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The Highly Sensitive Person or HSP: What Exactly IS that?

Updated on January 2, 2017
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Peter learned he was an HSP in 1997. As a student of Sensitivity, he has met 100's of HSPs in person and writes extensively about the trait.

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HSPs: An Introduction

I am a Highly Sensitive Person.

What's more, I am a Highly Sensitive Man.

I wasn't always openly comfortable with making such a public admission, but I've come to accept that it is simply part of who I am. And it may be part of who YOU are, as well. Skeptical? Curious? Read on!

When people think about a person who is "Highly Sensitive", the default assumption seems to be that we're talking about someone who's a fussy tender flower who gets their feelings hurt at the drop of a hat.

Whereas that kind of emotional sensitivity might be part of what makes some people an HSP, the definition explored in these pages goes far beyond that, and does not purely revolve around emotional sensitivity.

When Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term "Highly Sensitive Person" (or HSP) in 1996, she was talking about something that is a genetic physiological trait, not a "pathology" or "affliction." In short, an HSP is a person whose neural net (central nervous system) is wired a little bit differently from the rest of the world-- in such a way that they experience everything more deeply and intensely than most people. As a result, they are also more prone to being overstimulated by their environment than most people.

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The HSP Next Door: Highly Sensitive People are not that rare

HSPs are not as rare as you might think: an estimated 15-20% of the population is highly sensitive, according to Dr. Aron's research.

Being an HSP is not a "choice," in any way, and it cannot be "fixed" or "treated," anymore than the size of your feet, or the color of your eyes can be "fixed." Through the use of EEG and fMRI technology, scientists in the US, Canada, China and beyond have now actually observed that the brain of an HSP responds differently to specific stimuli than do the brains of the majority of the population. In recent years, the trait has received more scientific study, and high sensitivity is now also referred to as "Sensory Processing Sensitivity."

What follows is an fairly thorough introduction to high sensitivity as an inborn trait, describing its basic attributes as well as some of the "lookalike" medical conditions that may seem like the same thing, but actually are quite different. You will also find links to books, web sites, web groups and other resources that will help you learn more about what it means to be an HSP.

Caution! Lots of information ahead! This article is quite long, so you may wish to bookmark it now, so you have it to refer back to later. I've added lots of peaceful photos along the way to break up all the text... and for something pretty to look at while "thinking about things."

An Eye-Opening Statistic

15-20% of the population fits the description of a "Highly Sensitive Person."

That's over 47 MILLION people in the USA, alone.

That's over ONE BILLION people on Planet Earth.

In other words, we're not just talking about "a handful of odd people in the corner."

Might YOU be one of them?

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My Own HSP Story, in Brief... or "I am a Highly Sensitive Man"

I learned that I was an HSP in 1997... quite by accident. I was looking through the travel section at a Borders bookstore in Austin, Texas when I came across a book someone had evidently "abandoned," by laying it flat on top of the otherwise neatly shelved books. I picked it up and read the title-- hoping perhaps it was the book on Ireland I was looking for.

"The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You" by Dr. Elaine N. Aron.

Normally, I'd just have set the book aside as "off topic," but for some reason, I decided to flip through the pages. Perhaps it was fate, perhaps it was the echoes of my mother's voice saying "He's such a sensitive little boy," when I was little-- and the way those words always made me feel like I simply didn't belong on this strange ball of rock with what seemed like so many very LOUD and very VIOLENT people.

Either way, I kept looking at the book-- "skimming"-- till I found the author's "self test" for sensitivity. A few minutes later, I had answered "yes" to all but two of the 24 questions (newer versions of the book have a 27-item quiz)!

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Not sure I really WANT this "Highly Sensitive" business!

I wouldn't exactly say that I was thrilled about this "news..." which wasn't actually news to me. "Resigned" might have been a better term. As a thirty-something man, living in Texas where "men are men, and everything is larger than life," I had already struggled quite a bit in my attempts to fit into my workplace and cultural environment in general. Whether it "fit," or not, this was not a label I was looking for!

However, I bought the book even though I felt a bit sheepish about it... and over the next couple of weeks I basically devoured it several times, realizing in the process that there was no doubt at all that I was this... "Highly Sensitive Person." As I slowly advanced through the text, I kept having "aha moments," each time gaining insight into why certain aspects of my life had turned out the way they had, and why I had encountered difficulties (and confusion!) where and when I did.

My journey of discovery before, during and after learning about the trait is longer than I can fit here-- but if you're interested, I have written this separate article called How I Learned I was a Highly Sensitive Person.

ESSENTIAL Reading for all HSPs!

The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You
The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You

If you think you might be highly sensitive, or have ever been called "too sensitive" or a "tender flower" or "fussy" or "high maintenance" or something similar for much of your life... I highly recommend this book!

It can usually be found for less than $10, and it's a pretty good bet it will change your outlook on life and yourself, as it did for me.

