Sensitive? You May Be A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

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 highly sensitive personPhoto by: Anais

It all added up.  Sensitivity to loud sounds, harsh light, emotional climates and over-stimulating situations?  I'd just discovered something I could use to quell the coarse incivilities about my nature.  I'm a highly sensitive person.

"Quit being so hypersensitive.  You have really thin skin you know!"

"You see, ignoramuses like you fail to understand that I'm a highly sensitive person.  I was born that way!

In fact, the highly sensitive person IS born that way, with 15-20% of our population being genetically predisposed to higher levels of mental, emotional and physical sensitivity.  So are you a highly sensitive person?  Find out below.

What the Highly Sensitive Person Is

Mother of the discovery, Elaine Aron, has been researching the highly sensitive person for over 20 years now.  As such, she has a finely tuned list of traits and behavioral quirks that define the highly sensitive person.  See how many describe you in my updated list below.

  • I'm aware of subtleties and nuances in different environments. e.g. a tap dripping too loudly, a light bulb burning too brightly, etc.
  • I'm easily overwhelmed by the senses. Loud noises, strong smells, tastes and light affect me negatively. e.g. the pounding music of nightclubs, loud busy freeways and strong perfumes.
  • I need to withdraw from busy days and take a break, or a nap, by myself.
  • I'm overly sensitive to pain. e.g. needles, sports injuries, insect stings, etc.
  • I become spooked and startled easily.
  • I like to take my time, and not overload myself with too many activities as it drains and overwhelms me.
  • I prefer to avoid violent TV shows and movies.
  • I find it hard to adapt to changes in my life.
  • I tend to ruminate and process information deeply.
  • I'm empathic.  I'm aware of the way people feel around me, and when any slight change occurs in them.
  • Emotional environments tend to affect me deeply.
  • I'm often perceived as being introverted or shy.
  • I'm profoundly moved by nature, the arts or music.
  • I tend to be more philosophically and spiritually orientated.
  • I feel unusually strong emotions.
  • I avoid and deeply dislike confrontation of any kind.
  • I prefer to not be observed when fulfilling tasks.  It unsettles me.
  • I tend to avoid situations that are too intense or chaotic.
  • I seem to process the world at a very deep level.

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What the Highly Sensitive Person Isn't

The three most common things the highly sensitive person is mistaken for can be found below.

Misconception #1:   HSPs are introverts.

We both like to reflect deeply, and both have vibrant internal worlds, but not all introverted people are necessarily highly sensitive.  In fact, as Aron points out, 30% of the total number of highly sensitive people are actually extroverted.  It's a small minority, but it still shows that introversion does not equate to being highly sensitive.

Misconception #2:   Being a HSP is just another word for being shy.

Just like introversion, the highly sensitive person is often mislabeled as being shy.  Although the two share things in common - such as sensitivity to overwhelming social situations, they are essentially not the same thing.  While shyness is learned, being a highly sensitive person is not.

Misconception #3:   "HSP" is a mental disorder.

From the description, all the way to the shortened label (HSP), it's easy to mistake the highly sensitive person as a sufferer of some strange mental condition.  Although there's a small percentage of HSPs, the numbers are not small enough to be classified as a disorder, or large enough to be given much attention either.  Besides, what mental disorder allows the sufferer to be endowed with such genuine joy as being more empathic, spiritually orientated, and appreciating the details of life more fully?

How to live life with ease as a HSP

As highly sensitive author Kate Stefans points out in her post Underlying Dissatisfaction, highly sensitive people are prone to idealism and perfectionism.  This often spurs from deriving our self worth from the opinion of others, and not valuing ourselves enough.  Being a highly sensitive person can also hit you hard if you're a male.  Being a thick skinned machismo-logician is favored as the masculine ideal in the Western world, rather than the sensitive, emotional poet.  But whatever difficulties we face as highly sensitive people can be overcome with the ability to reframe the negative into the positive, and actively work to better our environments.  Here are some tips:

1.   Learn to value yourself.

I learnt this the hard way.  When we place too much importance in what people say and think about us, we create immense psychological tension and anxiety.  We are living to satisfy the thousands of different perspectives of who we "should" be, rather than embracing what we are.  In essence, we are creating the exact thing we try to avoid that is detrimental to us: too much internal pressure and chaos.  Be nice to yourself.  Learn to value your qualities and gifts.  Realize that you're the one and only master over yourself, and no one can have power over you unless you let them.

