Am I a highly sensitive person? Six ways to make the most of it
Do you feel that you are “sensitive”? Do you sometimes struggle with criticism, need time to think things over and absorb information? Maybe you don't like loud noises or bright lights, or startle easily, and are very sensitive to the feelings of those around you. You may also be highly empathetic, creative, insightful and think deeply about the meaning of life.
As a child, I couldn’t bear woollen jumpers or the feel of saltwater drying on my skin. I was very sensitive to the feelings of those around me, and particularly when I started working as a coach, and then as a therapist, I became very aware that I was struggling to distinguish my insights and my sense of the other person from my own experiences. This led me to some careful study of how to develop these boundaries, which I have described elsewhere.
For me then, it was a relief to read about the concept of the ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ (HSP for short) and to recognise myself in this. It was also good to see that I wasn’t alone: this is quite a common trait (15- 20% of the population), a percentage that is, I imagine, a lot higher amongst therapists and other caring professions. As a therapist, I would guess that many of my clients also fall into this group.
The term HSP is becoming more widely shared and there are some excellent and informative websites on the subject. The description 'Highly Sensitive Person' was first used by Aron, when she defined this trait and suggested that some of us really are particularly sensitive, and not just “oversensitive”, “wet”, “irritating”, “can’t take criticism”, and, importantly, that this trait can bring some very important advantages and benefits.
How do I know if I am highly sensitive?
Jenn Granneman and Andre Sólo  define a highly sensitive person as;
“someone who experiences acute physical, mental, or emotional responses to stimuli. These can include external stimuli, like their surroundings and the people they are with, or internal stimuli, like their own thoughts and emotion.”
Aron  cites some of the defining HSP characteristics as:
- being easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, and loud noises
- getting easily stressed if you have to do a lot in a short time
- avoiding violent or scary movies and TV shows, and potentially upsetting situations
- needing to retreat to a quiet space such as a darkened room to get some relief from the world from time to time
- thinking deeply and having a rich and complex inner life
- being seen (as a child) as sensitive or shy
Other aspects include a sensitivity to caffeine, and finding decision making difficult. We don't want to get it wrong, and we need to process all the options coming towards us. Then there is the double whammy of feeling stupid as we struggle to make what seems to others like a totally straightforward choice!
Interestingly, there isn’t a direct link to being introvert or extravert: whilst the majority of HSPs are introvert, about 30% are extravert.
If any of this is resonating with you, what should you do, if anything?
If you think you are an HSP (or have an HSP child) what might you do?
1. Acknowledge your strengths
The first thing is to acknowledge that this sensitivity comes with some major strengths, as well as the difficulties that it is so easy to focus on. In fact, Aron sees the qualities that HSPs have, in particular, empathy, deep thinking and a search for meaning as key to our species survival! It is important for us to recognise these strengths so that we can play to them and make the most of them.
2. Get the basics right
Getting the basics right means getting enough sleep and eating food that nourishes you, and eating regularly. If you can manage without caffeine this is likely to help. These basic things are likely to really matter to you.
Work out what you need to recover from the busyness and over-stimulation of everyday life and give yourself permission to retreat for a while. It’s not a cop-out or giving up, it’s about taking yourself to a place where you can recharge and be even more useful afterwards. So if that’s 10 minutes under the duvet or a short walk, or just sitting quietly in a darkened room, find what works for you and allow yourself to do it when (or before) you need it.
4. Build resilience
Develop some strategies for responding to criticism, so that you can function happily with others. I have found that slowing down my reaction time is key. I react fastest when I read something on my phone, and rather more slowly on a widescreen PC. So with written messages, I need to give myself time, breath and read them again more carefully (and on a larger screen) to see if I am jumping to unjustified conclusions. When someone is critical verbally, again, stopping, breathing, and possibly clarifying what they mean exactly. Slowing down the reaction helps your thinking brain to come in, and reduces the emotional response. Mindfulness and meditation help, as does building self-esteem.
5. Develop boundaries
At a deep level, this is about learning who you are, where you finish and others begin. At a more everyday level it comes down to being able to say no, to remove yourself for a break when you need to, and scheduling in both your commitments and these breaks, so that you can avoid being stressed and overwhelmed.
6. Enjoy who you are!
Find ways to enjoy and harness your strengths. Sensitivity is a wonderful gift, but it takes managing. It needs feeding and nurturing, protecting and supporting. Give yourself space to be creative, to be in nature, to feel grounded in yourself, so that you can enjoy your work and relationships.
If having read all this, you wonder if there might be more going on underneath some of this sensitivity, or you need some help with exploring your strengths and needs, or feel that your experiences are just too intense to cope with right now, it might help to talk to a therapist. It is important to recognise that people with neurodiverse conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also often highly sensitive, and old trauma can also have this effect. So do make contact with a therapist if you are curious, concerned or just want to talk to someone to explore who you are.