If you’re like me then you may have been told more than a few times that you’re “too sensitive.”
Not only do I tend to overanalyze and deeply absorb impressions, memories and subtle details of my surroundings and experiences, I’m also strongly impacted by them.
In many cases, I began to wonder: “what’s wrong with me?”
I’m sure there’s plenty “wrong” with me, at least from some people’s points of view, but there was also a piece of the personality puzzle that I’d been missing in my self-understanding. Finding it made many parts of my life much clearer.
It wasn’t that I’m not “tough” enough. I’ve faced situations that would have broken many others. But there was a certain capacity, vulnerability, and characteristic that made the experiences of life more of a challenge for me to process than for some people …
My intuition often sends me strong signals about places, people, and situations which can be a lot to process and sometimes even confusing when I don’t know if I’m overreading into something or making too big of a deal of it.
My ups are Olympian, my lows subterranean. You might think it sounds like bipolar, but that diagnosis has never been applied to me and I don’t display most of the typical behaviors of someone suffering from bipolar: still I must admit that the events of life seem to affect me more dramatically than some of my friends and colleagues.
A new job, a new romance, a brilliant idea or creative project, a feeling of collaboration, teamwork, and belonging and I’m on fire and reenacting the training montage from Rocky; work frustration, broken romance, lack of inspiration, and a feeling of disconnection or alienation and I’m down in the dumps listening to “Let Down” by Radiohead and drunkenly singing along.
So, what gives?
Being a highly sensitive person (HSP)
What I discovered is that I’m what’s known as an HSP – a highly sensitive person. This is a real thing and it’s genetic. It’s a characteristic of about 15% of people where common life feelings and experiences tend to hit you harder than non-HSP people.
You swim deeply in the ocean of life and revel in its vivid colors and wonders, but you also tend to get overwhelmed and need time alone, time to process and time to work through strong inner experiences, both happy and sad, angering and joyous.
The HSP trait is also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is equally present in men and women and it can be a powerful tool or an overburdening weight.
I know that in my own case I’ve suffered from serious panic disorder, depression, anger issues and more, partly spurred by my oversensitivity to stimuli, experiences and people.
So, what’s the next step on realizing you may be HSP?
The first step is becoming conscious of it and what it is.
What is HSP?
Researchers working on HSP have linked it to early human evolution and survival. In our ancient history, human beings were finely-tuned to cues from the environment and other people in order to continue staying alive.
Those who became even more finely tuned than others in their group developed the early precedent traits of HSP.
They noticed where a promising deposit of stones were that could be sharpened into spearheads and had excellent memories. They acutely recalled the danger of a nearby tribe or the location of a tasty herd of bison and their migratory patterns.
These HSP spear-chuckers could practically smell danger in the air.
After all, common experiences we see as trivial now meant life or death for ancient humankind.
Banishment from the tribe? Worse than death.
Rejection in love? Eternal singlehood, widespread perception as a failure, and group ostracization.
Lack of food or sudden attacks by enemies? The potentially brutal and rapid death of everyone you loved and yourself.
While some of our prehistoric ancestors developed more on the physiological level and became specialized at hunting, gathering, or building, others also developed acute abilities of threat perception where their sympathetic nervous system alerted them to even the smallest potential danger.
These HSP cavemen passed on some of those hyper-vigilant and observant traits to some of us lucky descendants.
Artists, thinkers, analysts, writers … and so many more individuals often have HSP traits and – while they are frequently gifted with profound insights and emotionally resonant experiences – they often struggle under the toll of being too raw and exposed to life’s vicissitudes.
The triumphs and tragedies of life can become so intense for HSP people that they begin to self-isolate or simply crumble under the sensory onslaught.
HSP traits had a crucial role to play back when the slight miffed look of a tribesman could mean you were three minutes out from being impaled and ritually sacrificed, but in today’s day and age these HSP abilities can be overwhelming and make daily life a mental and emotional grind full of miscues, misperceived hostility and taxing worry and stress.
What are the traits of HSP?
HSP has four main traits and aspects. These are depth of processing, overstimulation, emotional responsiveness, and sensitivity to subtleties (DOES). These four perceptual qualities combine to form the core of an HSP and determine the impressions made on them as they go about life.
Let’s go through them to get more of an idea what these HSP characteristics are and how they work.
Depth of processing
HSP individuals are wired intricately. Their brain insula is more absorbent, making the HSP highly self-aware, analytical and observant of their surroundings and experiences. The insula is a tiny area of the brain in the cerebral cortex that has a big role. It was only really discovered and studied a few decades ago, but it has a crucial function.
A more developed insula results in a longer time and more “impact” of experiences, decisions and situations because – simply put – the individual is consciously processing more sensory and data input than a typical individual.
