What Is A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

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By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD

Dear friends:  In a rare departure, I’d like to share this excellent, highly informative article with you. Perhaps you will recognize yourself and loved ones in it. I do. It explains a lot for me and helps to know I’m not alone. I’ve deleted some sentences for the sake of brevity, but you can read the full article here.

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a neurodivergent individual who is thought to have an increased or deeper central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli.  While highly sensitive people are sometimes negatively described as being “too sensitive,” it is a personality trait that brings both strengths and challenges. The term highly sensitive person was first coined by psychologists Elaine Aron and Arthur Aron in the mid-1990s. Elaine Aron published her book, “The Highly Sensitive Person,” in 1996, and interest in the concept has continued to grow since then.

How Do You Know If You’re an HSP?

Have you ever been told that you’re “too sensitive” or that you “shouldn’t think so much,” particularly by people who strike you as too insensitive or who you believe should think a little more? You may be a highly sensitive person, or HSP. It is important to remember that there is no official highly sensitive person diagnosis, and being an HSP does not mean that you have a mental illness. High sensitivity is a personality trait that involves increased responsiveness to both positive and negative influences.

There are several traits or characteristics common to HSPs:

  • Avoiding violent movies or TV shows because they feel too intense and leave you feeling unsettled
  • Being deeply moved by beauty, either expressed in art, nature, or the human spirit, or sometimes even a good commercial
  • Being overwhelmed by sensory stimuli like noisy crowds, bright lights, or uncomfortable clothing
  • Feeling a need for downtime (not just a preference), especially when you have hectic days; needing to retreat to a dark, quiet room
  • Having a rich and complex inner life, complete with deep thoughts and strong feelings that go with them

The Arons also developed a highly sensitive person test, or a personality questionnaire to help people identify themselves as HSPs. It is known as Aron’s Highly Sensitive Persons Scale (HSPS).

How Common Are HSPs?

Highly sensitive people are thought to make up roughly 20% of the general population. It is less common to be a highly sensitive person, and society tends to be built around people who notice a little less and are affected a little less deeply.

What Causes High Sensitivity?

What makes a person highly sensitive likely depends on a variety of factors such as evolution, environment, genetics, and early childhood experiences. High sensitivity exists in at least 100 other species aside from humans. Research suggests that high sensitivity is an evolutionary trait that increases the likelihood of survival because HSPs are on the lookout for potential predators or dangerous situations. Of course, constantly being on guard when there aren’t any immediate threats often results in anxiety. Research also shows that a lack of parental warmth growing up may cause a child to develop high sensitivity and carry this trait into adulthood. The same goes for negative early childhood experiences. If you experienced trauma as a child, you may be more likely to become an HSP as an adult.

Genetics may contribute to high sensitivity. Specifically, the dopamine system may play a role. It affects personality and may make some people more prone than others to becoming highly sensitive. High sensitivity is also hereditary. There is a higher chance that you will be highly sensitive if high sensitivity runs in your family. In addition, a person’s genes may evolve in response to negative early experiences, making them more susceptible to becoming an HSP.

Impact of Being an HSP

Being an HSP comes with both advantages and challenges. It is possible to be too easily offended by people who mean no harm or who are trying their best to be kind. It is also possible to overreact to daily stressors or relationship issues, particularly if you become emotionally aggressive as a response. However, being an HSP doesn’t necessarily mean that you imagine negative motives when they are not there. It is more that you perceive them more easily. Or, you may be affected more deeply by negative experiences, which is not necessarily a weakness.

Some of the ways that being an HSP might impact your life include:

  • You might avoid situations that leave you feeling overwhelmed. Highly sensitive people may be more affected by certain situations such as tension, violence, and conflict, which may lead them to avoid things that make them feel uncomfortable.
  • You might be highly touched by beauty or emotionality. Highly sensitive people tend to feel deeply moved by the beauty they see around them. They may cry while watching particularly heartwarming videos.
  • You may have close relationships with others. HSPs care deeply about their friends and tend to form deep bonds with people. Again, the empathy that a highly sensitive person brings to the table is a powerful tool for being a supportive friend and loved one.
  • You may be grateful for the life you have. Highly sensitive people appreciate a fine wine, a good meal, or a beautiful song on a level that most people can’t access. They may feel more existential angst, but they also may feel more gratitude for what they have in life, knowing that it is possibly fleeting and nothing is certain.

