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, by asking 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 of sensitivity as a "trait." Interestingly enough, some of this skepticism can be found in the very people who are Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs), themselves.

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.

Near the end of the article, you'll also find a suggested reading list, and links to more resources on the web.

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 "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" or "marketing" will happen, don't worry!


With THAT out of the way...

What best describes your awareness of "High Sensitivity?"

  • I'm an HSP and have known about it for many years
  • I recently learned I'm Highly Sensitive and am looking for information
  • I've heard about it, and was wondering if it applies to me
  • Not highly sensitive, but I know someone who IS, for sure
  • I think it's nonsense-- EVERYone is "sensitive" in their own way
  • Never heard of it until I landed on this page
  • Something else (write in comments, at the bottom!)
See results without voting

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 "overaroused" 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.

The point?

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.

More by this Author

Are you an HSP? Does this all resonate with you? 53 comments

Denmarkguy profile image

Denmarkguy 13 months ago from Port Townsend Author

I appreciate the feedback about ads, etc.-- unfortunately, I don't get paid for writing, and since I can't afford to invest both time AND money in what is-- in essence-- uncompensated work, I am somewhat at the mercy of publishing platforms that allow me to post unlimited content at no cost to me, in exchange for there being advertising links in my articles.

Whereas I recognize this can be annoying to some readers, I am also choosing to publish on heavily trafficked sites where the information is likely to reach lots and lots of people (this article has been read over 60,000 times), as opposed to on a personal site that might be seen a couple of times a month.

As an idealist, it is not necessarily a tradeoff I am happy about, but I recognize that I have to work within the system as we currently have it...

Great content ... adverts are killing you 13 months ago

Peter, I have enjoyed your content in the past - it's excellent. However, recently (Sept 2015), the web pages are extremely sluggish. This page needed over 400 HTTP requests to display! (A content only web page requires 1 HTTP request. Each image requires an additional request. PLEASE DON'T LET YOUR CONTENT GET LOST IN THE ADVERTISEMENTS!!!

letstalkabouteduc profile image

letstalkabouteduc 17 months ago from Bend, OR

Well, let me start by saying how much I enjoyed your photography -- stunning. I've never heard of HSP so I took the quiz and scored above 14. I'll need to re-read your hub because there's so much information that resonates with me. I read the book "Quiet" about introverts and I'm most definitely that. I think my entire family is HSP. We live a very quiet, peaceful existence even with 2 teenage sons. None of us like loud music. In fact, I've never been to a concert in my entire life and have no desire to do so. I took anti-anxiety medicine for a decade to treat social anxiety. When I started, I think I really needed it but should have been weaned off sooner. Perhaps, if I knew about HSP, I would have accepted some of that social avoidance as just a part of who I am. I really understand about work and needing something meaningful. That has been a challenge for me. I will definitely read more, but it's a topic where I need to read - reflect- read- reflect.

JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 2 years ago from Deep South, USA

I'm so glad I read your HSP intro hub because I now know a lot more about myself. I will be reading more as well as the book you recommended.

I've never written much poetry, but published a poem about solitude here on HP that obviously points toward my having the HSP trait. (All on your list of common HSP attributes apply to me.)

Voted Up+++


Scarlettohairy profile image

Scarlettohairy 2 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

Boy, your words really ring true for me. I am very sensitive to sound and smells. I really wish I could live away from other people more than I do now. I think I 'd be much happier and feel better.

fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 2 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Well.....all right then. Wednesday, August 13, 2014.....shall be my new date of birth. Nothing should shock me any more. Finally, at the age of 66....there's a real name for who I am....who I have's been a very long road of believing myself an alien of sorts.

I doubt I'll ever be able to thank you appropriately.......I'm literally stunned......must run to the mirror now. I wonder if I LOOK different.

YOU, Peter, are my most precious discovery here in the Hub!....and you are never getting rid of me.....Up+++pinned tweeted,googled

Cara 2 years ago

I've just "discovered" HSP as a trait, and am amazed and fascinated by everything I'm reading. My mom has always told me I was a very sensitive child, and now at age 49, she still tells me that, but luckily for me, never in a bad way. Even though my parents were very accepting of me the way I am, I've still felt for years (and even more so as I get older) that there was something wrong with me. I felt that perhaps I just needed to try harder to tolerate the things that made me uncomfortable, like loud or background noises, crowds, extreme temperatures, or violence on TV/in movies. I read peoples' emotions very well, and have been described as an empath. This served me very well when, for 9 years, I had my own business as a professional organer. But I wasn't able to make that work financially, and now I can't seem to find my place in the work world. I've just ordered "Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person" and am anxious to read it.

