Are you good at noticing subtle details? Do you notice other people’s moods? Do these moods affect you? Are you easily overwhelmed when there is too much going on around you? Do you get overstimulated and perform worse when someone is looking at you? Do you also learn without realizing that you are learning?
If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you, like me, are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Chances are that you have always known this, but never had a way of framing what this meant for yourself. Your might have been called “too sensitive” and your sensitivity might have been seen as a weakness. You might have tried to “toughen up” or numbed parts of yourself in an attempt to cope with this judgment.
But the truth is that there is nothing wrong with you.
The truth is that you possess the biological trait of Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).
This trait was researched and then popularized by Dr Elaine Aron in her path-breaking book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. SPS is a distinct personality trait that shows up in as many as one out of every five people.
According to Dr Aron’s definition, the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of nuances in his/her surroundings that others might miss, and so, is more easily overwhelmed in a highly stimulating environment. But the main quality that HSPs posess is that they process everything around them much more. They reflect on it and make associations. They understand it deeply.
This kind of processing is actually a survival strategy and is found in many species, not just human beings.
You might have been labeled “shy” or “timid” or “inhibited,” in the past, but these labels miss the essential quality of the HSP trait. HSPs are acutely aware of the numerous possibilities in a situation. Because of this, they pause before acting. They think about past situations, and check off what they already know with what is happening in the present.
That can be a huge strength in many situations.
You are able to see and make associations that others might not even be conscious of.
In a world that increasingly prefers “bold” personalities that just do it, your style, however, may have been discounted. But pausing to act is not weakness. It is consideration. Being able to see associations means that you have ways of combining information and seeing connections that help you be more creative. All these are wonderful benefits of the HSP trait.
But then why does being an HSP often feel so challenging?
This is the result of something called differential susceptibility. Just as good experiences affect people with the SPS trait deeply, in the same way, bad experiences sink in deeper for us as well.
If you have had some kind of trauma in your past, that might be the reason why you find your sensitivity such hard work. Because you process things deeply, you were likely deeply affected by trauma of any kind — physical abuse, an accident, an illness. Your challenges is to get to the root of that trauma (with professional help) and gut out the after-effects of trauma. These are real after-shocks and you are likely suffering because your pain has gone deep.
But even if you have had a relatively “normal” life, as an HSP, you might still feel on the outside, looking in.
You don’t react like other people do. Your experience is unique. You are part of a minority. You often feel misunderstood.
You might have never learnt enough about your sensitivity to see how it affects your life. You might have learnt bad habits that carry on till this day. And you might have internalized beliefs that other people have about sensitivity.
As HSPs, our task is to re-frame our trait in terms of new knowledge. We have to weed out beliefs from our own soil, and think about what makes us who we are. Yes, we can be easily overwhelmed. But that’s because we process deeply. Are we going to give up a strength for some bit of fallout? Or are we going to objectively accept our trait and see that it all comes together. One thing can’t exist without the other.
If what you have been reading has resonated with you but you are still wondering whether you are an HSP, Dr Elaine Aron’s self-test can help you figure that out.
I hope that knowing more about the HSP trait will help you wherever you are in your journey. In this blog, I talk about my own experiences with my sensitivity. Maybe some part of my story will resonate with you, or give you a little piece for your own puzzle.
Welcome to this blog ! It’s great to have you here.