What does it mean to be a Highly Sensitive Person?
Are you sometimes called hypersensitive?
Have you heard about Highly Sensitive People and you’re wondering: is this me?
Let’s start with some facts about highly sensitive people. You could call these principles if you like.
See how well these descriptions fit you, and we’ll build from there.
Basic facts about highly sensitive people
- In a nutshell, high sensitivity means that you sense more, and you have stronger responses to those sensations, regardless of which sense they come through. If you take just one thing from this article, take this and run with it.
- 1 in 5 people (20%) are highly sensitive. It’s common, but minority.
- High sensitivity is genetic. A highly sensitive child will become a highly sensitive adult. Your genetic parents and genetically-related relatives may also show signs and symptoms of high sensitivity. You don’t grow out of it – you can learn to handle it more skilfully.
- High sensitivity varies enormously in breadth of experience. Some HSPs are highly sensitive to a few things. Some are highly sensitive to lots of things. Some are highly sensitive to All The Things.
- High sensitivity varies in intensity of experience. Some people are highly sensitive. Some are intensely highly sensitive. And some are supercalifragilisticexpialidociously highly sensitive.
- High sensitivity can be temporarily heightened or reduced. Hormones, tiredness, illness, hunger, or a recent build-up of full-on experiences can all make you more sensitive than usual. High sensitivity can be moderated, turned down, tuned out. It can’t be (healthily) turned off, but it can be managed.
- It’s not necessarily a disorder, but some highly sensitive people experience difficulties because of their sensitivity. High sensitivity also flies under the banner of Hypersensitivity, Sensory Processing Sensitivity, and Sensory Processing Disorder.
Let’s unpack these seven key facts, and see what they look like in experience for Highly Sensitive People.
1. High sensitivity means that you sense more, and you have stronger responses to those sensations
That’s it. There’s no judgement about it. It’s a fact about how your senses are, relative to other people’s.
Just like some electrical meters are more sensitive than others, your senses are more sensitive than other people’s.
If this is the only thing you take from this article, great. Good principles get you far.
Let’s look at a few examples, then go into what’s going on behind the scenes.
- Sharp sense of colour
- Sensitivity to brightness, type and/or position of lights
- Notices smells before other people do.
- Can identify lots of different smells, colours, sounds, tastes, that other people tend not to notice.
- Strong response (positive or repelled by) to smells.
- Sensitive to fabric, cut & feel of clothes – may avoid too tight/too loose clothing (depending on their preferences)
- Notices very faint sounds
- Strongly bothered by particular sounds or rhythms – or very much positively influenced by them.
- Strong response to other people.
- Deep sense of fairness, unfairness, justice and injustice.
- Finds it hard to walk away from or let go of unfair / injust situations.
- Strong bonds to other people – strongly affected by what other people are going through.
- Finds it hard to say no to other people (depending on how well the HSP sets their boundaries)
- Blurred boundaries between other people’s feelings and your own (again, depends on how you do your boundaries)
- Strong emotional responses to films, music, art.
- Sensitive to and cares for the natural world, in general or for specific species or categories, e.g. cats, trees, fungi, sperm whales…
I could go on, but you can take the general principle high sensitivity means that you sense more, and you have stronger responses to those sensations and see how it applies to you or the (potentially) Highly Sensitive People you know.
If you’ve read through the list and find yourself thinking, “well, doesn’t everyone do that?” either: you’re highly sensitive and think everyone else is like you, or you’re not highly sensitive and haven’t got a gauge on how STRONG the HSP responses can be.
In the first case, start to observe what other people DON’T notice that you do. Are you sure that everyone else senses and responds to what you do? And by people, I mean general people, not just your immediate family or peer group, especially if you’re in STEM or academia which are chock full of HSPs anyway.
In the second case, read on so you can get a handle on what High Sensitivity actually means for the people who have it.
The emotionally sensitive person
When you really look at them, emotions are physical sensations. Sure, there are usually some thoughts involved too, and often very intense-seeming thoughts. But by and large, emotions are physical.
So it makes sense that someone with high sensitivity to their physical body also has high sensitivity or responsivity in their emotional world.