2.   Don't take things personally.

This tip, mentioned by Don Miguel Ruiz in his well known book The Four Agreements, is essential for mental and emotional happiness.  The highly sensitive person, prone to getting hurt easily by other people and their words, frequently finds himself on edge in social situations, trying to finely tune his behavior to avoid conflict.  When we take insults and the moods of other people personally, we blame ourselves.  To overcome this dilemma, I've personally found that it's best to think about the person, and why they said or behaved the way they did.  Are they going through a divorce?  Did they sleep well?  Did someone do something that outraged them today?  As Ruiz says "nothing other people do is because of you".

3.   Embrace solitude.

Solitude is not loneliness, instead it is a chosen form of being alone, rather than an imposed one.  When we choose solitude and take mini retreats from our stimulating days, we give ourselves the gift of re-cooperation.  As highly sensitive people, we need to be in tune with our minds and bodies and the warning signs of burn-out, such as irritability and physical exhaustion.  Take a bit of time to renew yourself.

4.   Investigate, identify & act upon your sensitivity triggers.

Wouldn't life be a whole lot easier if we managed to resourcefully alter or intelligently negotiate our way around the stresses and stimulation's that come our way?  Of course, we can't plan everything, but for the stresses currently existing in our lives, we can work to plan ahead and alleviate the incoming tension.  As a HSP, I struggled with this, stoically putting up with the extreme anxiety I felt at work, until I realized that it was weakening my health.  No, I didn't do something drastic like quit my job, but I did decide to plan ahead and practice self-hypnosis every time I had to go to work, to prepare myself for the day.  I still do.  As a HSP, you may be suffering from the same problem I did: a self-sacrificial acceptance of your less than healthy response to a situation in life.  If you find yourself daily frazzled, try identifying what makes you so stressed out and think about what you can do to actively make your life easier to live.  Life wasn't meant to be bared with gritted teeth.

 Are you a highly sensitive person?  Do you have anything to add to this article?  If so, please do below.  Also, you may like to take my Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) Test.

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  1. Kelly says

    Great article. Thank you. I too can relate. Rejected by my npd mother, (I’m the scapegoat), told I’m too shy and have no confidence, too sensitive and ‘need to be harder to get on in life’ etc. I am an empath and very sensitive to crowded spaces, bad or harsh energy/vibes, smells and loud noises. My ex loved violent and horror movies which I couldn’t bear. I love my solitariness (not sure if this is a word!?). I found reading, learning, meditation, hypnotherapy and Reiki helped. What I find really difficult is being watched by security guards when shopping – this heightens my anxiety and I usually have to leave because it feels so horrible to be judged so harshly.

    • says

      I’ve suffered from those feelings as well Kelly. I discovered that the fear of being watched and judged is usually (for me at least) source from the need to control everything — including what other people think of you. This is extreme need for control is sourced from a lack of trust, faith and acceptance of oneself. And having a npd mother, that is understandable. Have you tried active affirmations during the day? These might change your life. :)