Due to the insula activity and other factors, HSPs take in many subtle cues and details from their surroundings and common situations from arguments to quick chats go in at a deeper more conscious level where they remember, reflect and engage long after a conversation is over, for example. This can lead to exhaustion and burn out.
Emotional responsiveness and empathy
HSPs tend to be more empathetic and respond in emotionally intense and genuine ways to situations and people around them. They are not detached or cold and can have trouble separating rationality from their feelings. Both positive and negative emotions can sweep over an HSP and sometimes get out of control if they let it.
Sensitivity to subtleties and sensory stimuli
HSP folks do not generally glide through a situation and zone out. Even when tired or stressed they notice everything. They may observe a nervous twitch in someone interviewing them for a job, or read the flirtatious intent in the way a person sits across from them on a bus that anyone else might miss. The same goes for loud sounds, overpowering smells and brightly-lit areas: it can all become a bit too much.
HSP traits and characteristics
While HSP individuals may have profound positive experiences and intensity of emotions, they can also face a number of challenges in processing and “putting into action” the myriad perceptions and signs they see around them. With that said, there are also a number of positives and advantages to being an HSP. Here is a rundown of HSP challenges followed by a list of a number of advantages.
1) Anxiety and depression
Anxiety and depression are on the rise globally, particularly in developed, post-industrial societies. Many of us live “in our heads” and have lives that move at lightning speed but often without the kind of social and romantic connections that give us roots and meaning.
This is even more of a struggle for the HSP, who will tend to experience things like social alienation, disappointment, job insecurity, existential and health fears and broken relationships at an even deeper level than everyone else.
Serious anxiety and depressive issues can result and can often go in a downward spiral if not addressed.
2) Being shy and socially anxious
Another trait that many HSP individuals have is social anxiety and being shy. Group situations are generally not their forte and they like to avoid stressful, large gatherings where they will be forced to put on a public persona or act “easygoing” when in fact they are highly frazzled.
3) Blurred lines
HSPers often have trouble sticking to their limits and boundaries. They don’t like confrontations and shy away from conflicts, arguments and hurting other people’s feelings.
They will often try to “go along” with what other people want even though it makes them unhappy and upset and can often eventually lead to increased depression and anxiety on their part.
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4) Indecision and trouble with change
I know this is definitely true in my case: I have a lot of difficulty with decision-making and accepting and adapting to change. Whether it is moving or deciding what to do about a stressful life situation I tend to waffle around and even engage in self-blame or impulsive decisions in order to try to dispel the confusion and uncomfortable emotions.
The best solution is actually to take time and process through the overwhelming array of factors, but this is often something HSP individuals have to consciously learn how to do.
5) Looking for more
HSPs get tired of chit-chat quickly. Although they tend to be agreeable and lean toward being people-pleasers, they will drift off from small talk and surface-level interactions fairly quickly in most cases.
The same goes for romance, where the HSP individual is looking for “more” and if they don’t find it in one romantic connection they tend to lose interest quickly and walk away.
6) Nobody understands me
It might sound like something out of Catcher in the Rye, but it’s a very raw and real emotion for HSPs of all ages. The conviction in many situations that “nobody understands me.”
Because of their sensory and perceptual overload, HSP individuals can sometimes end up feeling alone in a crowd or misunderstood even by their closest friends. This can turn into self-isolation and a self-fulfilling prophecy where low self-image and loneliness begin to create its own isolated situation.
7) Late bloomers
Many of those who can be categorized as a Highly Sensitive Person are late bloomers. They don’t hit all the typical “benchmarks” that many peers do until later in life and they may find themselves single for longer stretches of time or with more insecurity and questions.
In both career and personal life, the HSP tends to be a late bloomer, although they can often turn into a beautiful flower in the right environment and scenario.
8) Work woes
Especially in 9 to 5 environments, an HSP can have significant obstacles. They may find the demands of work and a boss overwhelming, not due to any laziness or freeloading but simply because they are absorbing a lot of impressions and having many thoughts and experiences and it doesn’t work for an HSP to be fit into a cookie-cutter design and treated like a machine whose only value is to produce output.
9) Stimulus overload
In many cases being an HSP translates into being literally sensitive. Bright lights that glare at you, loud noises and shouting, honking horns, strong perfumes and smells, dangerous areas produce a heightened reaction that other people may find overly dramatic.
The thing is that an HSP is not putting on a show. They really are overwhelmed. This can also include sensitivity to substances like caffeine and sugar.
10) Hurt feelings don’t bounce back right away
An HSP doesn’t tend to be the type to “snap out of it” when their feelings are hurt. They may ruminate and feel sad for days, even weeks when they are badly insulted or marginalized.
Although they will generally come back out of this and recover their even keel, it’s far from easy, since issues and offenses that might not mean much to someone else can hit an HSP right at their core.
