You may have been called a highly sensitive person by one or more people who know you well. If so, they likely intended it as a general observation. But being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is actually a real thing.
Being an HSP means your stress response is set lower than that of many other people, both psychologically and biologically. Sights, sounds, smells, and sensations that don’t bother others are highly annoying or distracting to you. What others experience as pleasurable will often make you uncomfortable, and possibly desperate to escape if your reactions are acute. Your emotional reactions are also sharper than many other people’s, which causes you to become deeply affected by life’s constant trials and tribulations.
This is what it means to be a highly sensitive person. If you are one, you’ll have a long list of interesting and unique characteristics that grow from this identity.
Here are nine of those characteristics. If you possess several, the chances are quite high that you belong somewhere on the HSP spectrum.
#1 You stay angry or hurt longer than others
No matter how much you love or trust someone, their actions will cause you emotional stress and pain from time to time. Regardless of how respectful and compassionate your bosses or co-workers might be, you’ll occasionally have disagreements with them, some of which may turn heated.
This type of interpersonal difficulty is inevitable. Fortunately, the hurt feelings tend to pass quickly.
If you’re a highly sensitive person, however, you may not get over these things so easily. Observing the behavior of others involved, you’ll likely notice that they get over disagreement more rapidly than you do. They will go back to acting like nothing happened, while you’re still upset and replaying the unpleasant encounters over and over again in your mind.
You will eventually get past it, too. But the hurt and anger always seems to stay with you longer.
#2 You’ll remember small embarrassments for years
Do you still remember the one or two times in your life that someone honked their horn at you in traffic, over some perceived breach of driver’s etiquette? Do you still replay incidents from your school days over and over in your mind, remembering how it felt when the teacher scolded you or when a classmate laughed at you over some silly mistake?
Believe it or not, many people can put such incidents out of their minds shortly after they happen. But a highly sensitive person is more like an elephant, in that they never forget even the smallest embarrassments.
Your memories of such events won’t traumatize you completely. But they will retain their capacity to make you feel shame and regret.
#3 You’re repelled by discordant sounds
You’ve probably heard that highly sensitive people can’t stand loud noises. You might think this rules you out as an HSP if you like to attend concerts, sporting events, or motivational conferences in packed stadiums or arenas. These mass gatherings can be quite loud, yet you enjoy them and have no trouble getting into the spirit of the occasion when you attend.
If you’ve thought this way, you’ve been operating under a misconception. You can be a highly sensitive person and still be fine at events where there is a lot of noise, if that noise is pleasant, harmonious, or connected to an inspiring message. When you’re in the company of others who share your interests, you can share in the collective excitement of the crowd.
Where the highly sensitive person is vulnerable is when the noise is discordant, unharmonious, or otherwise unpleasant. An HSP won’t enjoy walking or driving on crowded city streets at rush hour. They won’t feel comfortable visiting or working on a factory floor or at a lumber mill, or in any type of industrial workplace. They won’t be able to tolerate big parties where they’re surrounded by a cacophony of loud talking, laughing, coughing, shouting, and other random and uncoordinated human sounds.
You might like to listen to music with your speakers turned up full blast, but still loathe and despise the sound of traffic constantly going by your home. If this description fits, you might very well be a highly sensitive person.
#4 You’re moved to tears rather easily, not by unhappiness but by its opposite
HSPs are touched by the success and happiness of others. They are highly empathic and take great personal pleasure in seeing their friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors, celebrities they follow, or athletes they cheer for reach their goals. As a result, they can get misty-eyed to the point of weeping rather easily, in situations where others would only offer a smile or a few quick words of congratulations.
Your sensitivity in this case is not a trait you’d like to change. This is true of many personality characteristics that highly sensitive people share. If you’re an HSP you’ll never feel entirely separate from other people, which can cause you to experience powerful emotional reactions when you see others doing well.
#5 You can’t stand roller coasters or anything similar
When your friends or family members ride roller coasters, or other similar rides, they find it thrilling. You, on the other hand, find the experience extremely uncomfortable and possibly even horrifying. Moving at high speeds and with sudden changes in direction evoke no pleasure in you, but instead leave you feeling sick and scared. You may know that there’s no real danger, but that doesn’t ease the intensity of your aversion at all.
If you’ve been avoiding amusement parks all of your life, based on a few bad experiences as a child or young adult, that’s a sure sign that you’re a highly sensitive person.
#6 You experience anticipatory anxiety while contemplating situations that might involve conflict
Most people dislike conflict. Yet they generally aren’t paralyzed with fear thinking about it ahead of time. They know they will do their best to cope if and when a disagreement arises, and they’re confident that a resolution will be found that satisfies all parties involved.
But a highly sensitive person’s dislike of conflict is more extreme. If you’re an HSP, you’ll usually try to avoid conflict at all costs. Just contemplating the possibility that conflict might arise is enough to cause you great anxiety.
Your anticipatory anxiety is strong because unlike others, you aren’t confident that a solution will emerge when disagreements develop. You fear alienating friends, family members, partners, or co-workers if you handle conflict badly, and so you start worrying about it long before you should.
#7 You become overwhelmed when asked to multitask
You don’t have too much trouble doing two things at once. But if you’re asked to do more than that, and given only a certain amount of time to accomplish everything, in most cases you’ll feel completely overwhelmed. You’ll become frustrated with the stress plus your slow progress, and as your desperation builds it will feel like you’re literally ready to explode.
You can stand a bit of self-inflicted pressure. If the pressure is coming from the outside, however, and is generated by deadlines or the expectations and demands of other people, you can become upset to the point of panic.
When you see others handling similar situations with apparent ease and comfort, you’ll struggle to understand how they can do it.
#8 You enjoy jobs that give you freedom and independence
Many people crave the sense of camaraderie and teamwork that develops when they work closely with others. They develop friendly relationships with co-workers and appreciate employers who treat them as one of the family.
For the highly sensitive person (like you?), this can all get to be too much. They prefer to have as much independence as possible in the workplace, and they get along best with employers and co-workers that give them the space they need to concentrate and get things done.
Highly sensitive people often end up starting their own businesses, because it gives them maximum control over the workplace environment. They really enjoy being able to set their own rules.
#9 Your instinct will tell you that you’re a highly sensitive person
Whenever you hear the term ‘highly sensitive person,’ your first thought may be “yes, that must be me!” You may have this reaction even if you’re not sure what a highly sensitive person actually is. The idea just sounds right, and when you do get around to investigating this personality trait you’ll recognize yourself immediately.
If your instinct tells you that highly sensitive is the perfect label to describe you, that is probably an intuition you should trust. Go with it, and the self-understanding you gain can have a profound influence on your present and future choices.
A Blessing, Not a Curse
Being a highly sensitive person can be difficult at times. Sometimes the world can seem like an impossibly harsh place, always ready to kick you when you’re feeling down.
But few, if any, highly sensitive people would trade places with others if given the chance. At a deep level, HSPs know their sensitivity makes them better friends, better partners, better parents, and better people. Their sensitivity is a gift, and despite the occasional downside it’s a gift they wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.