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What is a Highly Sensitive Person? A High-Level Overview

“What is wrong with me?”

I can’t tell you how many times I asked that to myself. It really hit me hard when I started my career. I can tell you several stories, but the one I’ll share today starts with my former employer. On performance review after performance review, I was told I was too sensitive. 

Sensitivity doesn’t have a good rep in Western culture. It’s inaccurately associated to shyness, low self-esteem, and the inability to think logically. 

It was no wonder that in my late 20s, I felt defeated in my career. As long I was an employee at this company or anywhere else, I was pegged as “sensitive” and there was no turning back.

Long story short, I decided to see a therapist while simultaneously learn about emotional intelligence on my own and through courses and programs. About five years later, something clicked: Sensitivity was my superpower, and the only thing holding me back was my lack of confidence. 

That shift in mindset saved my life. It opened to new doors and a new sense of self. In our society, the preconception of “sensitive” is far from the truth. It’s time to rethink what the word means; take it apart and redefine it. In this article, we’ll go over the scientific research of what it means to be sensitive. 

What is a highly sensitive person?

The term “highly sensitive person” (HSP) was coined by Elaine Aron, psychologist and author of The Highly Sensitive Person. It is a more general way of referring to the scientific term “sensory processing sensitivity” which is defined as: “An increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli.”

The science and research behind sensory processing sensitivity is nothing new. The problem is HSPs have been highly misunderstood for decades. Although about 20% of the population are considered highly sensitive, non-HSPs still dominate, and with their more assertive and confident demeanors, we continue to live in the shadows. But that’s not to say that things are shifting. 

Positive traits of an HPS compared to a non-HSP

An HSP’s mind works differently than non-HSPs. Most HSPs share the following traits that make us perfect candidates in relationships, work, and other aspects of our lives:

  • Very intuitive 
  • Highly conscientious 
  • Able to sense how others are feeling (empathy)
  • Without distraction, the ability to concentrate deeply
  • Process information on a deeper level, known as “semantic memory” 

A word on arousal and stimulation

Whether you’re an HSP or a non-HSP, everyone feels best when they reach an optimal level of stimulation and arousal. Finding balance between the two helps us to be the most effective in our thinking, our actions, and overall decision making. 

When it comes to reaching an optimal level of effectiveness, every person’s nervous system responds differently to similar situations even under the same level of stimulation. 

HSPs tend to process information differently. We pick on more subtleties, we’re more aware of non-verbal and verbal cues, we absorb other people’s emotions, and we attend to details more thoroughly more so than non-HSPs. The way we process information strengthens our intuition.

But because of deeper processing and our heightened awareness around subtleties, we shutdown faster than non-HSPs, which psychology calls “transmarginal inhibition.” Our biggest differentiator from non-HSPs is our tendency to shutdown faster — this is where we are the most understood. 

How to handle being a highly sensitive person

Yes! You can be an HSP and live a very abundant life. As long as you accept and embrace the gifts of being an HSP, you’ll learn how to use your gifts as an advantage. On a high level, here are steps on how to manage being an HSP. 

1. Self-knowledge

Identifying as an HSP and understanding what it means can help you build the cognitive skills to embrace what makes you sensitive and learning how to use it to your advantage. Without self-knowledge, we tend to live a life confused, frustrated, and constantly disappointed because we lack the skills to acknowledge and awareness of how our sensitivity is showing up. 

2. Reframing 

We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it. “Reframing” is used in cognitive psychotherapy and is a great technique in looking at situations and events in a different way. For HSPs, we can start to reframe past, current, and future situations with better understanding — which ultimately heightens our wisdom.

3. Healing

Taking the time to face our memories and past hardships (such as a bad relationship, a falling out with a friend, a troubled childhood, etc.), we can use both our self-knowledge and reframing skills to start to heal and let go of the past. We seek forgiveness through newfound wisdom

4. Educating 

Elaine Aron’s book was first published in 1996. Today, there is more resources than ever before for HSPs, but there is still a lot of work to do. When we start to build the confidence in being an HSP, we’re more willing to educate our peers, friends, and significant others on how we’re wired.

We’re also more willing to ask for what we need without shame. Education can help us feel more confident by allowing ourselves to be heard. 

Highly sensitive person FAQs

Because HSPs are highly misunderstood, there are a lot of misconceptions and assumptions about what it means to be an HSP. Here are some common questions about HSPs.

1. Are HSPs introverts?

About 30% of HSPs are extroverts and some introverts are not HSPs. With that said, it’s very common for an HSP to be an introvert, but to consider all HSPs to be introverts is not accurate. 

2. What Myers-Briggs personality types are often HSPs?

Although any personality type can have HSP tendencies, the types more prone to being highly sensitive are INFJs and INFPs.

3. How can I find out if I’m an HSP?

The best place to start is by taking Dr. Elaine N. Aron’s HSP quiz here. But I highly suggest seeing a therapist if you are experiencing anxiety or depression and feel as if it might be caused by a lack of understanding and managing hyper sensitivity. 

If you know you’ve been an HSP for a while, but you’re looking for ways to be more effective at work or in your relationships, you can learn more about my coaching services for HSPs by clicking here. 

Gain clarity, wisdom, and confidence

Tonia Moon Consulting was founded to help HSPs navigate what it means and how to show up in a non-HSP world. Through common experiences and emotional intelligence best practices, you’ll be given the clarity, wisdom, and confidence you need to thrive without changing a thing about who you are. 

Contact me to learn about my services.

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