A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is used to hearing “you’re too sensitive”. If you’ve been told this, you’re probably aware of experiencing things more intensely than other people do. And of reacting more strongly to everyday things in life that others don’t even see, hear, feel, or notice.
Non-HSPs may feel annoyed or confused by an HSP’s (your) reactions. Especially if they don’t know that what is really going on you is “HSP overwhelm”. Or even what I call an “HSP hangover.”
Confusion and frustration as a Non-HSP add fuel to your believing something is wrong with you. That you’re just weird.
1. A main feature of being a Highly Sensitive Person is to feel things deeply.
To have a heightened awareness of and responsiveness to the environment- be it others’ moods, physical features such as light or temperature, or subtle details. Everyday environments can be overwhelming because of how your nervous systems reacts to sights, sounds, emotional cues, and other stimuli. Everything is more vivid. As if in high def.
2. There is nothing wrong with being a Highly Sensitive Person. Or with being a Non-Highly Sensitive Person.
High Sensitivity is an innate trait, not a disorder. About 15-20 percent of the population are HSPs, with an equal male to female ratio. The trait is present in over 100 species. Research continues to identify additional species who also have highly sensitive.
It’s a real thing.
Being in a minority, HSPs experience life fundamentally differently than does the other 80-85% of the population. The world is set up for the 80-85%. Stimulation levels are designed for people without the trait.
Non-HSPs may characterize an HSP’s behavior and emotions as “too much”. As in the HSP is “too sensitive”, takes things “too personally”, and needs to “lighten up”. Can’t she take a joke?
In reality, the HSP isn’t too anything. She is just right. Even if her behaviors and emotions are different from yours as a Non-HSP.
The problem isn’t being a Highly Sensitive Person. The problem is the misunderstanding of the trait.
To learn more about being an HSP, check out Dr Elaine Aron’s seminal book.
3. HSPs have unique wiring.
HSPs’ brains are different. We naturally process information on a deep level. HSPs also see nuance and subtle connections. We care about people and social issues in a profound way. That is just how an HSP’s nervous system works.
The Highly Sensitive Person’s brain has been referred to as “the most powerful social machine in the known universe”.
Here are three reasons why :
- HSPs have more active mirror neurons in their brain
Mirror neurons help a person understand what other people are feeling. HSPs naturally recognize and feel others’ pain because of how active their mirror neurons are. An HSP’s brain is super adept at empathy, awareness, and attunement to emotions.
HSPs really listen to what people are saying AND pick up on subtle details such as tone, facial expression, body language, and gestures.
- Highly Sensitive People respond differently to dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward and pleasure center.
The HSP dopamine system doesn’t respond the same way to external rewards as a Non-HSP’s. Typical external rewards such as a job bonus, being part of the ‘in crowd’, or receiving a work promotion just don’t mean as much. HSPs are not as pumped by the things that drive and excite non-HSPs.
This is part of what allows HSPs to hold back and be thoughtful and observant while processing information. It also likely prevents them from being drawn to the same highly stimulating situations that end up overwhelming them.
If you’re an HSP, and you just don’t find yourself interested in attending a loud party or taking risks, you have your dopamine system to thank.
3. Your HSP superpowers are located deep within your brain in an area called the insula. Among your superpowers are heightened sensory and emotional processing, greater self awareness, and deep empathy.
4. Without HSPs, the human race would not have survived.
Humans have survived because of HSPs’ responsiveness, awareness, and attention to subtlety. An HSP is more aware than a non-HSP of opportunities (e.g., food, mates) and threats (e.g., predators, competitors) in the environment. He is therefore well prepared to respond to a range of situations.
Remember, an HSP processes information more deeply than a non-HSP. And she learns from experience, which she then likely applies to subsequent situations. Compare this to a non-HSP, who may be inclined to impulsively respond and with less recall from previous experiences.
On a fundamental survival level, we have HSPs to thank for our mere existence as a species.
(Thank you, HSPs!)
Why does this matter?
The world is not set up for sensitivity, cautiousness, reflection, or pondering.
Society in general has difficulty dealing with high emotions. People accuse those with them of making too big a deal out of things. And label feelings as inappropriate or wrong.
Deeply experiencing the world around you is a blessing. You don’t need to keep feelings under wrap or pretend not to have them. Nevertheless, you, like all HSPs, do need for others at least to be receptive to how you operate.
We all want to be understood. To have better, more effective communication. More thoughtful ways of approaching our concerns, fears, and worries. We seek validation, love, patience.
HSP or not!
I am a private practice clinical psychologist in the Boston area. To learn more about thriving as a Highly Sensitive Person, contact me here. (Weird is a good thing!)