Emotions can feel overwhelming, totally dominating your experience. So much so, that Highly Sensitive People are often wrongly labelled ‘over-emotional’ or ‘too sensitive.’
You might have strong responses to things you see: everyday kindness or cruelty, emotional moments in films, nature.
We’re also sensitive, to different extents, to our internal happenings: hunger, thirst, fatigue, and our emotions. Some people feel these acutely, others are vaguely aware of them but not especially so.
Some Highly Sensitive People block out their physical sensations and emotions, as a protective or defensive mechanism. This strategy is often unconsciously adopted early on in life – I’ll go more into how this happens later on.
2. 1 in 5 People are Highly Sensitive People
Highly Sensitive People are, in the bigger scheme of things, in the minority. We’re a 20% minority, but minority nonetheless.
This means that HSP experiences are not the norm, are not expected to be the norm, and are seen as ‘unusual’ if people are kind and ‘freaks’ if they’re feeling cheeky about it.
Historically, much of Western psychology has focused on the external behaviours and appearance of experience. So, for example, if disgust is not visible in someone’s facial expression, they mustn’t be feeling disgust – whereas, in fact, someone can both feel disgust AND hide it from their facial expression.
When considering the HSP experience, it’s very much an experience on the inside. You may or may not be able to tell from the outside, depending on how well an HSP has learned to mask, tone down, or hide their reactions.
This is especially the case for HS adults who were trained to hide their sensitivity, and as a result either don’t know they’re sensitive, insist that they’re not sensitive (‘cos everyone’s like that, right?), or have internalised a load of shame about their sensitivity (ever been called ‘over-sensitive,’ ‘too sensitive’ or ‘over-emotional’). Some HSPs are in denial about their sensitivity, unfortunately.
It’s worth bringing Western society and values into the picture here. Emotions and sensitivity have, for a long time, been played down as irrational, not manly, and undesirable. Highly Sensitive Men are at a special disadvantage in this regard. Culturally, highly sensitive people growing up and living in Western society are conditioned from birth (no, I’m not exaggerating. Go look at how we treat babies, as a culture) to quash their emotions and deny their sensitivity.
Many of the difficulties highly sensitive clients come to me with are affected by and entangled with the layers of denial and shame that cover their sensitivity – when you’re sensitive AND you’re not supposed to be, you develop a deep and often unconscious sense that you have something fundamentally wrong with you. There’s a sense of shame so deeply entwined in your self-concept that it’s hard to imagine you could ever feel ‘normal’.
That’s a good thing, by the way, if you come at it from a slightly different angle. You can’t possibly feel ‘normal’ if what it is to be ‘normal’ is so far from reality that it’s unrealistic.
If normal is to be emotionally shut down and insensitive, being ‘normal’ isn’t a good thing.
When you only look at the outside behaviour, you’re missing a large part of the picture, and that leads to mistakes of interpretation.
Presented with an angry HS child, you might assume their anger is the main problem, whereas in fact they’re tired/hungry, or they’ve just witnessed something that’s sparked their sense of justice into action. Going down the path of ‘child has done something wrong’ you’ll probably inadvertently worsen the situation, because you miss out on validating their experience (tiredness, hunger, or witnessing an event that’s bothered them) AND you add further problems for the child: they’re now misunderstood, being scolded for their angry, or told to ‘just forget about it’ or ‘get on with it’.
Or, for example, you might (from an outside perspective) see an anxious child who over-reacts to tiny things. What you don’t see, is the pre-existing sensory load that’s already been building up, nor do you understand that the tiny thing – let’s say it’s the wrong flavour ice cream – is actually something they’ve been looking forward to all day, and the disappointment of missing out on their favourite flavour, coupled with a less preferred flavour, combine to be the last straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.
As a culture, we also lack a basic level of emotional literacy – the skill and vocabulary for talking about our emotions. When your standard – and only – response to “how are you?” is “Fine, thanks” there’s not much space for nuance! Gender roles and the associated allowed and disallowed range of emotions affect HSPs strongly, too, by way of what you’re allowed to express (or even admit to yourself that you feel).
Societal and familial expectations add to the mix of constraints – you’re not supposed to dislike – let alone rage against – your mother, for example, even if she did things that were emotionally harmful to you, whether through abuse or neglect, whether deliberately cruel or accidental.
