Are you a 'Highly Sensitive Person'?

About 20% of us have a personality trait that's usually referred to as being 'Highly Sensitive'. I find the term somewhat misleading as it leaves out a fundamental aspect of this way of being; a tendency towards unusually deep processing of experience. The term also makes the trait sound like a bad thing, at least in modern Western culture. I'll return to both issues later, but for now, let's look at some of the basics.

The term 'Highly Sensitive Person' comes from the work of psychotherapist Dr. Elaine Aron (Aron & Aron, 1997). Although aspects of the trait had been identified before, Aron has pioneered research into what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HPS). There are four key aspects:

  • Deep processing of experience;
  • being easily overaroused;
  • emotional intensity and
  • high sensory acuity.

Bird flying over rough sea

How do I know if I'm Highly Sensitive?

The Highly Sensitive trait is quite subtle, but the HSP test will give you a pretty good idea of whether it's part of how you function or not. I tend not to talk about someone being a Highly Sensitive Person. Although I think the HPS trait is an important part of how some of us are, it doesn't define you. That said, if you are someone who experiences the world in this quite specific way, acknowledging what that means for you can be a profound experience.

Good news or bad news?

Modern Western culture doesn't usually value the kind of qualities I'm exploring here, and if you're in the minority who experience the world this way you'll probably feel that you're 'different'. That's not always true of course; you might be lucky enough to have a close circle of friends who experience the world similarly. But most of us will have felt 'odd' or wonder why we react so differently from other people. Those with the HS trait filter out less of their experience and process it more slowly. As a result we're easily overaroused and can feel uncomfortable in the chaotic or noisy environments that are often part of modern life. All this means that those with the HS trait are more prone to psychological distress than other people when confronted with challenging circumstances. Many of those who seek counselling or psychotherapy have the Highly Sensitive trait.

But there's an upside to all this. Highly sensitive children who have a nurturing home life will actually do better than other kids in the same circumstances, and are often able to use their unusual way of relating to the world to great benefit. Because you experience the world differently - and process those experiences more deeply - you can excel in many areas of life.

Deep processing of experience means that you probably ponder decisions carefully and think about the big questions of life more than most. While those of us who experience emotions with more intensity will suffer pain more acutely, we also feel joy and gratitude more deeply. A high degree of sensory awareness often feeds a passion for art or a deep love of nature. Possessing high sensory awareness means that you'll notice details that others will miss. That's especially valuable in relationships, where you might find that you're unusually aware of how someone is feeling.

The bottom line is that having the HSP trait can be a blessing and a curse. If this is how you relate to the world, you need to acknowledge that and identify both your needs and abilities. Don't try to conform; find your own way. Honour both the upsides and the undoubted challenges of having the highly sensitive trait. That means recognizing and taking care of your needs - which won't be the same as most other people's. By applying the qualities of the HSP with care, you can live a rich, vibrant and exceptionally rewarding life.

If you'd like to talk about how Counselling can help with your experience, get in touch. An introductory session is only £20, so why not see if I can help?