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.
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.
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.