  2. anonymous says

    hi! i’m just another HSP. Great article by the way :) I’ve been fighting my whole life to overcome this trait, but finally i’m on my way to accept it, because i know that i’m not alone. My loved one’s, especially my mom and my friends are kind of accusing me of being too sensitive. I’m sick and tired of people judging me, especially myself. Sometimes i’m the worst critic. I have bad habit, you know, every time i come across with a conflict, i leave the room and start to cry. I’m not responsible enough to face my problems. Maybe because i’m not strong enough to accept my weaknesses or maybe because i’m short-tempered and sometimes i say things that i regret afterwards. The worst thing though is that, when i’m trying to explain this habit, they don’t understand me, and they start a monologue about me being oversensitive, that i cry easily, that i will need a shrink if i keep on going with this, or that i should be stronger. The last part is the one that burns me! They just don’t realize that i am strong,i am, but in my own way. Trust me, i am a believer, a dreamer and an optimist and i believe in my abilities. I live in country with ungrateful people, always complaining about money. I grew up in a family that had financial problems, and everywhere i go including my relatives and the rest of the world, the only thing that i hear is “money”, “i’m tired”, “he’s a jerk”. I just can’t live in a world with pessimists and ungrateful, negative people. From a young age i saw my mom suffer every single day. She’s a role model for me, because she’s been through a lot but she is becoming a very strong woman even if she’s sensitive. That’s why i wanna study abroad. i was born to explore life, and i won’t reach my purpose if i’m stuck in here. what do you think? (by the way, sorry for my English, it is not my native language :) )

    • says

      It’s great that you are trying to accept and embrace the person you are. We are all imperfect and we all have our great gifts and terrible flaws — you included. Like me you might be a bit of a perfectionist who expects yourself to be perfect at everything. You might kick yourself when you are down. But the beautiful thing is that you are becoming aware of your flaws (which are natural to have).

      With age and experience you will become externally hardier. But don’t let what others say about who you are bring you down. They are not you, they don’t experience life through your eyes, so only you really know how truly strong you are. :)

      • anonymous says

        You’re right. I think it is great how a stranger can totally understand you. I just told you what bothers me, and you told me what i wanted to hear, an honest answer, from someone who understands me, even though you are miles away and we never met :) Life it’s just a miracle. Keep on spreading inspiration to those around you, i really admire what you guys are doing, all of you out there who are trying to make us feel good about ourselves, without judging us. Thank you, really ;)

  3. Dan says

    Greetings all from Australia.

    I’ve only just discovered this website and there are so many interesting articles. I find I can relate to so much on this page and others that its somewhat scary in a way.

    Currently 28, and I wish I’d known more about this before now. Would have saved me a whole lot of mental anguish, especially over the past 10 years as I’ve been on and off fighting depression.

    One thing I’ve really noticed even before reading this are my light and sound sensativities, which are a real issue for me at times. I still find it really hard to remain in heavily populated areas for any length of time. Currently back living at my parents house out in a semi rural area where it’s mostly nice and quiet. I did move out for several years, but even the less busy outer city suburbs were too noisy and constantly draining. Even now I still do my best to avoid the larger cities unless I really absolutely have to go there for something.

    Also explains why my first job at a Mcdonalds was so terribly draining. You’re subjected to constant loud noise everywhere, every machine had its own little Buzzer/alarm to alert you when the machine was activated and when the food was cooked, another buzzer for each new order through the system. Couldn’t go 15 seconds without something going off, Usually had to shout to have yourself heard over it too, which just added to the noise. I put up with that all day for 8-10 hours straight, 4-5 days a week for 4 years. It’s no wonder now that I was almost driven insane by the time I finally quit.

    Anyhow, look forward to reading more articles on this site and beginning the healing process.
    – Dan

    • says

      Wow … MCDONALDS … the HSP’s nightmare. You poor thing. Although, thankfully now you’ve left. My first job was in a convenience/discount store, and although it wasn’t as noisy, there were constant bombardments of people, smells, sensations … isn’t it wonderful that we can understand each other on an empathetic level?

      I hope you find many other gems here to help you on your journey!

      • Dan says

        I am enjoying this site very much already and I’m finding a lot of articles to be very helpful indeed. I’m starting to both understand and come to terms with a number of problems I’ve had over the years.

        So I offer a great big thank you to both youself and Sol. Keep up the good work.

