Being A Highly Sensitive Person
By Danni Peck
Updated February 18, 2020
Reviewer Lori Jones, LMHC
Do you ever feel like you need to lock yourself in a dark room to decompress after a particularly busy day? Do you tend to avoid watching anything that contains violence on TV or at the movie theater? Have you ever asked yourself, "Why am I so sensitive?" If so, you may be what is known as a highly sensitive person, or HSP.
Being a highly sensitive person can be a challenge as it is often not considered to be a socially desirable set of traits to have. However, while it has some disadvantages, it also has some distinct advantages. The key is learning how to navigate the world with enough self-awareness to maximize your ability to put the advantages to good use while minimizing the impact of the disadvantages.
But what exactly is a highly sensitive person? How can you find out if you fit the description? And what resources are available to help you navigate the world as an HSP?
Definition Of High Sensitivity
According to Psychology Today, "High sensitivity can be defined as acute physical, mental, and emotional responses to external (social, environmental) or internal (intra-personal) stimuli." In other words, you may be highly sensitive if you tend to react strongly to certain events or circumstances. Alternatively, Scientific American defines highly sensitive people as "those who tend to have intensified experiences and responses to their surroundings." However you choose to define it, it can be helpful to understand where the terminology comes from.
It was in 1991 that Dr. Elaine Aron began researching high sensitivity, which she also refers to as Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS), and she continues to do so to this day, according to hsperson.com. Dr. Aron is known most for writing a book titled "The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You," which became a national bestseller. The book helps people to understand what it means to live life as a highly sensitive person, including how to deal with each characteristic that is involved in being an HSP. But what exactly are those characteristics?
Traits Of A Highly Sensitive Person
Each highly sensitive person shares certain traits, or characteristics, with other highly sensitive people. Each highly sensitive individual may or may not have every one of the defining characteristics, though. And some people will experience certain traits, which can be seen as positive or negative by some, to a greater degree than others will.
For example, highly sensitive people may have difficulty tolerating noisy environments, some to a greater degree than others. They may also find that they startle easily. However, according to Psychology Today, "They all observe more before acting, react more strongly, and are easily overwhelmed because sometimes there is too much for them to process."
Also, HSPs can be hard on themselves, especially about any mistakes that they might make. On a positive note, though, this may help them to prevent making similar mistakes in the future. Scientific American adds "crying easily to having daylight sensitivity to loving intensely to remembering dreams more vividly" to the range of traits embodied by highly sensitive individuals. And, after exposure to too many stimuli, they may feel that they need to isolate themselves to recharge their batteries.
According to hsperson.com, "the key quality is that, compared to the 80% without the trait, they process everything around them much more-reflect on it, elaborate on it, make associations. When this processing is not fully conscious, it surfaces as intuition. This represents a survival strategy found in many species, always in a minority of its members." If any of this is sounding familiar to you, you may be a highly sensitive person, but how can you find out for sure if you are indeed an HSP?
A Test To Determine High Sensitivity
Dr. Aron developed a quiz, or test, to help people to determine if they are highly sensitive. Some of the statements included in this test are:
- Other people's moods affect me.
- I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.
- I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.
- The arts or music deeply move me.
- I startle easily.
- When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment, I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).
- I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.
- I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.
- Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.
- When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.
Depending on how many of the items in the test you can relate to, you may indeed find that you are a highly sensitive person. If so, it would be helpful for you to familiarize yourself with how this may impact various areas of your life and to learn how you can maximize your ability to cope. For that, you may want to refer to a survival guide.
In Psychology Today, Dr. Susan Biali offers a survival guide for highly sensitive people. This guide includes the following ten tips:
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat healthy foods regularly throughout the day.
- Wear noise-reducing headphones.
- Plan in decompression time.
- Have at least one quiet room or space to retreat to in your home.
- Give yourself time and space to get things done.
- Limit caffeine.
- Keep the lights down low.
- Get things done in off hours.
- Surround yourself with beauty and nature.
These are practical tips for navigating the world as a highly sensitive person. But is there anything you should do differently about particular areas of your life? For example, what about your love life?
In addition to the book titled The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aron also wrote The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You, which addresses the unique challenges associated with highly sensitive people and how they behave in relationships. "HSPs have nervous systems that pick up more on subtleties in the world and reflect on them deeply. That means, for starters, that they will tend to demand more depth in their relationships to be satisfied; see more threatening consequences in their partners' flaws or behaviors; reflect more and, if the signs indicate it, worry about how things are going." The book also covers how to meet someone and fall in love, if that happens to be something that you are interested in.
But being a highly sensitive person does not affect your love life alone. It also affects your career. But what can you do about it?
Careers For Highly Sensitive People
When planning for a career, HSPs should take their particular set of sensitivities into consideration. For example, roles that require constant direct supervision may not allow them to perform at their best. They may also wish to consider jobs that do not require them to work in an open office environment where they will constantly be surrounded by large numbers of people and high levels of noise throughout the workday.
Highly sensitive people should also consider how their particular set of characteristics might be advantageous in certain roles. For example, according to Entrepreneur, eight characteristics make highly sensitive people exceptional business leaders:
- Emotional awareness.
- Dedication to fairness and justice.
- Need for space and time to themselves.
Carefully considering how being an HSP may affect how you perform on the job and how a particular role may affect your health and wellbeing is an important step to take before you choose your career path or your next position. This is an ideal way to ensure your professional success.
If you feel like you need to lock yourself in a dark room to decompress after a busy day, if you tend to avoid violence in movies and on TV, or if you have asked yourself, "Why am I so sensitive?", You may be a highly sensitive person. Being a highly sensitive person can be a challenge, but while it may have its disadvantages, it also has its advantages.
The first step to living life as a highly sensitive person is understanding what it means to be an HSP and then learning what adjustments you can make as you plan for the way you want to live your life. The key is to learn how to navigate the world with enough self-awareness and to be willing to make the necessary adjustments that will enable you to minimize the impact of the disadvantages while maximizing your ability to put the advantages to good use. If you can do that, you will be well on your way to living your best possible life as a highly sensitive person.