What is he seeing that I’m not seeing? Why did she get so emotional at the movie? Why does he overthink everything? How on earth does she just know that? No doubt you’ve pondered moments like these with certain people in your life, never guessing that these are signs you could be dealing with a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

Sensitive by choice? No.

Sensitive because of weakness or lack of social skills? No again.

Sensitive because of introversion? Nope.

And certainly not sensitive because of a mental illness or psychological aberration.

If you are actually dealing with a Highly Sensitive Person, you are in the presence of someone who experiences life in ‘extra’ mode.

And, because most of the world isn’t familiar with High Sensitivity, the onus of adaptation continues to fall on the HSP: Stop being so sensitive! 

The card-carrying HSP has heard it a bazillion times.

And still the HSP continues to perceive the world with extra dimension…to respond with instinctive empathy…to have damn near psychic intuition.

(Elena Herdieckerhoff has a fantastic 15-minute TED talk that describes HSPs perfectly.)

If you’re the one scratching your head and walking on eggshells so as not to break into the aura of sensitivity, you have a choice… 

You can remain at a distance, limiting the potential of your relationship with this sensitive person.

Or you can learn to recognize the signs of High Sensitivity and understand this unique neurological makeup.

About 15-20% of the world population is born with High Sensitivity (HS), also known as sensory processing sensitivity.

People — and animals — with HS have  a highly responsive nervous system.

The meaning and experience of High Sensitivity go well beyond being “very” sensitive.

HSPs respond more strongly and deeply to internal and external stimulation than non-HSP’s do.

The stimulus doesn’t really matter. It could be an emotion or physical pain. Either way, the HSP is going to feel it more than someone without the HS trait would.

The same is true with external stimulation, such as sounds, odors, light, and fabrics.

There are definitely some ways you can tell if the person you are dealing with is highly sensitive.

Let’s take the example of a person viewing the image of the Adirondack chair (above) at the ocean shore.

A typical HSP reaction would be a sigh of contentment, such as a big exhalation.

A non-HSP, on the other hand, wouldn’t be so inclined to attach introspective meaning or felt experience to viewing the image.

Noticing or asking a sensitive person about his sensory experiences can help you determine if you are actually dealing with a Highly Sensitive Person. HSPs are more likely to take in and experience additional, subtle features of the environment.

Gazing from the Adirondack chair in the beach photo, the HSP may “feel” the water on his feet, the warmth of the sun on his skin.

And all of this vividly imagined tactile stimulation will happen in the context of vivid auditory and visual stimulation. The sound of the waves gently lapping onto shore, the lacy foam of the water as it touches the sand….

The HSP can easily and naturally transpose into the setting that the non-HSP only views… and only in two dimensions.

Another classic feature of dealing with Highly Sensitive People is their deeply meaningful relationship with nature.

Mountains, oceans, sunrises/sunsets, wildlife — the HSP experiences them all with awe and a profound sense of comfort and peace.

Nature helps provide calm to the HSP’s often hard-working nervous system. It balances, soothes, heals. And it is one of the best sources of recharge when the HSP is in a state of overwhelm.

An additional commonality among HSPs is their depth of processing, which often shows up as curiosity.

For example, HSPs are more likely than people without the trait to wonder about a sailboat on the horizon.

See it? How many passengers are there on it? How strong is the wind? Where is the boat headed? 

HSPs may also think about the times in their own lives when they went sailing. These thoughts could then segue to memories associated with that time in their life, or even to actual dreams of sailing.

If you notice a person “overthinking,” the HS trait of depth of processing may be at play. The Highly Sensitive Person is naturally following various paths of emerging thoughts, imagery, and memories.

Overstimulation is a frequent experience for the Highly Sensitive Person.

It just makes sense! Given the expanse and intense depth of processing, the threshold of “too much-ness” is lower than for people without the trait.

Overstimulation, overwhelm, and mental exhaustion happen more easily, often presenting as anxiety.

(When feeling overstimulated/anxious, HSPs benefit by going outside into nature. Breathing in fresh air and taking in the beauty and rhythm of nature are simple ways for the HSP to become grounded and centered again. HSPs tend to have a lot of empathy/emotional responsiveness.)

If you’re wondering how the heck someone could be so intuitive and empathic, chances are you’re dealing with someone who is highly sensitive.

Sometimes HSPs can sense others’ emotions well before the person with the emotions recognizes them.

That same capacity for empathy carries over into seemingly innocuous activities.

That emotional response you recognized at the movie theater? You may have to find another movie-buddy for your violent and horror movies. HSPs can’t handle them.

Cruelty against animals and people is almost impossible to tolerate. HSPs can’t avoid linking the intended entertainment to the sufferings in real life.

HSPs tend to experience both the positive and negative, happy and sad, good and bad deeply and for longer periods of time than do people without the trait. 

In a culture such as ours, in which sensitivity is devalued, living life as an HSP can be challenging.

The trait is too often mistaken for a sign of weakness, an inability to manage feelings, or the need for a stiff upper lip.

In reality, High Sensitivity is a gift, without which our species would not exist.

Consider yourself fortunate if the person whose presence you are graced by is highly sensitive. You have the opportunity to see the world — however frequently you choose — through a very powerful lens.

Dr Elayne S Daniels is a psychologist, consultant, and coach in the Boston area with expertise in working with Highly Sensitive People. Eating disorder recovery and body image are two additional areas of specialization. 

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About the Author: Elayne Daniels
I am a private practice psychologist, consultant, and coach specializing in eating disorder recovery, body image concerns, and helping highly sensitive people thrive.

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