5 Highly Sensitive Person Traits that are Often Misunderstood

Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on May 19, 2022

In 1991, psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term highly sensitive person (HSP) to refer to people who demonstrate high sensory-processing sensitivity. According to Aron’s research, while all of us can display sensitivity, highly sensitive people (HSPs) tend to have a greater response to stress.

This means that, as a highly sensitive person, you might feel overstimulated by sensations, sounds, and smells that don’t bother others. Witnessing a beautiful sunset or a random act of kindness may also pleasantly—and more acutely—overwhelm you when compared to someone who’s less sensitive.

The truth is, when immersed in a culture that values gregarious and outgoing personalities, sensitive sorts can feel misunderstood. In fact, HSPs are usually mislabeled as weak, insecure, or shy. Sound familiar? Let’s separate fact from fiction and debunk some HSP myths. Here are five highly sensitive person traits that are often misunderstood.

1. Thinking all HSP are Introverts

One of the most common misconceptions around high sensitivity is thinking it’s the same as introversion. The confusion is understandable, considering both HSPs and introverted types share similar traits. In fact, according to Dr. Elaine Aron’s findings, about 70 percent of HSPs are Introverts. Three out of 10 HSPs are not.

However, there are important distinctions between Introverts and HSPs. While Introverts need plenty of alone time to recharge from exhausting social interactions, HSPs recharge by simply being away from over stimulation. In addition, some Introverts don’t feel as stressed by certain types of stimuli like loud noises or violent movie scenes like an HSP might.

Of course, Extraverts can be highly sensitive too. In her research, Aron found that sensitive Extraverts typically grew up “in a small community or neighborhood where people knew each other.” This might have helped them feel more socially secure than other HSPs. Aron speculates that, when witnessing an injustice, for example, the Extravert HSP is more likely to speak up about it.

In short: both Extraverts and Introverts can have high sensitivity and experience overstimulation.  

2. Seeing HSPs as emotionally immature

It’s no secret HSPs feel things deeply, which often makes us openly express our emotions in a way that may seem exaggerated (or completely foreign) to our less-sensitive peers. Still, crying over Pixar animated movies doesn’t make me, or any other highly sensitive person, emotionally immature. Quite the opposite!

In fact, experiencing both positive and negative emotions intensely allows HSPs to be more in tune with their emotional states, and work through them in a productive way. It’s this awareness that helps HSPs navigate their most complicated feelings, as well as being compassionate and understanding towards the feelings of others.

What’s more, there’s scientific evidence to support that awareness and empathy are fundamental traits of high sensitivity. Therefore, if we define emotional intelligence as an ability to be emotionally aware of your own feelings and those of others, there’s no reason to believe a highly sensitive person is emotionally immature. If anything, HSPs possess greater emotional capacity as they tune into their emotions, instead of avoiding or repressing them.

3. Believing only women can be HSPs

Despite deeply ingrained stereotypes, there’s no scientific evidence to support women are innately more emotional than men. In fact, in a 2021 study, researchers looking at the role hormones play in emotional variation found that the male participants’ emotions fluctuated as much as women’s did.

In addition, according to research psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, author of the bestselling book The Highly Sensitive Person, high sensitivity as a trait is “equally divided between males and females.” Therefore, we have no reason to believe only women can be HSPs.

Women might be thought of as more sensitive, but highly sensitive men do exist. If anything, we can speculate that male HSPs might be more likely to hide their highly sensitive person traits in cultures where toxic masculinity runs deep.

4. Assuming HSPs are on the autism spectrum

While there are certain overlaps between HSPs and people on the autism spectrum, high sensitivity, and autism are not the same thing. First, let’s look at the numbers. According to the data available, only two percent of the world’s population has autism spectrum disorder, while about 30 percent are highly sensitive.

What’s more, while it’s true that both HSPs and people with an autism spectrum condition may feel more overstimulated than the average person, there are major differences between these two groups. According to the World Health Organization, some autism conditions are characterized by “difficulty with social interaction,” which doesn’t happen with high sensitivity.

Bottom line? Both HSPs and people on the autism spectrum may deal with sensory issues, but autism and high sensitivity are still two separate things.

5. Treating HSPs as fragile, or weaker

Another major misconception about HSPs is that, due to their sensitivity, they’re somewhat weaker or more fragile and, therefore, unable to cope with life’s many challenges. The reality? Highly sensitive folks can get more easily overwhelmed than their non-HSP peers, sure – but that doesn’t make them weaker.

In fact, a highly sensitive person can still thrive in busy environments and lead a fulfilling life. As an HSP, self-care is important to protect you from over stimulation, but be aware of under-stimulation as well. Your sensitivity makes you feel things more acutely, but that doesn’t mean you’re less capable of handling your emotions.

HSPs also possess many positive strengths, such as their capacity for empathy. Research conducted by Dr. Elaine Aron and colleagues shows that highly sensitive people have a stronger empathetic response when compared to non-HSPs, for example. 

The bottom line

Highly sensitive people are often a misunderstood group. Many believe all HSPs are women, mistake high sensitivity with introversion, or see HSPs as more outwardly emotional than the average person. The reality is that the HSP’s brain is just wired differently.

If you’re a highly sensitive person yourself, know that your sensitivity is not a curse. Being highly sensitive can actually be a gift, as it allows you to be empathetic, compassionate, and emotionally aware. Ultimately, it doesn’t make you inferior or superior to others; it just makes you who you are.

Andreia Esteves

Andreia is an INFJ who used to think she was the only person in the world terrified of answering the phone. She works as a freelance writer covering all things mental health, and psychology related. When not writing, you’ll find her cozying up with a book, or baking vegan treats. Find her at: https://andreiaesteves.com/

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About the Clinical Reviewer

Steven Melendy, PsyD., is a Clinical Psychologist who received his doctorate from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He specializes in using evidence-based approaches in his work with individuals and groups. Steve has worked with diverse populations and in variety of a settings, from community clinics to SF General Hospital. He believes strongly in the importance of self-care, good friendships, and humor whenever possible.

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