What it means to be a highly sensitive person (and an introvert)
Yep, I’m a highly sensitive person.
Why am I thinking about this at the moment?
Because I’m in the process of picking up the last (almost) six years of my life and moving back to my hometown in Brisbane, Queensland.
And my nervous system is in overdrive right now.
Feeling anxious and a bit queasy every time I think of it.
Being unable to focus and feeling really scattered.
Having trouble sleeping and feeling a bit on edge.
At first I couldn’t work out what was going on. But the more I came to think about it, the more I realised that CHANGE seriously affects my energy. I’m highly reactive to all kinds of sensory and emotional stuff, and so of course huge life changes and big unknowns were going to send me into a flurry.
Even though – logically – I know it’s going to be great and I’m excited.
This is what’s thrown me most.
Trying to understand WHY?
Why? Because up until just a few years ago, I always felt as though being sensitive was a bad thing.
Like something was wrong with me.
Or I needed to not be so sensitive. Toughen up. Get over it. Or – my favourite – just calm down.
The world views sensitivity as a weakness, and the weak don’t survive. It’s playing on our most basic survival instincts.
And, yet, learning to accept the traits of a highly sensitive person, the more I was able to embrace them. As with being an introvert, I don’t use this as an excuse to hide behind, or an identity to attach myself to, but more so a way of understanding my reaction to certain situations. A way to find strengths where the rest of the world sees weakness.
With the current state of the world, I truly believe that being sensitive, aware, and compassionate to the suffering – or the joy – of others is, in fact, going to be the much needed change we need. And, it’s so important to me that we learn to accept ourselves as sensitive people, and find ways to thrive and lead.
So, what is a highly sensitive person?
There are lots of words, terms, identities getting thrown around ‘out there’, Highly Sensitive Person (or HSP) is a concept that’s definitely growing in popularity and it’s important that we really understand what it actually means.
Contrary to popular belief that being sensitive is a character or personality flaw, something that can be cured by ‘eating a teaspoon of cement’, for example, it’s actually been identified in extensive research that it’s more about biology than anything.
Since the 1990s, psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron have been investigating Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) to discover that HSPs (Highly Sensitive Person/People) make up around 15-20 percent of the population and have a high reactivity and greater depth of cognitive processing due to the nature of their central nervous system.
Despite the ongoing belief that we need to just eat a teaspoon of cement and harden up, HSPs are simply hypersensitive to external stimuli, resulting in sensitivity to things such as loud noises, bright lights, pain, and other people – that our nervous system is more highly reactive to these external sources.
Examples of the highly sensitive person…
You see, being highly sensitive can seriously impact the way that I show up in day-to-day life, the way I react or see the world, and often affects my mood and emotions. But awareness of this is how I can see being a highly sensitive person as a strength.
And how you can too.
Here are a few examples of what I’ve noticed in my own emotions and reactions:
// The other week I accidentally watched the video of the little boy pulled out of the rubble in Syria. And I cried for half an hour. Sobbed, in fact. I just couldn’t stop crying at the thought that there are so many children in the world going through this kind of pain and torment.
// I pick up on the mood and emotions of others, which is great if people are laughing or in a good mood but can be seriously draining and really get me down if people are in a bad place.
// There was this video on YouTube a while back where someone was on a Subway in New York and was laughing hysterically at something, as the laughter started, more and more people on the train started laughing. I laughed so hard at it and my BF thought I was crazy because he just didn’t see what was so funny.
// Our bathroom light has an exhaust fan attached to it and if my man leaves it on, I get so freaking angry. Not for any other reason than the sound just annoying the shit out of me.
// Same goes for bright lights. Can’t stand ’em. I love lamp.
// Sitting in uncomfortable poses (like cow-face pose) in yoga makes me angry because the pain is so unbearable it actually makes me mad.
// I once got in a fight with one of my best friends because I was frustrated at her (for no reason), until I discovered that I’d been standing on the corner of my jeans (inside my boots) for a couple of hours and the pain in my foot was causing me to be scratchy and get pissed off about something completely stupid.
// Coffee makes me crazy. But I love it. So I drink it. Especially this week, I have noticed it affecting me more than normal (ie. making me jittery AF).
// You don’t ever want to meet me when I’m hangry. I’m a pretty unpleasant person to be around (ask my mum). Because my nervous system simply can’t handle my blood sugar dropping and function like a decent human being.
// I can’t work with any noise or music; I need complete silence.
Highly Sensitive People + Introverts
While it might seem that this is a very familiar trait of more introverted people, while HSPs are more often introverted (and introverts are often highly sensitive), this is not always the case.
There are definitely similarities between highly sensitive people and introverts though, because – at the end of the day – we are influenced by external stimulus. Elaine and Arthur Aron have also discovered, through their research that highly sensitive people process information more thoroughly and actually have more blood flow through the awareness and empathetic areas of the brain than less sensitive people.
As with everything, there is no black and white about it and so the important thing is that we come to understand, in ourselves, where we fall and what it is we need to support ourselves best.
Being an introverted, highly sensitive person can be a double whammy in that the world can sometimes be just too much. But knowing that about yourself and being able to respond accordingly is SO powerful. Understanding how you react and work in certain situations can allow you to better prepare yourself, or do what you need to thrive in under those circumstances.
I also truly believe that there is nothing weak or wrong with being empathetic and aware. And, as with anything, the more that we talk about this stuff, the more aware we are of our own behaviour, the more others will begin to understand as well that there isn’t something wrong with highly sensitive people, but just that our brains work differently.
When you’re aware of how you naturally react in certain situations, it makes you better equipped to handle them.
// Better handling your energy so you don’t get drained or overwhelmed and not know why;
// No longer comparing yourself to people who seem like they can handle things better than you;
// Accepting who you are and finding what strength lies in your sensitivity (don’t underestimate that);
// Being able to tell others what you need with confidence;
// Finding your own way of re-energising and showing up in the world that can support your needs and also help others.
Are you a highly sensitive person + BONUS free worksheet
You might be able to tell just from reading this post that this describes you to a tee, but if you’re not sure, head over to The Highly Sensitive Person and take Elaine Aron’s HSP test.
I’ve also created a worksheet for you to identify the things that you’re particularly sensitive to and how understanding these and creating solutions and reminders to make changes before you get to the point where you can’t function properly. The more aware you become, the more you will be able to accept and respond to your sensitivities.
Download the worksheet here:
And this is SO IMPORTANT if you’ve spent most of your life being criticised for being sensitive or emotional. Please know that there is no such thing as being ‘too sensitive’. Being a highly sensitive person is not a weakness, it’s actually part of your biological make up. But there are ways that you can make that work for you.
If you’d like to learn more about Highly Sensitive People, definitely check out Elaine Aron’s work and her book, The Highly Sensitive Person.
Know someone sensitive? Please share this post with them because they need to know that it’s okay to be sensitive and that it’s not a weakness or something that needs to be fixed.