Some questions you may have about being highly sensitive
What if I don’t want to think of myself as being highly sensitive?
It isn’t easy to hear the term ‘highly sensitive‘ when your sensitivity has been a source of comment, judgement or even ridicule in the past. So, here are some things that might help you to consider the possibility more easily:
- it’s a ‘real thing’ – the term ‘HSP’ was first coined by Dr Elaine Aron in the 1990s and is now the subject of increasing research and a multitude of websites, tests, books, articles, podcasts & communities
- it’s not just you – Aron’s research suggests 15-20% of the population are HSPs. And a Counselling Directory analysis in 2020 found more than 4,000 searches per month on their site on questions like ‘Why am I so sensitive?‘ and ‘How can I be less sensitive?‘.
- it’s a personality trait rooted in genetics – you don’t choose to be an HSP, it’s the way your brain and central nervous system are activated and respond to physical, emotional and social stimuli. So, it’s innately you
- it doesn’t just have downsides – being highly sensitive has as many gifts as challenges
As you’ll see as you read on, being highly sensitive is your difference, not your flaw.
How do I know if I’m highly sensitive?
The Resources page provides lots of information for you to explore, including self-tests you can do which are based on various aspects of being highly sensitive.
Most descriptions of being an HSP include Aron’s acronym ‘DOES’. It stands for processing things Deeply, being easily Overstimulated, being Emotionally reactive and Empathic, and being Sensitive to Subtleties.
As well as the things I mention on the homepage, other key indicators of being highly sensitive are that we are:
- Deep – this word applies to so much of what we do. As well as being deep processors, we are deep feelers, thinkers and conversationalists. We care deeply, love deeply and hurt deeply
- At the mercy of our energy – our energy reserves are easily depleted because we give so much to everything we do. Even enjoyable things can drain our fuel tank
- Driven to make sense of things – we want to get to the root of things and will keep at it until we do (even if we don’t like the answers we find!)
- Automatic analysts – we can’t help but see and process the tiniest details, and look ahead to implications, consequences and sustainability. Ticking boxes and quick fixes are not our thing
- Liable to mood changes – because every piece of information or unit of energy can change how things look and feel. Luckily, this can go from bad mood to good just as easily as the other way!
- Unlikely to perform to ability under observation or time pressures – there simply isn’t time for the processing we need to do, and realising that in the moment just make things worse
Being an HSP shows up in lots of different ways. The more you read, the more you’ll learn about its many aspects and indicators – which apply to you and which don’t. Because, as well as being HSPs, we’re individuals too!
What are the upsides of being highly sensitive?
Fundamentally, HSPs experience life and the world intensely.
Noticing and processing so much leads to a rich inner life. Satisfying in its own right, this also means you tend to be happier than most with your own company.
Deeply moved by nature, music, the arts and anything poignant, you’re likely to be creative in some way. You’ll find joy in beautiful – often simple – things, and appreciate quality wherever you see it.
You’ll likely care deeply about fairness, justice, equality and the environment.
Although often thought of as being very serious, many HSPs have a keen or quirky sense of humour.
HSPs are thoughtful and conscientious by nature. And curious and driven to seek meaning, have purpose and make a difference.
Particularly attuned to the emotions of others, you intuitively sense what’s really going on in situations and with people.
Reflective and self-aware, HSPs learn from experience. And nurture, value and enjoy deep connections and relationships.
None of this is to say that other people don’t have these qualities, interests or strengths. It’s the degree to which these aspects are present – and their intensity and combination – that’s characteristic of being an HSP.
What are the downsides of being an HSP?
Lots of the benefits of being an HSP can easily tip into downsides if they go too far.
Processing so much leads to a constantly busy brain which can be overwhelming and exhausting. And a rich inner life doesn’t seem to come with an ‘off’ switch!
Spending too much time in your own inner world can mean you don’t engage with other activities and people in as balanced a way as might be healthy for you and your relationships.
Caring so much about things can lead to upset and even despair at what is happening around you in the world.
Being conscientious can lead to you taking on too much and getting exhausted.
