Are you a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)? Or married to a Highly Sensitive Person? Either way, you’re a lucky duck! Especially when you understand what being an HSP means. Certainly the more you know about High Sensitivity, the more ease you’ll have navigating unexpected challenges. And enhancing unexpected joys.
Don’t worry if you’re feeling frustrated or confused about your spouse’s High Sensitivity. Once you understand what it is, you’ll be able to identify and will also discover all the joys of being married to someone who is Highly Sensitive.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
An HSP’s nervous system is hardwired to process subtleties and notice details others often miss.
Dr Elaine Aron literally wrote the book on HSPs. She and her husband have conducted extensive research since the 1990s with HSPs.
The only way to definitively determine if someone is an HSP is a brain scan. Using questionnaires is more practical and common. Approximately 15-20% of people are HSPs, with an equal distribution of gender.
High Sensitivity has four main features, present from birth and throughout life. The acronym “DOES” is a handy way to remember the core characteristics.
The four characteristics of an HSP include:
D: Depth of Processing:
Depth of processing is at the core of High Sensitivity. And is central to the challenges and joys of being married to a Highly Sensitive Person or Highly Sensitive.
HSPs process just about everything deeply, thanks to the insula. The insula is part of the brain that increases self-awareness and perception.
You can’t see depth of processing externally. But, you can definitely notice it indirectly. Such as when your HSP spouse is deep in thought. Or responding strongly to something happening nearby.
Here’s another way to think of depth of processing: Everything HSPs experience leaves “residue”. The residue may be in the form of thoughts, feelings, impressions, bodily sensations, or memories.
HSPs deeply experience the negatives and positives in life. Stress and fatigue naturally result. Deeply experiencing life can be tiring, even when life is filled with lots of positives and good things!
“Pause and reflect” is standard operating procedure. (Aka deep processing) A slower transition between tasks is common.
HSPs react to what happens in the environment and then deeply process it. Reactions include observations, reflections, and feelings.
Overstimulation is likely because of all the deep processing. And can quickly lead to over-arousal. Things become “too much”.
High arousal levels affect cognition. Maybe in the form of poor concentration or suddenly blanking on words. Or becoming tongue tied, especially when you’re put on the spot. And then feeling tense or anxious.
HSPs become over-aroused and overstimulated more quickly than Non-HSPs. High levels of input can be exhausting.
E: Emotional responsiveness/Empathy:
From the first moments of life, HSPs experience emotions intensely. Even as young children, HSPs have deep empathy. They are the children who insist on bringing the spider outdoors instead of flushing it down the toilet. They can also tell when a classmate feels sad, and may feel compelled to offer comfort.
HSPs tend to respond more emotionally than Non-HSPs to the same situation. This is true whether the things are good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant.
Brain studies demonstrate that HSPs’ mirror neurons are more active than are Non-HSPs. This explains why capacity for empathy is so intense.
S: Sensitivity to stimuli/Sensory awareness:
A personality trait called sensory-processing sensitivity, or SPS, is present at birth.
HSPs are born with SPS. That is why Highly Sensitive People respond strongly to internal AND external stimuli.
Examples include hunger and pain, noise and light. HSPs for instance are more likely to feel the uncomfortable effects of getting too hungry. They tend to feel pain more intensely than Non-HSPs too. Their response to things like sounds and light in the environment also tends to be greater.
What are unexpected joys of being a Highly Sensitive Person?
1. They’re thoughtful and conscientious, with a commitment to do things the right way. They can be quite principled.
2. HSPs are intuitive and perceptive. They naturally pick up on nuance, micro-expressions, and nonverbal cues.
3. Creativity and imagination are common among HSPs. Vivid dreams and a rich inner world are too.
4. HSPs are emotionally responsive toward people and animals. They’re caring and have lots of empathy.
5. Most HSPs are spiritual and feel a connection with nature.
6. Everyday beauty and joy are deeply moving to HSPs.
7. HSPs notice little things that others miss. Like the cloud formation that looks just like a happy smile.
HSPs thrive in environments –and relationships — conducive to their DOES needs. Perception, empathy, creativity, and spirituality prevail when HSPs thrive. (This is called vantage sensitivity.)
What are unexpected challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person?
- HSPs are prone to ruminate, feel overwhelmed and have a hard time making decisions.
