8 Things You May Not Know About Highly Sensitive People
You may or may not have heard of Highly Sensitive People. You may know someone you’d describe as ‘overly sensitive,’ or ‘over-reactive.’ As you’ll see it’s not a matter of ‘over,’ just ‘more.’ HSPs process information very deeply so life is experienced a bit…or a lot, differently than non-HSPS and can easily become overwhelming. There’s more specific info about being Highly Sensitive in my previous blog.
I don’t generally like to use labels for people, but recognizing the Highly Sensitive trait can be very helpful, for both HSPs and those in their lives who want to understand them. Here are some tidbits to help you better understand those Highly Sensitives, whether that’s you or someone you know.
1. High Sensitivity Is Genetic.
Elaine Aron, Ph.D., has done a vast amount of research on HSPs and discovered that we (I’m an HSP too!) are, in fact, born that way. Sometimes babies are seen as ‘fussy’ or ‘excessively sensitive’ or ‘spoiled’ or described in many other less than positive ways. Parents may worry that there’s something wrong with them or that they’re not doing the right things to make them happy. But, they could just be Highly Sensitive and have difficulty coping with the amount of stimulus in their lives.
Many HSPs I work with struggle with a sense of guilt for somehow creating this trait…what did they do ‘wrong’? Nothing! But this is easy to understand if they grew up hearing, “Don’t be so sensitive!” or “Why can’t you just let it go?” or “Just ignore it.” For HSPs these are monumental tasks.
2. 15-20% Of The Population Is Highly Sensitive.
This may seem like a high number, but that’s what the research says, and boy, is that a relief for HSPs to discover. Highly Sensitives tend to feel like extreme outliers, totally different from everyone else and totally misunderstood. Unless they’re supported by people who recognize their sensitivity as a specific, not-uncommon trait, it’s easy to own the feeling of being lesser than, different, wrong.
So, in a group of just 10-12 people, it’s likely that 2 are HSP. That’s kind of eye-opening, isn’t it? You won’t necessarily know who these folks are, if you’ve just met them especially, but even if you know them already. Because High Sensitivity isn’t well accepted in our society, HSPs don’t generally make their trait known. And sometimes they don’t even realize there are others like them. There are also some who have shut down their sensitivities and feelings so much, out of self-preservation, that they don’t even recognize them anymore.
3. Highly Sensitive, Shy and Introverted Are Not The Same Things.
There are introverted HSPS, for sure, but some are actually extroverts! High sensitivity is all about processing information and becoming overwhelmed by it, not about wanting to be alone or avoid gatherings just because being alone is more comfortable. Imagine being an extrovert…seeking lots of activity and social engagement and energy, but being easily overwhelmed by all of these things! How challenging is that?
Someone who is shy and/or introverted isn’t necessarily HSP, either. People can just feel uncomfortable putting themselves in front of others and avoid situations which would require such, but not be overwhelmed by anything or feel unable to handle the energy or activity of a situation. They may be quiet and just prefer not to be in the center of attention and enjoy quiet activities and small groups, and alone time.
Regardless of whether someone is Highly Sensitive, introverted or shy (or all 3!), it is not helpful to tell them that they just need to relax and get out more or not worry about anything. This just leads to them feeling unaccepted as they are. Allowing for them to opt out of activities or choosing quiet, relaxed ones is supportive and validating.
4. Highly Sensitive Does Not Mean Anti-Social.
It’s not that HSPs don’t like people or spending time with others; quite the opposite is true. Highly Sensitives generally make very strong connections with people, but prefer to spend time with them one-on-one or in small groups and without a lot of other distractions. We’re likely to have a handful of really close friends rather than a long list of people we only know a little bit.
Because HSPs feel so deeply, we also tend to be extremely empathetic and pick up on others’ energy quite easily. This can make large gatherings more challenging, as there are so many different energies to experience all at once. Non-HSPs generally aren’t aware of these energies, but for us it’s hard to NOT be aware, and to ignore or not be affected by them. It’s also challenging to ignore the busy-ness of the environment to tune into our friends, which is the goal.