As I learn more, I'm beginning to have hope that there's nothing instrinsically "wrong" with me, and that my sensitivities may actually lead me to a deeper, more meaningful life.

Homeplace Series profile image

Homeplace Series 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

I think this hub has identified for me a very important issue in my life of which I was not aware. I certainly look forward to reading more of your hubs on HSP... Thanks, again! ;-)

PoeticVine profile image

PoeticVine 3 years ago from North Carolina, United States

I've just read this article. I am an HSP, and I've known something of the sort for years... since I was nine, more or less.

I would value a discussion with you, if you would welcome the opportunity. Please let me know if you would be amenable.

I will re-read this and offer more substantive commentary -- for now I simply wanted to have this response reflect my reading of your Hub because I need to have it marked for re-visiting.

Thank you. From the bottom of my heart.... thank you.

peppermintee profile image

peppermintee 3 years ago from Here

I'm so glad I discovered this article today! Excellent and informative reading.

NateB11 profile image

NateB11 3 years ago from California, United States of America

The other point I meant to make is that if high sensitivity is follow through to the end, it is deep awareness, which creates deep compassion, intelligence, understanding.

NateB11 profile image

NateB11 3 years ago from California, United States of America

At some point, and before I knew there was a term for it, I realized I was Highly Sensitive; I was affected by others' moods, was overwhelmed by lots of stimuli, etc. I also have good friends who are highly sensitive and recognize the tendencies you describe in them. I do not entirely agree on the assessment of shyness; I think it can be natural and also a part of a Highly Sensitive persons ways; when things are bigger, grander, affect you strongly, it can make you shy. I am this way, I know. This piece is a very good, smart and thorough examination of High Sensitivity, which people should be educated about because it is misunderstood, especially in this competitive and hardened society. Thanks much!

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Where have I been while you were writing this great series? My God, you just gave a name to something I have lived with all of my life. There were times I just wanted to shut off my emotions. I didn't want to feel what others felt and it was overwhelming. I didn't have a name for it but I knew it was real.

Thank you for this hub! I have learned over the years that there is a beauty in being highly sensitive, that it gives me the ability to reach others on a most basic level, and thereby be a better human being.

sandrabusby profile image

sandrabusby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

Just discovered your hubs and profile. I'm following you along as I enjoy many of the same topics and appreciate your writing ability. Thanks. Also, I'm one of Dr. Aron's fans.

Denmarkguy profile image

Denmarkguy 4 years ago from Port Townsend Author

@vespawoolf: Thanks for the positive feedback! It's an important topic that affects a LOT of people (15-20% of the population is not small potatoes), MOST of whom aren't even aware WHY they feel "different" and a little out-of-step with the world around them.

Denmarkguy profile image

Denmarkguy 4 years ago from Port Townsend Author

@Victoria Lynn: Thanks for your comment! Lots of new information has come online, especially over the past five years or so. You can also google "sensory processing sensitivity" and get a more scientific angle on the concept.

Yes, depression is somewhat common among HSPs, but primarily among those who fit the description but don't know it, and thus are operating under the mistaken impression that something is "wrong" with them.

vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

This is a fascinating topic that I was unfamiliar with before reading your hub. We are all wired to react and feel a certain way, so understanding it is a step toward adjusting our lifestyle and improving our lives. Very useful! Voted up and shared.

Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

I've never heard of this, but it makes sense. I scored high on the test, that's for sure. Does depression often come along with being a HSP? It seems that it would. I am intrigued. I may get a book about it, but, for now, I'm going to read more of your hubs about this. Thanks. I'm sharing this. I think it's so valuable.

Denmarkguy profile image

Denmarkguy 4 years ago from Port Townsend Author

@finally: Thanks for commenting! Many-- including Dr. Elaine Aron who originally coined the phrase "Highly Sensitive Person"-- suggest that HSPs benefit tremendously from interacting and sharing experiences with their peers. After all, nobody "gets" what it's like to live as an HSP like another HSP. Fortunately, there ARE ways (other than "random") to meet other HSPs.

If you are interested, I have another article here on this site that's specifically about ways to make contact with other HSPs:

Thanks again,


finally 4 years ago

I really appreciate the article and the comments in this space. I knew I was this person HS, but felt a certain shamefulness about it, viewed it more a pathology than anything else.But I agree that there is some good and not so good with this trait. Wish there was a way to connect with others that share this trait other than randomly, which if one is not 'outgoing' is limiting circumstance to meet like folks. By the way, loved you comments gregory gibbs. Thanks for the space.

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