If you only buy ONE book on high sensitivity, this should be it!

 

It has now been about twenty years since my day at the bookstore. In the interim, I set out to learn all I could about being highly sensitive.

I have gone through an entire range of feelings about the trait-- skepticism, rejection, embracing, scorn, more skepticism, acceptance-- to get to where I am today. I have journaled, blogged and written hundreds of articles about the trait-- in places ranging from Elaine Aron's own "Comfort Zone" newsletter for HSPs to several mainstream magazines. I have met well over 100 HSPs in person, and literally thousands through online groups, listservs, web sites and blogs.

My intent with this article-- and here on this site-- is to share some of what I have learned... so others who are new to learning about the trait may have an easier time getting comfortable with the idea that they are an HSP. This page is also intended as a resource for those who are not HSPs, themselves, but are aware that they have a highly sensitive person in their life.

Unsure? Read this review first

If you're not sure whether to get the book, why not read my book review of "The Highly Sensitive Person" on letterpile before you decide?

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Learning more: Dr. Elaine Aron's self-test for Sensitivity

So how do decide whether you are actually a Highly Sensitive Person?

There is a short sensitivity self-test on Dr. Elaine Aron's web site which is FREE and only takes about five minutes to complete. It might seem a bit subjective, but it will give you a fairly clear picture of the characteristics of the HSP trait, and where you fit into the picture. Over the years, it has become the de facto test to measure sensitivity. Hopefully it will offer you some new insight into yourself!

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In More Detail: Some Basic HSP Characteristics

So how do you know if you're an HSP?

Well, the core of the trait revolves around experiencing your surroundings and inner life very deeply. As a result, highly sensitive people tend to become easily overstimulated by their environment and intense feelings. There's a common misconception that the trait is just about emotional sensitivity, but that's not true-- there's much more to it than that. Here are some common characteristics of a highly sensitive person-- in no particular order:

HSPs are often very sensitive to noise, and tend to startle very easily.

HSPs are typically deeply moved by art and music.

HSPs often find it difficult to work and concentrate when being watched or evaluated.

HSPs tend to be easily blinded by bright lights; often disturbed by the noise of fluorescent lighting.

HSPs are often more affected by medications than most people, and can get good results from below-average dosages.

HSPs are usually very sensitive to pain-- both in the physical and emotional sense.

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HSPs are often deeply disturbed by violence in movies and on TV, and will actively avoid them.

Many HSPs are introverts (about 70-75%), although a few are extraverts.

HSPs are often highly conscientious individuals, but can also struggle with perfectionism.

HSPs don't tend to perform well in very competitive environments-- by nature, they tend to prefer "cooperation" over "competition."

HSPs often find it difficult to deal with sudden unplanned changes.

HSPs tend to want to retreat to a quiet space to be alone when there is too much noise and activity around them.

Many HSPs are very sensitive to stimulants like caffeine and relaxants like alcohol.

HSPs tend to have highly idealistic natures and might be described as "dreamers."

HSPs tend to be deeply empathic and will "pick up emotions" from those around them.

HSPs often report having psychic or extrasensory experiences.

HSPs are often aware of tiny subtleties in their environment and tend to have exceptional powers of observation.

HSPs tend to have very rich and complex inner lives and are often labeled as "daydreamers."

HSPs are often drawn to the arts and music, and many work in creative fields.

HSPs tend to be unusually cautious when approaching new and unknown situations.

HSPs are almost often highly intuitive, sometimes to the point of seeming almost "psychic."

Although highly sensitive people tend to share many of these characteristics, it's important to keep in mind that HSPs are unique and individual people-- just like anyone else in the world. When you meet another HSP, they will not necessarily be "just like you."

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What do you think? Are YOU a Highly Sensitive Person?

So now you've been introduced to just a little bit of what it means to be highly sensitive. Of course, it's a pretty complex concept, and there's much more to come... but before we move on, here's a brief quiz-- you're also welcome to leave a comment; there's a space for that at the very end of the article.

What best describes you?

See results
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OK, so I'm probably an HSP... NOW what?

For many, learning that there is an actual name and scientific basis for the "strange feelings" they have had all their lives can be a major life-altering epiphany. And it can take a little time to get used to the idea.

But what should you do with this information? What can you do with it?

The best advice I can offer is "learn all you can!" When it comes to being an HSP-- which is a fairly complex concept-- knowledge is definitely power. The more you understand about the trait and how it affects you, the better you will be able to decide how and if changing-- or "rearranging"-- parts of your life will make your days easier to navigate. Learning will also enable you to discern which things are not part of high sensitivity.

As of this writing, there are quite a few books available on the subject of high sensitivity. The books listed in this article are just a few of the titles most recommended by the HSPs who have read them.

