Are you part of the 15-20% of the population with this trait?
“You were born to be among the advisors and thinkers, the spiritual and moral leaders for your society. There is every reason for pride.” — Elaine Aron
I was a teenager the first time that a counsellor told me that she thought I was a “highly sensitive person” and sent me home with a stack of books (which I did not read). At the time, I thought that it was a curse and I wished it away. I didn’t want to be highly sensitive, I just wanted to be a happy-go-lucky teenager, sitting at the “popular table” in the lunchroom.
My heightened sensitivity seemed to be snapping all of the happiness out of my life. In high school, my feelings of being misunderstood could be attributed to the melodrama of being a teenager, but they persisted well into my professional life. I just didn’t understand why I seemed incapable of handling the things everyone around me was handling just fine.
I now see this trait as a gift, but in the words of Aron, “all virtues have a shadow,” and anyone who is highly sensitive is likely to have wished this part of themselves away at some point. If you do have this trait, you may find solace in knowing there is a name for it and that you are not alone—you are a highly sensitive person and share this with 15–20% of the population
What is a highly sensitive person (HSP)? I am more than just using an emphasized adjective to describe a personality trait. Dr. Elaine Aron describes it as follows in her book Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person:
“Sensitivity, high sensitivity, and sensory processing sensitivity are terms used […] to identify a single innate temperament trait expressed as an awareness of subtleties in stimuli as well as a potential to be overwhelmed by too much stimuli.”
This heightened sensitivity does not have to do with enhanced senses, rather, in the words of Aron, of the “brain exhibiting a strategy of processing information especially deeply.” This isn’t something that is just observed in humans, it is found in similar rates amongst others species, as well.
You don’t develop the trait for heightened sensitivity later in life, and it isn’t something that can be turned off or on. If you are an HSP, you were born an HSP and you are still going to be one today. Here are just 8 of the many signs that Aron lists in her book and if you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend her book The Highly Sensitive Person as a place to start.
8 Signs You Have the HSP Trait
You’re a wallflower
You much rather be on the sidelines than the center of attention. Being the center of attention is more likely to make you feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Growing up, you may have been labelled as shy and been encouraged to “come out of your shell.” For the record, anyone who tells you to come out of your shell is probably not highly sensitive.
“He’s a wallflower. […] You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.”
You are hyper-aware of the thoughts and emotions than others
People can’t get away with hiding their thoughts and emotions from you. If something is off, you are going to know. In group settings, you might find yourself picking up on the interpersonal dynamics or any underlying tension within seconds of walking into a room.
The reason for this hyperawareness is that your deeper processing leads you to be good at picking up on nonverbal cues like body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. It is one of the reasons many of us don’t enjoy parties or any large gathering of people—it’s a lot more sensory overload than it is fun.
You are conscientious
If you’re highly sensitive, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about how your words and actions impact those around you. I know for me, this means that I have never once made a scene in a restaurant or yelled at a stranger for cutting me off. Does this make me a pushover? Unfortunately, at times, it has.
You may find yourself struggling to give constructive criticism and confronting other people. If you do say something that had the potential to hurt someone else or yourself, you can end up ruminating about it for days. This is because HSPs are heavily attuned to causes and consequences. This results in you being seen as polite, considerate, and apt at making others feel at ease.
Easily overstimulated and overaroused
When we become overaroused our performance tends to decrease. This isn’t just for highly sensitive people, this is for all people. The thing is, we can become aroused without becoming overaroused, and arousal in and of itself isn’t going to hurt us. When we become overstimulated and overaroused, we may find it difficult to show up as our best selves, which can lead to difficulties in a number of areas in our lives.
Folks who are highly sensitive may have an especially difficult time meeting new people, taking tests, public speaking, performing in a recital or sporting event, and in professional situations like interviews or important meetings.
Stronger emotional reactions
If you are highly sensitive you will feel your emotions stronger than folks who aren’t highly sensitive—both positive and negative. A slight criticism from a boss might lead you to spend days feeling blue and questioning your abilities, whereas praise can send you into a state of absolute bliss.
When an event happens that shakes you emotionally—look around. How are other people responding to the same event? Was everyone else upset whereas you were devastated? Were other folks a bit blue but you went home and sobbed for hours? Those of us that are highly sensitive are probably those being most impacted by events.
Report unusually vivid dreams
I think this might be my favourite part of being highly sensitive. My dreams are so vivid and detailed that I feel as though I get to live a second life from 11pm-7am and it usually provides me with insight or at the very least, a cool “I had the wildest dream last night” story for my friends.
For others, this may not be a pleasant experience, especially if the dreams are dark or nightmarish. As a kid, I remember being terrified of going to sleep at certain points in my life because of recurrent nightmares. If you’re prone to having vivid dreams or feeling as though your dreams go on forever, this may be another sign you are highly sensitive.
Having physical sensitivities
I once jumped and scream at the top of my lungs when someone said, “Casey” to get my attention. They didn’t yell, they just said my name in a normal tone. It was disturbing for all involved. A faster startle response is common amongst the highly sensitive and might leave you to be jumpy and scare easily.
You may also notice this in a more reactive immune system (i.e. bad allergies) or sensitivities to drugs of all kinds. Maybe you are sensitive to caffeine or find that you need lower doses of medications that other people of your size. I also find this also shows up as being easily irritated by fabrics and other stimuli in my physical environment (i.e. scents, temperature).
You make decisions slowly
The thing about highly sensitive people is that they will sometimes classify themselves as being poor decision makers. This is because making decisions can be challenging for you and you will spend a lot of time contemplating the best decision for you and for those around you.
In reality, highly sensitive people might be slow to make decisions but they usually make the right decision for them because so much thought has gone into the process. I started thinking about going back to grad school in 2013 and didn’t end up applying until 2020. At one point I even started a program but quit only a month in because I knew it wasn’t right. So I was slow, yeah, but I also feel pretty good about my 7 year decision making process.
It can be hard to accept being highly sensitive. Many of us were told from a young age to just “just relax” and stop being so sensitive. As if the depth of our experience is holding us back from the pace of life that those around us seem to fall into effortlessly. I still find myself feeling guilty or ashamed that I am unable to “handle” as much as everyone around me. As if I am weak or lacking will. In these moments I need to remember that for my sensitivity to be a gift, I need to accept and nurture this part of me.
In the words of Elaine Aron:
“Our trait of sensitivity means we will also be cautious, inward, needing extra time alone. Because people without the trait (the majority) do not understand that, they see us as timid, shy, weak, or that greatest sin of all, unsociable. Fearing these labels, we try to be like others. But that leads to our becoming overaroused and distressed. Then that gets us labeled neurotic or crazy, first by others and then by ourselves.”
When we can accept our sensitivity, we can lean into the enhanced empathy, self-awareness, and creativity that this trait allows for. As the opening quote reminded us, we have every reason to be proud.