Do you wear your heart on your sleeve? Do you feel and experience the world—people, lights, sounds, art, music, movies—more deeply and profoundly than others around you?
Some might say you are sensitive. Maybe even too sensitive. But being highly sensitive isn’t a bad thing.
In many cases, this personality trait can be a superpower.
Superpower or kryptonite?
In comic books, superheroes embody everything we define as a superpower—superhuman strength, speed, flight or shapeshifting. However, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have weaknesses.
Being highly sensitive makes you more attuned and connected with the world around you, but it can also profoundly affect you, and not always in a good way.
“When channeled well, highly sensitive people make some of the best leaders in the world. They are compassionate, generous, empathetic and more acutely aware of the world around them, like subtle cues in others,” said Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Health. “However, these individuals also can have difficulties with perfectionism and setting boundaries and are more prone to anxiety and depression.”
According to author, Dr. Elaine Aron, who has been researching high sensitivity since the 90s, roughly one in five individuals is highly sensitive.
If you’ve ever been told you are too sensitive, empathetic or emotional, you may be part of a unique group of highly sensitive people. Read on to learn about this personality trait and ways you can use it to your benefit.
What is a highly sensitive person?
A highly sensitive person (HSP) processes information, the environment, and emotions differently. Research has shown that this sensitivity is due to the wiring in the brain and nervous system.
“HSPs have high activity in the mirror neurons, the sensory cells that allow us to empathize and imitate others’ behaviors,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Monkey see, monkey do—if you will. These neurons allow us to not only mimic other people’s actions but understand the intentions and emotions behind those actions.”
HSPs are acutely aware of what’s happening around (and within) them. They are aware, insightful, empathetic, conscientious and often creative. These skills can help them build close bonds with others but can also be mentally and emotionally draining.
“HSPs are particularly vulnerable to other people’s emotions, so if someone is really stressed, angry or upset, this can have a profound emotional impact on an HSP,” Dr. Adelayo. “Even a scary or violent movie can affect an HSP. It’s like they almost absorb the energy of the people and situations around them.”
Is being highly sensitive a clinical diagnosis?
An important thing to know is that being highly sensitive is a personality trait and not a mental health disorder. Nor is it the same as having autism or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), although the two often get grouped with HSP.
“A good way to think about it is that an HSP processes information deeper, while a person with autism processes wider,” Dr. Adelayo said. “HSPs may go down the rabbit hole, overanalyzing one situation over and over. People with autism generally have a wider focus of attention, organizing several separate experiences.”
How can I tell if I’m a highly sensitive person?
If you are unsure where you fall on the sensitivity scale, Dr. Aron developed a checklist to help. While no highly sensitive person test is definitive, if you identify with more than 14 of the questions in the checklist, you are more likely to be an HSP.
Here are the first 10 questions to see if you lean toward the sensitive end of the spectrum:
- I am easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input.
- I seem to be aware of the subtleties in my environment.
- Other people's moods affect me.
- I tend to be very sensitive to pain.
- I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.
- I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
- I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.
- I have a complex, rich inner life.
- I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.
- I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
How can I use my superpower for good?
Living life as an HSP is not always easy, but there are some things you can do—both for yourself and if you have a highly sensitive child. Knowing how to communicate and navigate the world is important so it doesn’t become a drain.
Dr. Adelayo shared the following tips:
- Reclaim the word “sensitive.” See your sensitivity as a positive, not a negative. Normalize being highly sensitive.
- Be kind to yourself. Impostor syndrome (negative self-talk) often manifests in HSP. Change the way you talk to yourself in your head by practicing positive self-talk.
- Embrace criticism and mistakes. Receiving criticism and making mistakes are a part of life. Reframe the feedback you are being given without thinking less of yourself. Instead, look at these situations as learning opportunities.
- Take time to clear your head. Make time to rest and refuel when you feel overwhelmed or overstimulated. Practice regular self-care through exercise, meditation and mindfulness.
- Set healthy boundaries. Setting boundaries and prioritizing yourself can be difficult as an HSP, but they are essential to avoid stress, anxiety and fatigue.
How can I communicate with a highly sensitive person?
If you know someone or have a highly sensitive child, here is how to better understand and relate to them.
- Accept them. Even if it is difficult to understand the experience of an HSP, there’s so much value in accepting them for who they are as a person. Offer unconditional care and support.
- Choose the right time. Even well-intentioned words may have the opposite effect if it is said during a time when they are upset, stressed, tired or rushed.
- Use the sandwich method. Keep your approach non-confrontational. Start and end with a compliment. Use “I” statements instead of “you.”
- Give them a minute. Let them have space in their day-to-day life to process. This may mean being out in nature, alone in their room, drawing or journaling.
- Don’t lie. Be honest with an HSP because they can sniff out anything fake or inauthentic. They are experts at picking up on body language and tiny details.
- Respect their personal space. They may need time alone to calm down or process information before they are ready to speak. Give them the space and time but encourage them to express themselves and to feel heard.
Being highly sensitive means you are more likely to feel and experience things more deeply than the average person. If channeled appropriately, it is a personality trait that can lead to a deep, fulfilling life.
Don’t let being highly sensitive be kryptonite in your life. Embrace your gift.
“The most important thing to remember is that this is who you are and not to take being sensitive personally,” Dr. Adelayo said. “There is no need to apologize for feeling too deeply or caring about the world around you and the people you love. The world needs more HSPs who love and care deeply.”
If you think you are highly sensitive and feel anxious or depressed because of your sensitivity, find a licensed behavioral health specialist who can help you.
Need help managing your mental health?
Call the Banner Behavioral Health Appointment Line at (800) 254-4357.