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Are you highly sensitive?

[ 1 ] June 11, 2012 |
a line drawing of an anxious brain, representing the way highly sensitive people feel in many situations

Imabe by Craig Walkowicz on Flickr. Creative Commons License.

I used to think something was wrong with me. I need to eat frequently or I get grumpy, then stupid. High-pitched noises give me a headache very quickly. I can’t think when there’s too much going on or if there’s a loud environment. A scratchy tag in my shirt can ruin my whole day. If someone makes a careless remark, it can bother me for days afterward.

Why can’t I just be normal?

Maybe you’ve also lost count of how many times you’ve heard things like, “Why does this bother you so much?”, “You’re way too sensitive!”, or “What are you upset about this time?” If so, you may be a highly sensitive person. Here are a few indicators:

  • You notice things other people don’t
  • Other people’s moods affect you
  • You’re easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input, like bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, or harsh textures
  • You startle easily
  • Hunger, hurrying, or being in a chaotic environment makes it difficult for you to concentrate
  • You’re deeply moved by art or music. You notice and enjoy fine tastes, scents, and sounds.
  • You’ve been identified by others as sensitive or shy.
  • You sometimes need to go off to a quiet place by yourself to recover or recharge.1

If this sounds like you, don’t despair. It doesn’t mean you’re weird or crazy. Psychologist Elaine Aron has found that 15-20% of people are highly sensitive.2 We notice more, and we’re bothered by many things in our environments that most other people don’t even notice.

For example, when I stay in a hotel, I usually have to make two or three rounds through the room eliminating light sources before I go to sleep. The glowing clock on the microwave, the peephole shining the hall light onto my bed like a spotlight, the red light on the coffee pot switch, the gap in the curtains (and let’s not even start on the loud rattling air conditioner)…

It’s not just light and noises. I worry more than most people about being rude or hurting others’ feelings. When I don’t reply to email in a timely fashion, I’m swamped with guilt. (To everyone who has written to me in the past month, I’m really, really sorry I haven’t gotten back to you!)

I had to stop watching Law & Order CSI because I couldn’t stop thinking about the horrible stories. I’ve pretty much stopped following politics, too–I start worrying too much about the nation being doomed and get all upset.

When I express these concerns, most people react with confusion, and eventually annoyance. Why am I so sensitive? These things are not that big a deal. Why can’t I just get over them?

I’ve always wondered that; now research seems to be pointing to an answer: Being highly sensitive may be an inborn trait. It’s not just found in humans, either. Many species of animals also have highly sensitive individuals making up about 20% of the population.3

We’re not freaks. We’re the ones who notice that subtle rustle in the grass and warn everyone else before the lion attacks.

If you’re a highly sensitive person, there is good news. First of all, you’re not alone, and it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, no matter what disapproving people in your past may have told you.

Also, there are many advantages to being highly sensitive.

  • I usually know well in advance when I will need a new muffler. (I can hear the change in the way my car sounds, even though when I take it in, the mechanic says everything is fine.)
  • A good meal is enough to fill me with multidimensional delight, especially if it’s presented in an attractive way.
  • I notice and appreciate silence, flowers, the stars, sunsets. All of these are spectacular to me.
  • Love is intense, and sex is transcendental.

Highly sensitive people also make good friends. When someone is hurt or bothered by something, we usually see their side easily and feel for them. We’re great listeners, and we’re good at facilitating situations to make everyone feel comfortable.

Help for the highly sensitive

Even if you’re not highly sensitive yourself, you probably know someone who is. You can help by being aware of the kinds of things that bother him or her. Think about your pet peeves and annoyances–your HSP is just as bothered, if not more so, by many things that seem inconsequential to you. Reacting with compassion (rather than impatience) goes a long way.

Sometimes, we get too caught up in our experiences to help ourselves. During those times, if you can step in and suggest a rest, a snack, or some fresh air, you do us a great service.

We HSPs need to remember the upsides and be gentle with ourselves, too. If you’re highly sensitive, you’re probably used to other people being dismissive and impatient when things bother you. If you react in the same way to yourself, that just makes it worse.

Forget about whether or not something “should” bother you. It’s much more helpful to focus on how you can take care of yourself.

  • If you’re at a social event and feeling overstimulated, how can you take a break and recharge?
  • If one person consistently says things that bother you, how can you change the relationship so that you aren’t bothered by this person? Or might you be better to avoid him or her whenever you can?
  • Can you replace noisy environments with quiet ones, bright hotel rooms with dark ones, scratchy clothes with comfortable ones, ugly things with beautiful ones, too much with just enough?

Whether you’re highly sensitive or not, it’s ok to be bothered by things, even if it seems unreasonable or other people don’t mind them. We can all help ourselves handle adversity gracefully by taking care of ourselves: getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and getting our own best balance of social time and solitude.

Do you have a good tip for coping with unpleasant or overwhelming situations? If so, please share in the comments!

If you want more information on this subject, I’m currently reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a fascinating book on being an introvert that also touches on highly sensitive people–there’s a lot of overlap between the two groups. Also, Dr. Aron has written a book specifically on being a highly sensitive person, which I have not yet read but am eager to: The Highly Sensitive Person



1 Elaine Aron. “The Highly Sensitive Person.”

2 Elaine Aron. “Are you highly sensitive? A self-test.”

3 Susan Cain. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Crown Publishers, New York, 2011, pp. 138, 146.

About Cara Stein: I'm a Breakthrough Coach and Creative Director On Demand. I'm also an idealist who has stopped trying to play it cool. I offer alignment, clarity, and unshakeable belief in yourself—and then I help you bring your vision to life with great sales copy and graphic design.

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