2. Transitions are difficult and take longer.
3. HSPs often feel misunderstood, different, weird, and/or lonely. The world isn’t set up for HSPs.
4. HSPs tend to feel guilty if they prioritize their needs.
5. They perform worse when observed.
6. HSPS are more prone to anxiety, depression, and sleep deficits.
7. Effects of lights, noise, scents, and textures are amplified for HSPs.
HSPs don’t function as well in overstimulating environments. Why? They feel anxious, ill at ease, depressed, irritable and have trouble concentrating. Challenges prevail over joy.
What are typical challenges and joys of being married to a Highly Sensitive Person?
The same HSP qualities can be a challenge or joy, expected or unexpected — depending on context and perspective. This is true for both the Highly Sensitive Person as well as the spouse.
Here are four challenges of being married to a Highly Sensitive Person:
HSPs need time to recharge their battery. Especially at the end of the day, after a social event, or even upon the start or end of a vacation. Takingtime to process, rest, and restore each day is a necessity. Not simply a luxury.Non-HSPs aren’t likely to consistently need to take time to process, rest, and restore. Their “battery” tends to remain sufficiently charged.
The difference in need for downtime can create a challenge if you don’t recognize and honor each other’s needs.
HSPs can rapidly go from feeling totally in the mood, i.e. sexually turned on, to shut down.HSPs have the capacity for intense passion and pleasure. They can be super in tune with their own experiences of ecstasy and seamlessly join with yours. However, one seemingly “minor” (but not minor to you) remark can shut down the whole scene, just like that. Especially if she feels rejected or unfavorably compared to.
An unexpected noise, the doorbell or phone ringing, or the kids’ voices can cause her to lose interest. And……it is over.
The ‘thin skin’ of HSPs means they’re vulnerable to hurt feelings. “I’m just joking” comments sting HSPs. And the sting lasts. There is no “just get over it”.You may lament that you have to think before you speak, or that at times you’re walking on eggshells.
Further, you may have such thoughts as “Why is she soooooo damn sensitive?” or “I was just kidding. She really needs to find a way to take a joke” Or how about “I don’t even know what I said to upset you.” (Which can make her feel even worse.)
Hunger and low blood sugar levels quickly become hanger. Feeling tired and ready for bed easily turn into utter exhaustion. The need to eat and to sleep are non-negotiable.So telling your HS spouse to just wait a couple hours and you’ll grab a meal is not going to work. She WILL become hangry – irritable, out of sorts, and even mean. The same thing happens when she is tired. As an HSP, sleep is central to her well being. She can’t skimp on sleep without negative effects.
And, she probably knows from experience that having snacks with her is essential!
Here are four joys of being married to a Highly Sensitive Person:
- When HSPs have downtime after a period of stimulation, they recalibrate their nervous system. Their creativity, humor, silliness, and best self shine. They go from being a wilted flower to bright and perky.
The joys that ‘stem’ (pun intended) from their replenishment remind you that her High Sensitivity can be a beautiful thing!
- HSPs deeply experience sexual pleasure. When they feel sexual desire, you become the recipient of stuff dreams are made of! Being present to the delight she is feeling in her body and in yours is a turn on that’s unlikely to get stale.
- Sincere compliments and everyday thoughtfulness go a long way. Her love language often includes all five! HSPs are loyal and love deeply.
- When an HSPs system is well balanced physically, you know it. She functions best when she has had enough sleep, is properly nourished and hydrated, and has had time in nature. The formula for optimal functioning is simple and consistent.
The gifts HSPs bring to the world – and to your relationship – are meaningful and unique. Especially if keeping the High Sensitivity trait in mind and openly communicating.
You’ll minimize/avoid inevitable pitfalls by remembering that your Highly Sensitive spouse’s brain is fine tuned to notice and interpret just about everything around her — including things you say and do. Even when you may not be aware of what you are saying or doing. Or mean anything personal by it.
Keep in mind that HSPs are not deliberately monitoring your every move. Although it can certainly feel that way if you’re unfamiliar with “DOES”.
Your HSP spouse processes information on a deep level. She sees multiple connections between things in the world. And she profoundly cares about people, the environment, and social issues. Her everyday experience of sounds, sights, tastes, fragrances, and touch is intense. All of this is her nature. At most, she may be able to override her DOES for short periods of time. And will likely require a longer period thereafter to recalibrate.
Exploring and understanding the unexpected challenges and joys of being married to a Highly Sensitive Person is an investment in your relationship. And in the quality, depth, and meaning of your own life.
Your HSP spouse has superpowers. Understanding the High Sensitivity trait benefits you, your spouse, and your relationship. And beyond.
I would even say to the moon and back.
Hi! I am Dr Elayne Daniels, a psychologist in the Boston area specializing in helping Highly Sensitive People thrive. Click here if you’d like to learn more about working with me.