What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses

What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses | I recently discovered that many of the sensory and emotional experiences I've had throughout my life are indicative of a trait known as high sensitivity. Understanding what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has helped me to better understand myself, but I also recognize the potential for danger if I use this label--or any other label--as an excuse for avoidance and complacency.

Recently I was trying to explain to my boyfriend why I have such a strong aversion to violence and gore in TV shows and movies.

It’s not that I’m some delicate flower who can’t face the harsh realities of the world, I tried to say. It’s that I literally feel these things. When I see someone get shot or stabbed, I experience physical pain. When I see blood, even fake blood, I feel like I’m bleeding.

As I said these words, I felt frustrated, partly because I wasn’t sure whether I was making any sense, and partly because I wondered whether I really was a delicate flower and just didn’t want to admit it.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that my unusual sensitivity extends far beyond on-screen violence. In real life, if someone is in physical pain–whether from a gaping wound or a simple sore throat–I feel it. Heck, if someone is in emotional pain, I feel that, too, even if they’re trying their best to disguise it. I soak up the vibes of those around me like a sponge.

Well, folks, it turns out that there’s a psychological term for this stuff. I’m currently reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, in which author Susan Cain discusses scientific, historical, and sociological perspectives on introversion and provides advice on how introverts can leverage their unique strengths. I just finished a particularly interesting chapter pertaining to a personality trait that is often associated with introversion: high sensitivity.

When I first heard this term, I kind of brushed it off, probably because I envisioned a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) as someone who loves babies and puppies and cries every time he or she watches The Notebook. But according to Dr. Elaine Aron, a California-based psychotherapist and leading researcher in high sensitivity, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS) affects 15-20% of the population (including some extroverts) and has as much to do with responsiveness to physical stimuli as to emotional stimuli. And the more I learned about the trait, the more I thought, Oh my goodness, this is me. And I’ve never even shed a tear during The Notebook.

On her website, Aron offers a quick self-assessment to gauge if you might be a Highly Sensitive Person. As I went down the checklist, I couldn’t believe how many of the items I was able to tick off (including, of course, “Other people’s moods affect me” and “I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows”). A few other examples:

“I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.” Some of my most vivid early memories involve unpleasant sensory experiences. Once upon a time, I saved up all my birthday and Christmas money to purchase a sparkly Little Mermaid costume from the Disney Store–only to find that the sequins sewn all over the outfit made it unbearably itchy, and I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. Another time, I participated in a day camp in which members of a local high school dance team taught us some simple steps and then led us in a performance during halftime of one of the school’s basketball games. I was so excited to show off my moves–until the other participants and I filed into the gym and the noise from the crowd, the court, and the speakers nearly knocked me off my feet. My hands flew to my ears for protection, and it was everything I could do to hold back tears. I hated that I wanted to cry, but everything just felt so incredibly loud that I could barely stand it. Luckily, some of these sensitivities have lessened a bit over the years, but others remain. For example, I sleep with both earplugs and an eye mask because apparently even at night, the world can be too bright and loud for my liking.

“I have a rich, complex inner life.” You may have heard of “resting b*tch face”; I have “resting zoned out face” because, as I mentioned in my last post, I tend to get lost in the La La Land of my own thoughts. If you’re talking to me, I’m listening intently, but the minute the discussion stops, farewell, friend! I’m off to another dimension. My vivid imagination is a blessing as well as a curse, because the same creativity that enables me to dream up new and exciting ideas also allows me to think of every possible bad thing that could happen, ever. But either way, there’s always a lot going on up there.

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My brain 95% of the time, with approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of all thoughts being totally irrational worst-case scenarios.

“I am deeply moved by the arts or music.” It’s a good thing that I’ve been able to slowly adapt to louder and louder noises over the years, because one of my favorite things to do is attend concerts. (I still try to avoid being right up near the speakers, though, and it often takes me quite a while to wind down after such sensory overload.) Music isn’t just a fun diversion for me, it’s practically a spiritual experience. The right song at the right moment (or Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” anytime) can easily give me goosebumps, bring me to tears, or both. 

“Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.” This is SUCH a first-world problem that I’m trying to overcome, but I am literally the reason why “hangry” became a word. So out of concern for those around me, I pretty much always have a granola bar with me just in case.

“When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.” Just ask anyone who has ever been in the passenger seat when I’m trying to park a car. Or sometimes even turn on a car. It’s bad, guys.

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My brain the other 5% of the time, when people are watching. What is this “driving” of which you speak?!

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

As you can probably tell, I love learning about personality, temperament, and what makes people “tick,” especially when it provides valuable insight into my own thoughts and experiences. For example, studying introversion has helped me to better understand how to take care of myself and leverage my strengths in both personal and professional situations. It’s also helped me to feel less ashamed of my weaknesses–and realize that, as Cain argues in her book, some of my “weaknesses” are actually just neutral personality traits that feel like flaws in our extrovert-oriented society. And discovering that my Myers-Briggs personality type (INFJ) is shared by less than 1% of the general population has certainly helped to explain why, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider.

Similarly, finding out that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) has helped me to make sense of so many experiences I’ve had throughout my life, from racing thoughts to intense feelings of self-doubt to physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pain, and muscle tension. Researching the condition has enabled me to manage it more productively and communicate my struggles to others. And perhaps most importantly, by embracing my diagnosis, I’ve been able to separate my illness from the essence of my being. I have anxiety, but I am not my anxiety.

