A highly sensitive person (HSP) is ultra-sensitive to sensory input, other people, and their environment. Being highly sensitive is not something to treat or change, rather it is a personality trait that can be explored and used to thrive. For some, seeking the support of a therapist who has experience working with HSPs can be helpful for developing coping skills, maintaining appropriate boundaries, navigating relationships, and further building their strengths.
What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?
While high sensitivity is considered a personality trait, it is not classified as what the American Psychological Association (APA) identifies as one of the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.1 Out of the five traits, high sensitivity may be most closely associated with conscientiousness, which describes careful or detail-oriented people. In order to be this meticulous, it is necessary to be highly sensitive.
High sensitivity is also linked to introversion. Introversion isn’t explicitly named as one of the Big Five; however, it falls on the far end of the spectrum for extraversion. Extroverts feel energized by social interaction while introverts recharge by spending time alone. It’s important to note that people can be both extroverted and introverted, and possibly more so at different times in their life.
In general, HSPs tend to experience most of the following features:
- Sensitivity to lights and sounds
- Sensitivity to caffeine and medications
- Feelings of overwhelm in crowded places
- Feeling more drained than others after spending time with people
- Affected by the energy and moods of the people around them
- Startle easily
- Difficulty with transitions and change
- Avoid violence in television and movies
Is High Sensitivity the Same as Introversion?
Introversion is common amongst HSP, though not all HSP consider themselves introverts. In fact, up to 30% of HSP may be extroverts.2 High sensitivity is actually a separate personality trait entirely. Many HSP find that they need time to recover from experiences that are activating to their high sensitivity, but they may not need to be alone to recharge in general.
What Does It Feel Like to Be an HSP?
Each HSP has different experiences depending on their particular situation and stage of life. When you are young and unaware of your high sensitivity, you may feel extremely overwhelmed. You may experience overwhelm with sensory input (like sights and sounds) and your emotions, as well as the emotions of others.
American culture does not fundamentally value sensitivity like some other cultures, so HSPs can feel as though there is something wrong with them, if they are oversensitive or weak. This can bring additional stress around being an HSP on top of the overwhelm that is already present. If kids grow up in an environment where sensitivity is valued, they can have a positive experience of being an HSP.
HSPs have many unique experiences. For example, strong intuition is common amongst HSPs. In other words, HSPs can often sense things that are happening around them that are not being named. Additionally, many HSPs experience mental exhaustion. This is due to the fact that highly sensitive brains process stimuli more deeply.
12 Signs You Might Be an HSP
There are common characteristics of being a HSP like being easily overwhelmed, being upset by violence on TV, and identifying as deeply emotional. Remember, being highly sensitive is not a disorder or diagnosis; rather, it is a personality trait. While you don’t need to resonate with every characteristic listed below to be considered a HSP, the majority of HSPs experience most of these things.
Here are 12 signs that you might be an HSP:
1. You Have Been Called Oversensitive
This is the hallmark characteristic of being an HSP — after all, high sensitivity is in the name. HSPs tend to be much more sensitive than those around them.
2. You Are Easily Overwhelmed by Your Senses
HSPs typically experience overstimulation from at least one of the five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. Some HSPs may find that one or two of these senses overwhelm them at times. Other HSPs may feel overstimulated from all five senses.
3. You Are Easily Upset by Violence in Media
Since HSPs are highly empathic, any display of violence in the media can be extremely upsetting. As a result, you may avoid watching horror movies, torture scenes, or even the news.
4. You Avoid Stressful Situations
Many HSPs structure their lives so that they can avoid stressful or overwhelming situations. While this may happen unconsciously at first, many HSPs realize this is true for them as they start to reflect.
5. You Are Overwhelmed by Crowds
Large groups of people are often overwhelming for HSPs. Crowds may make you want to withdraw or shut down entirely. This can be due in part to the sensory stimulation that comes with being in a crowd, along with the emotional energy that HSPs absorb from others.
6. You Identify as Deeply Emotional
HSPs tend to have a strong connection to their emotions and other aspects of their inner life since HSP brains process things more intensely. If you spend a lot of time and energy contemplating or cultivating your internal world, you may be a HSP.
7. You Were Called Shy as a Child
As adults, many HSPs identify that they were labelled as “shy” or “withdrawn” when they were children. Even if these words were not explicitly used, HSPs often remember people commenting on their sensitivity as a child.
8. You Are Overwhelmed by Tasks
A full to-do list can be overwhelming for HSPs. It can feel even more daunting when you feel as though there is not enough time to complete the tasks. This may be due to the fact that HSPs go to great lengths to avoid making mistakes or upsetting other people.
9. You Are Attuned to Nuances
HSPs are adept at picking up subtleties: in the environment, in projects or art, and even in the emotional reactions of those around them. The high sensitivity that is characteristic of being a HSP enables you to notice things that others may miss.
