You may have been told by others to stop “overreacting” or “being too sensitive”. Your family, friends, or community may tell you expressing emotions is a “sign of weakness”. You may identify as an empath and can’t help but connect with the feelings and emotions of those around you. You often feel like you don’t belong or are “different,” as your reactions may not align with that of your family or friends.
Sound familiar? Individuals who feel that they are more sensitive than others may be experiencing traits of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Being called sensitive is oftentimes viewed as a flaw. But in those “sensitive” actions, you are just acting on the emotions you’re feeling. The awareness of your ability to understand and react strongly to external forces is important to know about yourself.
Is being highly sensitive a bad thing?
Absolutely not! Although it might feel like your experiences are different from those around you, you’re doing what everyone is born to do – feel and process emotions.
- What factors may make you more sensitive than others
- Why you may feel unable to say “no” in many social situations
- How to change certain sensitive reactions and behaviors
Like our emotions, sensitive people are complex. Being able to process the root of your HSP with a therapist can help you view your high sensitivity as a strength instead of a weakness.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?
The term “Highly Sensitive Person” was coined in the ‘90s by psychologist and researcher Dr. Elaine Aron. She defines HSPs as “observant of subtleties and bothered more than others by high levels of stimulation”. In this case, “stimulation” can mean a lot of different things. It can be things in our environment like the emotions of others around us or loud noises. It can also be prolonged social situations like a day-long event or a party.
HSPs tend to emotionally connect easily, but also strongly, which can make certain social situations exhausting. Dr. Aron’s research tells us that about 20% of the population could be labeled as HSPs. That means you’re not alone if you’re identifying with any of these experiences.
HSP is a well-researched topic, but it’s not considered a diagnosis, disorder, or “disease.” It’s a way to describe how you may process and experience emotions and environments. However, there are many different factors that may be the reason for your HSP. Being highly sensitive is a trait that can develop based on many different experiences, medical conditions, or mental illnesses.
Influencing Factors of Being A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
Our emotions and sensitivity can be heightened by environmental factors. Sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, stress, and an unhealthy diet can all play a role. Big changes like major life transitions, the loss of a loved one, or traumatic experiences can also contribute to how we process and experience emotions.
Medical and biological factors like our genetics, hormonal imbalances, prescription medications, and other diagnosed conditions can all play a part too. Behavioral health conditions like anxiety, depression, ADHD, and some personality disorders can also influence our sensitivity levels.
HSPs can sometimes view their surroundings in a way that others may not. Maybe you’re at a restaurant with a friend, and you can’t help but notice the conversations happening a few tables away, the background music, and the movement of people around you. All of those things might make it more difficult to focus on the conversation in front of you.
But being an HSP doesn’t necessarily mean you’re introverted. Although you may enjoy spending time with others, when in an overwhelming space, you may feel exhausted, or even have a desire to leave after a while. This may indicate your nervous system moving into “overdrive”. Afterward, you may want to offset this by spending time alone to “reset.”
Is being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) a bad trait?
Is being sensitive a bad thing? No, absolutely not!
“Feeling” and emotions are a normal part of who we are as humans. Everyone processes events and emotions differently. Unless your emotions are interfering with your day-to-day life, you may just feel things a bit more than others around you. Or, you may be feeling extra sensitive on a particular day.
You may have been told by others to be less emotional or less sensitive (“Stop overreacting!”). But keep in mind that they are likely influenced by society’s standards of what’s considered an “appropriate” emotional response. Societal influences condition us to view emotions and sensitivity in different ways depending on our gender, cultural identity, and even career field.
When others are telling you to be less emotional, don’t let them put you down. Emotions aren’t weak, they’re human. It’s completely normal to have, feel, and express emotions, regardless of how others may react.
Having the ability to feel emotions deeply brings the ability to feel positive emotions as strong as negative. Reframing sensitivity as the ability to feel joy, excitement, and happiness that much more can help accept and even appreciate our sensitivity to emotions.
How To Address Being A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
How can I be less sensitive?
If you’re asking how to be less sensitive, or not “overly sensitive,” take a moment to think about why you want to change your reactions or emotions. Are you being told by those around you that your reactions aren’t appropriate? Do you feel the way you express your feelings is different than others?