A little work with Google will offer up literally millions of results for web sites and articles published online. Thousands more are added every year, as "high sensitivity" becomes more and more of a household concept. Below, you will find a list of links to the most significant HSP sites on the web. They offer much excellent information-- regardless of whether you have just learned that you're an HSP, or have already been learning about the trait for many years.

Trying to "ignore" your sensitivity is really not a good approach. You will feel the effects of the trait, regardless of whether you acknowledge it, or not. However, there is nothing to be "cured."

The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You
The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You

The follow-up to Elaine Aron's original book on sensitivity-- this volume takes on HSPs and relationships... an area of life HSPs often find quite challenging.

 

Learning: More recommended reading for HSPs

As you move through this article, I will be sharing what I feel to be some of the more significant and helpful books relating to the HSP trait.

if you are interested in gaining a deeper understanding what it means to be an HSP, you would definitely benefit from checking these out-- I have all of them in my personal library and feel confident in recommending them, based on how much they helped me on my own journey of discovery.

Yes, pieces of this information can be found online, on various web sites... but the books do offer far greater depth.

Nothing listed here has not been "field tested" by myself and numerous other HSPs!

A Useful book for Daily HSP Life

The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide: Essential Skills for Living Well in an Overstimulating World (Step-By-Step Guides)
The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide: Essential Skills for Living Well in an Overstimulating World (Step-By-Step Guides)

Written by Dr. Ted Zeff, a useful guide with suggestions to make everyday life for an HSP a little easier.

 

HSP Wellness in Daily Life: It's not about "curing" something, it's about managing your life consciously

When first learning about high sensitivity, many people start off with questions like "What can I do to cure this?" or "It's good to learn about this... now how do I get RID of it?"

One of the most important things to always keep in mind is that high sensitivity is neither a "flaw" nor some kind of "condition" or "syndrome" you can somehow treat and "get over." In fact, you can't change your sensitivity... any more than you can change your eye color or your shoe size. It's also not a "handicap;" it's simply a way for a person's central nervous system to be "wired."

To someone who's suffering the effects of frequent overstimulation, that may not be the news you want to hear. But there really is nothing to be "cured."

HSP Wellness in day-to-day life is about seeking balance and managing your "personal resources" wisely. With deeper understanding of their sensitivities, most HSPs learn to live rich and fulfilling lives that make use of their natural creative talents. They learn which situations will cause overstimulation, and "how much" they can handle, and when to leave before getting overwound. As an HSP, there is very little I can't do that "other people" can do... it's just that my approach to doing these things might be a little different.

According to Elaine Aron, quality sleep is also an essential part of HSP wellness. She recommends 8-9 hours of sleep a night, and emphasizes the importance of a "slow wind down" at night, so we don't go to bed with our minds racing, leading to poor sleep or even insomnia.

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Authentic living

"Living authentically" is a very important part of HSP Wellness. The path to an authentic life is not always easy for a highly sensitive person, because it typically requires us to abandon old thinking about what and who we "should" be and what we "should" do. Often our ideas about who we are and what we can do have been placed in our hearts and minds by other people... not by us. A large number of those who learn they are highly sensitive go through a-- sometimes lengthy-- process of "reinventing themselves."

Last, but not least, special attention needs to be paid to a highly sensitive person's need for "Alone Time."

Overstimulation comes to HSPs in many different ways. Sometimes they are environmental. Personally, I am very sensitive to loud, sudden or pervasive noise from my surroundings. Some can be more affected by bright lights, or maybe by acrid or artificial smells. Yet others are sensitive to touch, and to the textures of objects and clothing around them. Sometimes it's all of the above.

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Deeper Understanding of the HSP trait

The Highly Sensitive Person's Workbook
The Highly Sensitive Person's Workbook

The companion workbook to Elaine Aron's original book about high sensitivity. This is HIGHLY recommended for those wishing to "explore in depth." Also an excellent book to work through in a group, or with a friend.

 

Alone Time: The key to managing overstimulation for HSPs

We live in a busy and chaotic world, filled with demands, things to do, work, family, kids, TV news, scary movies, parties, obligations and much much more. This holds true for everyone-- doesn't matter whether you're highly sensitive, or not.

However, as an HSP, you experience all these "inputs" more intensely.

You might think of it in terms of this analogy: A "standard" radio might be able to pick up 25 stations. Well, an "HSP radio" picks up 100 stations! This doesn't mean that both kinds of radios don't "work properly," however it is FAR more work-- and hence far more exhausting-- to be picking up 100 stations all the time.

In a nutshell, this is why HSPs tend to get "overstimulated," or overwhelmed by their surroundings more quickly than their non-HSP counterparts.

The single most important "antidote" to overstimulation is alone time. ALL HSPs-- regardless of whether they are introverts or extraverts depend on taking some time alone on a regular basis to "recharge their batteries." This can take the form of anything from a five minute break to a couple of hours... however, it is essential to an HSP's overall well-being and sense of feeling balanced.