Sometimes we become overwhelmed by external stimuli and do need to have quiet, alone time. We need time to recharge and let our nervous systems calm down. If we opt out of an event or gathering or even a one-on-one dinner, it could be out of this need to wind down and regroup rather than being anti-social and trying to avoid people.
5. There Are Just As Many Male as Female HSPs.
In our culture we still learn that it’s women who are sensitive and if men are sensitive it means they’re sissies or weak or gay. None of these judgments are made in a positive way. So if 1 out of every 5 men is likely to be Highly Sensitive, that means we all know quite a few with the trait, but may not be able to identify any. Because it’s not accepted, men who acknowledge that they’re HSP may not want to let others know that, even those close to them.
And it’s more likely that male Sensitives don’t realize or acknowledge that they’re HSP, because they’ve tried to minimize or quash their sensitivities in order to fit into the acceptable mold. Imagine feeling like you’re a total outlier, that you’re different from everyone else (just like female HSPs) and that whenever you are overwhelmed by your environment or are extremely emotional you’re acting totally opposite of the norm. It’s easy to see how you might try to disown these feelings.
6. Not Showing Feelings Doesn’t Mean Not Having Them.
Some Highly Sensitives may seem to not be emotional at all. If they’re HSP, this is far from the reality. Because we process things so intensely, though, some may end up shutting down and not allowing the feelings at all, let alone expressing them. It’s easier to control external stimuli by avoiding gatherings or orchestrating surroundings when possible. It’s a real challenge when feelings become really intense and some may choose to just not acknowledge them. Of course they will fester and grow and sometimes these ‘shut down’ HSPs will end up exploding in some way or making unhealthy life choices, such as turning to substance use.
The quiet, “shy” person who seems to have nothing to say, could just be trying to assimilate everything that’s going on and everything she’s feeling and doesn’t have the words at the time to express or explain herself. Sometimes it feels like words just won’t convey the reality, that no one will really understand the feelings or experience. This is one bonus of HSPs finding other HSPs to spend time with…they understand each other and how difficult it is sometimes to describe the depth of their feelings.
7. HSPs Need Their Sleep.
It’s very important for Highly Sensitives to establish a strong regimen of self-care, to keep their nervous systems calmed and better able to handle stimuli. One of the most important of these self-care elements may be sleep. We definitely need at least our recommended 8 hours to allow our bodies to rest and our systems to de-escalate so we can be ready for the next day of emotions and external stimulus. I always use the analogy of needing to fill your pitcher in order to fill others’ glasses, and for HSPs this is paramount.
On those days when emotions are intense and there’s a lot going on in the outside world, more than 8 hours may be the ticket to waking rested the next day. Some do well with taking naps, if possible. Not getting enough sleep isn’t good for anyone, but for HSPs it’s like trying to get the computer to boot up when the battery is dead; you’re just not going to be able to take care of all of the tasks you have planned.
8. Not All Experiences Are Challenging For HSPs…Sometimes They’re Amazing!
Because we process things so deeply we HSPs can receive even more reward or enjoyment from things than others. For example, listening to music, viewing art or spending time in nature can be a near-otherworldly experience. We can be moved to tears easily by beauty of all forms, feeling it deep in our cells. We can feel totally connected, as one with things others may not even be aware of. Bliss and appreciation run deep.
This can happen in relationships as well. HSPs can connect very deeply with other people and not only feel the other person’s energy, but feel so connected that the feeling of love can be almost overwhelming. Most HSPs ultimately seek this connection, because it’s so rewarding, yet may avoid the possibility because if it doesn’t work out it can be devastating.
I always recommend that HSPs create a list of ways that their sensitivities are helpful, to themselves and others…and there are many! One of the benefits is just this ability to feel so deeply. I’ve not met one HSP who would want to give up this side of sensitivity, regardless of the challenges. There’s generally a feeling of extreme gratitude for being able to enjoy things so much.
If you are an HSP, I hope you’ll honor your sensitivities and come to share them with others. If you’re not, I hope you’ll give a few moments of thought toward the idea that while being Highly Sensitive may be different than your experience, HSPs are Very sensitive, not Too sensitive.