February 28, 2024

On being highly sensitive

HSPs [highly sensitive person(s)] …take in a lot—all the subtleties others miss. But what seems ordinary to others, like loud music or crowds, can be highly stimulating and thus stressful for HSPs.

Most people ignore sirens, glaring lights, strange odors, clutter and chaos. HSPs are disturbed by them.

Most people’s feet may be tired at the end of a day in a mall or museum, but they’re ready for more when you suggest an evening party. HSPs need solitude after such a day. They feel jangled, overaroused.

Most people walk into a room and perhaps notice the furniture, the people—that’s about it. HSPs can be instantly aware, whether they wish to be or not, of the mood, the friendships and enmities, the freshness or staleness of the air, the personality of the one who has arranged the flowers.

-From The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive when the World Overwhelms You by Elaine Aron

Some people are born with highly sensitive nervous systems. I am one of them. And, perhaps you are too? Research psychologist Elaine Aron (who coined the term Highly Sensitive Person) suggests that about 15-20% of any population can be deemed highly sensitive.

Elaine Aron developed an Are You Highly Sensitive? quiz which you can take for free online.

For HSPs, life is particularly rich and nuanced. HSPs pick-up on inner and outer subtleties that less sensitive people easily gloss over. Things like odours, sounds, textures, colours, flavours, meaning(s), relational dynamics, feeling mixtures (joy AND despair, anxiety AND excitement), visions, body states, spiritual presence(s), etc.

highly sensitive person

HSPs also react more strongly to outer and inner stimulation. For example, some HSPs are extremely sensitive to stimulants like caffeine and refined sugar. Other HSPs can literally absorb other people’s emotions; they take these feelings on as if they were there own. Still, other HSPs can get so immersed in an intellectual problem that it takes them over—they truly enter into a different world.

While being highly sensitive is a great gift, possessing the trait can make life difficult. Noticing and absorbing so much subtlety can easily lead to over-stimulation and overwhelm. Moreover, Westernized societies tend to see sensitivity as a weakness (when it truly is a strength). Sensitive people are often characterized as wimps who just need to “get over it.”

Male HSPs (I am one of them) face unique challenges. While women are permitted to be sensitive, men (in westernized society) are supposed to be strong and stoic. Men are not supposed to let feelings get in their way. The Western ideal of a self-made man can lead many HSP men to deny their true self and adopt a tougher, more socially acceptable, persona. There are many consequences to this denial however: life is drab. It lacks authenticity.

Thriving as an HSP is a balancing act: seeking stimulation but not overdoing it, taking time for retreat while avoiding isolation, establishing boundaries yet remaining open to intimate connection.

If you are interested in learning more about being an HSP, I encourage you to pick-up a copy of Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person at your local bookstore. There are also some great websites where you can learn more: for example, sensitiveperson.com. The HSP trait also overlaps with giftedness (some people believe they are synonymous…though this perspective is contentious).

Imi Lo‘s excellent work is also a great resource for HSPs and captures the intersection/overlap between HSP and giftedness (click on the book cover below to learn more):

emotional sensitive and intensity
highly sensitive intense

I have created a helpful self-care resource site aimed at gifted individuals. Many of the tips and exercises are also applicable to HSPs.

I specialize in working with HSPs in my counselling, coaching, & psychotherapy practice. I help HSPs cultivate personal wholeness and live meaningful lives. Contact me to book an initial session.