Highly Sensitive People
Do you ever feel like you think about things more than everyone else does? Do you always worry about how others are feeling? Are your own feelings easily bruised and do you worry endlessly about hurting other people’s? Do you well up when watching commercials for illness or animal cruelty, dislike scary films or feel bothered by loud or irritating noises in a way that those around you don’t? Then you could be a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, a condition that’s common, but until now rarely understood.
HSP is not just a personality type, like being shy or outgoing, being a HSP is defined as having a hypersensitive nervous system. As well as being easily overwhelmed by emotional things (they tend to have incredible empathy and get upset very easily), HSPs often have a Princess and The Pea-like sensitivity to physical things like lights, sounds, temperatures and even scratchy labels or certain fabrics.
The singer Alanis Morissette, a self-confessed HSP; “My temperament is highly sensitive. I’m very attuned to very subtle things, whether it’s food or minerals or lighting or sounds or smells,” she says. “Overstimulation happens pretty easily.”
Sensitivity is a personality trait that was researched by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., during the early nineties. One in five people possess it. Aron has written multiple studies and books on high sensitivity, including The Highly Sensitive Person.
Dr. Ted Zeff, a psychologist and author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide states that “every sensitive person is different. It’s also important to remember that some people have some of the traits, like empathy, but they’re not HSPs.”
So what are the traits? Dr Zeff says people who are HS “don’t have a natural shield – they find it hard to tune stuff out. For example, somebody standing close behind them and peering over their shoulder will really unsettle a HSP.” But being a highly sensitive person does have many positive traits. The following list is not necessarily applicable to all highly sensitive people, but perhaps you may identify with some of the traits in yourself.
This is generally the predominant characteristic. Highly sensitive people have the ability to feel more deeply than others who are less-sensitive. They also process things on a deeper level (T. Zeff). They are very intuitive and go deeply into things to try and figure them out.
People who are highly sensitive react with more intensity in a situation. They will be more empathic and have more concern for their friend’s problems (E. Aron.)
In addition, they may have more concern for how another person may be reacting in the face of a negative event.
They’re probably used to hearing, “Don’t take things so personally” and “Why are you so sensitive?”
Zeff found that depending on the culture, sensitivity can be perceived as an asset or a negative trait. In his research, Zeff says that highly sensitive men he interviewed from other countries — such as Thailand and India — were rarely or never teased, while highly sensitive men he interviewed from North America were frequently or always teased. “So a lot of it is very cultural — the same person who is told, ‘Oh, you’re too sensitive,’ in certain cultures, it’s considered an asset,” he says.
They prefer to exercise solo.
Highly sensitive people may tend to avoid team sports, where there’s a sense that everyone is watching their every move, Zeff says. In his research, the majority of highly sensitive people he interviewed preferred individual sports, like bicycling, running and hiking, to group sports.
It takes longer for them to make decisions.
Highly sensitive people are often more aware of subtleties and details that could make decisions harder to make, highly sensitive people will still tend to take longer to choose because they are weighing every possible outcome. Aron’s advice for dealing with this: “Take as long to decide as the situation permits, and ask for more time if you need it and can take it,”
Highly sensitive people are more upset if they make a “bad” or “wrong” decision.
You know that uncomfortable feeling you get after you realize you’ve made a bad decision? For highly sensitive people, “that emotion is amplified because the emotional reactivity is higher,” Aron explains.
Highly sensitive people are the first ones to notice the details in a room, the new shoes that you’re wearing, or a change in weather.
Not all highly sensitive people are introverts.
In fact, about 30 percent of highly sensitive people are extroverts, according to Aron.
Work well in team environments.
Highly sensitive people are usually deep thinkers, who are valuable employees/team members. They are often well-suited for positions in teams where they don’t have to make the final decision.
They’re more prone to anxiety or depression (but only if they’ve had a lot of past negative experiences).
“If you’ve had a fair number of bad experiences, especially early in life, so you don’t feel safe in the world or you don’t feel secure at home or … at school, your nervous system is set to ‘anxious,'” Aron says. But that’s not to say that all highly sensitive people will go on to have anxiety — and in fact, having a supportive environment can go a long way to protecting against this. Parents of highly sensitive children, in particular, need to “realize these are really great kids, but they need to be handled in the right way,” Aron says. “You can’t over-protect them, but you can’t under-protect them, either. You have to titrate that just right when they’re young so they can feel confident and they can do fine.”
Annoying sounds are probably significantly more annoying to a highly sensitive person.
While it’s hard to say anyone is a fan of annoying noises, highly sensitive people are on a whole more, well, sensitive to chaos and noise. That’s because they tend to be more easily overwhelmed and overstimulated by too much activity, Aron says.
Violent movies are the worst.
Because highly sensitive people are so high in empathy and more easily overstimulated, movies with violence or horror themes may not be their cup of tea, Aron says.
They cry more easily.
That’s why it’s important for highly sensitive people to put themselves in situations where they won’t be made to feel embarrassed or “wrong” for crying easily, Zeff says. If their friends and family realize that that’s just how they are — that they cry easily — and support that form of expression, then “crying easily” will not be seen as something shameful.
They have above-average manners.
Highly sensitive people are also highly conscientious people, Aron says. Because of this, they’re more likely to be considerate and exhibit good manners — and are also more likely to notice when someone else isn’t being conscientious. For instance, highly sensitive people may be more aware of where their cart is at the grocery store — not because they’re afraid someone will steal something out of it, but because they don’t want to be rude and have their cart blocking another person’s way.
The effects of criticism are especially amplified in highly sensitive people.
Highly sensitive people have reactions to criticism that are more intense than less sensitive people. As a result, they may employ certain tactics to avoid said criticism, including people-pleasing (so that there is no longer anything to criticize), criticizing themselves first, and avoiding the source of the criticism altogether, according to Aron.
“People can say something negative, [and] a non-HSP [highly sensitive person] can say, ‘Whatever,’ and it doesn’t affect them,” Zeff says. “But a HSP would feel it much more deeply.”
Cubicles = good. Open-office plans = bad.
Just like highly sensitive people tend to prefer solo workouts, they may also prefer solo work environments. Zeff says that many highly sensitive people enjoy working from home or being self-employed because they can control the stimuli in their work environments. For those without the luxury of creating their own flexible work schedules (and environments), Zeff notes that highly sensitive people might enjoy working in a cubicle — where they have more privacy and less noise — than in an open-office plan.
Because HSPs become easily overwhelmed, Dr Zeff says they need daily downtime. “They shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are, nor compare themselves to others,” he adds. “However, if you’re in a relationship or part of a family or workplace there needs to be some compromise. For example, just because you don’t like noise it doesn’t mean everybody around you has to be quiet. Don’t be what I call an ‘insensitive highly sensitive person’. Just go into another room or go for a walk.”
As for a cure, however, Dr Zeff says there’s no need. “If you are a HSP you shouldn’t want to ‘cure’ yourself. It’s who you are. In certain societies being highly sensitive is seen as a positive thing. Research found that highly sensitive men in Thailand and India were rarely, if ever, teased, whereas highly sensitive men in North America were frequently so.”
HSPs, he believes, do best in nurturing environments and are more likely to be artists, musicians, teachers, counsellors and health practitioners. They’re also likely to be popular because they’re so in tune with the needs of others.
So if heightened sensitivity doesn’t need to be cured, how can those who have it manage, rather than be overwhelmed, by it? “Most tend to develop coping mechanisms as they grow older and mature,” says Dr Zeff. “So while a 21-year-old HSP might feel peer pressured into going to a noisy club with friends, a 41-year-old will know what situations they can cope with and avoid those they can’t.”