Everyone has their own reaction to criticism, slights, and bad news. Some of us are naturally more sensitive than others. If you want to be less sensitive because others around you are reacting differently to the same situation, recognize that your unique experience may not be a negative thing.
However, you do have control over your reactions. It’s also valid to want to change certain behaviors if they aren’t serving you. Working with a therapist or on your own to highlight these patterns of emotions can help you better manage your reaction.
One tool is to implement a Mindfulness technique: staying focused on the present. If we are emotionally overwhelmed, we can often find ourselves focusing internally on that feeling of stress or anxiety.
In these moments, try to gently change your focus from internal back to the present, noticing what is going on around you. This “grounding” technique can help regulate highly sensitive moments, bringing our mind and focus back to the here-and-now.
Self-regulating tools are great skills to have, but sometimes we may feel our emotions are out of our control. If that’s the case, or you believe it’s caused by an underlying health issue, see your healthcare provider. They can help you get to the root of the issue or refer you to a specialist.
Why is it so hard to say “no”?
Saying “no” can be the hardest one-syllable word to express, especially for highly sensitive people. We generally feel as though a “no” will be received as a rejection. It can be intimidating to say no to someone if you are worried they will take it personally. We may feel ashamed, guilty, or even embarrassed about saying no to others.
Some of us want to identify as a “people pleaser,” or want to be seen as the person who will always be there to support others. Creating a boundary by saying “no” to others may feel like we’re letting ourselves and others down, acting “out of character.” We may feel that others may view us negatively when, in reality, everyone’s harshest critic is themselves.
Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) Quiz: Am I a highly sensitive person?
You may be connecting with some of the characteristics discussed. And that may have you thinking “am I an HSP?”
To reiterate, HSP is a phrasing used to help define a set of traits, but it’s not a formal diagnosis. However, sometimes being able to name an aspect of ourselves as something that is felt by others can be empowering and help us to better understand who we are as emotional, empathetic beings.
Although online quizzes are not a diagnostic tool, and are for informational purposes only, Dr. Aron created a free self-test with some of the main factors that HSPs experience. According to the quiz, if you select more than 14 of the traits, you most likely identify as an HSP.
When should I work with a therapist about HSP?
Sometimes having the knowledge that high sensitivity is real and normal is enough to feel empowered. Just knowing it’s normal can help you accept and express emotions as you feel them. But when being highly sensitive becomes overwhelming or impacts you negatively, it may be time to consult with a specialist to help.
As clinicians, we’re trained to use different techniques and methods to help you process emotions and recognize when certain situations or factors are impacting your day-to-day functioning. We’re here to help you better cope or manage overwhelming stimuli, emotions, or process why you may align with the HSP “experience.”
When sensitivity is rooted in trauma, anxiety, or other mental health causes, we encourage you to reach out to a therapist to better understand and manage certain symptoms. For example, if we are strongly impacted by others’ emotions, and feel responsible to “fix” or improve spaces to make them more tolerable for others, it’s possible this sensitivity is rooted in your personal experiences or upbringing.
How Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) and Trauma Can Influence Sensitivity
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), for instance, strongly aligns with how HSPs view the world and use the desire to care for others as a mode of survival.
If you tend to surprise easily, have a strong “startle response,” or become extremely uncomfortable or overwhelmed in certain environments, your highly sensitive nature may be rooted in a traumatic experience.
Many survivors of trauma experience what’s known as hypervigilance, which increases our sensory reactions or “fight-or-flight” instinct. Our bodies may be on “high-alert,” causing high sensitivity as a form of protecting ourselves. We encourage you to consult with a professional who can provide support and the tools to better manage any mental health diagnosis.
About the author(s)
Karen is the founder and Clinical Director of Cohesive Therapy NYC. She earned a Masters in Social Work from New York University and has extensive training in Hypnosis, Anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brainspotting, and DGBI. She is a member of the Institute of Certified Anxiety Treatment Professionals, The Rome Foundation, the National Association of Social Workers, The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and the American Social of Clinical Hypnosis.