Since the beginning of time, or at least since the mid 1800’s, we have demonized sensitivity and any measure of what we understand as “excessive” emotional expression.
Unlike the victorian’s believed, being highly sensitive is not a mental disorder or affliction best cured by rosewater, vaginal suppositories, or leeches. Rather, for those that research now calls a highly sensitive person (HSP), it’s a personality trait And for those of us that are HSPs, it’s something we should revere for its possibility to improve our lives – and unleash as our super power.
What Does It Actually Mean to Be a Highly Sensitive Person?
Contrary to what you may believe, being an HSP is not the same as being an empath, an introvert, or a psychic.
To understand it, think about the laring bass in a car, florescent lights penetrating your eyes, the itch of a wooly sweater, and trying to read your boss’s signals to know her mood before you respond.
For many, these physical, emotional, or sensory experiences will be nominally annoying or neutral. But if you’re an HSP, they can be day-destroying.
This fact is because highly sensitive people respond to stimulation differently. They are best understood as having four primary traits:
- Deep Level of Processing
- Easily Overstimulated
- Emotional and Empathetic
- Sensitive to Subtleties
And while 70% of HSP’s identify as introverts, we must not forget that an introverted personality type refers to one who refuels by being alone. However, having increased sensory-processing sensitivity includes sensitivity to social interactions, but emotional, physical and sensory interactions as well.
And while it might seem uncanny, estimates are that approximately 30% of HSPs are extroverts.
Then there are the sensitive strivers. They too need plenty of alone time and are just as affected by emotional, physical and sensory stimuli. But these strivers have an affinity for achievement. This desire for excellence, paired with a deep level of processing, can help them achieve success, but can also lead this type of HSP to have higher stress response and burnout.
Where Does It Come From?
Researchers believe that high sensitivity, or what they also call sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), is embedded in our DNA, and may also have an epigenetic effect from early childhood experiences. So, while some early experiences may contribute to high sensitivity, it’s more likely you or your child were born that way.
Psychologist, Elaine Aron, who posited this theory in 1996, notes that those who have increased sensory-processing sensitivity or are labeled HSP have increased cues of hunger, pain, noise, and just an overall increased emotional sensitivity. They also have a greater tendency to feel higher levels of overwhelm, respond strongly to critiques, and have overall higher levels of inner processing. She also found that this state offers increased creativity, empathy, and interception.
Can I Fix It?
Despite these creative benefits, many HSPs find this increased sensitivity to be a burden. If you’re one, you may be hoping that there is some secret remedy that can cure you of your ooey-gooey sensitive nature.
Unfortunately, since this is a personality trait and a genetic part of us, we can’t just “change” it. That said, there are ways to make life easier.
While you should always work with your therapist and wellness team, some basic things like getting consistent and quality sleep, maintaining a stillness practice, reducing alcohol and stimulants, and eating regularly can all be important and helpful practices to maintain and restore from stressful experiences.
Using High Sensitivity For Good
And while developing ways to deal with your high levels of sensitivity is great, it may be even more powerful to turn the tables and transform it into something powerful and used for good.
Of course, the problem is that the world doesn’t always respond well to sensitivity. If you react emotionally, you’ll likely be told to:
Don’t be a wimp.
Get yourself together.
Sound familiar? The world seems to reward toughness and discourages us from exposing our raw, sensitive selves.
But remember that 20% of the world are HSPs projecting a facade of toughness, just like you.
But this act of creating a facade to fit in reinforces the unwonted idea of a highly sensitive person. It reinforces that we don’t need to respect sensitivity. Worse, it creates more stress because you end up role-playing nonstop. This leads to a state of overwhelm, fatigue, and over-arousal, which leads to the equivalent of dorsal vagal shut down. Not good!
And even more importantly, it’s a waste because if you learn to unleash the power of being an HSP, you’ll find that you have a superpower!
What do I mean? Well, if you have increased sensitivity, you probably also have these superpowers:
- You’re Extremely Self-Aware & Detail Oriented: Talk about perceptive to minutae. HSP notice quickly how the behaviors they exhibit and choices they make impact those around them. High levels of perfectionism leads to high-quality projects and efforts – although this desire for ideal can turn into so-called Cold Mountain syndrome — so beware.
- You’re empathetic: Because you’re so aware of other’s responses, behaviors, emotions and needs, you tend to possess wild levels of emotional intelligence and mirror neurons, which help you understand emotions better. That makes you a great and selfless problem solver.
- You’re conscientious with your decision-making: Because HSP want to make the “right” decision and want to make sure other’s are happy with their decision, they tend to be very deliberate with how they make decisions or how they organize projects. You also notice all the “stuff” others miss.
- You pick up on nuances: Calling all HSP artists! You pick up on the most infinitesimal nuances and connections. That, paired with your reflective and intentional contemplation, allows you to think, create, and function on a higher, more sophisticated level, making you an excellent problem-solver.
- You’re kind: Because you’re so tuned in to other’s needs, desires, and feelings, you are often more kind, sensitive, and empathetic when engaging with others.
Sounds like superpower stuff, right?
Still, there is no denying that being a highly sensitive person can be hard on our minds, bodies and hearts. But there are a few steps you can take to set boundaries and protect your peace of mind.
- Practices that can be helpful may include things like identifying your emotions. Name them, even out loud, and identify how they feel or show up in your body. Recognize that challenging emotions including anger, sadness, overwhelm, and anxiety, while are all very real, are temporary visitors.
- Developping a stress-management toolbox that works for you can also be transformative. Slow, deep breathing, practiced consistently (not just when you’re stressed and overwhelmed) can be physiologically and psychologically powerful. It’s also okay if some breath practices may increase anxiety and feel triggering. Finding a practice that suits you is about experimentation and learning about what works best for you now. And, it’s ok to tell your family, friends, and co-workers that telling you to take a deep breath when you are already overwhelmed is unhelpful.
Whether you’ve been wearing the HSP badge of honor for years, or know someone who might just be a little on the sensitive side, remind them of the gifts you see in their sensitivity. Being acutely aware of emotions, sensations, and feelings is a lot to handle – so recognizing these superpowers can be transformative.
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