The Highly Sensitive Person: An Introduction
On being Highly Sensitive: A Bit of Background
Sensitivity—emotional or otherwise—is not exactly a new concept to the world. Nor was it new when research psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron published the landmark book The Highly Sensitive Person in 1996. However, Aron's book shed some new light on a topic that affects a large number of people. She asked the world to consider sensitivity as an inherent physiological trait, rather than as a possible pathology.
Although almost twenty years have passed—and the book has offered personal insights for millions of people—there remain questions and a fair amount of skepticism regarding the notion of sensitivity as a trait. Interestingly enough, some of this skepticism can be found in the very people who are themselves Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs).
Such skepticism can very likely be attributed to a greater trend in our society to medicalize or pathologize many things that essentially fall within the realm of normal human experience.
This article offers a basic introduction to the HSP trait, and makes a few suggestions on "what to do next" for those who recognize themselves in the attributes of high sensitivity.
Before we get started, a quick quiz
We all have our preconceived notions about what it means to be highly sensitive. In addition, culture and society can color our opinions, and not necessarily in a factual manner.
Just so we call can start on the same page, I highly recommend taking a couple of minutes to take Dr. Elaine Aron's quick (and free) sensitivity self-assessment test.
I suggest this because sensitivity as you think of it may not be the same thing as the sensitivity associated with the genetic trait.
Quite a few people are surprised and end up thinking, "Oh... that's not at ALL what I thought it was."
So take a moment for the quiz. No registration is required, and you won't receive any emails—don't worry!
With THAT out of the way...
What best describes your awareness of "High Sensitivity?"
So what exactly IS an HSP?
Dr. Aron's research suggests that approximately 15-20% of the population fit the description of being Highly Sensitive.
HSPs—by her definition—are people whose brains and central nervous systems are "wired" in such a way that they are more acutely aware of, and attuned to, themselves, other people, and their environment. As a result, a highly sensitive person is more easily stimulated and aroused by their surroundings, from which it follows that they also get more readily over-aroused than most people.
Sensitivity is an inborn trait which—interestingly enough—researchers have also observed in hundreds of animal populations ranging from deer to octopi. During the last few years, the term "High Sensitivity" has started to be replaced by the more scientific "Sensory Processing Sensitivity," now used by neuroscientists studying the trait.
Cultural biases and our preconceived ideas
Often, the immediate thing that comes to mind when people hear the word "sensitive" is that a person gets their feelings hurt really easily. Whereas this kind of emotional sensitivity can certainly be a part of being an HSP, it by no means defines the trait, and a cultural bias in which sensitivity is equated with weakness represents one area in which many HSPs often feel like they are being unfairly—and negatively—judged.
We must keep in mind that many of our cultural biases against ideas and concepts are based on opinions, rather than facts. Making a statement such as "Susan is too sensitive!" is an opinion, and nothing more.
One of the most important things to remember about the HSP trait is that it is, ultimately, neutral. It has benefits, as well as disadvantages. It is also a physiological trait. A Highly Sensitive Person does not choose to be sensitive, and they do not become sensitive as a result of something happening in their lives (more about that, later!). HSPs are born—and wired—that way.
So let's examine some aspects of High Sensitivity, from a more thorough and balanced perspective.
Common Attributes of HSPs
High Sensitivity can vary considerably from person to person, and manifests in different ways. To return to an earlier point, Indeed, getting one's feelings hurt easily can be a part of the picture. But there is so much more to the trait that we are basically doing ourselves a huge disservice by focusing too much on "emotional fragility."
- HSPs are often very sensitive to pain, both physical and emotional.
- HSPs often respond to much lower doses of medications than most people.
- HSPs tend to be easily startled, and often feel overwhelmed by loud sensory inputs.
- HSPs tend to be uncommonly cautious when facing new situations.
- HSPs are often highly conscientious and tend towards perfectionism.
- HSPs are easily shaken up and distressed by changes, and don't do well in "multitasking" situations.
- HSPs are often negatively affected by loud noises, strong scents and smells, or bright lights.
- HSPs tend to be "cooperative," rather than "competitive," and often underperform in highly competitive environments
- HSPs get easily rattled in stressful situations.
- HSPs are often deeply empathic and frequently "pick up moods" from other people.
- Even when extraverted, HSPs tend to be introspective, have rich inner lives, and need a lot of time alone.
- HSPs are disproportionately drawn to the arts and music, and tend to be very easily moved to tears by expressions of beauty and intensity, as well as images of horror and violence.
- HSPs often perform poorly-- even if doing familiar tasks-- when being observed, especially when being "evaluated" in work situations.
It's also common-- although not part of the actual trait-- for HSPs to have lived lives in which they often feel negatively judged and like they really don't "fit in" with the rest of the world.
What is an HSP, Not?
As part of gaining a better understanding of the many aspects of being an HSP, a lot can also be learned from looking at some of the things that are not High Sensitivity-- yet these "lookalikes" are often mistakenly attributed to the trait.