As an HSP, the best thing you can do-- in terms of pro-active self-care-- is to make sure you take some time to yourself every day, and at such times as you feel yourself starting to "wear thin" and get overstimulated. As a friend-- or spouse-- of an HSP, please understand that spending time alone doesn't mean the HSP is being "anti social" and rejecting you... it just means they need to take a little time alone to regain their strength.

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HSPs and Spirituality

In several of her books about High Sensitivity, Dr. Elaine Aron stresses the importance of spirituality in the lives of HSPs.

Given how natural it is for an HSP to "look inwards" and seek introspection, it's not surprising that many are drawn towards "matters of the spirit." Add to this that HSPs are sometimes characterized as the "Priestly Advisors" (as opposed to "warriors") of the human race and it becomes easy to see why HSPs are often deeply spiritual... and spiritual practices can be the cornerstone of wellness and balance for many.

It's important to keep in mind that being "spiritual" in this context doesn't necessarily imply "religious." HSPs tend to hold a very wide range of beliefs, but seem disproportionately drawn to "alternative" and Eastern practices and philosophies that have less structure and are more open to "free" thinking. HSPs also seem more prone to become "solitary practitioners" of their belief systems, rather than become part of larger congregations... which many find overstimulating.

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The best book currently available on the topic of HSPs and work

Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person (NTC Self-Help)
Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person (NTC Self-Help)

Based on personal experience and talking to 100's of HSPs over the years, this in another "must own." In this book, Dr. Barrie Jaeger explores different aspects of work for HSPs, going through the process of explaining the the three primary "forms" of work: Drudgery, Craft and Calling. For HSPs, a fulfilling career often means identifying and pursuing one's calling... but it's not always easy, and many end up going the route of self-employment.

Well worth owning and reading!

 

The Highly Sensitive Person at Work

HSPs tend to be very idealistic, by nature. Unfortunately, this idealism can become one of the things that cause many of us to have turbulent work lives.

Traditional workplaces and careers are seldom HSP friendly-- most such environments tend to be highly competitive and allow for only limited expression of the valuable kinds of creativity HSPs are capable of. HSPs tend to be soft spoken and modest, as a result of which they are often overlooked, in favor of those with more aggressive and assertive styles. In the words of Dr. Elaine Aron, many HSPs end up "underemployed," relative to their education levels and skills.

The physical environment of many workplaces can also be rough for a highly sensitive person. Long hours and working in very public and noisy "cubicle farms" tend to not bring out the best in an HSP.

Constant pressures to "perform" and meet ever escalating company benchmarks for work add a lot of stress to anyone's life... and especially to an HSP's life.

As a result, many HSPs turn to self-employment, especially in mid-life. This is often the only way for them to not only build a comfortable work environment, but also to pursue their dreams. Although being in business for yourself can be risky, HSPs' conscientious natures tend to work in their favor, and HSP operated businesses have an unusually high success rate.

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Highly Sensitive Men - An underrepresented and often "invisible" subgroup of HSPs

Although there are approximately equal numbers of men and women who fit the description of a Highly Sensitive Person, it often appears as if the women greatly outnumber the men.

Unfortunately, there are a number of cultural perceptions of-- and biases against-- high sensitivity that makes it particularly difficult for men to be open about their sensitivity, especially in the US and some other Western societies.

Much as we may believe we have "advanced" from a patriarchal, emotionally cold "tough guy" image of men, the "boys club" remains alive and well... and the pressure to conform to societal expectations and norms often cause highly sensitive men to "go into hiding."

HS Men is a vast and complex area of its own-- and involves far too much information to adequately cover here. Instead, I'll offer this link to an extensive article I wrote specifically about the challenges of highly sensitive men. It's highly recommended, both for HS men themselves, as well as for the women who have a highly sensitive man in their lives.

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The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them
The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them

An essential book if you are raising a child you feel might be highly sensitive. This book ALSO offers a lot of insight to highly sensitive adults attempting to gain a better understanding of their childhoods.

 

Highly Sensitive Children... and Parenting

As the concept of a "Highly Sensitive Person" has gained acceptance in the medical and mental health professions. there has also been an increase in the discussion of highly sensitive children, and the issues involved in raising a highly sensitive child.

Similarly, there is growing interest in the topic of how to handle parenting (of HS children, or not) when you are an HSP, yourself.

Many HSPs feel hesitant to start families-- or choose not to have children at all-- out of concern for the constant state of overarousal parenting might bring.

Because highly sensitive children often find conventional learning difficult-- and at least overwhelming-- many parents of HS children choose to home school, at least for parts of their child's education. There is no clear cut evidence to suggest that home schooling is the optimal approach for HSPs-- it has benefits and drawbacks for HS Children, just as it does for the rest of the world.

