Feel too much? Over-sensitive? Celebrating the highly sensitive

Have you ever been called ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘too emotional’? It can be incredibly frustrating and hurtful to be labelled this way; as if being you and feeling your emotions is something to be ashamed of. Unfortunately, we have developed a society where emotional expression can be stigmatised. In fact, feeling deeply and being sensitive to the world around us can be an amazing gift - if we can understand it, appreciate it and know how to support it. 


Think of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the exceptionally bright and sensitive young girl who is highly attuned to others, able to interpret behaviour and emotions and is curious about the world. Or there is Elsa, the Snow Queen from Disney’s Frozen who experiences the world intensely, is highly empathetic and needs to retreat to her ice palace to find balance. 

While Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) may not possess the supernatural powers gifted to Matilda and Elsa, they contribute to a compassionate, empathic and creative world. In this article, we’ll explore what it is like to be an HSP, how you can identify whether you are an HSP and ways the highly sensitive may approach self-care. 

How do highly sensitive people experience the world?

The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a branch of neurodivergence that is not often talked about, but that impacts nearly every facet of an HSP’s life. And, like every neurodivergence, it is how the world reacts to it and how HSPs are supported and accepted that can make all the difference.  

It is estimated that 15-20% of the population is on the HSP scale. From how they experience other people, to the effect of the environment around them, HSPs experience the world through a finely tuned antenna. It can be thought of as a ‘Spidey’ sense, “the ability or power to perceive things beyond the normal range of human senses”, though there is nothing supernatural about it!

Instead, we can think of HSPs as being attuned to subtleties in the environment, to others’ emotions, and to the world around them so that they receive lots of information about what is going on around them. This can be a blessing, in the form of picking up on signals others might miss, but can also result in sensory overload, with an overabundance of information. 

HSPs often possess amazing empathy, noticing the unspoken feelings of those around them. They are those people who can walk into a room and immediately sense if there has been an argument between the people in it. They may also notice very subtle changes in temperature or lighting and be very aware of textures and colours and how they affect a room’s mood. As such, you can often sense an HSP by how they customise their space; they are often very good at creating calm, welcoming spaces, intuitively knowing how to use light and colour. 

With these powers, HSPs can enjoy a rich emotional experience and appreciate the environment around them at a much deeper level. However, this depth of feeling means that HSPs may also need more time to process and recharge their emotional and sensory batteries. 

As you can tell, HSPs sense and feel a lot. And often, this can lead to highs and lows in energy and mood - they may experience anxiety, being always alert to their environment and triggers within it. This is why it is so important that HSPs not only practice good self-care but that we all understand more about this aspect of neurodivergence. If we want to create societies and environments that support all neuro-variants we must understand the HSP experience. 

How do I know if I am a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

While HSP is commonly recognised as a neurodivergence, there is no formal route to diagnosis as there is for autism or ADHD. It is also a matter of debate and opinion as to how useful it is to label ourselves, however understanding how your experience fits in with others can be helpful. 

Determining if you are HSP is really about reflecting on your experiences and seeing how they correspond to how we understand HSPs. There are aspects that are understood as HSP that we may chime with, but others, not so much. 

Some examples - are you easily overwhelmed by bright lights, loud noises, or hectic environments? HSPs often find crowded or noisy places extremely draining. HSPs also tend to experience emotions intensely and can be greatly moved by art or music, in ways that others may not. You might also be aware of being highly attuned to others' feelings. It can sometimes feel like you are overtaken by others’ emotions, which again, can be very draining.  

To help explore the HSP spectrum, you can use self-assessment tools such as the one developed by Dr Elaine Aron, the Highly Sensitive Person Scale. However, even this test cannot tell you if you are or are not an HSP for definite - HSP is a spectrum and if you resonate with the traits and find that they impact your life, it might be worth exploring further with a professional such as an HSP-aware therapist. 

Understanding ourselves better is always a helpful exercise, and if this includes exploration of HSP qualities then you should work with a therapist who is aware of what this type of neurodiversity looks and feels like. 

Does being HSP explain why I feel different to others and don’t feel I fit in?

There are different reasons why someone might feel ‘different’ to others and that they don’t fit in, but it is certainly the case that HSPs often feel separate from those around them. Their heightened sensitivity to emotions and surroundings means they notice and process things much more intensely. This can lead to overwhelm that others may not understand. For example, social situations, which may be energising for some, can be overwhelming for HSPs and they might need to remove themselves to recharge their social battery. This may be taken as a slight by friends who don’t understand this need to recharge. 

Another example is being in a bright and loud room for too long and feeling unable to concentrate or process what is going on, with every sense feeling overloaded. Open-plan offices can be a nightmare for HSPs!

Friends and family might also respond negatively to an HSP's ability to perceive at a different level - think about being able to ‘sense’ conflict when you enter a room! This sense of intuitive knowing and feeling deeply can grate against cultures that expect people to be less emotional - think of the stereotypical ‘stiff upper lip’ of British culture - it doesn’t lend itself to those who feel deeply and connect at the level of an HSP!

Despite these challenges, we should view being a highly sensitive person as a strength. HSPs may feel different but this is not because there is something wrong with them. In fact, it is a gift of perception that sets them apart in a world that is too often un-noticing and mis-attuned. 

How can HSPs support themselves?

Being an HSP can be a draining experience - all that emotional and sensory overload can take its toll. Looking after yourself as a highly sensitive person is really important. 

The first step is to cultivate self-awareness, and understanding, embracing the way you think and feel as a natural part of yourself. Accepting and internalising false messages that you are ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘too much’ causes much pain and denies who you are - remember there is nothing ‘wrong’ with you! Embracing this aspect of yourself is an act of self-care.

It can be challenging to un-do these messages, especially if they have been passed down throughout our lives and in childhood. When untangling this, it can help to explore this with a therapist who can work with you to unpick these damaging messages and support you to live as you, fully and authentically. 

It is also important that HSPs understand, set and maintain personal boundaries. This means feeling able to identify and articulate their needs, saying no to invites, requests and demands when necessary, and creating space to recharge. It’s also important to know what it is that recharges you. For some that might be an artistic hobby, meditation or yoga, connecting with nature or creating a quiet space at home. It might also include working with a therapist to make sense of your experiences, work on setting boundaries and uncover what it is that will support you in your life as an HSP. 

Neurodivergence is a spectrum that we arguably all fall onto. It is understanding our individual experiences, connecting with who we are and how we want to live that is vital. As society becomes more aware of neurodivergence, and more open to the breadth of experiences within it, the hope is that there is celebration and support for all differences. 

Rather than label people as over-sensitive, it is time we embrace this superpower. 

If you want to explore more about the world of HSPs Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person is an insightful read. And, if you are looking to work with a therapist, make sure to ask about their experience working with HSPs and look out for those who are open to all facets of neurodiversity. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG24
Written by Amy Sutton
Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG24

Amy is an integrative therapist who specialises in relational trauma, toxic relationships, domestic abuse and low self-esteem. She supports clients suffering from a range of common life obstacles and mental health challenges - from bereavement to anxiety, low mood and low self-confidence to depression, big life choices and positive changes.

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