Highly Sensitive People are likely to be the majority in trades, professions and activities where sensitivity is a valuable part of the toolkit. Creative pursuits, engineers, scientists (gotta love that attention to detail), gardeners… 20% of the population is still a big chunk of people!
3. High sensitivity is genetic
It’s highly likely that your high sensitivity comes from one – or both – of your genetic lines. Even if it’s not obvious that your genetic parents are highly sensitive, it’ll be in their genetic lines. You may see traits in grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins, even if it’s not immediately apparent in your parents.
If don’t know about your biological parents, your thoughts and feelings towards them and towards your high sensitivity may be multi-layered. Allow yourself the time and space you need around those thoughts and feelings.
As a genetic trait, it’s in-built. You can’t get rid of it. You can’t become an HSP halfway through life having been one of the 80% non-HSPs before that. You can, however, block out your sensitivity as a kid, and only later on allow yourself to blossom as a Highly Sensitive Person. You were Highly Sensitive all along – you just had to feel safe enough to be it.
Chances are that if you find out as an adult that you’re an HSP, you’ll spend a while looking back at your life so far, revisiting and reviewing your memories.
Now you know you’re highly sensitive, a lot of your experience will start to make much more sense. Why you did – or didn’t – get on with people. What you were interested in as a kid. What bothered you. How other people treated you. Your differences.
As a genetic, in-built trait, high sensitivity isn’t something you grow out of. If anything, it’s something that you can grow into. As you go through life and have more experiences, you grow to understand your sensitivity, its advantages and disadvantages, how to handle it, and how to get the most out of life as a highly sensitive person.
One of the common questions I get is about how to stop being sensitive. For more on that, read on.
Highly sensitive children
Highly sensitive kids usually come from highly sensitive (genetic) parents. If you have one HSP in a genetically-linked family group, you probably have more than one HSP 😉
Some adults recognise their own High Sensitivity when their children get identified as being Highly Sensitive. Then you’re on a double learning curve – yours and theirs!
Highly sensitive children don’t always have the same sensitivities as their parent(s). There may be some overlap, there may be some new things. Things you didn’t realise – as a parent – that you were sensitive to, you notice now that your child is(n’t) sensitive to them!
As a highly sensitive parent, you may have struggles that non-HSPs don’t have. You might also have special skills that help you ‘get’ your child more effectively, too. Swings and roundabouts.
The greatest gift you can give an HSP child (allow me my hyperbole), is self-awareness and understanding that equips them for life as a highly sensitive person in a world that is 80% not highly sensitive. My course on Parenting Strategies for Highly Sensitive Children helps you do just that.
Does sensitivity change as you get older?
Short answer: yes.
Longer answer: It’s complicated.
Some of your sensitivities may decrease (for example, as sight and hearing deteriorate, you might have fewer issues of high sensitivity to brightness or sound).
Some of your sensitivities may increase. As your body changes, your responses will change, and your sensitivity too. You also learn, so for example your palate may become more sensitive to flavours, your ear to whether instruments are in tune or not.
Once you know that you’re highly sensitive, and start paying attention to it, you may find that your sensitivity both increases and decreases.
You become more open to your sensitivity, but less affected by it as you understand it.
Much like a thunderstorm can be both scary and not – to a young child who doesn’t know what the big flashes and bangs are about, it can be scary and the child wants to hide or seek comfort. To the adult who understands that the storm is at least a couple of miles away (counting the seconds between lightning and thunder), the storm is exciting, something to throw the curtains open for, to enjoy the spectacle more fully.
On the other hand, as you go through life, you accumulate experiences that are more or less difficult – or easy – to pass through. As highly sensitive people, we can take a bit of a battering sailing through life – simply because we experience more stuff, more deeply and have stronger responses to it – and that can take its toll.
In short, we get worn down, fatigued, full of burdens. This internal, emotional load (for it is the emotional part of our experience, usually, that gets stuck) has the effect of reducing your capacity for input. The result? Higher sensitivity.
However, you might respond to life’s event by numbing out. There are plenty of substances and behaviours (here’s looking at you, addictions and over-work) that take the edge off your sensitivity.