The topic of highly sensitive children is extensive, and far beyond the scope of this article, as far a detailed coverage goes.

As of this writing, several books are available on the topic of highly sensitive children. In addition to Elaine Aron's book from 2002, Dr. Ted Zeff has also written about this subject, specifically with highly sensitive boys in mind.

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If there are so many HSPs... WHERE are they?

According to Dr. Elaine Aron's original research, somewhere between 15% and 20% of the population are highly sensitive. If we just use the lower number as an example, that would mean that 46.7 million Americans are HSPs!

To many who have actually learned that they are HSPs, this seems like an incredibly large number. And yet, when you ask most people, they are not even sure they have met another HSP. Which begs the question "Where are all the highly sensitive people hiding?"

Western society mostly tends to value the outgoing gregarious person, as well as assertiveness and competitiveness. Most HSPs are fairly quiet and soft-spoken, and tend to be more "cooperative" than competitive. As such, HSPs are rarely among the public figures we see in the news-- the people who are most "visible," and whom we are more aware of.

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In general, you'll find that HSPs tend to be the "quiet backbone" of society. They might be your local librarian, the organic CSA farmer, the social worker who places those who've fallen on hard times, the person behind the scenes who's ultimately responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly. Many HSPs can be found in fine arts or performing arts. Many work in the healing professions, serving as anything from Yoga instructors to psychotherapists; a good number are teachers or employed in the non-profit or charity work field.

In other words, it's not that the highly sensitive people aren't there-- they are just not as prominent as the mainstream. In part, this can also be explained by the fact that 70-75% of HSPs are introverts.

Of course, even though awareness of high sensitivity-- as a trait-- is growing rapidly, the vast majority of HSPs are not actually aware that they are HSPs, nor are they even familiar with the concept.

In addition, a large number of people know they are highly sensitive, but choose to keep that fact to themselves.

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Get to know other HSPs: Online and offline groups for Highly Sensitive People

Once you've learned a bit about the HSP trait, the next logical step is often to connect with other HSPs. After all, there is only so much you can learn on your own-- and one of the best ways to gain insight into life lessons for HSPs is to talk to others about their experience.

Over the past 15 years, a substantial number of online discussion groups have sprung up. Some are very general in nature, others take on specific topics like HSPs and work, HSPs and parenting, and so forth. There are also local and regional groups, some of which operate only online, while others hold meetings and gatherings on a regular basis.

The following list has links to some of the oldest, largest and most active groups for HSPs on the web. Joining such a group is an excellent way to continue your journey of self-discovery in a supportive environment. After all, nobody "gets" what it's like to be an HSP... like another HSP.

Although some who read this may have had previous negative experiences with group activities, groups of HSPs tend to be very friendly and welcoming. Many HSPs have felt marginalized for much of their life, so kind and "inclusive" treatment of others is important to them.

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An important book for Introverted HSPs

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Although this book is not specifically about HSPs, author Susan Cain is an HSP as well as an introvert. This is a highly worthwhile book for HSPs, and although the book is technically speaking about introverts, many HSPs will recognize Ms. Cain's slant towards high sensitivity.

 

Are all HSPs Introverts? A quick look at the "minorities" within a minority

Given that it's typical of HSPs to need "alone time" to regain energy and balance after stressful situations, and that they have "deep, rich inner lives," it's easy to conclude that "all HSPs must be introverts." Whereas it is true that the majority of HSPs are introverts, some 25-30% are actually extraverts. This compares to about 60-65% extraverts in society, at large.

It may seem like a contradiction to have a person who both feels energized as a result of being with people (the core characteristic of an extravert) and needs alone time in order to "decompress" from stressful and highly stimulating situations. But this is exactly what it is like to be an extraverted HSP.

Extraverted HSPs face the constant challenge of finding balance between their natural desire to socialize and be among people, and their need to withdraw and spend time alone in order to "rejuvenate."

Finally, there is another "type" of HSP known as a "High Sensation Seeker," or HSS.

Where most HSPs tend to be cautious, avoid changes, pause to think before acting and generally prefer well-known routines, HSS HSPs are almost the exact opposite. They enjoy a constant stream of new activities and ideas and generally don't hesitate to "jump right in" when faced with a new experience that seems appealing. But they are still HSPs... and face the difficult challenge of balancing their lives. On one hand they are prone to getting easily bored when they are UNDER-stimulated, on the other, they get OVER-stimulated and worn down by the very "novel activities" they seek out... just like any other HSP.

It should be noted here that being a High Sensation Seeker is not the same as being a "thrill seeker." The HSS HSP seeks "novelty," but isn't necessarily a daredevil or risk taker.

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Negative responses to Sensitivity

"Sensitivity" is an interesting concept. When we tell someone that we're "highly sensitive," it elicits a very wide range of responses. Sadly, many of these responses are negative, rather than positive.

