What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

If you’ve ever wondered if you’re more sensitive than others around you, you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP). But what is a highly sensitive person? Although it’s easy to assume that a HSP experiences a greater reaction to sad situations and criticism, and is therefore more prone to stress and overwhelm, what makes someone an HSP goes much deeper than that. There’s biology involved, as well as personality science, which explains why HSPs respond differently to others and may face different challenges. 

Let’s take a deeper look.

What makes you a highly sensitive person?

If you’re an HSP, you may have dealt with the curse that many sensitive people face — hearing that you’re “too sensitive.” Unfortunately, this common reaction isn’t an isolated occurrence for many HSPs. Still, you’ll want to stop and forget the negativity because there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive and HSPs have many valuable strengths that others lack.  

According to psychologist Elaine Aron, the sensory-processing sensitivity that HSPs have is an evolved personality trait. This trait affects a great many parts of your life, but in terms of evolution, you may find it easier to detect danger than your peers, and you’re also a whiz at analyzing things like social cues and body language.

What makes someone highly sensitive is their central nervous system sensitivity, sometimes called sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS). SPS extends to a wide range of emotional, physical and social stimuli, including sensitivity to bright lights, loud noises, energy, and more. With all these stimuli affecting HSPs, they’re more prone to overstimulation in their environment, but they also clue in on the subtext of the world around them much easier than people who are not HSPs.

Signs you’re a highly sensitive person

Other people who are not HSPs are often the ones who spend the time to point out your traits, so if you’ve ever heard that you “overthink” things or that you’re “too nice,” these may be initial signs that you’re a highly sensitive person. Since being an HSP affects many aspects of your life and how you react to stimuli, here are some telltale clues.

You have a rich and complex inner life.

HSPs often have a rich inner life that feels even more exciting to them than what’s going on in the outside world. This means an HSP spends a lot of their time analyzing concepts and thinking about deep topics rather than expressing their musings aloud (not to say this doesn’t also happen). But does this inner life mean that all highly sensitive persons are Introverts? No. However, there’s a significant correlation between the two traits. Research from Aron does suggest most HSPs are also Introverts, with an approximate ratio of 70 percent of HSPs being Introverted, while the other 30 percent are among the Extraverted population. So yes, if you’re an HSP, there’s a strong chance you’re also an Introvert.

You’re emotional and empathetic.

An HSP’s emotions are symbiotic with their empathetic nature. Since these traits go hand-in-hand, a highly sensitive person identifies with the human condition so much they avoid over-the-top violence in entertainment because it disturbs them. They also find it very disturbing if someone they know is going through a tough time and they’re unable to help. HSPs see each person as a valuable and fragile human who needs love, protection and comfort. Because they’re unable to separate themselves from identifying with the emotions of others, they tend to avoid conflict and confrontations that hurt others.

Criticism, complaints and jabs hurt you.

Although any HSP can learn to take constructive criticism on the chin when necessary (as in the workforce or a creative endeavor), criticism of their personality or actions is hard to swallow. If someone in their close circle calls them out for a particular action or habit, a highly sensitive person struggles to accept their opinion, even if it’s the truth. Despite HSPs being quite good at understanding others, they’ll spend hours, days, weeks, or even months feeling wounded and hurt when someone has expressed criticism of their actions or nature. 

It’s common for an HSP to ruminate on things that bother them, keeping it to themselves until they decide it’s time to talk it out with the person who initiated the criticism or complaint.

Any emotions you feel are strong.

An HSP will find their emotions intense no matter the inciting incident. A sad movie? Yes, you’ll find it impossible to keep from crying. A bout of road rage? You’re probably going to feel irritated about this person’s carelessness and experience anger yourself. A book you identify with? You’ll tout this literary masterpiece as one of your favorites for years to come. You’ll also re-read it and cry just as much as you did the first time you read it.

You feel moved by beauty and art.

Your friends might be staring at the Mona Lisa and still feel calm, but inside, you’re a torrent of emotion—inspired, awe-struck, and elated. Beauty and art make you feel alive, and you can’t get enough of these things that bring you a sense of the human condition.

Your environment affects you.

It doesn’t matter where you are and what you’re doing—if the environment unsettles you somehow, it’ll affect your actions and thoughts. For example, ultra-noisy crowds and bright lights make you feel uncomfortable. Loud noises, arguing, and shouting make you want to run. And a bad vibe or energy leaves you feeling drained and on edge. Even uncomfortable or rough clothing makes you want to jump out of your skin.

You’re intuitive and feel different.

It’s not uncommon for an HSP to feel different from their peers. Because they’re so intuitive and affected by their environment, others may seem oblivious and insensitive to the HSP’s needs and feelings. For example, an HSP overwhelmed by the emotional energy of a room won’t find their non-HSP friend understanding of their feelings or qualms.

You’re easily overwhelmed and want to be alone.

If you’re an HSP, you experience a severe level of overstimulation every day. Because every aspect of your surroundings affects you, it’s hard to focus on a single project at a time, let alone multitasking. In addition, because of the constant stimuli, HSPs often feel tired sooner and need to recuperate alone.

How common are highly sensitive persons?

HSPs are in the minority compared to the general population - but possibly not as rare as you may think. According to a scientific study’s findings, HSPs make up about 30 percent of adults. Other studies put the number closer to 15 percent. 

Strengths and challenges living as a highly sensitive person

A highly sensitive person will experience a mix of strengths and challenges in their life that are unique from non HSPs. These include:

Strengths

  • Higher empathy and social skills to detect what’s otherwise unnoticed, such as someone’s overall mood or body language
  • Ability to detect dangerous signs in the environment
  • Greater appreciation for art, nice smells, or fine foods
  • A deeper understanding of people’s emotions 
  • A stronger appreciation for humanity and life’s pleasures

Challenges

  • Difficulty juggling several tasks at once when overwhelmed
  • Overstimulation when in chaotic environments
  • Less ability to tolerate violence, gore, and death even in fictional scenarios
  • Anxiety and intolerance of criticism and confrontation
  • Saying “no” and confronting others is challenging
  • Feeling responsible for the happiness of others
  • Being your own worst critic

Living as a highly sensitive person

If you’re an HSP, you’ll experience some challenges in your life because others don’t understand, and most of society isn’t an HSP. Despite these challenges, it’s important to remember your sensitivity isn’t a weakness or a fault. To help you cope, incorporate these practices into your life:

  • Avoid negative people who don’t try to understand you
  • If some situations distress you, remove yourself from them
  • Respect your boundaries and be open about them with others
  • Remember you aren’t perfect, so your perfectionism and sensitivity to criticism shouldn’t rule your life
  • Practice regular self-care routines and give yourself proper alone time
  • Say no to demands that overwhelm you
  • Stay positive and weave positive habits into your schedule

Final words

Once you recognize that you’re a highly sensitive person, it’s easier to learn how to cope. The most important things to remember are to go easy on yourself and realize that you aren’t alone. Your sensitivity isn’t a fault. In many cases, it’s a big strength that helps you navigate your world. Remember to take time out for yourself. Your self-care routine is as important as your other responsibilities. Taking it a step further, you may want to connect with other highly sensitive people in online forums or in real life to commiserate with your everyday challenges and triumphs so you don’t feel alone.

Cianna Garrison

Cianna Garrison holds a B.A. in English from Arizona State University and works as a freelance writer. She fell in love with psychology and personality type theory back in 2011. Since then, she has enjoyed continually learning about the 16 personality types. As an INFJ, she lives for the creative arts, and even when she isn’t working, she’s probably still writing.

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