It is important to be familiar with these because there are "conditions" and "syndromes" that can be treated to reduce peoples' discomfort, while the HSP trait is genetic hardwiring: You simply "have it," just like you have "blue eyes" or "small feet."
Always keep in mind that you can't "treat" being an HSP, and you can't be "diagnosed with" high sensitivity-- although a few less informed members of the mental health profession persist in doing so.
High Sensitivity... and Introversion
An HSP is not, by definition, "an introvert."
Whereas being Highly Sensitive does have a high correlation with introversion, approximately 30% of HSPs are actually extraverts.
The extraverted HSP faces additional challenges in that they feel a stronger need for stimulation and draw their energy from being among people... yet doing so often leads to overstimulation for them.
What's important to keep in mind here is that the need for "alone time" HSPs feel is about a need to "recharge one's internal batteries" in the absence of stimuli. It is not about a preference (or non-preference) for being around other people.
High Sensitivity... and Shyness
An HSP is not "a shy person."
Because many HSPs enjoy their own company and actively seek solitude, high sensitivity is sometimes misinterpreted as shyness.
Shyness is widely recognized as being an issue centered around self-perception-- typically excessive self-consciousness, irrationally negative self-evaluation, and irrationally negative self-preoccupation. People are not born shy, and the psychology profession has established that there is really no "sense of self" prior to ages 12-18 months. As such, shyness is a learned behavior, while sensitivity is not.
This is not to say that you can't be an HSP and shy, but being one is not an indicator of the other.
High Sensitivity... and Social Anxiety
An HSP is not "socially anxious," yet the HSP trait is alarmingly often mislabeled as Social Anxiety Disorder.
On the surface, that's understandable. Many HSPs avoid (or minimize) social settings... but we have to look at the underlying reasons for doing so.
Social Anxiety is a mental/emotional disorder, typically the result of some kind of emotional trauma or ongoing condition that makes social situations particularly difficult for that individual. Social Anxiety deals with fears, while being an HSP deals with nervous system arousal levels.
When an HSP "avoids" social situations it's typically because they know they will get overstimulated, and choose not to. It's not because they have a "fear" of people.
It should be noted, however, that because HSPs tend to be both introspective and more attuned to social stimuli, they are somewhat more likely to encounter situations that may lead to developing Social Anxiety.
In other words, an HSP can have Social Anxiety, but having Social Anxiety doesn't mean you're an HSP. Or vice-versa.
High Sensitivity... and Sensory Processing Disorder
An HSP does not have Sensory Processing Disorder (sometimes called "Sensory Integration Dysfunction" or SID).
I mention this particular disorder here, because many HSPs who are attached to "finding a cure for their HSP-ness" tend to abandon Dr. Aron's definitions and instead "adopt" SPD as "the answer" to why they are the way they are.
Whereas this disorder does involve the central nervous system, it essentially refers to a condition in which a person senses physical stimuli normally, but perceives them abnormally. In a sense, the brain and the body are "out of synch" with each other.
This is not true about being highly sensitive... whereas an HSP may feel sensory overload, he or she senses and perceives consistently. Both can lead to feelings of "overstimulation," but with SPD it results from INcorrect brain messages, for an HSP, the brain messages are "correct," but simply too much to handle.
However, an HSP can suffer from SPD/SID, just like anyone else.
High Sensitivity... Asperger's and the Autism Spectrum
An HSP does not have Asperger's Disorder (formerly Asperger's Syndrome).
Similarly, having Asperger's does not automatically "make" someone an HSP.
That said, there are a lot of overlaps between the diagnostic criteria for Asperger's (a form of high-functioning autism) and the description of High Sensitivity.
However, the two are not the same, and while an HSP may have Asperger's, being an HSP doesn't mean you have the disorder. One of the primary ways to tell the two apart comes in the context of social interactions. Individuals with Asperger's generally have difficulty understanding social cues and reading such things as body language and facial expressions, while HSPs tend to be attuned to these in a much above average way.
If you'd like to learn more, there's a useful article on Elaine Aron's web site, explaining the differences-- and it does a much better job than I can, in this limited space.
High Sensitivity... Neuroticism and Anxiety Disorders
An HSP is not, by definition, "neurotic." Nor should being highly sensitive be regarded as some form of anxiety disorder.
This is perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of the HSP trait to explain since-- after all-- the word "neurotic" is directly linked to nervous system disorders, and being highly sensitive is all about the nervous system.
What perhaps should be kept in mind is how we define neurosis: A non-psychotic mental illness that triggers feelings of distress and anxiety, and generally results in impaired functioning.
One way to distinguish is to remember that neuroses center around pathological responses to stimuli, while sensitivity represents healthy/normal (albeit possibly extreme) responses. Sensitivity does not involve mental illness, although (as in the case of Social Anxiety) HSPs may be more prone to neuroses than the population at large.
High Sensitivity is a NEUTRAL trait
An HSP is not "superior," in some way. High Sensitivity doesn't make anyone "better," merely "different."
