What exactly is a Highly Sensitive Person? Is it a ‘self-diagnosis’ buzzword, or should we pay it some attention? And is it good, bad or neither? Sarah Lang investigates.
In season one of The White Lotus (yes, we’re still obsessed), Olivia’s fellow college-student friend Paula complains about something (I think the curtains being pulled open), saying “I’m an HSP”. That’s short for Highly Sensitive Person. Olivia’s Sheryl Sandberg-esque mother Nicole scoffs, saying something like ‘that’s not real’ and ‘who’s her physician, Lena Dunham?’.” Being the legend she is, Lena posted a Tweet that said “being referenced in episode 2 of The White Lotus is the only social capital I’ll be leaning on for the next 15 years”.
Even though they’re fictional, Nicole’s comments suggest that being an HSP isn’t a real thing, and that saying you are one is overdramatic at best. But after researching this topic and talking to people about being HSPs, this absolutely is a real thing.
Many people don’t talk about being an HSP much, if at all, primarily because they’re concerned about being thought of as an overdramatic ‘self-diagnoser’. A friend of mine would be willing to be named as an HSP if it only involved herself – to help destigmatise it and show she embraces it – but she decided against it because her two children are HSPs and deserve their privacy.
First of all, it’s worth shucking off any preconceived notions or assumptions and ask yourself if you’ve ever thought of yourself as a sensitive person. If the answer’s yes, have you ever thought of yourself as a highly sensitive person? If so, you may be a capitalised Highly Sensitive Person. The term is not a diagnosis, there’s no diagnostic test. Rather, it describes someone who has a certain set of personality traits. According to Psychology Today, about 15 to 20% of the population are ‘highly sensitive’ people. Yes, really. Close to one in five of us.
Meaning if you don’t qualify as one, odds are that one or more people close to you are HSPs. Most of them don’t know that, so how could you? That is, unless you’re sensitive enough to suspect this is the case!
What Is A Highly Sensitive Person, exactly?
Basically, HSPs are wired differently than the rest of us.
Dr Elizabeth Scott, an author, educator, workshop leader, and award-winning blogger on various aspects of emotional wellbeing, has written a medically reviewed article for verywellmind.com called ‘What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?’. “A highly sensitive person (HSP),” she writes, “is a neurodivergent individual who is thought to have an increased or deeper central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. Some refer to this as having Sensory Processing Sensitivity, or SPS for short.”
“It is important to remember that there is no official Highly Sensitive Person diagnosis, and being an HSP does not mean that you have a mental illness. High sensitivity is a personality trait that involves increased responsiveness to both positive and negative influences… While highly sensitive people are sometimes negatively described as being ‘too sensitive,’ it is a personality trait that brings both strengths and challenges.”
Here are some of the personality traits and characteristics common to HSPs, as Scott explains. 1) Avoiding violent movies or TV shows because they feel too intense and leave you feeling unsettled. B) Being deeply moved by beauty, either expressed in art, nature, or the human spirit, or sometimes even a good commercial. 3) Being overwhelmed by sensory stimuli like noisy crowds, bright lights, or uncomfortable clothing. 4) Feeling a need for downtime (not just a preference), especially when you have hectic days; needing to retreat to a dark, quiet room. 5) Having a rich and complex inner life, complete with deep thoughts and strong feelings that go with them.
Is Being A Highly Sensitive Person Really A Thing?
The term Highly Sensitive Person is starting to get some attention, arguably because there’s now a bit less stigmatisation attached to neurodivergent people. But it’s not a recent acronym. The term was coined by American psychologists Elaine Aron and her husband Arthur Aron in the 1990s, when Elaine began research in the area – particularly around Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, something HSPs experience.
Thehighly-regarded clinical research psychologist has written books The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, The Highly Sensitive Parent, The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook, The Highly Sensitive Person In Love, and The Highly Sensitive Child.
Elaine created the website hsperson.com, which helps HSPs (and people with children who are HSPs) to find resources. Some people comment on Elaine’s blog posts, which is one way HSPs can connect. As Elaine points out to HSPs on her website, “Your trait is normal. It is found in 15 to 20% of the population – too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority of those around you.”
Elaine also set up The Foundation for the Study of the Highly Sensitive Person to educate the public and help fund studies in the area, to add to a now well-established body of research (hsperson.com/research).
How Do You Know If You’re A Highly Sensitive Person?
Elaine developed a questionnaire known as Elaine’s Highly Sensitive Persons Scale to help you decipher if you’re an HSP. If you tick more than 14 of the 27 questions, you qualify.
Here are a few of them. “I’m bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes.” “I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things”. “I’m sensitive to pain and caffeine.” “I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.” “I am deeply moved by the arts or music.” “When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.” There’s also a quiz for children.
There are the usual necessary disclaimers with this science-based quiz: “it’s not the same as psychological testing; it’s not meant to diagnose or exclude any diagnosis”.
You could argue there’s a lot of self-diagnosis or ‘diagnosis shopping’ going on in the Western world right now. You could argue that this can actually be unhelpful because we’re putting ourselves in a box and pathologising ourselves, when actually we’re all on a spectrum of neurodiversity. Whatever your opinion, many people dealing with psychological or personality-based challenges certainly find it useful to belong to a flock, so to speak. And while using the term HSP as a buzzword is something to avoid, that doesn’t negate its existence as an actual phenomenon.
Wendy Wisner learned she was an HSP through hsperson.com. “For the first time someone was describing me and my son perfectly, down to the very last detail… I appreciated that for perhaps the first time, I didn’t have to view my sensitivity as a negative. Elaine describes HSP as a personality trait, something you’re born with, which means that it is not something you have manufactured yourself, or that you should be blamed for having.”
Another quiz called “Are you too sensitive” on Oprah.com is based on Elaine’s questionnaire, but builds in degrees: somewhat true, mostly true, very true, not at all true. Which is the ‘proper one’? Elaine’s. But maybe do both. It’s not great, though, that this quiz title uses the words “too sensitive”? Don’t sensitive shame, people!
The Upsides Of Being A Highly Sensitive Person
Being ‘highly sensitive’ is different from being ‘too sensitive’ (the latter unfortunately has negative connotations). There are upsides. For starters, HSPs can have unique and interesting trains of thought and points-of-view. Being intuitive, they can help put others at ease and can make great, compassionate friends. And they can find great beauty in art and literature, and have a rich imagination. Also, HSPs aren’t all shy – in fact 30% of HSPs are extroverts (though being an introvert isn’t, of course, a bad thing).
Julie Bjelland, a psychotherapist and educator, is author of the book The Empowered Highly Sensitive Person: How to Harness Your Sensitivity Into Strength in a Chaotic World, and has written accompanying workbooks. She hosts The HSP Podcast, provides an online home for HSPs called ‘the Sensitive Empowerment Community’ (juliebjelland.com), writes a blog, and provides free webinars, courses, information, and tools. She’s helped thousands of people deal with the challenges of being HSPs and recognise their value.
Should We Tell Others That We’re An HSP?
If you’re an HSP, you might tell family members and close friends but not anyone you think might openly or secretly pooh-pooh this. Would telling people help others adjust; as in, ‘hey I’m an HSP so I can come to your party if the music’s not too loud or otherwise I can wear earplugs’? Or would telling other people make you uncomfortably hyper-aware of how others might view you? Well, it depends. Certainly, the term HSP isn’t something to brush off as “just a buzzword”. If we learn and talk about it more, that can only be a good thing.