  4. Al says

    I am an introvert, INFP, and also really strongly relate to this article and many others, i have just had a realisation lately about why i have been feeling stressed and increasingly anxious over the years it has been getting worse, I am highly sensitive to surroundings and other people, this article is really helpful to understand why and not just be labled as having a disorder as many online articles would suggest, it is enlightening to see peoples differences as just that, too often today labels are used for peoples unique identitys or groups.
    Thankyou again for another brilliant article, you both write such profound and enlightening truths.

    • says

      It is sad how frequently negative labels are used for these feelings – this is one main reason why I never decided to get a degree in psychology – it taints your way of thinking and perceiving the world.

      I’m so happy you could reach closure Al. Thank you for leaving a comment!

  5. says

    A friend suggested I might be an HSP but I totally forgot to look it up. Then I chanced upon this post. It does fit me by and large and 2014 has been the year to push me and press all these buttons big time. I work with an extremely extroverted and demanding boss who expects long, long work hours, and I find myself struggling to get out from under the actual overwhelm around me and the subsequent emotional overwhelm the situation has generated. My husband said I should stop being the “victim” and I get this in my head, but it’s a struggle to get out from under the conditioning. It’s hard for me to compartmentalise work and switch off and I find I react from a place of anxiety. It’s eaten into my whole life. Your post has helped me understand myself a little more. I just need to find some practical skills to cope and learn how to break out of the conditioning which has made me feel I’m not good enough. I read that you did not quit but psych yourself up for work. I’m not sure that’s the best or healthiest approach for me. Still searching…

    • says

      Sometimes it takes quitting your job to gain a new perspective and “Reset” your brain, but not always. It really depends on your personal context, needs, requirements and levels of anxiety. I’ve learnt that taking a big step back from stressful working conditions helps you to see the forest and not just the trees. So you might benefit from taking a few months of rest if possible, and searching for an alternative job. Have you tried self-hypnosis? For me this was one of the best strategies I used to balance myself: You may also like to look into NLP.

  6. Eliza says

    I am highly sensitive person, but I am also shy and an introvert. I seem from what I have read about being an empath, to lean that way.

    • says

      Thanks Eliza :) I’ve noticed that many people on the ‘sensitivity spectrum’ tend to share different gifts and traits, usually HSP traits, shyness, introversion and Empath abilities.

  7. Laura says

    I am cheering and very nearly crying as I read this, thinking to myself: This is me. These are my people. They “get it”. All my life people have told me I am oversensitive (to noises, lights, crowded places, crying “too” easily over what seems to them like nothing, they don’t notice an issue so there must not be one) as if there is something wrong with me and I need to change, be fixed, toughen up. For the first time in my life (I am 42) I feel a smidgen of self-acceptance. Thank you. Thank you.

    • says

      That is beautiful to witness – thank you so much for sharing this with me Laura! Now that you are aware of your ‘tribe’ of people, I hope you’ll be able to continue not only feeling accepted, but accepting yourself as well! <3

  8. charly says

    I feel like people all too often accuse me of being sensitive on purpose and that I simply shouldn’t let people get to me, if it was that simple and I could control my behavior and reactions then I would! I didn’t ask for this and it’s more difficult living with than people realise

  9. Wendy says

    This is so enlightening. I stumbled on it and am thinking it explains a lot of things that I’ve never been able to understand about myself and how I am different from the people around me. I’m the person who gets distracted and annoyed by the dripping faucet, the ticking clock, the flashing clock, the clicking of the pen, and gum always gum! I get sensory overload and shut down. I notice it’s worse in stressful settings. I am a quick read of people but if there’s a dog in the room, that’s where I’ll inevitably be instead of talking to the humans. I appreciate the suggestion about self hypnosis. I have no idea what that entails but will gladly research. I recognize that the rest of the world isn’t likely to change so anything I can try helps.

    • says

      “I recognize that the rest of the world isn’t likely to change so anything I can try helps.” I’m so happy you understand that Wendy! It will make your life much easier. Best wishes with your research into self-hypnosis. If you are an auditory person (over visual or kinaesthetic), you will benefit a lot from it.