Some people are angry because they have had to take "sensitivity training" at work, typically over gender or race issues, and they associate sensitivity with that-- in a negative way. Some are locked into the idea that "sensitivity" ONLY means "getting your feelings hurt easily," and pre-judge anyone sensitive accordingly... as a difficult person they have to tiptoe around and make constant accommodations for. Some believe "sensitivity" means "high maintenance," and will avoid you.

In some ways, these responses are a little strange; after all, we tend to value "high sensitivity" when it comes to scientific instruments, radios and such-- so why not in people?

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Sensitivity: Cultural vs. Scientific Interpretations

The word "sensitivity" has many different meanings, and they have been around for a lot longer that Elaine Aron's research concerning the HSP Trait. As such, it is inevitable that people will interpret sensitivity in ways quite different from what we have learned,

Along these lines there are those who understand "sensitive" to mean someone who can see ghosts and talk to the spirits of dead people... and then end up disappointed when you can't. Certainly, there are some HSPs who are psychic or have other "psi-talents," but that's not an actual part of the trait. I have met plenty of HSPs who are not the slightest bit psychic, and have never had any "supernatural" experiences.

Similarly, some people incorrectly use the words "Sensitive" and "Empath" interchangeably. Whereas many HSPs are empathic and feel lots of empathy for others, they are not necessarily "Empaths," as culturally defined. This article in OM Times Magazine explains some of the distinctions in greater detail.

The thing to remember is that none of these definitions are "wrong," they are merely different... just like apples, pears and grapes are all "fruit," just not the same type of fruit.

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Naysayers, Skeptics and Critics

A few people just have a generally negative outlook in life and will insist that you are "full of it," and that the idea that there's a special class of people who are "highly sensitive" is a bunch of hogwash. Others will insist-- without malice-- that all people are sensitive "in their own way" and to call yourself an HSP is "elitist" and "exclusive."

These cultural biases-- which are quite common-- can make life quite difficult for HSPs... not only are we dealing with "our" sensitivities, we have to deal with other people's criticisms, which can be quite hurtful, at times.

Whereas it may be exciting to suddenly have all these answers to "why I am the way I am," it's not always in your best interest to go around telling everyone from your mother to your boss that you're an HSP. For a variety of reasons (just a few of which I listed above), people may not respond positively to this information.

A cautious approach is highly recommended. If you feel inclined to tell someone, ask yourself why you want to tell them, and if they really need to know-- what do you hope to gain, by telling them you're an HSP? When you do decide to share, probe carefully and check for genuine interest, rather than immediately share a 40-page verbal dissertation about everything you've learned.

One of the things HSPs often hear is that they are "too intense" for others. When you are about to explain to someone why you are so intense, it's actually a good idea to try to do so in a "non-intense" manner... after all, you want the other person to be receptive, not to tune you out.

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Taking a "Soft" Approach to sharing your Sensitivity with others

As an example of a "soft approach," when I was learning about being an HSP-- and wanted to share with others-- I always carried Elaine Aron's "Highly Sensitive Person" book with me. If the "right" person was around, I'd leave the book out, in a visible spot. If the person at hand noticed and commented, a conversation might begin about what I was reading and what the book is about, and I'd comment that this book really seemed to "describe me," was giving me some insight and we'd go from there. Either the person would be interested enough that we'd talk further, or the conversation would end there and I wouldn't push it.

In general, I have found people with a broader interest in psychology, self-development and self-improvement to be the most receptive, as are people involved in the healing professions. In general, I suggest using discernment in terms of who, when and how you share that you're highly sensitive.

On the positive side, science is on the side of HSPs, as more and more "peer research" is being done on the original concepts explored by Elaine Aron. And sometimes the best thing you can say to a hard-core skeptic-- rather than try to argue with them or persuade them-- is simply "It's not a big deal-- but if you're interested, try Googling 'Sensory Processing Sensitivity;' the background science is all over the web."

And just leave it at that.

If the person is genuinely interested, they might just do as you suggested and see for themselves. If they are not, you ended the discussion on a solid note, strongly hinting at the fact that high sensitivity is not something you "just made up."

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High Sensitivity is NOT an Illness or Pathology!

A substantial number of people-- including HSPs, themselves-- tend to approach sensitivity from the perspective that there is something "wrong" with you if you're highly sensitive-- you have an "illness" or a "syndome" or some other pathology in need of "treatment."

The most important thing you can take away from reading this article-- regardless of whether you're an HSP, or not-- is that sensitivity is an inborn trait, not an illness. A person cannot be "diagnosed with" HSP... they simply ARE an HSP.