As you go through life, you become less and less sensitive until your numbing strategies don’t work any more. At that point, everything you’ve piled up starts to fall out at the seams in a mid-life crisis, persistent feelings of malaise, or burnout. Or worse.
4. High sensitivity varies enormously in breadth of experience
Some HSPs are highly sensitive to a few things. Some are highly sensitive to lots of things. Some are highly sensitive to All The Things.
Imagine watching someone walk into a room you’re in.
A non-highly sensitive person (80% of people, remember) might notice the person and a couple of things about them – they’re white, a little on the small side, and appear female.
A highly sensitive person might notice these details, and also notice their body language, their choice of outfit and how it’s put together, the jewellery, shoe colour, and their perfume.
A really highly-sensitive person might a) block the new person out of their experience (too much new input) or b) notice all of the above plus the new person’s effect on the other people already in the room: shifts in body language, eye movements, how the atmosphere changes in the room, or specific details about their appearance or movement.
All of that information is available to everyone, but not everyone (consciously) senses it.
Put simply, more of the data gets through.
It might be the case that HSPs perceive the world more as it is, whereas non-HSPs filter most of it out.
Let’s look at the senses for a moment:
We all have 5 senses. Plus thoughts.
Each of the senses has various components to it.
For example, we see colour.
We see its qualities: intensity, tone, hue.
Some HSPs see miniscule differences between colours. Notice changes to their surroundings instantly. Have a fabulous eye for design, decor, or dance moves.
The same for the other four senses: sound, smell, taste, and touch.
Then there’s the mental experience. Imagination. Creativity. Associative thinking. Abstract thinking.
Each Highly Sensitive Person has their own Sensitivity Profile: their own unique set of sensory capabilities.
5. High sensitivity varies in intensity of experience
The same input gives rise to different intensities of response in different people.
A loud bang might go unnoticed by one person, be noticed by but not bother a second person, and totally throw a Highly Sensitive person off their train of thought or activity, as well as emotionally disrupt them by triggering their startle response and other emotional reactions.
How intensely an input is received, and how intense the response to it is, varies from HSP to HSP.
Learning your own sensitivities and how to manage them is very much a bespoke-tailoring kind of affair.
Your sensitivity to inputs can also vary depending on what else is going on because…
6. High sensitivity can be temporarily heightened or reduced.
High sensitivity can be amplified, moderated, turned down, or tuned out. It can’t be (healthily) turned off, but it can be managed.
Hormones, tiredness, illness, hunger, or a recent build-up of full-on experiences can all make you more sensitive than usual. Avoiding the hangries (angry when hungry) is a key self-management skill for Highly Sensitive People!
As mentioned above, various substances or other (addictive) strategies can numb your sensitivity.
Childhood experiences of abusive behaviour, including emotional neglect, can lead to you filtering out your sensitivity because it was never validated or even acknowledged when you were a child. You might have beliefs about what you’re ‘supposed’ to be feeling, beliefs that are at odds with – and override – your actual feelings. you can read more about this here: Sensitive insensitive and here: Geek numb.
Experiences that have left trauma – unprocessed, unresolved, unreleased emotions – in you can make you sensitive to particular triggers. You might like to read about the differences between being sensitive and sensitised, and why being told to stop over-reacting isn’t all that helpful. If you want help releasing long-ago stored emotions, I offer 1:1 consultations by video call that do exactly that.
If you were raised in a sub-optimal family unit, you can avoid doing the same to your kids by learning about how to support Highly Sensitive Children, and how to raise highly sensitive children. My course Highly Sensitive Child: Parenting Strategies might be of interest.
If you experience more esoteric sensitivities, such as sensing other people’s emotions or energies (commonly called Empath tendencies, but have a read here about Highly Sensitive Empaths for why that’s not entirely correct), you ‘ll find that when you’re around other energy sensitives, your sensitivities may well amplify one another. This experience can be anything from downright unsettling to super-cool, more please!
7. Difficulties of being highly sensitive
When we talk about the difficulties of being highly sensitive, we need to include a few factors.