As stated earlier, the trait is basically "neutral," with a series of attendant upsides and downsides, which may even vary from person to person.
For example an HSP may be able to hear your baby crying even when you can't ("positive"), but potentially may never enjoy a live concert because it's overwhelmingly loud ("negative") to their ears. Or, an HSP may be able to smell a gas leak before anyone else ("good"), but might get repeated headaches from being exposed to the smell of common household cleaning products ("bad").
In the same vein, let's keep in mind that "HSP" is not a synonym for "nice person" or "milquetoast." Again, it's important to remember that behaviors tend to be a choice. I have met a number of HSPs I would by no means characterize as "nice people," nor does sensitivity necessarily make someone a "pushover."
The Fallacy of "Becoming" an HSP
Although it is a well-established scientific fact that High Sensitivity is a genetic inborn trait, there are some who will read these words and swear that they "became an HSP" at some point in their life.
Whereas I will not discount the core of truth in this perception, it's important to recognize why you are really dealing with.
If a person is exposed to consistent and pervasive emotional and psychological abuse over a long period of time, they are highly likely to develop a form of Complex PTSD that-- in many ways-- looks exactly like the trait of High Sensitivity, at least on the surface. A person in this situation may take Dr. Aron's self-assessment test and answer yes to all questions!
How does that "work," exactly?
People who have been exposed to prolonged abusive situations typically develop a form of "acute hypervigilance" that totally mimics many of the fundamental aspects of being an HSP.
And therein lies the distinction. The abuse victim's sensitivity is a (totally valid, I might add!) survival technique, while Dr. Aron's work with High Sensitivity concerns itself with genetics.
Now, can the two overlap? Absolutely!
But if you feel like you "became" highly sensitive at some point in life-- teenage years, adulthood-- you may wish to take a deeper look at the circumstances surrounding this "becoming." Usually a good clue is if you can look back and say "I really wasn't highly sensitive when I was a kid."
But EVERYone is sensitive... Aren't they?
One of the common arguments I hear is that "everyone is sensitive" and that it is somehow elitist or discriminatory for some people to consider themselves highly sensitive.
The important distinction to make here is between what constitutes "a behavior" and what is a "physiological trait." I agree entirely that anyone can choose to act in a sensitive manner. As such, the answer to the above question-- strictly speaking-- could be "yes."
The primary difference is that an HSP doesn't really have a choice in the matter. Think of it this way: Regardless of whether they like the sun or not, some people can go outside in the summer and work all day, and all they get is a tan. Others, however (who may love the sun), get third degree sunburns within an hour. And so it is, with HSPs and their sensitivity, since we are actually dealing with brains and central nervous systems that are "wired" a little differently from the majority of the population.
This becomes important when it comes to understanding interactions with HSPs. Many societies--especially in the industrialized West-- do not value sensitivity, because we live in competitive "dog-eat-dog" cultures. Whatever your perception of sensitivity may be, keep in mind that telling a highly sensitive person to "get over it" and "develop a thicker skin" is an exercise in futility; they cannot change the way their nervous system is wired any more than you can change the natural color of your eyes or the size of your feet.
So what's the point of all this?
First published in 2007 (but frequently updated!), this is the first of an ongoing series of articles about being a Highly Sensitive Person, and how to incorporate the trait into your life so as to get the most out of life, as opposed to "hiding" because the world just seems too overwhelming.
These articles are intended both to offer insights for HSPs, as well as information for those who have HSPs in their life, and feel a little unsure of how to deal with this "overly sensitive person" who seems to respond to life rather differently from the rest of the world.
Learning is key to "making peace" with your high sensitivity. In this article you've seen links to books relating to the trait (and there are some more, below). I have read all these books and feel comfortable recommending them. I also suggest reading my other articles in the list further down on the page; they cover a variety of specific topics. On a different part of this web site, I also have a very thorough and in-depth article about HSPs entitled "The Highly Sensitive Person or HSP: What Exactly IS that?" which I also highly recommend if you'd like to learn more. It links to many many resources for HSPs, as well as articles, web sites and more.
Learning, learning, learning...
As an HSP myself, I have been studying and incorporating the HSP trait into my life and lifestyle choices since 1997, and I continue to be surprised by how little practical and concrete information is available.
There is plenty of "theory" out there, and people offering expensive workshops, but not so much is available when it comes to the fundamental nuts and bolts of how to deal with and make the most of a variety of situations that may be easy for most people, but present challenges for the typical HSP.
How do HSPs handle relationships? Clearly, our interactions with others are shaped by our sensitivity. Not everyone understands why someone both want to be with another person, but needs alone time, at the same time. For some, it sounds like a dream to be in a relationship with an other HSP who understands, but what are the pitfalls?
Then there is work. HSPs often struggle with work because we tend to seek deeper meaning in our occupations. Most HSPs aren't able to treat work as "just a paycheck."
With a bit of luck, I can perhaps address some of these issues by taking on various aspects of sensitivity and sharing a mixture of personal learning and practical experience.