After hearing many misconceptions about what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person, I have decided to outline the key things you should know about this innate personality trait. By the end of this blog post, you will have a clear understanding of the basic characteristics of a Highly Sensitive Person.
What comes to mind for you when I say "highly sensitive"?
I asked fellow Social Workers who follow my Sensitive Social Worker Instagram account what comes to mind for them when they hear the words "highly sensitive", and here are some of the responses I got:
- Cry Baby
While some of these reflect aspects of what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), others speak to common cultural beliefs and assumptions about sensitivity and emotional expression. Chances are, you have adopted some of these misconceptions as well. Therefore, it is important to clarify what it actually means to be a HSP.
Dr. Elaine Aron has done extensive research on the HSP trait, which has helped many HSPs learn how to thrive. I outline 4 of the key findings of her research below:
1. High Sensitivity is an innate trait
In other words, some people are born with it, and some people are not. Approximately, 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive. This percentage is equally dispersed amongst all gender identities. Interestingly enough, the same percentage has been found in many animals species as well.
2. High Sensitivity is a normal and healthy trait
It is neither good nor bad to be a HSP, just as it is neither good nor bad to not be highly sensitive. The world needs people with both traits. Like anyone else, when HSPs learn to love, accept and care for their own unique needs they are able to live happy, fulfilling lives.
High Sensitivity is not a diagnosable mental health condition and is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM-5). High Sensitivity is a normal temperament variation. Just like other variations in people's personalities and traits, people have a range in their level of sensitivity to stimuli and the depth at which they process stimuli.
3. High Sensitivity comes with set a of challenges and strengths
Sensitivity is often perceived as a flaw or something to be fixed, but in reality, it is neutral. As I will outline below, there are 4 main characters of HSPs. Each of these offers a number of challenges, as well as a number of strengths. HSPs will find that they are more easily overstimulated than non-HSPs, but they will also find that they are intuitive, empathetic, creative, finely-tuned with the world around them, and able to establish deep connections with others.
Part of the reason being highly sensitive is so difficult, is because we live in a world that expects us to not be "too sensitive". When HSPs understand their unique challenges and embrace the strengths of their sensitivity, they are able to make choices for themselves that foster balance and wellness.
“Like anyone else, when HSPs learn to love, accept and care for their own unique needs they are able to live happy, fulfilling lives.”
4. There are 4 Key Characteristics of Highly Sensitive People
You are likely still wondering, but what IS a Highly Sensitive Person? What distinguishes them from non-HSPs? There are 4 key characteristics that Dr. Elaine Aron has clearly articulated in her research.
Depth of Processing
HSPs process things deeply. What this means, is that highly sensitive folks spend more time interpreting, and integrating what they observe and pick up from their environment and internal world. HSP brains are built to pause and reflect before making decisions. While the depth at which HSPs process input often means they have a great memory and make wise, calculated decisions, it can also lead to feelings of burnout when there is a lot to process or take in, or there are many decisions to make.
The fact that HSPs are constantly picking up on and processing small details in their environment, means that they are more likely to become overstimulated. Overstimulation can look like anxiety, stress, collapse, exhaustion, or shut down and is the most difficult part of being highly sensitive.
Emotional Responsiveness and Empathy
The emotional responsiveness of HSPs is one of the more widely known characteristics. Highly sensitive folks feel emotions with more intensity than others. This means that they can feel deep joy or gratitude about small, everyday things and that they also feel emotions like sadness more intensely as well.
HSPs have an amazing capacity for empathy due to having particularly active mirror neurons. HSP brains pick up on the emotional states of the people around them, which allows for deep understand and care for others. However, HSPs may often feel like they are absorbing the emotions of others which can lead to overstimulation.
Sensitivity to Subtleties
HSPs are highly aware of subtleties in their environment, and often notice small details that other people miss. For some, loud noises, strong smells, bright lights or colors, and certain textures may feel intense or overwhelming.
Highly sensitive people's brains and nervous systems are wired to notice and process stimuli on a deep level. This allows HSPs to be insightful, empathetic, and thoughtful people while also putting them at higher risk of overstimulation.
"HSPs will find that they are more easily overstimulated than non-HSPs, but they will also find that they are intuitive, empathetic, creative, finely-tuned with the world around them, and able to establish deep connections with others. "
Think you might be a Highly Sensitive Person?
Take the HSP Test! If you resonated with the 4 characteristics, you might be a highly sensitive person!
Understanding what this means for you, is a great first step to embracing your sensitivity and learning to thrive in your day-to-day life.
Head to my HSP Resources Page to continue learning about sensitivity.