Let’s talk about highly sensitive people

Let’s talk about highly sensitive people

There’s been a lot about personality geekery on this blog: Myers-Briggs, enneagram, Big 5. But there’s another personality trait that’s not talked about nearly as much in the general culture … and maybe that’s why whenever I mention “highly sensitive people” here on the blog my inbox is flooded with “Aha!” emails.

A highly sensitive person is more sensitive to physical and/or emotional stimuli than the general population. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, who coined the term, the HSP “has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.”

In practice, that means HSPs tend to avoid violent movies, are easily overwhelmed by bright lights and loud noises, get rattled when two people are talking to them at once, and need time and space to regroup during especially busy days.

Whether or not you’ve heard the term before, that description should ring true for about 1 in 5 of you. The trait of high sensitivity affects 15-20% of the population (and Aron points out that this percentage holds across species, not just for humans).

Like many people, I was first introduced to Aron’s work through Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and had a major “Aha!” moment of my own. (Although highly sensitive people are not a subset of introverts: 30% of HSPs are extroverts.)

I’m an HSP to the core: I avoid violent imagery, I’m hugely empathic, and I feel like my head will explode when two people try to talk to me at the same time. Or if I’m trying to make dinner while the counter is cluttered with the morning’s dishes. Or if someone is singing while the radio is playing a a different song.

Children can be highly sensitive as well. HSCs are more likely to be bothered by scratchy clothes and itchy socks, unfamiliar tastes and loud noises, daily transitions and changes in routine.

If you think you might be an HSP (or if you live with one), knowledge is power. Just knowing that a hyper-sensitive nervous system is an actual thing has been hugely helpful for me personally and in my interactions with my highly sensitive children.

Unfortunately, there’s not a ton of information available on HSPs at this time, so my resource list is short and sweet:

1. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Elaine Aron. This is the book on HSPs. Unfortunately, and in true HSP fashion, I struggled to get through this because I was overwhelmed by all the references to sexual abuse. But if you can hang with it, this is the book to read.

2. The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them, Elaine Aron. This is the book I wish I’d had ten years ago for dealing with my newborn HSC, and I’m finding it very helpful for myself as well. (Non- HSPs may find Aron’s tone a little condescending, but it’s worth sticking it out for the quality of the information.)    

3. The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder, Carol Stock Kranowitz. This is not about highly sensitive children, per se, but if you have a child (not a grown-up!) who struggles with lights, noise, transitions, clothing, and the like, this book is a gold mine. (It’s one of the books that make me feel like I’m not crazy.)

I’ve read–and do not recommend–The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide: Essential Skills for Living Well in an Overstimulating World by Ted Zeff. I’m interested in reading–but haven’t yet read–Elaine Aron’s third book, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You.

To find out if you’re a highly sensitive person, take the quiz here. To find out if your child is highly sensitive, head over here.

Are you a highly sensitive person, or do you have an HSP or highly sensitive child in your life? I’d love to hear your stories in comments. 

PS: It’s more than a kid hangover, and emotional labor.

P.P.S. I wrote a book about personality! In Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, I walk you through 7 different frameworks, explaining the basics in a way you can actually understand, sharing personal stories about how what I learned made a difference in my life, and showing you how it could make a difference in yours, as well.

let's talk about highly sensitive people

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  1. Ramona Oerlemans says:

    A WAY OF DEALING WITH OTHER’S EMOTIONS: Imagine a dashboard with a dial that goes from 0 to 100, 0 being your emotions and 100 being the other’s. Now slowly let that dial go down until it’s halfway or completely to 0 (you) whenever you’re overwhelmed with other’s emotions. Practice makes perfect.
    I’m HSP myself and before the term was “invented” I found a website about empaths (same as HSP, basically) that published this excercise. I don’t know the name of the site anymore, sorry, no infringement intended. Just thought I’d share it for those of you who struggle a great deal with other’s emotions. I thought this article was well written, btw. Tx.

  2. Angela says:

    YES YES YES – my daughter is a HSP. So much so that she has intense anxiety issues that resulted in an eating disorder – this from her psychiatrist in the eating disorders hospital. It is a real thing… as a child she would run crying from the room when I turned on a blender. HATED school.

