HSP, so when I work with my clients (or students when I was a teacher) I can quickly pick up the complex emotions they are experiencing and luckily pinpoint exactly what their needs are as a result. Similarly, motherhood has been easier than I anticipated because I don’t need to guess what my child wants or needs because I can FEEL it inside--but likewise it's quite difficult when she is in pain because I feel it strongly as well.
Living this way also causes a heavy weight of sensations, so to keep from being overwhelmed, I must give myself ample space away from the world and recharge in nature, or quiet, calm places often (I am known to build in "decompression days" each month in order to not burn out).
On one hand, I always thought I was normal, but on the other hand, when things get too intense... I have often asked myself, “What is wrong with me?!”
Nothing… there is nothing wrong with me.
If you are an HSP, you FEEL everything.
Sensations, emotions, environmental conditions, even states of consciousness themselves.
Your highs are REALLY HIGH...and your lows really low.
And there is nothing wrong with that…
Read that again: there is nothing wrong with that...or YOU.
You may have memories of loved ones telling you, “You’re too sensitive”, or “You take things too seriously”. (Most of my young memories are of my family saying this!)
And comments like this can feel shameful and lonely for many of us.
But being an HSP is a genetic trait that naturally occurs in all cultures and is equally represented across ages and genders...you are not "too" anything, and you are not alone.
Benefits to being Highly Sensitive
Because both highs and lows are experienced strongly, luckily you may have even felt some unique benefits from your sensitivity.
For example, you may tap into the mytho-poetic-imaginal realm easily and feel creative arts with the intensity that the creator intended (personally Debussy’s song Suite Bergamasque 75 gives me an “eargasm”!) Similarly, your dream life (both daydreams and night dreams) are vivid and can bring you insights and inspiration that non-HSPs find difficult.
Or you may have a photographic memory because of how perceptive you are. Perhaps you are able to scream “Behind the milk to the left!” to your less perceptive partner who is staring at the fridge asking where the ketchup is. (This happens to me weekly...)
Your connections to others (especially those who are also Highly Sensitive) can be extremely strong because you can intimately share deep, meaningful stories about the world and how you feel it. You are a great listener, so a night of deep conversation is an HSP's version of heaven.
As an HSP, everything is an experience, making life emotionally and aesthetically rich.
You live a life of integrity and seek the highest ideals all around you (which can sometimes cause depression when their is a lot of injustice). You live life to the fullest, and many people love being around you.
Keep an eye on these four characteristics of HSPS (whether you are one or not...)
Through her research, Dr. Elaine Aron summarized Highly Sensitive People as having four key characteristics. These have the acronym DOES.
HSPs are known to have:
D= Depth of processing
S= Sensitivity to Subtleties
And these four characteristics influence each other. For example, when you are Deeply processing everything in your environment (consciously and unconsciously), you may be picking up too much, which leads to Over-stimulation. Additionally, your strong Emotions and Empathy for others allows you to create strong connections, but this too may also lead to Over-stimulation when others’ feelings are intense. Being Sensitive to the Subtleties in the environment may lead to creativity and when combined with a Depth of Processing--HSPs offer very innovative solutions.
OMG, I am HSP too! Now what?
If you have just realized you too are an HSP, it helps to speak to someone who understands this particular trait (and yes, I am your girl!) so you can learn how to use being Highly Sensitive to your advantage.
Remember, HSPs are also known as “Pioneers”, “Oracles”, “Guides”, “Artists”, and “Visionaries”...if you are missing out on how to use the gifts that accompany this way of being in the world, there are many ways to use them!
As Elaine Aron tells HSPs “Speak out, we can support each other, you are not the only one”.
So, as a fellow HSP: I am here to support you.
If you are tuning in to the vibrations of those around you too much, there are ways to protect your energy and use your superpower for good (not exhaustion).
Feeling burnt out at work? There are ways to communicate about your traits in HSP so you are put in positions that will highlight your gifts (in fact managers consistently rate people with higher sensitivity as the best performers in their organizations!).
I work closely with HSPs in sessions called "Depth-Quests".
Need better boundaries? Download this FREE Healthy Boundaries Kit!
Want to practice Healthier Boundaries as self-care-- check out this video!