- HSPs have more input from their experience
- HSPs have more responses to their experience
- HSPs have more intense responses to their experience
- HSPs have more to process – in terms of both input and responses to that input
And last but not least:
- Non-HSPs don’t get this. Non-HSPs are less bothered by sensory and social input, less responsive to it, have lower intensity emotional responses, have less to process, and find it hard to imagine different experiences from their own.
Many of the difficulties highly sensitive people experience come from this collision of experiences: HSPs have different experiences from non-HSPs, and non-HSPs don’t get it.
Let’s look at problems arising for the HSP
Intrinsic problems for highly sensitive people
Try a little calculation with me:
Say you get twice the input from your experience that non-HSPs do.
Say you have twice the response to your experiences compared to non-HSPs.
Now say your internal responses (yes, there’s a fine if not non-existent line between responses to internal and external stimuli, when you really Look, but let’s keep it to a first order approximation for now) are twice that of non-HSPs.
For an arbitrary amount of input, you have 2 x 2 x 2 i.e. 8x the experience that a non-HSP has.
It’s hard to quantify sensitivity and internal responses, so take this as kind of metaphorical, for illustrative purposes, and definitely needing actual quantitative research and assessment.
If you have 8 times the input to process, you need more processing time. You need a bigger processor – why intelligence and sensitivity go hand in hand, perhaps.
With 8 times the input to process – and remember, this might be a massive underestimate – you’re more quickly at your input and processing thresholds than non-HSPs.
Your input threshold and processing capacity vary with how you are.
When you’re hungry or tired, you’ll have less capacity for input and processing.
Ever had the hangries? Angry-when-hungry?
Hunger seems to have a more marked affect on HSPs than non-HSPs. If you’re HSP and frequently angry, track your food intake for a few days. You’ll soon see if you’re just hungry, and need to eat a little more, or more often, to avoid blowing your fuse.
In fact, one of the symptoms of highly sensitive children is that they get far hangier than the other kids!
Managing your input and processing powers
Once you get clear on your input and processing capacity, and how to increase these – or how to avoid or manage the things that decrease there – you make changes step by step to improve your daily experience.
Avoiding sensory overload
Where possible, reduce the sensory input you receive. Turn off the radio. Wear sunglasses. Use earplugs in noisy places. Reduce the number of new places you go to in a given week.
Increasing processing time
Input is unavoidable. When you can’t avoid sensory overload, you need to bring in more processing time – or more effective strategies for processing.
- Identify the activities that help you process: a bath, swimming, chatting with a good friend, therapy, walking in the woods, surfing, flower-arranging, crafting, listening to music, dancing, meditating…
- Make time in your day or week to do enough of these activities.
Managing your emotional sensitivity
Just as important as your sensory input, is your emotional input and internal experience.
Starting from the outside in:
- Identify stressors in your relationships. Get outside eyes (good friends, professional help e.g. counsellors or therapists) on your relationships to help you identify e.g. abuse or emotional neglect in your relationships, workplace issues, or
- Take steps – or get help – to reduce or remove the stress, where possible.
From the inside out:
- Get to know your emotions. Use an emotion and mood tracker (pen and paper, or an app) to help you focus on your own experience.
- Practice meditation, yoga or another self-awareness-enhancing activity. Strange though it may sound, the better you feel your emotions, the less hassle you get from them.
- Identify emotional patterns in yourself that probably come from previous experiences. Find ways to mitigate or remove these patterns, whether by yourself or with help from a skilled professional who can help you release these patterns of feeling and behaviour. I help my clients do exactly this in 1:1 consultations – read more here if this sounds of interest to you.
The more familiar you get with your sensory and emotional landscapes, the more connections and patterns you may notice.
As mentioned above, being hungry can affect your anger and stress levels. Being tired does the same. You might notice your mood lifts with music, connection with friends, or physical activity.
It works both ways: being emotionally (over)loaded can make you more sensitive to your sensory inputs.
You might also notice that certain people have strong affects on your emotional state. This may be because they’re exceptionally kind – or cruel – to you. But it may be more subtle: you may be sensitive to energies and taking on their energies when you connect. If this is you, have a read about Highly Sensitive Empaths.
If you are an energy sensitive and want to understand it and manage it better, this is also something I help my clients with, both in 1:1 consultations and in online retreats. As a first step, you might like to download and follow my Grounding Course, which gives you a fundamental skill for helping manage your energy and be less affected by other people’s energies.
