A few years ago I was interviewing a psychologist for a piece I was writing about introversion, when he mentioned a term that I had never come across: the 'highly sensitive person'. His description of this person sounded so like me that I forgot all about the piece I was writing in order to find out more. My editor wasn’t happy.
The term 'highly sensitive person' (or HSP) was coined by psychologist Dr Elaine Aron and her husband Arthur in the mid '90s. Her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You has sold over a million copies. In it, she details a personality trait which she reckons can be found in around 15-20% of the population. If right, the HSP trait may go some way to explaining why so many of us find it so easy to get overwhelmed and emotionally fraught in situations that don’t seem to affect others at all.
According to Aron, highly sensitive people (also defined as having 'sensory processing sensitivity') process physical, emotional and social stimuli at a deeper cognitive level. This means they can become uncomfortable if exposed to bright lights or loud noises. They are overwhelmed easily. Emotional issues weigh deeper and they are able to pick up on subtleties where others may not.
If this sounds like you, the HSP test on Dr Aron’s website may be a good place to start your research. There are also plenty of books about the trait, of which Dr Aron’s should be your first stop. For further research, and with an added spiritual angle, consider taking a look at new book The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People by Mel Collins, a psychotherapeutic counsellor who defines herself as a highly sensitive person and has worked with clients who also have the trait for more than 15 years.
"Somebody who is an HSP tends to process their emotions more deeply and intensely than [others]," Mel tells me. "They get affected by environmental and sensory stimuli that others are not bothered by in the least." According to Mel, everything from overcrowded places to changes in the weather can overstimulate an HSP's sensory nervous system, which can leave them feeling "frazzled". But there are positives to being an HSP too. "I find that HSPs are really empathetic people," she says. "They’re extremely compassionate and usually deeply reflective as well." They’re also aware of subtleties that others are not – like the fact that their friend might be smiling on the outside but is struggling with something emotionally underneath.
That said, it’s worth recognising the bother that an HSP can experience in everyday life – like in the workplace. Mel used to work in a prison, which was a hectic environment with alarms going off and doors slamming at all times. She remembers how often she'd have to retreat to a toilet cubicle to reduce over-arousal in her sensory nervous system. A particularly loud open office could have a similar effect on an HSP. Loud meetings or music could overload them, leaving them hard-pressed to perform their job to the best of their ability.
When it comes to personal relationships, Mel says that having a highly sensitive personality can be both a blessing and a curse. "I personally think that HSPs make fabulous friends. They’re loyal, they’re good listeners, they’re really empathetic. They’re givers really," she says. But it can be hard if non-HSP friends don’t 'get' you. "I often felt quite criticised or judged that I wasn’t able to go out clubbing or if we were on a trip away and I wanted a few hours to myself to acclimatise." Mel also says that one-sided friendships are common among HSPs; because of the empathetic nature of HSPs and their ability to pick up on others' feelings, they very easily fall into the role of caring-friend-who-does-a-lot-of-listening-and-not-a-lot-of-talking. "It’s really important for an HSP to learn to get the balance right between giving and receiving," advises Mel. "[They] need to make sure all their friendships are reciprocal."
"There’s a natural propensity there to want to help people and that can come across as 'fixing' or, to the other degree, 'people pleasing' – just to fit in or belong."
"Sensitivity" isn’t always seen as a positive thing in the Western world, especially in the workplace, where we’re constantly told to "lean in". Alpha behaviour is recognised and celebrated, while betas often get lost in the melee. Mel is frustrated by this: "There is a real misunderstanding about HSPs in the workplace because they are some of the hardest workers you’ll ever get. HSPs can make incredible leaders and managers because they’re able to see the bigger picture, they have the bigger vision, but I don’t think [that attitude] is recognised so much in this day and age."
So how best to move forward if you think you may be highly sensitive? For Mel, the importance is to accept and understand the trait. Once you know your strengths, you can play on those, instead of trying to mimic how you think you should be feeling.
"I used to hate the fact that I'm an HSP," she says. "But if we criticise ourselves then we will attract more [criticisms] to us." If those criticisms do come, however, it’s important to try and not take them too seriously. "Try and see it as a lack of understanding from the other person. People who are highly sensitive have deeper levels of emotional processing."
Focus too on learning to set boundaries and saying "no" without feeling guilty. "I think that’s such a big one," says Mel. "If you can see that people are using you and it’s not reciprocated [then you need to] find ways of being able to step back. It’s not easy for HSPs to say no because they usually say yes."
HSPs can get overwhelmed if they’re put on the spot so Mel recommends having a phrase ready for unexpected situations, like "I’ll get back to you on that" before walking away. You can text later to say, "Unfortunately I’m not able to do that." To stop someone piling their problems on you, cut them off and signpost them elsewhere. Mel suggests a line like, "I’m sorry, it sounds like you’re going through a really tough time, if you go to X, they may be able to help." Or even, "There’s a counsellor that may be able to help you with that."
"You need to think, 'Does it feel good that I’m able to help others or is it a need [that I have]." If it’s a "need", she warns, you should find other ways of feeling significant or noticed.
In the end though, it mainly comes down to giving yourself a break. "HSPs can be harder on themselves than other people because of the depth of processing we do," Mel says. "It’s really important for us to start to notice the self talk that goes on on the inside. Would you speak to somebody else like that? Then why do it to yourself?" HSPs are so compassionate with others, she says, so why not with themselves?
Overall, Mel wants people to know that having an HSP isn’t a flaw or weakness. "I want it to be seen as a gift," she says. Most HSPs always have an open heart, no matter how badly they get hurt – which is pretty darn admirable. "They would still help anyone if asked. And that’s so important."