Once upon a time, there was a woman living abroad and feeling overwhelmed by life. She had a gut feeling that maybe she just felt things more deeply than others. So, what did she do? She searched keywords such as “feels more deeply than most” online until she found something that matched what she was experiencing. One search result after another pointed to Highly Sensitive Person. Then she found a relevant book on Amazon and ordered it immediately! The book of choice was The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine Aron, Ph.D.
You Say “Sensitive” Like It’s A Bad Thing
If you are from the “toughen up, buttercup” generation, this is probably how you feel about the word sensitive. It has always had such a negative connotation for me. Sensitive = weak. Weak = bad. But does it? After reading this book, I truly believe that being sensitive is a super power. Sensitivity is strength.
Because we are sensitive, we are noticers. We notice the details. We notice when things aren’t quite right in a situation, and we notice how other people are feeling even if they are trying to hide it. It’s not all negative though. We notice beauty all around us, too. HSPs see the world in high definition. We have our very own Spidey Sense.
The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
According to Aron, approximately 15-20% of the population is considered “highly sensitive.” We notice subtleties and can easily become overwhelmed by the things we take in on a daily basis including sights, smells, and sounds. We are highly intuitive. Our nervous systems are sensitive. Because of this, we truly feel the overwhelm or change in our bodies and are more susceptible to feeling the effects of stress or excessive stimuli.
Being an HSP is not the same as being an empath, although many empaths are HSPs. According to Psychology Today, empaths take things a step further than HSPs; they not only notice subtleties and emotions of others, but they absorb those feelings and often have difficulty distinguishing someone else’s emotions from their own.
Before you decide that you may also be a Highly Sensitive Person, you may want to take Aron’s online quiz, Are You Highly Sensitive? I checked nearly every box. Startle easily? Check. Easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, etc.? Check. Have a complex inner life? Check. Make a point to avoid violent tv shows and movies? Check. Get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time? Check. And so on. Check. Check. Checkity-check.
Please keep in mind that it is unlikely that you will possess all of the traits of an HSP. Because of this, when reading the book, you will undoubtedly have to skim over the parts that do not apply to you. I remember reading this book and becoming annoyed with how many times they mentioned HSPs crying. This doesn’t apply to me. But just because I am not a crier does not mean that I am not a Highly Sensitive Person. It just means I keep it all inside, which is not great.
What This Looks Like For Me
There is A LOT that goes on in my head/gut. A lot.
I feel things very deeply. The good, the bad, and unfortunately, the ugly.
I notice subtleties of language or mood.
My eyes are extra sensitive. I always need my sunglasses, even on a cloudy day. Fluorescent lights are the worst.
Time in nature is restorative.
My sense of smell rivals a police search dog’s or a pregnant woman’s. Most perfumes and room sprays nauseate me. Cigarette smoke is the absolute worst. Cue: headache. It may stick around for days, too.
I can hear high-pitched noises that others don’t notice. Sirens elicit a visceral reaction. Loud people? No, thanks.
I get distracted by nervous behaviors. Just. Stop.
I can spot a liar a mile away.
My intuition is truly a gift. I have learned to trust it always.
My body processes stress in such a way that I get ill or need to rest. I require more rest than most people.
It takes me a while to unwind from stimulating situations or events. After a concert or an enjoyable evening out, it will take me a few hours to unwind and finally get some sleep even if I am exhausted.
I cannot stand being watched. I do not feel free to be me. It feels like I am being judged or critiqued even if I am not. (I don’t think it is possible to actively watch someone and not pass judgment—positive or negative.)
When I am focused on a task that requires attention, I cannot discuss something else that is important. One. Thing. At. A. Time.
I startle easily and remain frazzled for a while.
When I have too many things to do in a short amount of time, I am the complete opposite of cool.
Sad, angry, or anxious people affect me negatively. I cannot be content until they are happy or until I remove myself from their presence.
If someone has moved something slightly out of place, I must fix it immediately or I will obsessively think about it.
I try really hard to do the right thing and consider all points of view. On the outside, this looks like me just playing devil’s advocate, but I genuinely can see almost all opposing viewpoints and advocate for thinking differently than the group mentality.
No matter how I am feeling, music is the answer. I choose my music to suit my mood. I lean into it. I want to feel the feelings.
Those I don’t know think I am shy or aloof. I hate small talk. I really dislike the “getting to know you” phase. I prefer deep, meaningful conversations to superficial ones—both in content and honesty.
Social media is a trap. No really, it can be a bad, bad place for an HSP. Everyone just lays out their thoughts for consumption. Some carefully consider what they post and share, while others do not. I can see one negative thing, and it stays with me for days. If it is truly awful and offensive, it will stay with me . . . well, I am at a little over a year on one of those. I still think about it all the time. Also, do not engage in online debates. They will suck the life out of you. No one wins. This is when I tell you that if you are an HSP and have no legitimate need for social media, you may want to deactivate your account(s). If you’re not quite able to do that: mute, unfollow, hide, etc. Do it until you feel content. Repeat as necessary. People will be reckless, so you need to be ruthless.
The Highly Sensitive Child
Lucky for my children, both of their parents are HSPs. Some of the ways in which we are sensitive are VERY different. While my husband struggles more with clutter and change and strives to be more conscientious than the most conscientious person you’ve ever met, I struggle with scents, lighting, violence, others’ moods, etc. Because my children hit the HSP parent jackpot, they are both (according to me and this child-based quiz), HSPs. Neither of them have an easy time getting out of their heads—one in an extremely creative and gifted way, the other in a perfectionist/save the world way. If you think your child may be an HSP, here is another book by Elaine Aron, Ph.D. called The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them.
If your children are HSPs, traditional parenting styles may need an overhaul. You may learn that you actually exacerbate situations instead of being their safe harbor. Do not over-schedule them because that leads to overstimulation. They require downtime. But they also require routine and structure. And food. And water. And sleep.
You do, too. Take care of yourself.
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