Being a Highly Sensitive Person Does Not Equal a Weak One

Portrait Placeholder No Profile Image By Erin O'Neil
highly sensitive person places hand on man to comfort him

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), you may cry watching Pixar animated movies, get overwhelmed by crowds, or become extremely stressed thinking about your to-do list for the week. Of course, these are just a few examples.

HSPs feel emotions stronger than the average person. While this personality trait presents some daily challenges, you can still connect and build healthy relationships with others, respond more empathetically to things, and use many other strengths to your advantage. Unlike the personality trait suggests, being “highly sensitive” does not equal weakness. Read on to learn more about HSPs and more about this interesting personality trait.

What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?

A “highly sensitive person,” or HSP, is a term coined by psychologist Elaine Aron to describe people with a high level of sensory processing sensitivity. This means we are more easily affected by emotions and generally more reactive to certain internal and external stimuli, such as loud noises, strong smells, bright lights, or pain than other people.

While almost everyone experiences periods of heightened emotional arousal and reactivity from time to time, for HSPs, this elevated level of sensitivity is rich and complex and relatively constant, perhaps best summed up as “feeling too much” or “feeling too deeply.”

It is important to keep in mind that being highly sensitive is not a mental illness or disorder. Instead, the term is understood to describe a certain personality type, which research indicates could include between 15 and 20 percent of the human population.

The Origins of High Sensitivity

If being an HSP isn’t an illness or disorder, what is it? It is a personality trait. While it is not one of the “Big Five,” it is often found in those who exhibit neuroticism and openness. (The Big Five are extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism).

Nature and Nurture: A Biological Trait

Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), the trait that defines HSPs, is believed to be a biologically-based personality trait that individuals are born with. Research has shown that HSPs have greater activation in nervous system regions associated with perception and empathy, as well as stronger responses to various stimuli. This heightened sensitivity is thought to be an evolutionary advantage that increases the chances of survival. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that SPS has a hereditary component, passed down from parents to their children.

Childhood Experiences and Environmental Factors

While high sensitivity is a trait that individuals are born with, the environment in which they grow up can significantly influence how this personality trait develops. Highly sensitive children who are raised in unsupportive environments may develop harmful behaviors or beliefs that can present challenges in adulthood. It is important to note that high sensitivity is distinct from other mental health conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and sensory processing disorder (SPD). While there may be overlapping features, each condition has its own unique characteristics and diagnostic criteria.

 What Are Common Characteristics of a Highly Sensitive Person?

As the term has been picked up by others in the psychology community and elaborated on, a set of common HSP experiences has emerged that could include:

  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • Extreme discomfort with violence or cruelty, even in fictional scenarios
  • Avoiding arguments and expressing their viewpoints
  • Difficulty adjusting to a change in routine

Those who describe themselves as HSPs, along with researchers who study the personality trait, believe elevated sensory processing activity can confer certain strengths, including:

  • Strong empathy for others
  • Mediation and conflict resolution skills between other people
  • Greater appreciation for music, art, and nature
  • Ability to quickly build rapport and meaningful relationships

 What are the Challenges of a Highly Sensitive Person?

While there are strengths, being highly sensitive can also come with challenges. HSPs typically feel overwhelmed or drained by overly stimulating activities, such as taking a test or interacting with a large group of people at a party. Highly sensitive people often report needing to take time to themselves after social interactions to decompress and recharge. HSPs may also ruminate unhealthily on past failings or imagined slights, worry excessively about how they are perceived, constantly compare themselves to others, take things personally, and fear rejection, even in what may be a minor situation to anyone else.

 How Can Someone Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person?

Since HSPs can face many challenges, it is important to develop self-care strategies that prevent becoming overwhelmed or reactive. While some practices seem obvious when discussing self-care—receiving proper nutrition and hydration and getting enough movement—there are additional strategies HSPs can use:

Know yourself. Every person and every HSP is different: How they respond, what their interpersonal relationships and daily experiences are like, what stresses them out or excites them, etc. Gaining a deeper understanding of how we as HSPs respond to different experiences helps allow sensitive people to explore how this trait can serve them and make them unique.

Reframe, don’t pathologize. Since being highly sensitive is part of who you are, remind yourself not to treat this personality trait as an impediment. Just because your emotions are experienced differently, you are more sensitive to different stimuli, and you need more time to recalibrate your social battery, this does not mean there is something that needs to be fixed. Be curious and reframe HSP as a strength rather than a weakness.

Respond rather than react. HSPs tend to react during overstimulating moments and those reactions tend to make them feel out of control. However, if HSPs attuned to themselves and their environment, it allows them the ability to prepare ahead of time about how they will experience emotion in different situations and when they encounter certain stimuli. HSPs can also set necessary boundaries before a situation becomes overwhelming, using the power of incorporating their emotional and physical experiences as a part of their rational decision-making and responding thoughtfully and appropriately.

Set and stick to boundaries. Constant stimulation of the world leaves HSPs feeling depleted of energy at times. Highly sensitive people who are more aware of themselves recognize which stimuli tend to trigger a negative response. Setting boundaries is crucial. If social situations are difficult, set time limits and have an exit plan. There is nothing wrong with protecting space. Avoiding violent movies and TV shows is also a consideration.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are times when additional support will be needed. If you are struggling to reset, feeling constantly flooded and overwhelmed, and getting distracted during personal or professional interactions, it may be time for you to ask for outside help. This can come from the community, family, friends, and professionals (e.g., support groups, therapy). Remember, self-care is not selfish—it is necessary for your well-being.

Final Thoughts

It is important not to view being a highly sensitive person as a barrier, as this may lead to the perception that there is something “wrong” that needs to be repaired. Your feelings and experiences should not be thought of as a weakness or failing—you simply process information in a different way.

HSPs have numerous strengths and can teach us all how to be more empathetic and show more love to others. By implementing coping strategies, nurturing supportive relationships, and embracing their strengths, HSPs can thrive in a world that may sometimes feel overwhelming. Understanding and accepting high sensitivity as a valuable trait can empower individuals to lead rich and fulfilling lives as highly sensitive people.

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