Chances are that many of you are not familiar with the term “Highly Sensitive Person.” It is very likely, however, that you will (or already have) come into close contact with or developed an interpersonal relationship with a Highly Sensitive Person. You may even be an HSP yourself and have yet to realize it.
It is my firm belief that understanding is one of the fundamental components of compassion. And what the world needs today, at least as I see it, is a lot more compassion. The better we understand ourselves and each other, the better chance we have of living in a world that is a little more tolerant and a lot less difficult. That being the case, let me (an HSP of the highest order) take this opportunity to share with you what I know about this gift that is not always a gift.
Highly sensitive people are very conscientious, hard working, and meticulous. They have rich, deep inner lives and are often very spiritual. They are extraordinarily intuitive and, often, highly empathic (able to detect other people’s emotions). Creative, intelligent, and well-organized are other adjectives that commonly apply to the HSP.
Along with these characteristics, however, come the “less desirable” aspects of being an HSP. Highly sensitive people are bothered by intense stimuli, including loud noises and too much activity in their environment. They are extremely uncomfortable with chaos and disorder. Those who are highly empathic often feel overwhelmed by emotion (their own and that of people around them); and they process information on such a deep level that their response time to a particular situation is often delayed. When subjected to trauma and/or severe chronic stress, HSPs are much more likely to develop neurological disorders, including P.T.S.D. and Fibromyalgia.
Dr. Carl Jung, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, and Eleanor Roosevelt are just a few of the more famous people in history who researchers say demonstrated signs of the high sensitivity trait. I refer to it as a “trait” because, according to Dr. Elaine Aron—author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You— and other researchers like her, high sensitivity is an innate trait (one present at birth) that comprises 15 to 20 percent of the population (50 million in the U.S. alone).
That is the academic description of what is meant by the term Highly Sensitive Person. Now, let’s get personal.
For 43 years, I have lived in a world that constantly overwhelms me. Not understanding why I am “so sensitive” and repeatedly pushing myself to prove that I could handle anything anyone else could handle (and even do it better) was my undoing. As it turns out, I needed to be undone because the life I was living was not much of a life at all.
I have been told many times, by many people, that I am “too sensitive” and “too emotional,” that I “care too much,” and that I “think too much.” Ironically, most of the people who have said those words to me have turned to me (time and time again) when they needed a shoulder to lean on or advice in dealing with their own problems and emotions.
In short, it has generally been the case that people love to be around me and to soak up all that insight, compassion, and sensitivity I have to offer . . . but only for brief periods of time. It seems that my particular brand of “sweet” makes me appear too fragile or weak and it makes people (even some of those who love me) very uncomfortable, at times.
Those who really know me, however, know that I am anything but weak. I have fallen down many times; but I have also found the strength and courage to stand back up more times than most people could have managed. Yes, I am emotional; but I am also resilient. I can always find the good in anyone I meet and most people find me particularly accepting and nonjudgmental. I try my best to see every side of any situation as objectively as I may and try very hard to always be fair. It is relatively easy for me to take other people’s feelings into account before I speak or act (even when I am hurt or angry); and I do.
None of this makes me a saint. It just means I am . . . (yes, say it with me) SENSITIVE. While it is not easy living in the world today as an HSP, I do not begrudge it.
I see things many others cannot see. I feel things many others have grown numb to. I care and I love in ways that many people long for. Because of these aspects of my Being, I know what it means to truly be Alive. To paraphrase a lyric from one of my favorite Jimmy Buffet songs — while some of it’s tragic and some of its magic, I live a good life all the way.
The purpose of sharing these very personal aspects of myself with you is not to invoke sympathy on your part for me but to help you understand what it feels like to be on this side of the HSP trait. And, if you are an HSP yourself, to let you know that you are not alone, you are just as valuable and lovable as anyone else on the planet, and you can bring a lot to the table in just about any relationship you enter into.
If there is a chance that you or someone in your life is a Highly Sensitive Person, I encourage you to learn more about the trait. In addition to Dr. Aron’s book, I recommend you visit the following sites for more information (including a self-test).