A major benefit of being an HSP is the ability to empathize. Empathy is a tool that can promote strong relationships and a deeply fulfilling emotional life. Of course, it’s important to differentiate between your feelings and others’ feelings.

Potential Pitfalls

Not surprisingly, highly sensitive people tend to get more stressed when faced with difficult situations. They may also be stressed by things that may roll off of other people’s backs.

Social stress is perceived as more taxing to most people than other types of stress. This kind of stress can be particularly difficult for someone who can perceive many different ways that things could go wrong in a conflict, for example, or can perceive hostility or tension where others may not notice it. Specific things that can be significantly stressful for the highly sensitive include:

    • Hectic schedules: HSPs feel overwhelmed and rattled when they have a lot to do in a short amount of time, even if they technically have enough time to get everything done if they rush.
    • Expectations of others: Highly sensitive people tend to pick up on the needs and feelings of others. They hate letting people down. They tend to be their own worst critics. They are acutely aware of the happiness of others when there are negative emotions floating around.
    • Conflicts: HSPs may be more prone to being stressed by conflict. They can also misinterpret unrelated signals as signs of conflict or anger.
    • Tolerations: Daily energy drains that we all have are things we tolerate that create stress and aren’t strictly necessary. Distractions may feel more frustrating for the HSP who is trying to concentrate, for example.
    • Personal failures: Because HSPs are their own worst critics, they are more prone to rumination and self-doubt. They may remember for quite a while if they make an embarrassing mistake, and feel more embarrassed about it than the average person would.

Coping With Stress As an HSP

  • Add positivity by creating positive experiences in your schedule to insulate you from additional stress you may encounter.
  • Avoid stressors like slasher movies and people who sap your positive energy, make heavy demands on you, or make you feel bad about yourself.
  • Learn to say no to overwhelming demands and feel OK with it.
  • Set up a safe space. Let your home be a soothing environment.

Credits:  verywellmind.com. Art by Jake Baddeley.

Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Jean’s new Nautilus Award-winning The Soul’s Twins, is at Amazon and Schiffer’s Red Feather Mind, Body, Spirit. Subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.

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Comments

19 Responses

  1. Dear Jeanie,

    Thank you for sharing Elizabeth Scott’s insightful post and timely reminder of my own highly sensitive nature. No wonder I enjoyed the fairy tale, “The Princess and The Pea” so much whilst growing up. Finally, there was a story all about ‘me’, only I could never have explained this to others, or even myself, at the time. The only thing I knew was that I loved ‘my’ story!

    Growing up was confusing (for many reasons!) as my sensitive nature was coupled with an introverted nature (which I spent the first forty years of my life fighting). Still, here in the year I turn sixty, I realise that slowly I’ve learnt to embrace both natures and know that I would never have become the kind of poet and the kind of psychotherapist I am, without doing so.

    Oh, and I clicked through to the test and scored very high, no surprises there!

    Love and blessings, Deborah

    1. Hi Deborah, (I answered your comment a while ago and it didn’t show up. So if it appears twice, you’ll know why.) About your understanding of why you’ve always loved “The Princess and the Pea” . . . I’ve known I’m an HSP for some time, but I can’t believe I never made that connection! I liked it too, but always took it literally until you mentioned it. Me, who always sees the symbolic meaning in everything! Go figure! It’s amazing to me how much inner work I’ve done and yet how long it can take to make certain connections that should be perfectly obvious to me. Thank you for that. As you know, I’m an introvert who has also learned to embrace both traits. I see them as my greatest strengths now. There’s no question they’re what awakened me to start the journey into wholeness and inspired me to write my books. Love and blessings, Jeanie

  2. It is a brilliant article, dear Jeane, to know about this hidden sense for all of us. I think it affects many people, though some don’t understand its meaning or how to handle with.
    I must say I know some such people in my life (mostly in my family) who were all artists. That has something to do with the finesse of nerves! And it causes being very introverted, which genuinely has something to do with childhood trauma. Ernest Hemingway believed that authors had to suffer in their childhood to be able to write novels! Blessings.

