Although as many of 15-20% of us would be classed as “highly sensitive”, a lot of those might not know they are.
Identifying that you are a Highly Sensitive Person offers the same benefits of learning your Myers Briggs and Enneagram types: it helps you with self-acceptance (a notoriously difficult job), and to structure your life around your unique needs.
Being a highly sensitive person is different to being introverted, or just sensitive. Highly sensitive people have different nervous systems to other people, and high measures of “sensory processing sensitivity”.
The champion of the research on Highly Sensitive People is psychologist and author Elaine Aron, who wrote The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.
I recommend that you read the book if you identify yourself from the below.
1. Highly Sensitive People exhibit specific, observable behaviour
Highly Sensitive people possess four main characteristics as identified by Dr Elaine Aron.
These four criteria together spell “DOES”:
Depth of processing – they have a richer internal environment than most.
Over-stimulation – may struggle with crowds, noises, etc.
Emotional responsiveness and empathy – they feel things more deeply, may use emotional regulation techniques less.
Sensitive to subtleties – can be sensitive to everything from pain to caffeine consumption.
The other 80% of the population, who are not highly sensitive, do not possess these four characteristics – nor the implications associated with them.
“D is for depth of processing. Our fundamental characteristic is that we observe and reflect before we act. We process everything more, whether we are conscious of it or not.
O is for being easily overstimulated, because if you are going to pay more attention to everything, you are bound to tire sooner.
E is for giving emphasis to our emotional reactions and having strong empathy which among other things helps us notice and learn.
S is for being sensitive to all the subtleties around us.”
2. The Highly Sensitive Person processes everything more
The highly sensitive process everything more, relating and comparing what they notice to their past experience with other similar things. They do it whether they are aware of it or not.
When a Highly Sensitive Person makes a decision consciously, they are slower than others. That is because they think over all the options so carefully.
This trait reflects a certain type of survival strategy: being observant before acting.
3. The Highly Sensitive Person is easily overstimulated
If you notice everything, you are naturally going to be overstimulated when things are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel over a long period.
Large crowds, noisy environments and impromptu parties can leave the Highly Sensitive Person feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated.
Highly sensitive people also may struggle to stay on task when they have several different things to do. They don’t work well in open offices because their senses are put into overdrive by the activity buzzing around them.
4. They tend to fail to use certain emotional regulation strategies
Highly Sensitive People are more aware of, and have more, negative emotions than other people.
Researchers have found that among the many strategies that help everyone regulate and thus reduce their negative emotions, Highly Sensitive People tend to do certain ones less.
However, emotional regulation can be learned by the following:
- Accepting your feelings.
- Not being ashamed of feelings.
- Believing you can cope as well as others do.
- Trusting that your bad feelings will not last long.
- Assuming there’s hope–you can do something about your bad feelings eventually.
5. Some Highly Sensitive People are also High Sensation Seekers – and extraverts
There is a percentage of Highly Sensitive People who are also “High Sensation Seeking”. If you a high sensation seeking sensitive person, you have conflicting wants and needs. You tread a tightrope between being bored and overstimulated.
High Sensation Seekers may have the following traits: natural explorers, desire to take risks, experience or novelty seeking, disinhibition and susceptibility to boredom.
Of this portion of the population, Elaine says “[this] is a great blend to be. You can be a natural leader, once you learn how to express yourself to non-HSPs, who can find your insights amazing, but also strange or difficult to accept.”
Another expert, Dr Tracy Cooper, said “Peaceful coexistence of the two traits in one person is entirely possible, but it does require a deep awareness of one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs and a commitment to a certain amount of moderation. When a successful balance is established, the sensation seeking HSP may experience the best of both worlds by embodying a sense of exploration coupled with an appropriate inhibiting mechanism.”
Also, not all Highly Sensitive People are introverts – 30% are extraverts.
Highly Sensitive People are more emotionally reactive and process all experience more deeply in the brain. They are highly empathetic, may be overstimulated by certain things (although this is on a highly individualized basis), and are sensitive to subtle sensory stimulation. This type of person tends to observe before acting, to reflect and plan before moving forward to investigate.
The Highly Sensitive Person is generally more concerned with their internal psychic processes than in the external world.
For help with managing as a Highly Sensitive Person, I encourage you to read Elaine’s book, which is full of encouragement such as the following:
“You were born to be among the advisers and thinkers, the spiritual and moral leaders for your society. There is every reason for pride.”