Feeling things so deeply means it can be hard to brush things off or let go of criticism, disappointments, hurts or injustices.
HSPs don’t like upsetting others and tend to absorb things rather than cause conflict. You may find it difficult to set boundaries about what’s OK and what’s not.
Being so attuned to the emotions of others can leave you taking on their emotions and energy. Not surprisingly, this can be confusing, unhelpful and even disturbing.
You may be adversely affected by your environment – light, sound, smells, temperature – or be unable to tolerate certain textures in clothes.
You may feel bombarded in environments that are too noisy or too busy. And prefer socialising in small groups or more gentle surroundings.
Witnessing cruelty and violence can be verging on the unbearable for HSPs, and many can’t watch horror films or things which embarrass or humiliate people.
These downsides can be overwhelming at times. But there are things you can do to manage them better and this page and the Resources section give you some ideas about how to do that.
Why does being highly sensitive feel so double-sided?
Because it is!
Like many traits being highly sensitive has pros and cons, but the intensity of the double-sidedness seems particularly acute for HSPs – a reflection of the original article I read about the gifts and curses of being highly sensitive.
These opposites can give the impression of being unbalanced or seem like symptoms of a medical condition (e.g. bipolar). But it’s simply the nature and reality of deeply-felt reactions to happy and to difficult things. And, sometimes, a reflection of our energy level.
Another aspect of HSP double-sidedness is that Aron’s research shows that around 30% of HSPs are extroverts or what she calls ‘high sensation seekers’. This can seem an odd combination and I say more about that later on this page.
Why does my sensitivity make it hard for me to fit in?
Being an HSP automatically puts you in a minority (15-20%) of the population. You’re living in a world that is likely busier, faster-paced, more extrovert and more stimulating than suits your constitution.
Other people can find HSPs ‘too much’ in various ways (serious, intense, analytical) while we can be equally frustrated that non-HSPs don’t seem to care, notice or think enough about things.
Seeing things differently from the ‘majority’ can lead to your views being disregarded and, in turn, you being scared to say what you think.
It’s not unusual for HSPs to feel misunderstood and to be seen as a hindrance rather than a help. Both are hard for people who just want to contribute.
HSPs also don’t tend to go along with the crowd, which is in itself isolating. And they ask questions – which others don’t always welcome.
Not the best at small talk, our comfortable place is very often in deep conversation but that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
All of this can make it difficult to fit in and increasingly hard to try.
If our way of being doesn’t feel welcome, we can end up second-guessing ourselves, or even engaging in a sort of self-gaslighting – denying the validity of our thoughts, feelings and contributions.
The good news is that the more you understand about your sensitivity, the more you can be your authentic self and the more likely you are to find and connect with kindred spirits.
And then you will fit in, you do have a place and you can belong.
Does my being an HSP have downsides for other people?
There’s no doubt that we HSPs can be difficult, even contrary!
Our search for the ‘right’ thing can drive others to distraction – the right temperature in the room, the right table in a pub or restaurant. It’s about comfort, but can seem like dissatisfaction or perfectionism.
We tend to ask a lot of questions (to make sense of things) but can be less keen on being asked questions, because our busy brain is on to the next thing.
We like detail and to share our workings. But we can be less tolerant of listening to what others have to say, somewhat ironic for people who value fairness and equality!
We can be the most and the least caring and patient of people. And the best and the worst of listeners. It depends on how much we’re dealing with and how much energy we have.
We crave honesty in others, yet can find it hard to say what we feel ourselves, until it bursts out of us, uncontrolled and seemingly out of all proportion to what’s just happened.
Acutely attuned to nuances, we can also be very black and white in our thinking. A curious combination – delicate and subtle, harsh and implacable.
We can be overwhelmed and overwhelming, as well as underwhelmed if something isn’t stimulating enough. And others can find us underwhelming (boring). All these ‘whelms’ can be challenging!
Our mood or view can change because every new crumb of information can affect the constantly changing equation going on inside us. This can be hard to keep up with.
We can process some things at the speed of light, and take forever to make up our mind about others. Non-HSPs will benefit from our thinking and research but our process is often extremely tedious for them too.