    1. Thank you, Aladin. I didn’t understand or know how to use this trait for years and was very good at hiding it from myself as well as from others. The first time I noticed it I was 21 and teaching the third grade. They were supposed to say the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag, and the first time they all did it (and many times afterwards) was so moved by the beauty of it that my eyes filled with tears. I did everything I could to hide them from the children and expect I succeeded. But what a surprise. I tear up over music too. And can’t sing the national anthem or certain hymns without my voice breaking. Oh, and movies! The anonymity of a dark theatre is my best friend. And I would agree with Ernest Hemingway! Love and blessings, Jeanie

  3. I am so glad to see more and more people talking about HSPs. I love Elaine Aron’s work, and her books have provided much solace for me. Many of us were told we were “too sensitive”. It’s a shame that gift was devalued. Thank you for sharing this, and for all the beauty you put out into the world.

    1. Hi Pamela, thanks for letting me know you appreciate me sharing this. I don’t always know. And thank you from the bottom of my heart for your last comment. It made me tear up, of course! 🙂 Love and blessings, Jeanie

  4. Yes…been an HSP for as long as I can remember…some aspects inherited, others highly amplified by early trauma yet continue to get triggered. But awareness and seeking many ways to accept and process, wisdom of aging with grace, I hope, are lessening the need to hide all who I am because I have been told “You are TOO sensitive”. Although I have read this kind info identifying HSP before, this article comes as perfect coincidences or whispers from the divine do…just when one needs reminding and comforting that HSP is real, ok, and that there are others who are also highly sensitive. Thanks Jean! xo Jo

  5. Hi Jo, I love it when those kinds of synchronicities happen! They are so affirming, and let me know I’m on the right track. Thank you for writing. And you’re very welcome! Love and blessings, Jeanie

  6. While I’ve been aware and recognized these traits in myself and don’t believe there has to be a correlation, I have found one in my own history as it relates to a sensitive parent who never had an adult caregiver mirror, name and unconditionally accept their various emotions as a child or model for them how to consistently manage their (sometimes intense) emotions in a mature way.

    Children need to feel unconditionally loved regardless of their emotional states and to intuitively know that their emotions won’t harm their caregivers or put them at risk of losing their love. Children frequently pick up on unspoken messages and can easily feel ashamed and/or confused.

    It’s something author Dr. Lindsay Gibson (“Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents”) writes about when she describes the emotionally immature parent . . . which of course, can become a generational pattern. Sometimes one or both parents also have narcissistic traits, sometimes not.

    Other research has shown gifted children face additional challenges, with asynchronous development being one of them. For example, intellectual abilities may exceed emotional development, a situation made even more challenging if the child’s parents are emotionally immature and therefore unable to understand and appropriately express their own emotions:

    https://www.verywellfamily.com/asynchronous-development-1449172

  7. Hi Sophia, thanks for these additional insights. My story is similar to your example. I had very well-meaning, loving, but emotionally and physically distanced parents who didn’t know how to express their emotions or help me accept and express mine. They were both spiritually- oriented art and music lovers, both probably HSP’s to some degree. I never heard either of them raise their voices in anger or express any strong emotion at all, so I learned at an early age not to feel or express mine. I didn’t even know that was an option.That unconscious tendency served me well for a very long time because I never made waves! Have you read Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child? She describes the consequences beautifully. I highly recommend it. Thank you also for the link to the article about asynchronous development. I’d not heard that term before. It makes perfect sense. Love and blessings, Jeanie

    1. Hi Jeanie,

      Yes, I have read Alice Miller’s “The Drama of the Gifted Child” and loved it. In my previous life, I worked in Special Education with therapists and intern therapists and would frequently recommend the book to them. That was decades ago, though I’m pretty sure I read the updated version rather than the original.

      Related to this, in reading some of your older posts I was struck by the similarities between a childhood nightmare you shared (involving the Lone Ranger and Tonto) and another post in which you describe something that took place one summer, when you and your mother were visiting your father at a motel. Maybe you’ve explored this connection in another post?

      As a young child, following an explosive event involving my own parents, I still remember a terrible nightmare I had about a giant ogre ten times the size of my mother, attempting to stomp her as she tried to escape through a small dark tunnel near our home. I think I knew even then what the dream was reflecting back to me. It was always easier for me to see my father, whereas my mother remained for most of my life, a mystery waiting to be solved.

      Warmly,
      Sophia

      1. Thank you for pointing out that connection!! I haven’t specifically explored it in a blog post that connects those two events, but I have connected the underlying message common to both in a PowerPoint presentation I’ve made to the Maine Jung Center and will be making again this fall to the Connecticut Association for Jungian Psychology. The presentation is called “Remyth Your Story: Integrate Your Feminine and Masculine Archetypes.” Essentially, those two incidents, and others like them, created my mythic worldview, a rather toxic one that I had to work very hard to change into my own healing, personal myth. It will be on Zoom and the public is invited, so if you’re interested in attending, check my website events from time to time. I’ll be posting an announcement later this year.

