Am I Highly Sensitive?
Let me start by saying that it’s not all-or-nothing. It’s not that you’re either HSP or not. According to Evans & Rothbart (2008), High Sensitivity is a combination of the dimensions Negative Affect ( = ease of experiencing negative emotions) & Orienting Sensitivity ( = the ability to notice stimuli of low intensity). High Sensitivity means that you have an above average score on both dimensions. So it’s possible to be more or less Highly Sensitive. And it’s also possible to be not Highly Sensitive: if someone scores low on Negative Affect and/or Orienting Sensitivity.
Below some typical characteristics of HSPs. Please be aware that you don’t need to have them all in order to ‘qualify’ as an HSP. And it’s also possible that people who are less/not HSP do show some of these characteristics.
- You can notice easily subtleties in your environment
- You can easily spot typos when reading an article
- You notice sounds and smells which other people don’t seem to notice
- You feel stressed often and easily
- In a conversation, you pick up the smallest non-verbal cues
- After a conversation, you can find yourself still processing the details of it, even after a couple of days
- Because you process so much information, you can easily feel overwhelmed; there’s too much information to process
- Loud noises can make you feel very uncomfortable
- You need time in order to adjust yourself to new situations or in general to changes
- You can feel deeply moved by emotions of others, for example when watching a movie
- You have a very strong empathy
- You tend to analyse past experiences and future choices thoroughly
- Sometimes you can feel sad for days (or longer)
- You have a strong sense of responsibility
- You have a good eye for beauty and art
Most HSPs haven’t had the luck to grow up in an environment that was supportive (or at least tolerant) towards their sensitivity. As a result of this, many HSPs developed strategies to handle their sensitivity in a less-sensitive environment. Some examples of these coping mechanisms:
- Suppression of own needs
- Taking over responsibility of others
- Strong self-criticism
- Trying to ‘solve’ difficult emotions by reasoning
- Avoiding situations that could be too intense
- Avoiding conflict at all costs
- Not stating personal boundaries
- Fear of failing/perfectionism
Does High Sensitive mean that I’m sad most of the time?
First of all, the two dimensions which together form High Sensitivity (Negative Affect and Orienting Sensitivity) are not the only dimensions that determine a personality. Another dimension is Positive Affect ( = the ease of experiencing positive emotions). The scores on Negative and Positive Affect are not related. So next to a high Negative Affect score (which is part of the HSP-definition), HSPs can also have a high Positive Affect score. Being HSPs doesn’t mean you can enjoy life less!
Second, the strong ability to really feel negative emotions doesn’t imply that you must feel negative most of the time. Life isn’t just about setbacks and painful moments. There are also enough joyful moments after all. Just you need some emotional self-regulation skills. As Van Hoof (2017) puts it; the difference between High Sensitivity as a talent and High Sensitivity as an impairment is the level of self-regulation. The good news is that these skills can be trained.
Is High Sensitivity a disorder?
No. High Sensitivity is a personality style, not a disorder. It is perhaps not the easiest personality style. You can imagine that a person who doesn’t feel negative emotions easily has an easier life. But be aware that it’s a package deal. Being more receptive towards negative feelings comes together with the ability to truly feel. To be fully open to what is, seeing through layers. Most HSPs wouldn’t want to miss that part of their inner life.
Can I have High Sensitivity and ADD/ADHD at the same time?
Technically speaking yes. The labels High Sensitivity on the one hand and AD(H)D on the other come from two distinct psychological fields. High Sensitivity is a personality style with it’s origins in personality psychology. AD(H)D is a psychological disorder with it’s origins in clinical psychology.
From a diagnostic point of view however, it’s very difficult to separate HS and AD(H)D. According to the Belgian psychologist Van Hoof, the only difference is that a person with ADD/ADHD experiences focus problems regardless of the state she/he is in (for example excited or tired) and regardless of the situation (for example at school, work or home). An HSP will only experience focus problems when he/she is tired and/or over-aroused.
Having worked extensively with HSPs, I’ve come to the conclusion that many people with AD(H)D are misdiagnosed (they are wrongly labeled). I like to contend that many people with this label haven’t discovered yet that their ‘mind fog’ and focus problems come from over-arousal. And that this over-arousal is caused by the lack of safety they experience in certain situations.
I typically ask two questions to differentiate between High Sensitivity and AD(H)D; “Are there situations in your daily life where you feel safe and accepted? Do you experience focus problems in these situations?”. If the answer to the first question is ‘no’, then it’s not possible to differentiate between High Sensitivity and AD(H)D. Every sensitive person would show focus problems when feeling unsafe all the time!
In case someone does have situations where he/she feels safe and accepted and he/she doesn’t experience focus problems, then this person is clearly Highly Sensitive. The label AD(H)D can then be thrown in the bin.