“You’re so sensitive.”
“I can’t believe you’re not over that by now!”
“Others will think you’re weak if you don’t pull yourself together.”
“Don’t make such a big deal out of it.”
“No one else feels that way.”
“I don’t understand why you’re so affected by this!”
Sound familiar? Perhaps as you read the above statements you felt heat, chills, tension, or other sensations coursing through your body as you thought back to all the times you’ve been misunderstood for the way you react to the world around you.
Although being in touch with emotions and our surrounding environment is undervalued in a society that tends to emphasize individualism, high productivity, efficiency, and so-called emotional “strength” (i.e., a lack of emotional expressivity), researchers have found that around one fifth of the population is innately wired for emotional and sensory awareness, slower and more intentional processing, and increased empathy. These individuals are characterized in the literature as Highly Sensitive People (HSPs).
What is High Sensitivity?
Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term high sensitivity (Sensory-Processing Sensitivity is the official scientific term often used in research) in the 1990s. High sensitivity entails perceiving the environment closely before acting, often picking up on subtle cues that others miss.
Evidence of the trait has been found in both human and animal species. Since an estimated 15 to 20% of the population exhibits high sensitivity, it is not rare enough to constitute a diagnosis, nor is it common enough to be well understood.
High sensitivity is an innate trait, or a stable characteristic that HSPs exhibit from birth. It is different than shyness, which is often thought of as a learned fear of social judgment that is situationally dependent. In fact, HSPs typically have strong social skills but getting to know them on a deeper level takes time.
HSPs tend to process and experience life events more intensely. Positive life events are highly meaningful and fulfilling, while negative ones may be experienced as particularly painful—this phenomenon is often referred to as vantage sensitivity or differential susceptibility in research.
Fortunately, attachment researchers have noted that goodness of fit between parenting styles and child temperament can serve as a buffer to negative life experiences. In fact, highly sensitive individuals demonstrate even betteroutcomes than non-HSPs when in supportive surroundings because they gain more from positive environments due to their increased sensitivity.
The acronym DOES can be helpful to remember the key traits of HSPs:
Depth of Processing
HSPs tend to process information at a deeper level and for longer. They may find significant connections between past and present experiences and often process their thoughts in a highly intentional, introspective way before sharing them.
With deep processing comes a higher likelihood of feeling overwhelmed. Taking in many aspects of the surrounding environment can feel meaningful yet draining. Many HSPs report needing breaks between social activities or avoiding spaces that are too stimulating.
As noted above, researchers have found that HSPs react more strongly to both positive and negative experiences, and these effects are often compounded by an HSP’s attachment style developed in childhood.
HSPs also tend to exhibit awareness and understanding of others’ emotional experiences, which conveys empathy. Certain areas of the brain are highly activated in HSPs when responding to others’ emotions. One example is increased activity of mirror neurons in the brain. When an HSP sees someone express an emotion like sadness, neurons in the brain fire in a similar way to the neurons of the person being observed, allowing an HSP to connect with what sadness feels like.
HSPs commonly demonstrate attention to slight shifts in the environment or nonverbal cues of others. They pick up on stimuli that others may easily overlook, which can be helpful as HSPs make decisions about how best to interact with their surrounding environments. They also tend to react more strongly to sensory information, such as lighting, volume, textures, and scents.
High sensitivity can also look like…
…thinking so deeply about a topic of conversation that by the time you have your thoughts together, others have already moved on to a new subject.
…feeling easily bored or unfulfilled by engaging in “small-talk.”
…being more strongly affected by medications, caffeine, alcohol, or substances in lower doses/amounts.
…having a lower threshold for pain or sensory stimuli (e.g., brightness, temperature, textures).
…feeling strongly impacted by art or (emotionally) expressive content.
…enjoying and/or excelling at tuning into the needs of others, while sometimes feeling a lack of reciprocal support.
…routinely being the catalyst for emotional deepening in conversations or group spaces.
Think you might be highly sensitive? Take a quick self-test here.
Prevalence of HSPs:
1 in 5 people are highly sensitive (20%).
It’s estimated that 50% or more of therapy clients are HSPs.
Though the majority of HSPs are introverts, 30% are extroverts.
High sensitivity is equally present across all genders.
Commonly Reported Struggles for HSPs:
- Experiencing low self-esteem or shame related to one’s sensitivity
- Can feel easily overwhelmed
- Heightened proneness to depression, anxiety, or related concerns
- Downplaying sensitivity to fit in with the wider culture
- Feeling strong reactions to feedback or constructive criticism
- Struggling to create/maintain long-term relationships (e.g., due to difficulty prioritizing personal needs)
- Difficulty setting boundaries, or feeling intense guilt for implementing them
- Avoiding conflict (to avoid increased arousal)
- Can be difficult to navigate change or quick decision-making due to depth of processing
- Ending relationships that are unsatisfactory
- Strain with loved ones who misunderstand high sensitivity
Commonly Reported Strengths of HSPs:
- Having a strong attunement to loved ones’ needs
- Often highly detail-oriented and conscientious
- Provide balance in relationships and groups (e.g., invite introspection and meaningful silence)
- Experience deep intimacy in close relationships
- Many are highly gifted/intelligent
- Positive lived experiences are highly rewarding
- Enjoy rich inner worlds and vivid imaginations
- Feel comfortable spending time with oneself
- Deeply moved by art, animals, spirituality, and/or sensory stimuli
- Progress quickly in therapy (presuming goodness of fit) due to more intensely responding to positive experiences
- Claim high sensitivity as a superpower that fosters unique individual strengths!
While these lists are not exhaustive, they present a window into the potential shared experiences of HSPs. Other identity variables (e.g., race, gender, spirituality, neurodivergence, etc.) and lived experiences (e.g., trauma, chronic pain, depression/anxiety) may intersect with high sensitivity in unique ways**. Some of these intersections will be explored in an ongoing blog series—comment below any topics you’d like to see explored in connection with high sensitivity!
**Since HSPs experience their worlds more intensely, exposure to negative life events or relationships can lead to heightened proneness to mental health concerns. However, HSPs are also sensitive to positive experiences and can benefit from exploring what kinds of spaces they find the most nurturing and supportive. Some HSPs may increase such awareness through engaging in their own introspective processes, while others may prefer finding a therapist who works with high sensitivity and/or identifies as an HSP. You can find a list of HSP-knowledgeable therapists here.
Learn more about high sensitivity: Review empirical research on high sensitivity (using search terms like sensory-processing sensitivity, vantage sensitivity, or differential susceptibility), read The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron, or visit https://hsperson.com/.
Make space for downtime: Create intentional space for self-care and introspection, which can benefit HSPs by allowing them to integrate their experiences.
Integrate mindfulness interventions: Gaining awareness of bodily cues and emotions can help HSPs notice when they are beginning to feel overstimulated. These cues can help inform them when it’s time to unplug or seek support.
Set appropriate boundaries: Remind yourself it is okay to say “no” and ask for what you need. In fact, setting boundaries can enhance your ability to show up for loved ones—no one can pour from an empty cup!
Celebrate sensitivity as a strength: Embrace your unique gifts as an HSP! Self-compassion exercises can be useful when struggling with aspects of sensitivity that are often critiqued in Western culture, while therapy can be a supportive space to explore complex attitudes about high sensitivity.