It's not a stretch to see how confusion arises because there are several mental illnesses and conditions whose clinical diagnoses include items/point that are similar to aspects of being an HSP. However, these are not "the same as" being an HSP. Here's a short list:

Sensory Integration Dysfunction

Social Anxiety

Generalized Anxiety

Asperger's Disorder

Neuroticism

Avoidant Personality Disorder

Shyness

ADD/ADHD

All of the above can affect HSPs. However, being an HSP doesn't mean you are necessarily afflicted with any of these. Nor are you necessarily "highly sensitive" because you are suffering from one of these conditions. By all means learn more about these conditions if you believe they are an issue for you, but it is also important to learn all you can about the HSP trait so that you have a clear idea about what you can "change" and what you cannot.

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HSPs and the Medical and Mental Health Professions

I am often asked if HSPs are more likely to have physical ailments or mental/emotional issues than the general population.

It's a difficult question, as well as one that doesn't have a straight answer.

In her recent book "Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person," Dr. Elaine Aron characterizes HSPs as "the minority of people who are the majority of clients." In this case, Dr. Aron draws on her personal experience as a clinical psychotherapist. Similarly, when you consider people seeking medical help for an assortment of pervasive issues-- from Fibromyalgia to food allergies-- a significantly large number are HSPs.

However, we should be cautious about taking such information at face value. Consider that it is central to the HSP personality to be "highly aware" and "tuned in" to both one's own-- as well as someone else's-- body and psyche. As a result, it's also safe to assume that many more HSPs notice when something is "a little off" than the rest of the population.

On the mental health front, we must consider that HSPs experience events "more deeply" than their non-HSP peers and spend more time "processing" them. Thus, we can also assume that an HSP is less likely to simply ignore feelings such as anxiety or severe stress than their non-HSP counterpart.

So whereas it may be true that a larger proportion of HSPs seek medical or mental health help, it's not so much because "more HSPs are ill," but because more HSPs "notice that something is wrong."

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Considerations in choosing your provider

If you are an HSP and seeking help, it's important to take care in choosing a provider. The most important thing-- regardless of whether you're looking for a medical or mental health professional-- is to work with someone who has at least a passing knowledge of High Sensitivity, and preferably someone who'd be willing to learn more about the trait as your health care partner.

Many of those working in both fields still regard high sensitivity with skepticism, and you'd do well to avoid them-- mostly because you will end up being mis-diagnosed with a "disorder," rather than offered tools to help manage your natural way of being.

In the case of psychotherapists, it's important to choose someone you have a good rapport with. Some will insist that you don't "need to" like your therapist, but that's not really good advice for HSPs. Most therapy will involve sharing very personal and intimate details, and since many HSPs already have trust issues as a result of having spent a lifetime feeling somewhat marginalized and negatively judged, it is important to work with someone you feel comfortable with.

In the case of medical doctors, it's important to find someone who's not only open to high sensitivity, but who's open to pursuing "alternative" or holistic courses of treatment. Your doctor should also be made aware that HSPs often are particularly sensitive to medication, and that successful treatment can result from dosages much below what's normally prescribed.

There's an appendix in the back of Elaine Aron's "The Highly Sensitive Person" entitled "Tips for Health-care Professionals Working With Highly Sensitive People" which is quite useful-- and another good reason to own this book!

Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person

Although this book was originally written as a guide for mental health professionals, it can also be a very valuable resource for the highly sensitive person who's seriously considering getting help from a mental health professional.

Yes, the book is a little "dry and clinical" in its presentation and language-- after all, it is intended as a "professional" book, not a "self-help" book. But it is useful in that it familiarizes you with the therapeutic process... and offers insight into evaluating where the therapy is helpful... and where, perhaps, you need to guide the therapist, rather than vice versa, in order to get the most for your money.

Be aware that this book is also higher priced than your typical paperback self-help book. However, it is well worth getting... I wish it had been around 15 years ago when I was an HSP looking for a therapist with "a clue."

If You Enjoyed This Article...

Thank you for reading!

If you enjoyed reading this article about HSPs, please consider sharing with others! There are some nifty social media share buttons at the upper left.

No permission needed to link to this article, or to share it to your blog or web site,as long as you link back to this original page.

Sharing articles about being an HSP helps us ALL... the more general awareness of the trait we can build, the better off we all become.

© 2007 Peter Messerschmidt

Are you an HSP? Or is this the first time you've ever heard of this? How and when did you discover you were an HSP, and how (if at all) did it change your self-

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @Colin323: Thanks for reading, and commenting!

      Yes, the term "sensitive" does cause a variety of (often negative) responses. Even the more scientific term "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity" seems to bring up a negative slant for a lot of people. At this point, the term "HSP" is 18 years old and seems like it is going to "stick." But yes, we could definitely have had a better name, from the start.

      Elaine Aron (who did the research and wrote the book) happens to be a personal friend... and one of the things she's often said is that she "never set out to write a self-help book," nor to end up as the spokesperson for something that has slowly turned into a worldwide "movement." She's extremely private-- and a bit of a "loner"-- and the very public attention high sensitivity has gotten is often overwhelming to her.