The need to get enough time on our own can seem anti-social or rejecting but it’s almost as important as oxygen to us.
We think and feel deeply, and hurt and wound easily. You’ll hear us laugh if you let us say what’s difficult first.
All of this can leave us at odds with others and ourselves. And be very confusing and unsettling for the non-HSPs around us who only see the outward behaviour and not the cause of it.
Communication and mutual respect are key. And it’s so important for HSPs to make sense of themselves – because you can’t explain to others what you don’t understand yourself.
Thankfully, the gifts that go with being an HSP usually balance out the downsides, and are what people were drawn to about us in the first place.
How does it help to know you are highly sensitive?
There’s nothing like finding an explanation and validation for something you’ve experienced and struggled with. Especially if it’s gone on for a long time and you’ve felt alone with it.
If being an HSP fits you, it changes what you thought was your story – confusion becomes clarity, berating becomes forgiving, and “why?” becomes “no wonder!”.
- there’s a world of difference between thinking that there’s something wrong with you (your sensitivity) and understanding that there isn’t
- you cannot benefit from the gifts of something when you regard it as a flaw
- understanding there’s a reason for your sensitivity, and that it’s something you share with others, naturally reduces the aloneness you may have been feeling
- appreciating the double-sided nature of being highly sensitive means you can let go of the inner conflict those apparent contradictions previously caused
- you automatically release energy for more productive use when you stop judging your sensitivity and trying to change what is inherently you
The key is to enjoy the gifts, and embrace and manage the curses. It’s a delicate balance but it absolutely can be done. And the rewards are so worth the effort. Think of it as an investment in your wellbeing.
Every HSP I’ve come across has found that discovering, exploring and understanding their sensitivity has been like finding the missing piece at the heart of a jigsaw. It allows them to connect to who they really are and what they really want, and enjoy better relationships.
Despite its costs and challenges, not one HSP I know or have worked with would change their sensitivity for the world, because it makes them who they are.
On one hand, that’s remarkable because it was previously such a negative thing for them. On the other, it’s not surprising at all – because what can be more important than anyone being their authentic self.
Are there downsides to realising you are highly sensitive?
Yes, there can be.
It can be painful to look back at life and realise that your reactions were totally natural for you as an HSP and in the circumstances (especially in childhood).
This perspective will likely be very different from the way your emotions were portrayed or treated at the time. And it can lead to hurt, grief or anger which will need its own processing time.
It’s an awkward ‘sandwich’ to be in the middle of – benefitting from a better understanding of yourself and revising your perspective on past events at the same time. It’s important to honour both your experience at the time and how it feels now to see it through a different lens.
Another ‘sandwich’ can be realising that one of your parents is/was also an HSP and/or so is one of your children. That’s a lot of emotion around you, and a lot of differing needs you’re trying to meet.
These ‘sandwiches’ need time to work through and for you to be gentle with yourself as you do. The benefits are worth it.
If you find that you need help to work through any issues that come up, then counselling might be something for you to consider.
How can I manage my sensitivity?
It might seem as if managing your sensitivity will be a massive job, like turning around a tanker. But it really is a lot easier than that…
The very discovery that you’re an HSP takes care of more of your internal doubts and struggle than you’d imagine. And it gives you a solid platform from which to make more informed decisions going forward.
On top of that, the idea that being highly sensitive can be the answer not the problem automatically brings a new perspective.
You can’t help but see things differently and, in my experience, more clearly. And clarity brings new solutions and new possibilities.
Then, it’s about getting curious: exploring the various resources out there (including what’s listed on this website), and thinking about what applies to you and what doesn’t.
Taking an HSP self-test can give you an insight into the different ways in which sensitivity shows up. There may be things there that apply to you but that you hadn’t associated with your sensitivity.
In general, managing your sensitivity means working out what depletes or drains you and what soothes or energises you. This can be activities, events, people (individuals or groups).
Avoid or stop what you can that depletes you, or limit your exposure to it. If something has to be done, build in recovery or buffer time around what you know will need or take energy.