10. You Are Sensitive to Pain
Increased sensitivity to pain is common amongst HSPs. Again, this is related to the sensitivity to sensory input as well as the extra processing that HSP brains engage in compared to others without this trait.
11. You Are Considered Thoughtful
If people are consistently remarking on your thoughtfulness, it is likely that you are a HSP. Since HSPs are detail-oriented, they pick up on things that other people may not notice or remember.
12. You Work Hard to Please Others
HSPs go to great lengths to avoid upsetting others or making mistakes. As an HSP, disruption in your environment — which includes the people around you — can be extremely disrupting to your nervous system.
How Common Are HSPs?
HSPs account for 15-20% of the population.3 High sensitivity also seems to occur equally across the gender spectrum. Being a HSP can be vastly misunderstood, however, depending on the culture. In some cultures, sensitivity is valued and associated with understanding. In American culture, on the other hand, sensitivity is often devalued and pathologized.
What Causes High Sensitivity?
High sensitivity is an innate trait. In fact, biologists have found that the high sensitivity personality trait exists in over 100 species. From this finding, they have come to understand high sensitivity as a survival strategy. Animals (including humans) who are hypervigilant and highly aware of their surroundings are more likely to detect and avoid predators or unsafe situations.
While high sensitivity is a “nature” trait versus a “nurture” trait, the way in which you are nurtured around it can influence how it impacts you in your life. High sensitivity does not get “better” or “worse” over time, but how you live with it can change. For example, if your high sensitivity was appreciated and celebrated as a child, you are more likely to be well-adjusted.
On the other hand, if you were shamed for being a highly sensitive child, you may lack the knowledge and tools to effectively live with your high sensitivity. This can cause you to develop self-loathing around this trait.
Potential Challenges For HSPs
While there are many positive things about being an HSP, it comes with certain challenges like being easily stressed by conflict, and, in some cases, being a high sensation seeker.
Potential challenges of being an HSP include:
Being Easily Stressed by Conflict
HSPs usually try to stay away from overwhelming stimuli or stressful situations, such as conflicts or confrontation. They tend to avoid conflict altogether, which can make relationships difficult at times. This can lead to codependency due to constantly trying to keep things peaceful and limiting self-expression.
Being Unable to Avoid Overstimulation
We only have so much control over our environment at any given time, which can be difficult as an HSP. “Bigger,” “louder,” and “brighter” are all favored in our American culture, despite the overwhelm this can cause HSPs. You may feel as though you are “high-maintenance,” and it can be challenging or even embarrassing to advocate for your needs to be met — especially as a people-pleaser.
Simultaneously Being a High Sensation Seeker
Some HSPs are also high sensations seekers (HSS).4Part of you may struggle with feeling overstimulated, while another part of you enjoys risk and excitement. This juxtaposition of different traits can be challenging to cope with.
How to Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person
By gaining more insight into how your sensitivity affects you and learning to embrace it, you can thrive in this world as an HSP.
Here are six ways to thrive as a highly sensitive person:
Own Your Identity as an HSP
Recognizing high sensitivity as a personality trait that you possess is a key part to thriving as an HSP. Part of this is acknowledging that being highly sensitive does not mean there is anything wrong with you — it’s just a part of who you are, like any other characteristic.
Learn How Your Sensitivity Is Expressed
While there are many general qualities and traits associated with being an HSP, each person’s experience is unique. For example, your sense of hearing may be especially heightened while another HSP is more affected by smells. Learning more about yourself can help cultivate your sense of identity as an HSP and explore ways to cope.
Engage in Contemplative Practice
Whether it’s mindfulness, meditation, body scans, or something else altogether, it’s essential to create a contemplative practice as an HSP. This provides you with the opportunity to check in with what it feels like to be in your body and learn more about your experience. With this awareness you can make choices around what you need.
Turn Toward Feelings of Discomfort
Many HSPs tend to avoid the discomfort that comes along with negative or activating emotions. However, this can create a depleting cycle. Learning to embrace and reframe discomfort as part of your experience can help you process these feelings, as well as create space for joyful emotions too.
Connect With Others
Engaging with people who are or understand HSPs can be validating, which can also help cultivate resilience. Connecting with other HSPs, engaging in support groups, or working with a therapist who specializes in high sensitivity can all be great options.
Draw on Your Strengths
Many HSPs have deep experiences with art, music, and nature. This appreciation for nuance, in addition to other strengths such as imagination, can be important coping mechanisms. They can also act as assets toward building resilience.
Final Thoughts on Being an HSP
If you’re not sure how to best utilize your potential as an HSP, you’re not alone. Talking to a therapist or reaching out to a trusted friend or family member can make a big difference in how you feel. Consider using an online directory to help you find the right therapist or mental health professional for you.
Highly Sensitive Person Infographics