Have you often been told you’re ‘too sensitive’? Are you easily affected by the moods of others? Do you seem to notice subtleties in your environment that other people don’t? Can you ‘mind-read’ the emotions of others without them telling you how they’re feeling? Do big crowds make you uncomfortable? Are you averse to watching violence on TV?
Do you cry easily? Would you do far worse on a task if someone was watching you perform it than you would if you were able to do it without supervision? Do you feel the need to retreat and recharge often, almost as if you had an internal battery that easily runs out of steam?
If you answered yes to many of the above questions (you can take a full quiz here), chances are you may be what is referred to as a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP. Though you may feel like you don’t fit in, or that there’s something ‘wrong’ with you as a result of these characteristics, the truth is that this collection of attributes is found in 15-20% of the population.
HSPs are often incorrectly identified as being shy; however, shyness is learned whereas these attributes are innate. Biologists have found high sensitivity in over 100 species, including dogs, cats, horses, and primates. They believed it was developed as a means of survival — HSPs tend to think before they act, and the brains of highly sensitive people and animals actually work differently than the brains of others. What’s more, some HSPs are actually full-on extroverts — somewhere around 30%, in fact — which is just further evidence that the nature of an HSP is largely misunderstood. Here is more on the science behind the idea of the HSP.
Each culture values sensitivity differently, and unfortunately, modern American culture is not one known to be friendly to HSPs. Aggressiveness and boldness in action are favored over introspection, and sensitivity is largely seen as a weakness. As such, many HSPs suffer from low self-esteem, as their internal belief that there is something wrong with them is actually backed up by the society in which they live.
The truth is, society needs both types of people for its survival — those who ‘run to face danger’ without thinking it through first, and those who contemplate the situation before taking action.
If you’re an HSP and suffer from depression as a result, it may be helpful to consider that studies have shown that groups of people who listened to the opinions of a HSP before acting performed better on challenges than those who listened to the loudest voice in the room. The truth is, society needs both types of people for its survival — those who ‘run to face danger’ without thinking it through first, and those who contemplate the situation before taking action. It may also be helpful to note that, according to Elaine Aron, the pioneer in HSP research, not only is high sensitivity not a disorder, it often goes hand-in-hand with being ‘gifted.’ Here are 5 other benefits of being an HSP, and here is more science behind why the world needs HSPs.
If you suspect you may be an HSP, here are some important coping strategies suggested by Aron that you may find helpful.
1. Get enough sleep and eat regularly, so your blood sugar doesn’t make drastic drops, and avoid caffeine (to which HSPs are extra-sensitive).
2. If you work in an open office plan, chances are you don’t do your best work while at work. HSPs achieve optimal performance in solitude and quiet. To mimic this effect when you can’t escape others, try noise-cancelling headphones.
3. If you know you’re going to have to attend a big event that requires you mingle in large crowds and make (dreaded-for-HSPs) small talk, schedule in time to decompress both before and after the event. This is incredibly important, as it will prevent you from becoming completely drained of energy.
4. On a similar note, don’t jam-pack your schedule if it’s at all avoidable. HSPs perform best when they have ‘free’ time in their everyday lives to rest, reflect, and recuperate.
5. Spend time outdoors. You may find that long hikes renew your energy and peace of mind, as do quiet, nature-based activities of any sort.
6. Invest in the HSP Workbook. It offers tons of activities that will help you build intensely helpful coping strategies into your everyday life and gives advice on how to create boundaries between yourself and others so that the emotions of those around you aren’t a constant drain on your own energy.
I’ve personally encountered a lot of prejudice for being an HSP and have been told ever since I can remember that I’m ‘too sensitive.’ This has often resulted in depression, and there are many areas of my life that are negatively affected by what is sometimes an inability to protect myself adequately. I have found the HSP Workbook to be immensely helpful, however, in navigating the areas I struggle with most, and I believe it can help you protect what is special about you as an HSP while alleviating some of the depression and anxiety that can often result from the cultural stigmas surrounding it.
Do you think (or know) you’re an HSP?
Image via Michelle Madsen