All of us have unique personality traits and qualities that make us, well, us. Some of these characteristics are more pronounced—and easier to define—than others. Some are discovered over time as we grow to truly understand how we interact with the people and places around us.
Being a highly sensitive person is usually the latter of the two. Many highly sensitive people (HSPs) have a deep sense of being more affected by the world at large than other people seem to be but, unless they’re familiar with the term, they may not know why. Here’s what you should know about highly sensitive people if you suspect that you are one—or how to be a better friend or partner to one if there’s a HSP in your life.
What does the term “highly sensitive person” mean?
Let’s first define what it means to be considered a highly sensitive person. It’s important to note that being highly sensitive is not a mental disorder but a personality trait. Basically, HSPs have a more sensitive nervous system when it comes to emotional, physical or even social stimuli. They just feel everything more.
The term highly sensitive person was coined by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron who wrote a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You in the 1990s. The book explains that highly sensitive people have higher levels of what Aron called sensory-processing sensitivity than the average person. They are usually more sensitive emotionally, tend to identify as introverts and can be physically sensitive to light, noise and even hunger.
Aron developed the Highly Sensitive Person Scale to test sensory sensitivity in the adults, allowing people to see if they would be considered HSPs. It’s estimated that 15-20 percent of people fall into the highly sensitive category.
Qualities of a highly sensitive person
People who are highly sensitive are often labeled as “too sensitive” by others (and typically not in a kind way). If you’re a HSP, you may have heard from others that you need to lighten up or shouldn’t think so much.
For highly sensitive people, however, this is just how their brains work. The following qualities outline the most common traits among high sensitive individuals. See if these speak to your personality to understand if you are a HSP:
You get physically overwhelmed by various stimuli
Sensory stimuli can be too much for you. Bright lights, loud music and itchy clothing can all make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin. You may also shy away from watching violent TV shows and movies or playing intense video games because they are off putting or overwhelming to your sensitive system. You may also be more sensitive to pain or hunger.
You have a complex inner life
Your wheels are always spinning. You’re analyzing people’s facial expressions, thinking about the meaning of an off-the-cuff remark and constantly asking yourself deep questions. Your brain doesn’t do much shutting off in general, leaving you to feel pretty exhausted after social situations with a lot of people.
You feel deeply moved by emotion and beauty
When it comes to nature or art, you are more moved than the average person. You really see the beauty in life in a significant way, whether you’re listening to music, viewing a painting or watching a ballet. You also feel moved emotionally by what others may consider silly or trivial things, like those videos on YouTube of unlikely animal friend pairings or when you happen to see a sappy commercial. Whatever the medium may be, you see the deeper meaning and find the emotional core in everything you experience.
You’re often sensitive to other’s feelings and moods
Many HSPs are empaths, meaning that they can understand and share the feelings of others. When people around you express anger or criticism, you can feel especially overwhelmed and fear negative outcomes in these situations. Other people’s feelings and moods can guide your inner state of mind and influence how you feel about a given situation, or even about yourself. You may realize that other people’s moods affect your own state of mind. Sometimes people who are highly sensitive can soak up emotions from others and end up feeling depleted as a result. Be aware of your tendency for codependency where you prioritize the needs and feelings of those around you over your own.
You seriously crave downtime
You are not the type who likes to go out every weekend night—or even any weekend night. After a stressful work week, being in the comfort of your home lounging on your couch (or your bed) is where it’s at as far as you’re concerned. You may be apt to turn down invitations to hang out with friends because you really just want to spend time by yourself. If you have a family, you may feel anxious about not getting enough time alone in your own home.
You develop bonds with people you care about
Highly sensitive persons really, really care about the people in their lives. You form deep bonds with your friends and fall super in love when you’re in a romantic situation. Your close relationships can feel overwhelming in some ways because you have so much love and empathy for the people you care about.
Tips for people with high sensitivity
Being highly sensitive offers new opportunities for understanding the world and presents challenges when experiencing the world. Knowing that you are a HSP gives you the chance to live more fully and better know your gifts and limitations. Consider doing the following to help yourself from getting bogged down by your sensitive nature.
Give friends and family members a heads up
If you’ve realized that you are indeed a highly sensitive person, you may want to share this revelation with the people close to you and explain what that means. They may have had a sense of your more sensitive personality but giving who you are a clear name can help other people better understand you. Talk to your loved ones about what it’s like to be highly sensitive and let them into your world a little.
Take care of yourself physically
Everyone should focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which includes getting enough sleep, eating nourishing food, drinking water, moving your body and limiting vices like alcohol, drugs, caffeine and binge-watching Netflix. You can’t pour from an empty cup, as the saying goes, and sensitive people typically run dry quicker than most. Do your best to take care of yourself physically so you don’t live your life constantly feeling drained.
Build decompression time into your schedule
It may seem strange to schedule in time to yourself but for highly sensitive persons, this is a must. Especially if you’re the type who stretches yourself to attend social gatherings and events that fall outside your comfort zone, you need to balance out with decompression time. You can decide what that looks like for you: A daily meditation and time for writing in your journal, taking walks with your dog, sitting in the bath on Friday nights—whatever speaks to you.
Talk to someone
Whether you’re highly sensitive or not, talking to a therapist can help anyone who’s feeling emotionally overwhelmed. We all could use a little help sometimes from an objective professional. You may discover that having a mental health check-in weekly or monthly can help you better manage your emotions and decrease any stress or anxiety you feel.
Understanding the high sensitivity people in your life
If your friend, family member or romantic partner is highly sensitive, you can support them by understanding their needs. Help them thrive—and give your bond a boost—by showing them how much you care. Here are three key ways you can be there for your highly sensitive loved one.
Don’t guilt them into being part of high intensity group situations
Group situations may be too much for highly sensitive people. Big, boisterous social gatherings, forced group activities (like bonding exercises in the workplace or team sports) can be overwhelming and uncomfortable for HSPs. Be understanding when your highly sensitive friend doesn’t want to go on your weekend long Las Vegas trip or join the work kickball team. They just feel easily overwhelmed by these scenarios.
Encourage downtime and self care
Whether you’re in a relationship with a highly sensitive person or friends with one, it’s important to let them know that you understand their need for alone time. Let them know that it’s okay if they skip the big group birthday dinner and take a bath at home while you go hang with your friends. Invite them to sit and read with you at a cafe or take a quiet walk in nature. When they feel like they are forcing themselves to do something they clearly don’t want to do, encourage them to put their needs first.
Accept them for who they are
More than anything, don’t try to change the highly sensitive person in your life. Instead, embrace their personality and do your best to work with them, not against them. HSPs tend to read into every slight movement of those around them, looking for nuance. They are attuned to other people’s moods and can be concerned about what they may interpret as rejection, a sign you’re pulling away or an inner sense that someone is mad at them. They often need extra reassurance of love from those who care about them. Be understanding when they express doubts and need some extra affirmation from you.
Living with high sensitivity
If you identify as highly sensitive, think of your ability to feel the world more deeply as your superpower. While it can be hard to be hyper aware of loud noises and overwhelming situations, you also enjoy deep bonds with other people and feel deeply moved by the beauty of life itself.
Take care of yourself by honoring this personality trait instead of fighting against it or trying to change who you are. Lean into your sensitive nature and you will thrive.