And now, I may have another piece of the puzzle–I’m likely a Highly Sensitive Person, and that’s not the same as wimpy, picky, or just plain weird. I mean, I totally am weird, but there’s a lot more at play there than my sensitivity.

I do realize, though, that there’s a fine line between using labels to better understand myself and using labels as excuses, and I’m still trying my best to find–and avoid crossing–this line every day. I want to know and take care of myself so that I can better know and take care of others, not so that I can live in a bubble free from anything that makes me feel anxious or overstimulated and totally ignore the needs of those around me. This might be my first instinct, but I don’t have to let my instincts become my actions.

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My first reaction to pretty much any situation involving people, places, or things.

I’m constantly presented with opportunities to enter into uncomfortable situations in order to achieve a greater good. Most of us are. And I don’t intend to let my introversion, anxiety, or high sensitivity stop me. Rather, I hope that by developing a greater sense of self-awareness, I will be able to find a balance between leaning into the discomfort and respecting my limitations. Maybe I need to leave a party or event earlier than everyone else. Maybe, after a particularly impassioned discussion or difficult confrontation, I need to take some time to be alone and restore my emotional equilibrium. Maybe I need to arrange my home or office to reduce the likelihood of sensory overload. Maybe I simply need to dive in headfirst to the situations that scare me the most just to prove to myself that the world won’t end as a result. 

What do you think about the concept of high sensitivity? Do you think that you or anyone you know might be a Highly Sensitive Person?

Do you like learning about personality types? Why or why not?

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9 thoughts on “What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses

  1. I fully believe in the concept of HSP and identify as a HSP myself. So many things that made me feel different growing up…like the fact that I always get tired quicker than most people after particularly busy days and that I do physically feel (and absorb) other people’s emotions and therefore have to physically distance myself from those situations to regain a sense of peacefulness within have started to make so much sense to me once I learned about the HSP trait. It’s been something I’ve been learning to accept and balance within myself the past few years and I think it’s great that more people are discussing being highly sensitive as an actual thing and that it is actually quite normal.

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    • YES!! I can so relate to what you’re saying. I’ve often thought something was “wrong” with me rather than simply “different” about how I’m wired. Have you discovered any particularly helpful tips/tricks for achieving balance over the past few years?

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  2. I live in Washington, DC and work at a coffee shop downtown. I worked today, right during the women’s march, and BOOKED it back to the quiet space of my house once I got off work. Some people I spoke with today clearly assumed that my decision not to march was a result of my political leanings…but that had nothing to do with it. My decision not to march had everything to do with being a highly sensitive introvert who is SO overwhelmed by busy, highly emotive environments. I went back home and did yoga, instead.

    Speaking of yoga, that has been an AMAZING help for me. I do Yoga with Adriene on youtube because she’s super encouraging and chill–though I occassionally go to actual classes if I find a teacher I like. I find that yoga helps me with my mental and emotonal boundaries…and creating and knowing your boundaries is SO important as a highly senstivie person. Learning to say no is also super benefical. I’ve been known to be a people pleaser in the past, but I’ve learned that doing something because I feel I have to never feels as good as when I genuinely want to–and saving my limited energy for those things that I do genuinely want to do is always worth it.

    Self-awareness is really key, though, and I’ve found that connecting with other HSP has been a great help for me, too,…so it’s nice to meet you here in the blogosphere. 🙂

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    • Oh my goodness, I *love* yoga!! I’ve done it on and off for years with the help of my favorite Rodney Yee DVDs. I’ve never heard of Adriene, but I may have to check out her videos since I’m always looking for ways to challenge myself and mix up my practice.

      I agree that yoga can be incredibly helpful for a number of physical and mental conditions, including high sensitivity. It’s also helped me to manage my anxiety, since it gets me out of my head and back into my body, where I can be fully present and not worried about the past and/or future.

      I know exactly what you’re saying about having limited energy. I’ve noticed that I seem to get far more worn out from simple aspects of everyday life (running errands, making lots of decisions, being around people or away from home for extended periods, etc.) than do most other people I know, and this often makes me feel incompetent or lazy. But as you said, knowing myself, setting boundaries, connecting with other like-minded folks…All great strategies for dealing with these feelings. 🙂

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      • I recommend Adriene 110%. Her mantra is “Find What Feels Good,” which I find incredibly helpful as a HSP. Yoga has definitely changed my life for the better. Daily yoga has a super positive impact on my overall mental health.
        And yes, I often do feel incompetent or lazy! And sometimes, just really frustrated because there’s so much I want to do. I have to actively remind myself to take life at my own pace.
        To the HSP journey. Yes, it’s frustrating at times, but I believe my life is so much richer because of my highly sensitive nature.

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  3. Learning that I’m an HSP changed my life. Also learning that I might be dealing with GAD changed my life. There are so many different life-things (i.e. personality type) that can impact an HSP that sometimes, it’s overwhelming to even think about them. I like to learn about them but often stop myself because I get hung up on the details. For instance, I’m an ESFJ, an HSP, a person living with GAD, and also a black woman. So many labels.

    On the other hand…knowing about high sensitivity helped me look for it in others so that we can support each other. I found that my sister and mom are also HSPs (or at least had many characteristics of HSPs). I also suspect that my friends’ child is an HSP. It’s enlightening, and refreshing, and helpful.

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    • I love that you’re able to use your knowledge about high sensitivity to better relate to and serve others. I definitely need to work on that…Sometimes I forget that I’m not the only HSP around. 🙂

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