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      Colin323 3 years ago

      Very good article, and very informative. I think the label 'Highly Sensitive' is a bit of an issue, however, as many people automatically would give or assume a negative attribution to it for the reasons you gave. 'Intuitive' might have been a better descriptor to the trait.

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      Fay Favored 3 years ago from USA

      I know several people with this. You have presented it so well. Thank you for bring this to public awareness.

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      Odille Rault 3 years ago from Gloucester

      Fascinating and informative page - beautifully written and put together. I hadn't come across the term HSP before, so found this really interesting.

    • DeborahDian profile image

      Deborah Carr 3 years ago from Orange County, California

      This is the first time I have heard of this, but it was fascinating to read!

    • MJ Martin profile image

      MJ Martin aka Ruby H Rose 3 years ago from Washington State

      Bingo for me as light bulbs in my head starting going ding, ding, ding, here we go, that's it. Puts my teeter totter perspective into a positive place, oh how I love that. Thank you, for your sharing of this highly sensitive seeker trait, novelty for me, exactly, daredevil, I am not.

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      rainykua 3 years ago

      This is a very well-written article about HSP. I have read the book many years ago. At first I misinterpreted the title and thought it refers to an emotionally sensitive person. I am sensitive, so I bought the book. After taking the test, I think I am a boderline HSP - if there's such a thing. There are a lot of things in the list that don't apply to me at all, though I can fully understand how an HSP feels. My twin is an HSP. Both of us are introverts. I think I need to read this book again. :)

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @dellgirl: Thank you for your kinds words-- and glad you got so much out of the article! The more you know-- and the more people are aware-- of this trait, the better off everyone is.

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      dellgirl 3 years ago

      This is so thought provoking I have Google+(d), Pinned (on 2 of my boards), LinkedIn, and Tweeted it! I learned a lot reading your article!

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      dellgirl 3 years ago

      I enjoyed your lens and this wonderful article. It is really well written and very informative! I like it. Thank you for sharing.

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      mel-kav 3 years ago

      Excellent lens. Very interesting. I had never heard of HSP before. Although I do not fit the profile of having HSP, I do know several people who fit the description perfectly.

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @mel-kav: Thanks for stopping by! Since high sensitivity affects at least 1-in-6 people, it's a good bet most people have someone in their family or circle of friends who fits the description. It's important to know about the trait simply because LOTS of HS people get misdiagnosed with assorted "disorders" and spend LOTS of money on doctors, therapy and medication that does NO good.

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @darciefrench lm: I read "Power vs. Force" around the same time I read Elaine Aron's "The Highly Sensitive Person" for the first time... all part of assembling the puzzle, while I was deeply involved in a spiritual practice centered around nonduality. I have referred back to Hawkins' Map of Human Consciousness many times since then, and I do like his work. Most sensitive people struggle a LOT with integrating the trait into their lives... much of that difficulty stemming from societal biases (or misinterpretations) centered around the meaning of "sensitive." Sounds like you really have your life figured out, which is a beautiful thing... sadly, most HSPs do NOT, and daily living can be a path of endless pain.

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @Radcliff LM: Thanks for reading, and taking the time to comment! Yes, the more you know and understand, the easier it becomes to figure out how the trait "interacts" with how we experience the world... and the people in it.

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @webmavern: A lot of HSPs I know DO live with fibro, but the correlation is basically "non-causal." Most likely, it seems common among HSPs because the trait tends to make people far more aware of what's going on in their bodies, and so they are more likely to take action.

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @stephen downing: Stephen, yes mindfulness is an important part of living peacefully with high sensitivity and deep empathy. It's especially important to be mindful of what is "ours" and what is "theirs," which requires us to set strong personal boundaries.

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @JackNimble: Thanks for your comment! Yes, it's important to learn all you can about "what IS" part of being an HSP, and "what is NOT." I'm now in my 50's and have lived with ADD (the "inattentive" variety) all my life... and it's a daily puzzle to sort out what "belongs" to the HSP trait, and what is a result of the ADD. The more I know, though, the more I become aware that they really are quite different.

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @David Stone1: Dave, I agree that we're all individuals, but I also find the "labels" useful... not as a way to "box everyone in," but as a tool for better understanding. A bit like walking into a shoe store, it's helpful to know that your shoe size is 11, but that doesn't "define" who you are, it's just a piece of information.

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @kislanyk: Thanks for stopping by! The terms "empath" and "HSP" and "a Sensitive" seem to be used interchangeably... sometimes correctly, sometimes not. Many HSPs are Empaths, but not all... and only about 25% of HSPs actually have "psychic gifts."

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      Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

      @bossypants: Thanks for reading! It's a good thing to simply KNOW about this trait, as it helps us understand the people around us. And with 15-20% of the population fitting the description of an HSP, it's very likely that there are several in your family.

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