I have a sensitive personality. All my 80 years, I have had to be on guard daily to not get overloaded emotionally. No matter how vigilant I am, it still happens. I have learned to listen to that 1st red flag. If I feel overwhelmed, I say No. Sometimes I have to say it over and over until I say “I am leaving because you aren’t listening”. I communicate best through my writing.
Being a highly sensitive person — which, according to Elaine Aron, includes 15 to 20% of the population — is often grouped in online forums with being an introvert, an empath, or a Myers-Briggs INFJ. Aron’s questionnaire is currently the only validated tool to determine whether an adult is a highly sensitive person.
Twenty-three years later, her book has sold a million copies worldwide and spawned a cottage industry of books for the highly sensitive person, or HSP, in love, at work, and more.
Comedian Kristal Adams, who hosts a podcast called Too Sensitive for Comedy, says that discovering the HSP label helped her understand the “different communication issues” she had with people in a society that can disparage the idea of sensitivity (for example, the derisive use of the term “snowflake”).
“It was just finally understanding, this way that I’m feeling is different,” Adams says. “This is why I’m having a hard time being like these people in this way. Now that I know it, I know what I can do — I know what ways I can either adapt or take care of myself so that I can function, quote unquote, normally.”
Singer Alanis Morissette has said she “cried throughout the reading of the entire book [The Highly Sensitive Person] out of sheer self-recognition” and last year, artist and rapper Kanye West described himself as an HSP during an interview with The Breakfast Club radio show co-host Charlamagne tha God.
When I first encountered a description of what it means to be an HSP, it was like looking at myself in the mirror. I hadn’t realized there was a specific term to describe my way of perceiving the world. It brought me incredible relief to know I wasn’t alone.
If you suspect you might be an HSP, see if you relate to the characteristics below.
- Your empathic nature makes you a master of emotional intelligence and relating to others.
- You have a vibrant inner life. For you, being alone is grounding, not lonely.
- You think before you act. This means you excel at strategy and planning — that is, if you can move past second-guessing yourself and perfectionism-induced procrastination.
- You are conscientious and prepare, which makes you trustworthy and reliable. But if you’re caught off-guard in a meeting or conversation, you get easily overstimulated and may recoil.
- You’re able to sense conflict and mitigate it before it becomes a problem (and often before others are even aware of it). This is one reason HSPs are great problem solvers and team members.
- You have a low annoyance threshold. It’s particularly hard for you to work in noisy (sirens going by are the worst), overly bright, or aesthetically abrasive environments. You have trouble concentrating if you feel slightly uncomfortable. You also might be extra-sensitive to fragrances or coarse fabrics.
- You love connecting with people, but at a big party you’re most likely to be found in a quiet corner chatting with a few people, getting into deep, far-ranging topics (or hanging out with the resident dog or cat).
- You are deeply moved by art, literature, or music and often unexplainably affected after witnessing the pain or suffering of other human beings. This is why HSPs tend to excel in careers like medicine, teaching, and even social entrepreneurship, but it also means HSPs need to be mindful about the news and content they consume.
- You cry more easily, both from sadness and happiness.
If you relate to most or all of the qualities above, chances are that you possess the unique brain chemistry that’s innate to HSPs. You can take a self-test designed by Elaine Aron here.