Am I Highly Sensitive?
High Sensitivity is a personality style which 20% of the general population has. HSPs see, feel, hear, smell, taste, think more than an average person. HSPs notice subtleties in their environment which other people often seem to miss. This is what Elaine Aron (the researcher who coined the term HSP) calls sensory sensitivity. Also because of this sensory sensitivity HSPs are highly empathetic. An HSP will for example notice it almost immediately when people around him/her are in disstress. But HSPs not only take in much more information than an average person, they also process information much more. A typical example is when an HSP still analyzes a conversation he/she had 2 days before.
Two examples of challenging situations for many HSPs
Imagine a conversation at work with your manager. Just when he is about to give you feedback on your work, his gaze freezes for a couple of seconds. Someone else would not have noticed this, but you did. Your mind starts analysing what this could mean while you become slightly nervous.
Or imagine you’re seeing a friend in a cafe. You hear people talking nearby. In the background you hear music. The door of the cafe keeps opening and closing. You just can’t keep your focus on the conversation with your friend.
Thriving with High Sensitivity
When an HSP is in the right environment and when an HSP gets enough time to process everything what happens outside around him/her, a HSP can thrive. He/she can enjoy art/music/conversations/other people/nature to a high extent, exactly because of his/her sensitivity.
When High Sensitivity can become a challenge
Things become more challenging when an HSP finds him-/herself back in environments that are less HSP-friendly. It’s hard for HSPs to ignore for example noise, penetrating smells, stress of other people, unfair situations and disingenuous persons. Where an average person would rather look the other way or distract him-/herself in order not to feel bothered, HSPs keep sensing and keep processing everything what’s happening around him/her. When it’s simply too much, a HSP can start feeling overwhelmed and becomes severely distressed. This is what Aron calls overstimulation. In these moments, HSPs can experience strong emotions and react in an emotional way.
Two typical characteristics of the HSP: responsibility & suppression of own needs
On top of all this, HSPs also tend to develop what I call secondary HSP-characteristics. Because of the high sense of empathy, many HSPs develop during their childhood and adult life a strong sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. They tend to combine this with a suppression of their own needs and sensitivity. Most of us grew up in a society and in families with little space for sensitivity. Parents stimulate & reward productivity, success and strength. Consideration, cautiousness and empathy are generally not so much rewarded. On the contrary, Many HSPs had rather negative experiences in their lives, when their environment didn’t understand their sensitivity and criticised them for it.
Combining a strong sense of responsibility with a suppression of own needs can easily cause problems. It’s not difficult for an employer to make an HSP work extra hours (even without compensation). In intimate relationships a pattern of giving while not demanding can cause unbalances.