What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person

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highly sensitive person

We all have moments (or even days) when we’re super sensitive. Anything anyone tells us, be it directed at us personally or about someone or something else, gets to us on a whole different level than it usually would. But bursts of hypersensitivity don’t mean that we’re a highly sensitive person by nature.

A highly sensitive person sees things differently than the rest of the world. They pick up on emotional cues much swifter, and they react to them with a higher intensity than other people. However, that’s not all. A highly sensitive person responds to any stimuli, not just social and emotional cues. They also notice sights, smells, energies, and subtle changes, and process them on a deeper level than the rest of us.

That’s precisely why overstimulation and emotional exhaustion are real issues for hypersensitive people. What’s more, a highly sensitive person can get easily overwhelmed. They might need to take a breather from other people because they react to all experiences much more intensely than the rest of the population.

What’s the Definition of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

In short, a highly sensitive person is someone who has intense reactions to internal and external stimuli. They are generally more intuitive and empathetic than our average Joe since they can pick up on social and emotional cues quickly and easily.

However, just like anything else in life, hypersensitivity doesn’t come without its faults. Others probably can’t fathom how it feels to pick up, understand, and react to the emotions of people around us so easily. What’s more, other people’s feelings aren’t the only problem for HSP. Any sort of change in themselves, others, or in their environment upsets their inner world.

So it’s safe to say that being a highly sensitive person is a double-edged sword. Sure, we are more empathetic and understanding toward others, but that’s not necessarily a two-way street. Others don’t understand how we experience the world, so they can’t extend the same courtesy to us.

What Being a Highly Sensitive Person Entails

We might hear from time to time that we’re “taking things too seriously” or “overthinking it.” What’s more, things like “feeling too much and too deep” have also been thrown around hypersensitive people.

When we boil down a highly sensitive person (as much as one can, of course), we can see that there are specific traits that define them:

  • empathy (not to be confused with being empathetic)
  • sensitivity to subtleties (as opposed to being perceptive)
  • depth of processing
  • overstimulation

Your Pain Is My Pain — Empathy

Yes, highly sensitive people are more empathetic toward others; we’ve already established that. But they aren’t just empathetic like the rest of the population. What does that mean?

Well, an empathetic person will feel for us when we tell them a sad story from our life. They’ll also be happy when we share some good news with them. A highly sensitive person, on the other hand, will figure out something is happening to us before we get the chance to tell them. What’s more, they’ll be attuned to our needs and offer us comfort before we get an opportunity to ask for it.

If you’re wondering how that’s possible, the answer is rather complicated. To simplify it, highly sensitive people have a more active brain area that’s in charge of reacting to people’s emotions. They pick up on microexpressions and interpret them correctly. But they also absorb other people’s feelings and feel them as their own, which is why they can offer us what we need, no matter how we’re feeling.

Did You Notice That…? YES, I Always Notice! — Sensitivity to Subtleties

Hypersensitive people pick up on cues quickly and easily. They also experience stimuli differently than the rest of us. That doesn’t make them superheroes with enhanced hearing and sight. However, it does make them sensitive to sights, smells, and sounds the rest of us wouldn’t even notice.

Again, that is both a blessing and a curse. They can get distracted easily, but they’ll also be the first ones to notice any type of change. That means they’ll also be the first ones to react to it. Actually, that’s precisely the difference between a hypersensitive person and the rest of the world. We might not even notice a minute change, and if we do, we probably won’t react to it since it’s such a minor detail. A highly sensitive person, on the other hand, will.

How Deep Is Too Deep? — Depth of Processing

A highly sensitive person might be accused of overthinking, but the reality is that they just process every information on a deeper level. What does that mean?

Well, a regular person will hear your name when you introduce yourself. But a highly sensitive person will probably mull your name around in their head, compare it to other names, find emotional anecdotes that they will tie to your name, etc.

The good news is — they won’t forget your name. The bad news, at least for them, is that they spend a lot of mental energy on simple information that other people process quickly and effortlessly.

I Have to Get Out of Here — Overstimulation

Because of the mental energy they “waste,” highly sensitive people get easily overwhelmed and overstimulated. They get tired in situations that the rest of us wouldn’t even note as anything but ordinary. Therefore, you can imagine what they must feel like after being exposed to highly emotional stimuli, situations, or anything that stands out in their routine.

That’s why it’s essential to show understanding and compassion. We can’t know what a regular day of a highly sensitive person looks like. They react to everything. That’s why they might need a moment or two alone or a bit of extra time to process everything and gain a bit of peace of mind.

When overwhelmed, a highly sensitive person will withdraw. Don’t judge them for it.

So those are the typical traits of highly sensitive people. But are all HSP the same? Do they all feel the same way and react in the same way?

Of course not. Generally speaking, if we’re a highly sensitive person, we can be sensitive to our own thoughts and emotions, to those of other people, or our environment.

Internal Oversensitivity

Highly sensitive people have a rich inner world. However, that’s not always a good thing. Because they overprocess everything, they have a hard time letting go of things. For example, they often can’t help but beat themselves up or bring themselves down with negative thoughts and feelings.

Furthermore, they experience stress, anxiety, and tension in ways other people can’t even fathom. Anything can cause these negative feelings, and shaking them off is a real feat. They often intrude on the person’s mind and don’t allow them to function properly.

For example, seeing a homeless person on the streets during winter will make all of us sad. We’ll feel for that person and probably thank the universe that we aren’t in their shoes. However, we’ll also easily forget about them. A highly sensitive person won’t. They’ll be angry over the injustice, and they’ll rage over social class discrepancies. They won’t be able to let go even though they know there’s nothing they can do about it.

External Oversensitivity

A highly sensitive person will be attuned to others in more ways than one. They’ll easily recognize and react to other people’s feelings. However, they’ll also overprocess them. In other words, a highly sensitive person will probably take things more personally than others would. Because they are constantly reading your micro-expressions and reacting to them, they might think that all of those expressions are about them. Thus, they’ll continuously worry about what others are thinking of them and if they are judging them.

That is a challenging way to live. Any sort of criticism, even constructive one, will set a highly sensitive person into a spiral of self-doubt. Hypersensitive people get their feelings hurt easily, and they have a hard time letting that go (even when the other party apologizes).

Furthermore, a highly sensitive person will also react strongly to changes in their environment. Sudden changes and any type of strong stimuli will be unpleasant for an HSP. They also usually can’t handle crowded rooms full of people or interaction in large groups.

A Few Parting Words

All of us highly sensitive people out there know that the way we think, feel, and react is both a blessing and a curse. People around us might enjoy the fact that we know what they think and need, but no one can dispute that that’s a difficult way to live.

It’s exhausting and not for the faint of heart. Coping can be difficult, but with a few strategies, you can learn to be the emotional processor of your friend group and still manage to socialize and live your life without feeling overwhelmed. If you still need help coping, reach out to a counselor at BetterHelp.