High sensitivity is a temperament, not a personality
Have you ever wondered if you’re a highly sensitive person? Being highly sensitive is not a personality type, but rather a temperament with specific traits. Of course, sensitivity is on a continuum, which means that we are all sensitive to one degree or another. Some people are not particularly sensitive, while others have an “average” level of sensitivity, and yet others have high sensitivity.
Sensitivity is a neutral trait — it’s neither positive nor negative. It’s what we do with it and how we define it that makes it feel like a blessing and a superpower (which I believe it is!) or a burden. If you’ve often felt hyper-emotional, overwhelmed by the world, and physically or emotionally overstimulated, it’s very likely that you are a highly sensitive person (which I lovingly refer to as an “HSP”).
To find out for sure whether you fall into this category of high sensitivity, read through these 4 essential traits of the highly sensitive person. Do they resonate with you?
The 4 Essential Traits
1. Feeling things deeply.
Of course, we have to start with the most obvious trait: feeling things deeply. Highly sensitive people have evolved, for a number of spiritual and biological reasons, to feel their own emotions and even the emotions of other people very intensely. Our highs are higher and our lows are lower. HSPs tend to be very passionate, fiercely loving, and at times “overflowing” with emotion.
This doesn’t mean, though, that as HSPs we are inappropriately emotional or too emotional, which is a common misconception and a fear that many HSPs hold about themselves. (And maybe something you heard growing up — “you’re too sensitive!”).
HSPs also tend to be “internalizers”, meaning that we internalize others’ emotions, beliefs, and reactions and we tend to blame ourselves when someone else is disappointed, angry, or upset. This can be difficult because sometimes we take on too much from the external environment, even when we’re not supposed to.
2. Feeling like a raw nerve.
Tied in to our capacity to feel things so deeply is a common experience for HSPs of feeling like a raw nerve. It sometimes feels as though you’re always bracing yourself for impact, wondering what other people are going to say or do and how it’s going to affect you emotionally.
Feeling like a raw nerve can also make it difficult to go out into the world, which is so full of people, sounds, colors, smells, and different experiences. It can be challenging for our highly sensitive and responsive systems to process all of this, which is why we often need a lot of quiet time to recover after being in the world.
3. Easily overstimulated.
As HSPs, we’re wired with highly responsive, intricate internal systems. We’re hyper-aware and constantly scanning the environment for external stimuli. We take in so much through our sensory systems, which sometimes have a hard time keeping up with stimulation such as loud noises/talking, bright lights, crowded situations, concentrated smells (like very strong perfume or incense), and lots of activity going on at the same time.
Our systems are sometimes not able to take in and process all of this stimulation effectively, so we need to be aware of our limits and needs in comparison to those of other people. This isn’t, of course, about someone being better or more capable than someone else. It’s just a matter of different temperaments. Trying to keep up with the extroverts in our lives who need high levels of activity and stimulation often leaves us depleted and feeling crappy about ourselves. We must honor our sacred needs for down time, solitude, silence, low stimulation, and frequent breaks between activities.
A story I often share about myself regarding this trait is when my husband decided to take my stepdaughter to Disney World in the summer of 2018. Knowing myself and my limits — as well as my strengths — I knew that if I were to tag along, I would slow them down. I would be miserable and overwhelmed trying to keep up with the activity-filled, hot, crowded, loud, hyper-stimulating environment. So, as a matter of self-preservation and honoring my needs, I stayed home and did the things that nourish me: I read, I sat in the garden, I caught up on sleep, and I meditated. I also smiled whenever my husband sent me photos of the two of them having a blast at the Disney fireworks display or waiting in line for a ride at 7AM.
4. Highly compassionate & empathic.
As HSPs, we also tend to be highly compassionate and empathic, precisely because we can feel others’ emotions so deeply. We can truly see people and understand where they’re coming from. This makes us amazing as friends and partners, though we have to be careful about over-giving or taking care of others before we take care of ourselves. In terms of professional work, our traits of compassion and empathy make us gifted therapists, counselors, and healers.
The journey of the highly sensitive person often involves healing feelings of shame, unworthiness, and a sense of being “different” or “weird” in order to get to a place of self-acceptance, self-compassion, and a true understanding of our gifts.
Dr. Elaine Aron’s D.O.E.S.
I also wanted to share with you Dr. Elaine Aron’s 4 essential traits of the highly sensitive person, as outlined in her groundbreaking work on high sensitivity (I highly recommend her book, The Highly Sensitive Person). Dr. Aron uses the acronym “D.O.E.S.” to encapsulate these traits. D.O.E.S. stands for:
D: Depth of Processing
As HSPs, we have highly responsive, highly sensitive sensory processing systems (not to be confused with sensory processing disorders, which are a whole other thing). This means that we process information and stimuli in deeper and more nuanced ways than people with less responsive systems. This is also why we get more exhausted being in new environments, engaging in social activities, and just generally going out into the world. Our depth of processing can also sometimes lead us to ruminate on the same conversation, interaction, or situation for hours on end — we can find it difficult to shut off the cycle of mental processing.
This was already covered above — as HSPs, it’s easy for us to become overloaded by external stimulation.
E: Emotional Reactivity + Empathy
As HSPs, we respond more intensely to both negative and positive events. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. This is why some of us are, at some point, diagnosed with anxiety disorders and/or depression.* (Side note: I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety in college and suffered from panic attacks before I knew how to work with my high sensitivity. So, if this is you too, you’re not alone!)
*Just to clarify: I’m not saying there’s a correlation between high sensitivity and anxiety or depression. Of course, the two can exist independently of each other.
Being able to feel everything so deeply also tends to make us more compassionate and empathic with other people, as we saw above.
S: Sensing Subtleties
This means that we notice more details than other people. We can read between the lines of what someone’s saying (and not saying). We can sense the energy in a room. We can instantly tell when someone feels upset, angry, or sad — even if they say they’re fine. In some cases, our ability to sense subtleties means that we have keen intuition and the ability to pick up on extra-sensory information (i.e., information that’s not rationally or logically available to us). Most, if not all, intuitive healers, mediums, and “psychics” are equipped with highly sensitive systems that can pick up on this kind of information.
If you need more support as a highly sensitive person or empath, I invite you to check out my Powerfully Sensitive Program. I’ve designed this program to help you shift from overwhelm to empowerment, heal any sense of unworthiness about your own sensitivity, and discover your sensitive gifts.