Make sure you get enough of what soothes or energises you. Notice what does that and invest time in doing more of it (or, at least, enough of it).
Pacing yourself, taking regular breaks and getting enough sleep are key to managing your energy and your ability to participate and perform the way you want to.
Find ways to get out of your busy brain e.g. meditation, music, getting out in nature, doing practical things.
Many HSPs find that movement or exercise – especially first thing in their day – is hugely beneficial.
You’ll also release energy for yourself if you stop taking responsibility for things that aren’t yours or pause to consider whether you really need to do something really right now.
There’s a book by Ted Zeff called ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide‘. When you battle with your sensitivity, it can feel ‘survival’. When you understand, embrace and let it free, get ready to thrive…
Can HSPs also be extroverts?
Yes they can. Aron estimates that around 30% of HSPs are extroverts, including what she calls ‘high sensation seekers’.
This can be part of the confusion about being an HSP – for both HSPs and those around them. Being highly sensitive and extroverted or high sensation seeking don’t seem to go together.
HSP extroverts can be sociable, even the life and soul of a party, and then tip from ‘outgoing’ to ‘crashing’ in a second when they hit an energy wall. They’ll then need time to recover, probably alone.
The term ‘high sensation seekers’ can conjure up images of bungee jumping and other high adrenaline activities – and many HSPs extroverts can’t relate to that.
But Aron also explains that HSPs who are high sensation seekers tend to seek out new experiences and to need variety or they can become under-stimulated and bored.
In effect, they are drawn to things that will let them experience new feelings, sensations and intensities…while trying to avoid overwhelm and over-stimulation. Another tricky balance!
Being an extrovert HSP can mean that burnout is a regular feature of your life, or that you have regular mood swings because you’re constantly managing two very different aspects of yourself.
You can read more about extrovert HSPs in Aron’s books and also in the article by Jacquelyn Strickland listed on the Resources page.
Are HSPs the same as empaths and introverts?
There are some overlaps. I tend to think of empaths as being at the high end of being highly sensitive and feeling even more than HSPs, and introversion as being an aspect of how some people might view HSPs.
Empaths can tend to take on the energy of others and the hurts they witness even more than HSPs.
But it’s all more nuanced than that.
I’d suggest you read Judith Orloff on empaths and Susan Cain on introverts and make up your own mind. Other writers – like Elaine Aron and Jacquelyn Strickland – also have views on this question. All are listed in the Resources section.
Can being highly sensitive pass down generations?
Yes, it seems so. I have worked with a number of HSPs who recognise the trait in a parent and/or a child.
Recognising it in a parent can help you make sense of some of the reactions you’ve had from them. Along with that understanding of them, don’t forget to honour what it is/was like to experience those reactions at the time..
Recognising high sensitivity in a child can be particularly helpful. Understanding their behaviour through that lens can help you save them from some of the childhood angst that you faced yourself. And it means their HSP gifts can be nurtured earlier in life.
Being an HSP and a parent can be a particular challenge – when your time is not your own and you can’t easily get the quiet and downtime you need to care for your sensitivity when you need it.
This is especially true if you also have a highly sensitive child and are juggling two sets of HSP needs (theirs and yours). Or, indeed, three sets of needs (if you have an HSP parent too).
You’ll see on the Resources page that Elaine Aron has written books about ‘The Highly Sensitive Child’ and ‘The Highly Sensitive Parent’. You may find them helpful.
How do I connect with other HSPs??
Some of the websites mentioned in the Resources section have online HSP communities that you can join and participate in or just take your time to watch the exchanges. You’ll probably find more communities and networks if you do your own research.
You may be interested to know that Julie Bjelland has an “HSPs in Business” community on her website, the address of which is on the Resources page.
Personally, I’m not an online communities type person. Aside from being a counsellor (where my contact with HSPs was limited to the therapeutic relationship), I’ve met most HSPs or kindred spirits through what I’ve chosen to do anyway in terms of following my heart – interests, events, chance conversations.
