Have you ever been told you’re too sensitive? Do you tend to feel overwhelmed or overstimulated? If so, you may be a Highly Sensitive Person. If you’re an HSP, it’s important to tend to your needs so that you can thrive.
Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are people who experience increased sensitivity and a stronger response to stimuli. The term Highly Sensitive Person was first coined by Dr. Elaine Aron and Dr. Arthur Aron, who together conducted the very first published studies on HSPs in the 1990s. Also called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), this is a biological trait that has been observed in over 100 species. It is estimated that about 20 percent of the population are HSPs.
HSP is not a diagnosis, illness, or disorder, but rather, it is a personality trait. If you or a loved one is an HSP, it can be a game changer to understand the specific needs of people with this trait. Being an HSP presents challenges, but also gifts. Understanding your specific needs and talents as an HSP can unlock your ability to thrive.
Dr. Elaine Aron has identified four traits HSPs have in common. No two HSPs are exactly alike, and these traits can show up in myriad ways depending on the individual, however, there are some commonalities that researchers have found among HSPs:
Being an HSP can bring with it some challenges. If you are an HSP, you may:
On the flip side, being an HSP is associated with many strengths:
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron writes that a primary challenge for HSPs is overstimulation. Assess your level of stimulation and figure out what you need. Do you need more quiet time? Do you need to schedule fewer meetings each day? Do you need to limit the amount of time you spend at a party or networking event? Do you need to engage deeply with a good book or creative practice? Different HSPs may need different things at different times, so first start just by noticing the parts of your day when you begin to feel overwhelmed or overstimulated and consider what might support you. For example, you may need:
Try experimenting with changing up your habits to support your ideal level of stimulation. You may find that some simple adjustments may give you more bandwidth and help you maintain better equilibrium.
Once you have a sense of what you need, practice communicating these needs to others. This can be tough for some HSPs, but it’s worth the effort because by doing so, people will be more likely to understand where you’re coming from and will be better able to support you. In turn, this will help you be able to show up more sustainably in your relationships in the long run.
For example, if a friend invites you out to an event you know will be loud, busy, and potentially overstimulating, you could say: “Hey, I’d really like to spend time together, but instead, would you be open to staying in and cooking a meal together?”
Or, if your supervisor asks you to attend back-to-back meetings instead of taking your lunchbreak, you might say: “I really love working here and I want to do my best. But when I have too many back-to-back meetings and miss my lunchbreak, I really struggle to do my best work. Do you think we could schedule in some breaks to recharge between these meetings?”
Every situation is different, but the idea here is to be aware of your needs and proactively try to get them met.
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron posits that because the main challenge for HSPs is overstimulation, thriving as an HSP requires fine tuning this balance between being “in” and being “out” in the world.
Our impulse may be to stay in, and it’s important that we honor our need for rest when it arises. If we’ve been overdoing it with work or social events, a night in to rest and recuperate may be the best thing we can do for ourselves at that moment.
At the same time, it’s possible that due to our sensitivity we may avoid getting out there, which can be limiting for our development and engagement in the world. If we’ve been leaning farther in the direction of staying home, being alone, or keeping to our usual routines, we may want to challenge ourselves to go out and try something new.
When we stay in, we nourish ourselves by resting, integrating, and replenishing our reserves; when we go out, we give ourselves the opportunity to expand our horizons and be a part of things. Both of these ways of being are important for us to make our contribution to the world.
As an HSP, you have a valuable contribution to offer.
HSP’s tend to be very empathetic. HSPs can also read the room. Because you notice subtleties that others may miss, you can share your perspective and add richness to your relationships and conversations. When you notice something that seems to have been overlooked, practice speaking up and contributing your thoughts. You may be surprised to realize that no one else picked up on what you thought was obvious. You may also be able to comfort a friend because you’re attuned to what’s going on for them.
You may not give yourself credit for or fully appreciate these abilities in yourself – but remember, these are skills that not everyone has, and they can be like superpowers in many situations in life, work, and relationships.
Remember that being an HSP is a real, scientifically documented trait. Like eye color or height, sensitivity is not something you can change; it’s part of how you’re built. Don’t dismiss or minimize your needs, and don’t judge yourself for what you need. Some non-HSPs may thrive in loud, busy settings, but that doesn’t mean you do, and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you -- or with them! It’s just a difference. There are all sorts of people in this world, and we have different strengths and challenges. Given that only 20% of the population are HSPs, you may be measuring your ability or value against cultural norms that weren’t designed with you in mind. Remember that you don’t have to be like everyone else. You get to be you. Love, accept, and celebrate yourself as you are!
HSPs are great candidates for therapy because they often have a rich inner world and may struggle to navigate the outer world given their heightened sensitivity. When seeking out a therapist, look for someone who has some understanding of HSPs and has experience working to support HSPs live their best lives.
If you're interested in learning more about HSPs or would like to learn more about Dianne, view her profile here!
If you're ready to start therapy and would like to find a mental health provider, take our Get Matched Questionnaire to be matched with up to 3 providers based on your preferences and what is important to you and your care.
Dianne Gallo, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice. She loves working with young adults who may struggle to make decisions as they find their path in life. Learn more at her website.
Complete our free, confidential questionnaire to easily and quickly match with 3 personalized coaches or therapists.