11) Holding grudges and preconceptions
Another challenge that some HSP face is holding grudges or developing preconceptions. Grudges can come about from the way issues and interactions are deeply felt and take time to fade when something bad has happened.
Preconceptions and prejudices may occur when an HSP has negative experiences with a person, group, or situation and tries to categorize it in a black-and-white way in order to try to overcome the overwhelming fearful and sad emotions – as well as confusion – that the hurtful situation caused him or her.
Now it’s time to look at some of the very positive aspects of being an HSP …
12) Stop and smell the roses
The HSP is someone who knows how to appreciate the wonder and majesty of life and their surroundings. They may literally stop to smell the roses.
They are also very aware of what’s going on around them and will be the person who praises your new style or compliments you on overcoming a hurdle in your life.
13) Dynamic progress and transformation
HSPs don’t tend to be the kind of person you bump into a few years down the road and find they’re still exactly the same.
They change careers, change interests, and shift in their personalities and approach. They overcome challenges, reach new epiphanies and breakthroughs and often – through their own pain and working through it – they can become catalysts for healing of others who are also going through overwhelming times.
13) Experience profound joy
While there’s no doubt that HSP individuals can sink down to depths of despair that seem positively draconian, they can also be lifted on eagle’s wings and experience profound joy to an exquisite depth.
They may listen to a classic piece of music and be moved to tears, or see artwork from Vincent van Gogh and be inspired to write a novel and think about life and love in a new, hopeful way.
14) Have a deep bond with nature and creation
The Highly Sensitive Person tends to be a nature lover who appreciates beauty and the wonder of creation. They may experience a spiritual bond and have a deep affection and link with animals and growing things.
This can translate into a caring and loving attitude to nature and human beings that are informed by their sensitivity and empathy and becomes one of the HSP’s enduring and most well-loved personality traits and why others enjoy being around him or her.
15) Being empathetic and caring about others
Just like their bond with nature and the natural biome, the HSP is often a person who really and truly cares for others. Although they can get wrapped up in their own head and emotions, they feel the situation and responses of others on a deep level and try to do what they can to help.
This is something that draws others to HSPs and is one of the most beneficial aspects of their personality that they can use to excel in life, as long as it does not become overly people-pleasing or self-effacing.
16) Job excellence
Although HSPs sometimes struggle with “the grind” and having a faceless corporate type environment, their insights and emotional sensitivity often make them uniquely successful in careers that value their independence and mental and emotional observational skills and empathetic acuity.
The HSP engages with life on a vivid and intense level and experiences peaks and valleys in an even more dramatic way than many others. Despite taking some strong hits he or she is often a person who manages to cultivate great wisdom and insights about life and love on their journey. And if there’s one thing all of us could use a bit more of it’s wisdom, wouldn’t you agree?
18) Interest and engagement with new cultures and ideas
While the downside of the HSP experience can be a feeling of not belonging and being misunderstood, the upside is often an increased openness to other cultures, traditions, spiritual practices, and philosophies.
The HSP wants to know about those who are different and – from his or her experience of feeling different and separate – there is often a greatened ability to empathize and see the value and substance in diverse cultures and ways of life.
19) Deep relationships
Even the most well-balanced and toughest of us will likely struggle with personal and romantic relationships. It is one of the great challenges of life, and finding true love and intimacy is no breeze and involves some steps that many people won’t tell you about until you search on your own for the answers.
The HSP – when he or she does find love – won’t let it go easily and will have an enormous amount to contribute to a relationship. They prize the real and will value their connection with a loved one in an endearing and protective way that tends to make relationships last.
20) Inspirational friendships and connections
As mentioned, the HSP doesn’t really “do” chit chat and shallow stuff. They will tend to sometimes have fewer friends and connections that are meaningful, but those they do have will often be of the deep and lasting variety.
The HSP individual will form connections and friendships that stand the test of time and come through in the end. They may not always be the life of the party or someone everyone “gets,” but they will have friendships to treasure for a lifetime.
21) Bringing compassion and humanity to difficult situations
Despite being overwhelmed in some situations which may not be a big deal for others, the HSP also has a special skill set that lets them adapt and understand challenges that can truly stymie their colleagues and friends.
They may often develop deep compassion and humanity that they bring to the tough situations that we all face in life.
The truth about HSPs …
There are some things that many people get wrong about HSPs. Perhaps the most common is that HSPs are inherently introverted. In fact, not all HSPs are introverts and about one-third are extroverts.
Another is to think that women tend to be HSPs more than men. This is simply false and all genders have an equal proportion of sensitive souls.
The truth is that being highly sensitive is not a mental illness and it does not mean something is “wrong” with you. While it can present unique challenges and increase the predisposition to anxiety and other challenging phenomena, being an HSP does not always involve tough experiences and can sometimes be a gift and a blessing.