        Yes, your poor mother must have had a terrible burden from her childhood to carry throughout her life and your unconscious obviously picked up on it. She had such a desperate need to hide from that, that, perhaps unknowingly, she hid from you too. It’s a sad, but far too common story. My mother hid from me too, in her own way. She hid from the world. Humans are meant to be sensitive, but our world no longer understands the value of that! Warmly, Jeanie

        1. Hi Jeanie,

          It’s amazing isn’t it, how even as children our dreams reimagine our challenges using symbolic language to describe them. My mother did carry a heavy burden, one that grew heavier throughout her life and that I took on as my own.

          The similarities between your big dream and the exchange with your parents both describe a deep injury (or wounding) to your fragile child psyche, one administered by the people you depended on, looked up to and loved more than anything in the world. While on its face, what your father said would seem to be encouraging you to use your natural gifts in a more inclusive and empathetic way, not unlike other children in similar situations, you probably picked up on an underlying and unspoken message about love being conditional and based on a kind of perfection no child (or adult) could ever authentically achieve.

          Your parents may not have intended this to be the message at all, at least not consciously. Sensitive children are more likely to pick up on any dissonance between messaging and behavior in their caregivers, whether they can correctly identify and name the contradictions or not. Unconscious generational themes and expectations tend to repeat themselves until someone makes them conscious. I get it because I’ve been there myself.

          Thanks for the invitation, Jeanie. It’s appreciated.

          Warmly,
          Sophia

          1. Yes, it is truly amazing; and you’ve nailed it. I’ve been working with that wounded child for some time. The unspoken messages were unconscious for a long time, but I can see and feel them now and am aware of them when they come up. I’ve heard they’re particularly difficult to heal, perhaps because they’re so deeply buried, but consciously grieving them is definitely making a difference! Thank you for your interest and associations. Jeanie

  8. Thank you, Jeanie. You’ll never, ever catch me watching a scary movie or reading Stephen King. The world is anxiety producing enough without looking for that kind of “entertainment.” I never thought of myself or identified as a HSP, partly because it became so fashionable. No, that’s not me, I thought, until I dealt with years of emotional grief after Vic’s death and, in some ways, the more life crushing grief of Meniere’s Disease and hearing loss. I imagined myself a healthy crone and in many ways I am, but I’m also overly sensitive to air pressure changes that destroy my balance, to the barrage of bad news in the media, to bad vibes from anyone, and to the noise of most public environments, including grocery stores with their vibrating cooler fans (sounds others hardly notice). I’ve always been emotionally sensitive, but Meniere’s sensitivity is physical and demands extra sleep, days of solitude, and special selfcare. It’s hard for me to surrender to this need, but I must embrace what I am in this aging body because there’s no choice. I don’t feel the need to take the test, but I’ll take it anyway. It’s easy to get depressed and feel victimized about the limitations caused by being an HSP, but you helped me take a deeper look.

  9. Synchronistically, I was talking to a wise friend a little while ago about being highly sensitive and he said, “The highly sensitive person is the normal person. We’re living in an abusive society. The conventional perspective would be to think that your sensitivity is wrong. Highly sensitive people need to own their own anger. Normal people ARE sensitive to abuse.” I think it’s time we “normal” people started rebelling against the conventional values that would criticize us for being angry about abuse and feeling ashamed for being sensitive to the toxicity that permeates today’s world. Someone should make a T-shirt that says, “I’m highly sensitive and proud of it!” 🙂

  10. Thank you for this Jean, This article is all about me! I’ve known that for many years. I’m an empath, not always is it easy bur I wouldn’t change it for the world.

  11. Hi Enid, it’s lovely to hear from you. This article is about me too. Whatever I am is not easy either, but I wouldn’t change it. I doubt I’d have ever been driven to understand Jungian psychology or write a book if I were otherwise, and that has made all the difference in my life. Warm hugs to you. Jeanie

    1. Hi Jeanie, I too wouldn’t change it. I live from my heart and also was driven to write many books. My latest book was for my family, in honor of my 80th Birthday, A Sequel to our Family Stories. The stories are my legacy to my treasured family. They were thrilled with it. Thanks for your lovely response. Love, Enid

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