  3. Kristi Forsman says:

    I am a HSP… An enlightening & revolutionary discovery I made a few months ago. I can’t believe I wasn’t aware of it earlier…it’s kinda annoying, actually … because it explains SO much… anyway… I am thankful to know now. Knowledge is definitely power. I am curious if you can relate to this… I am really affected by whatever I am reading…it can sort of takeover my being… I have come to dread it and have limited the kinds of books I read because I want to avoid the sad emotions they provoke. For example… I read “Me Before You” a couple years ago…knowing absolutely nothing about it other than it got awesome reviews. It was one of the best books I have ever read but…oh my lord…THE SADDEST!!! I shared it with all my reader family & friends with a warning… I would cry all over again with them. Just the thought of the book would literally hurt my heart and cause such sadness. The more aware of this I was the more I tried to avoid it…the sad emotions and what feels like physical pain. Maybe the avoidance itself is an effort or feeling I dislike. When the release of the movie came near I avoided pictures or ANYTHING regarding it. My friends all thought we should go together to see the movie…and there is absolutely no way that was going to happen. I discovered the whole HSP thing around the same time frame as the movie release…so it made me think it must be a HSP thing. My reading genres have continued to be limited more and more…in an effort to avoid emotional pain. I have taken to the mystery/CSI type books lately. I just hate that I am missing out on SO many good books. I hope I will sort of get over this…like my awareness will dull a bit. I’m curious if you can relate.

  4. Katie says:

    I’m so late to this party, but wanted to chime in, anyway. It’s a revelation to me to discover that this describes me almost to a “T,” and explains why I have behaved in certain ways in the past. For example, my last two years of undergrad, I lived off-campus in an apartment with two roommates. One of them was quite social and enjoyed inviting people over, especially on the weekends. I usually went home for the weekends so it wasn’t a major issue for me, but one weekend, a friend of hers let me know they were throwing a surprise birthday party for my roommate in our apartment. Wanting to be a good friend, I stayed for the weekend. Somewhere around 12-15 people came to the party, which completely overwhelmed me. Suddenly all these people, most of them strangers to me, were in my home, using my dishes, sitting on my furniture. I was terrified that neighbors would report us for too much noise. I became so uncomfortable, I retreated to my bedroom, got in bed, and cried. My other roommate found me and wanted to know why I was upset- I didn’t have a rational explanation for my feelings, so I just made something up about being in a fight with my boyfriend. I’m not the lying type, but I really just couldn’t explain my feelings! There have been a few other situations like this over the years, and lots of the childhood things mentioned on the quiz website- like hating the feel of seams in socks- rang true for me. Thanks for sharing about this! I’ve been a personality-type geek since I was a pre-teen, but had never heard of HSP.

    • Kristi Forsman says:

      Hi Katie,
      I can completely relate. Because I wrote a reply to this I got an email when you wrote one as well. I just discovered I was an HSP last summer. there are a lot of HSP groups on FB & somehow I found out about an on-line class that was SOOOOOO helpful. I thought I’d pass on the info to you in case you are interested in learning more. Once I figured this out all I wanted to do was talk about it, research it etc. etc. This class was so great because it connected a small group of HSPs from all over the world to begin to learn about the trait & how to navigate in the world better. Here is the link…I believe she is starting a new class in April.
      Take care, Kristi

  5. I may be late to the Modern Mrs. Darcy party, but I’m not late to the HSP/SPD party. After struggling with my brain and “central nervous system” most of my life–constantly being looked at like I was crazy and told I was wrong about what I was feeling–my husband discovered a book that saved my sanity and opened my eyes to the world of people like me. I wept through most of it and heartily recommend it as part of the discussion and book list: https://www.amazon.com/Loud-Bright-Fast-Tight-Overstimulating/dp/0060932929.

    Keep keeping on, HSP among us. We’re a gift to the world and the world is a gift to us…if only it would quiet down a bit (and be less bright, less cluttered, less smelly, less spicy, or just dentally a bit less).

  6. Allyson McGill says:

    Hi. I have heard of this and know that it applies to me, but I’m interested in taking the quiz you link to. Alas, the link no longer connects to the quiz. Are you able to find it in another way?

    Thank you,
    Allyson (allycatmcgill@verizon.net)

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