Highly Sensitive People and other neurodivergent traits
High Sensitivity can co-occur with other neurodivergent traits, including but not limited to…
- Giftedness. Read more on connections between Intelligence and Sensitivity.
- Any number of other neurodivergent conditions
Part of managing your High Sensitivity, and being a Highly Sensitive Person in the world, is knowing what kind of body and brain you have, and how they function. Know Thyself, as the Oracle of Delphi says.
Common highly sensitive person problems with non-HSPs
Non-HSPs design and build for non-HSPs. Acoustics are terrible. Lighting is too bright and invasive. Fabrics are uncomfortable.
Input levels are designed for non-HSPs.
Assumptions about how much processing time you need are based on the non-HSP experience – a gross underestimation of what HSPs generally need.
When your input is too high, when your processing capacity is maxed out, non-HSPs don’t understand.
A further dimension to the HSP/non-HSP interaction is depth.
Non-HSPs generally don’t experience the world in as much depth as HSPs. There can be a real mismatch between HSPs and non-HSPs.
HSPs don’t get why non-HSPs don’t seem to care.
Non-HSPs don’t get why HSPs are that bothered by stuff.
This mismatch can be awkward, can lead to misunderstandings, or to wrong assumptions about intent (or lack of intent). It can be anything from barely noticeable, to irritating, to really super painful.
Which leads me to:
Highly Sensitive People are often misunderstood
We’re told that we’re over-reacting, over-sensitive, over-emotional, can’t be that done or tired already…
This chronic misunderstanding and invalidation of one’s experience grates. Over time, these painful interactions build up to the point where you feel sensitised to such comments from non-HSPs (or HSPs, who don’t yet recognise or ‘get’ their sensitivity).
Being Highly Sensitive in a majority non-HSP world becomes painful.
When we look for help with our emotional or mental wellness, we run into the same issues. Non-HSPs can’t help you effectively unless they’re trained in High Sensitivity.
Non-HSPs don’t have the lived experience of High Sensitivity.
They might not get what it is to be Highly Sensitive.
They might give you advice or respond to you as if you’re a non-HSP – adding to the loneliness and dis-ease of your High Sensitivity.
They might erroneously believe that it’s made up – substituting their opinions for your lived experience, unfortunately. Of course, some of their help may work, but be aware that certain nuance, depth, or the mutual understanding of having a shared lived experience may be missing.
When that happens, you don’t know who to turn to for help. Your experiences with non-HSPs have put you off seeking help for mental or emotional health or wellness issues. The advice for non-HSPs doesn’t work for you. You need someone who gets you, who understands, and who supports you in being your fully Highly Sensitive self.
And if you’re energy sensitive as well as Highly Sensitive, you especially need someone who’s going to understand, and not laugh you out of the room when you tell your truth.
Life as a Highly Sensitive Person
Being a Highly Sensitive Person has its upsides as well as downsides.
Understanding yourself and your High Sensitivity is the first step.
Mastering it and becoming totally yourself could be the next…
1. Do Nothing
Totally valid option. Nothing to do here. Move along please 😉
There are plenty of useful books, websites, programmes, workshops, retreats and more to help you identify, understand, manage, and magnify your high sensitivity gifts.
Many of my articles are about sensitivity – have a look around and find what’s useful to you.
You might enjoy my free course on grounding – a fundamental skill to keep yourself anchored in and open to your experience. Read about what it is to be Ungrounded then sign up for your free copy of my Grounding Course, with a guidebook and guided audios.
If you have Highly Sensitive Children, take a look at my self-guided course Highly Sensitive Child: Parenting Strategies.
You can get new articles and updates from me direct to your inbox. Sign up here:
3. Do It With Someone
When you’re looking for someone to support you, especially with matters that affect your mental and emotional wellness, make sure you find a professional who’s up-to-date with High Sensitivity issues.
I offer 1:1 consultations to help people release baggage from their past and embrace their high sensitivity and its gifts.
For meditation, grounding and energy management tips, check out my online retreats.
You might also be interested in my upcoming six-week programme on Energy Management – sign up for updates by email if you’d like to hear more about that.
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