First published by Bett Harris on Medium April 9, 2019.
I’ve been asked this question many times by people close to me.
I can tell when my sensitivity annoys people. No words need to be spoken. I know I make people uncomfortable. I’ve lived with this reality my entire life. Yes, I am what is considered a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP. Not an empowering label at first glance, but please allow me to shed some light on this misunderstood trait.
The term HSP was coined in the mid-1990s by psychologists Elaine Aron and her husband Arthur Aron. Since then, and notably most recently, research has uncovered some very interesting facts about this trait (click here to watch video).
20% of the population have this trait.
Twenty percent is a significant proportion. Significant enough to offer substantial evolutionary advantages. Along with humans the trait is found in at least 100 different animal species and affects men and women equally.
The main characteristics of HSP are Depth of Processing, Easily Overstimulated, Empathy, and Awareness of Subtle Stimuli, or DOES.
To state it most simply, this trait splits species into 2 groups, one that pays attention and one that doesn’t. There are pros and cons to both. The highly sensitive and the non-highly sensitive are neither advantageous on their own, but the synergy of the 2 groups working together makes for a heap of benefits for the whole group.
It’s important that you understand life from my perspective.
The characteristics of being an HSP mean that I process more information than the other 80% of the population. I pick up tonnes of information from my environment and then I process the s**t out of it. It’s not a choice. It’s an inherent part of my personality and genetic make-up.
This trait also causes me to be overstimulated easily, then I can become overwhelmed if I’m not careful. I must have my down-time. Loud noises startle me…always, so quiet must be part of my self-care. I opt for small groups instead of large, and my own company is often my preference. This is not because I’m antisocial but because I wear out quickly from too much sensory stimuli.
Even harsh clothing and smells can make me very uncomfortable.
I’m super-sensitive to violence and cruelty. I have to say “No” to the news, and I do not watch scary or violent movies. I can be traumatized for days after witnessing such things. That’s because I share others experiences on some level. My degree of empathy puts me right in their shoes, so I feel their pain, fear, loneliness, you name it.
If forced to encounter cruelty or violence say as a child, HSP’s are far more likely to develop depression, PTSD, or other debilitating conditions as a result.
I can see things coming before they happen. Not always but it does occur. I used to think I was imagining this. It happens because I pick up on subtle stimuli that most others miss. Also, because I have processed like this all my life, I have information stored that I can use to help predict outcomes. This is very unnerving to most people.
This all happens simultaneously and unconsciously.
On the other hand, HSP’s are an invaluable part of the equation for success and advancement.
Our abilities help in the workplace, home, anyplace where facts need to be reviewed, questions need to be answered and choices need to be made. We have ingenuity and are often the movers and shakers of society. We make great leaders because we think and see outside the box. Without us, danger may not be avoided, new paths may not be forged, and the best decisions may not be made.
Well known people who exude(d) characteristics of HSP.
Abraham Lincoln, Jane Goodall, Princess Diana, Katherine Hepburn, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Glenn Close, Steve Martin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson to name only a few.
I understand I am different than most of the population.
I’ve learned to live with the fact that I’m an HSP. I don’t see it as good or bad. It’s just who I am. I know some of my characteristics make life inconvenient and even difficult for others. I think this is because people don’t understand why HSP’s act the way we do. I hope I have helped you understand us a bit better. My hope is that we all come to a better awareness of the uniqueness of the HSP and how we fit into the bigger plan. Only then can we all benefit.
No man is an island — John Donne