I believe connecting with yourself as an HSP automatically increases the chances of you meeting more fellow HSPs. You radiate a different energy and connect in a different way. Not everyone will like it or relate to it and that’s fine. But those who do are worth finding.
And remember, we are the one in five so there are more of us out there than we (used to) think.
Is taking time to think about my sensitivity selfish?
Absolutely not! Understanding yourself and what you need is something we all owe ourselves, HSP or otherwise.
No HSP is at their best when they are over-stretched, over-tired or at odds with themselves. And no one (children, partners of friends) gets the best of us when we are exhausted, struggling or resentful.
So, although it might seem selfish or self-indulgent to consider your needs more than you’re used to, it’s in everyone’s interests that you do.
In my experience, most HSPs are so used to taking account of other peoples’ needs that paying any attention to their own automatically feels selfish.
But the reality is, you’re only bringing yourself up to the same level of consideration that you naturally give everyone else. And that’s equality not selfishness.
In practice, when you bring yourself into the equation more, you might be surprised by the positive reaction you get from the people in your life who enjoy having a more relaxed HSP around.
The fact is you still have that HSP empathy and conscience of yours so you’re not going to suddenly stop taking account of or caring for others!
Others – and you – may have to adjust to the ‘new-perspective-on-sensitivity’ you. But time and communication will help mutual understanding as everyone adjusts.
Do HSPs think they’re somehow special or better than others?
I appreciate some HSP material can come across like that and I really hope this website doesn’t. I’m purposely including reference to how difficult we can be because I want there to be balance.
HSPs aren’t special or better, we’re different … just like everyone else is. We all have our own superpowers and flaws.
Talking about being highly sensitive can seem to suggest other people are less sensitive or insensitive. If I was them, I’d be peeved too if I felt my sensitivity was somehow dismissed because it didn’t register as highly sensitive.
I think sensitivity is a spectrum and that HSPs just happen to be at the high end of that particular measure.
Many of the traits I’ve mentioned on this website are not exclusive to HSPs. Non-HSPs also care and are thoughtful, conscientious, interested in social justice etc. It’s just a matter of degree, combination and prevalance that mark out HSPs.
This website is coming from the perspective that HSPs have tended to hide or suppress who they are so it’s necessarily aimed at boosting their understanding of, and connection to, themselves.
Like anyone else, HSPs have so much to offer when they can put their efforts into being who they really are and deploy their skills and talents to their maximum.
I also know that a happier HSP means happier people around us. If I was to dedicate this website, it would be ‘To HSPs everywhere … and to those who (have to) live with us‘.
You counselled HSPs. Why would HSPs need counselling?
Most of the HSPs who came to me for counselling didn’t know they were highly sensitive. They just knew something wasn’t right and hadn’t been for a long time. But they couldn’t work out what it was.
It was when we explored their emotions, reactions and how out of sync they felt that we realised how central their sensitivity was. If I gently wondered if they might be an HSP, they chose whether to research it or not. They almost always did and came back the next week saying “That’s me!“.
People who came for counselling knowing they were an HSP seemed to want a place to be their fully sensitive selves without having to defend or justify it. And to say what it didn’t feel safe to say elsewhere.
HSPs seem to have a drive to understand and make sense of things. Counselling can be a good fit for that – providing a place to process, explore and find more clarity.
Many HSPs do their own research and manage their sensitivity for themselves.
If you decide to have counselling, you can find therapists through the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy or the Counselling Directory websites.
The Counselling Directory has a ‘high sensitivity’ category you can filter on. I would suggest you look at as many profiles as possible (on that Directory and elsewhere) and go with who you feel ‘speaks’ to you.
Aren’t people sensitive for all sorts of reasons?
Yes. Most people have some degree of sensitivity on what is a spectrum.
And people can be sensitive for all sorts of reasons – medical conditions, traumas, emotional triggers, circumstances.
It can be a ‘double helping of sensitive’ if an HSP – who is born that way – then has cause to be sensitive for another reason (one of those mentioned above).
The Resources page tells you where you can find information about research and scientific studies on the similarities and differences between various types of sensitivity.
But this website is specifically for people who are innately HSPs.