woman at sunset

6 Signs You Might Be a Highly Sensitive Person

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Have you ever been told you need to “toughen up,” that you’re “too sensitive,” or that you are “overthinking” things? Did that make you feel like you were missing something the rest of the world seemed to understand? Or that you were somehow broken? Gurl, same.

Our world tends to be geared toward outgoing, extroverted people who are mostly unbothered by the small stuff. Those are all great qualities to have! Unfortunately, not everyone functions that way.

You may have lived a lot of your life thinking you were boring or weak because you weren’t able to handle the same things your

peers were. Maybe you cried more than other people. Or got your feelings hurt more easily. Or were grossed out by stuff that didn’t seem to bother them.

Well, I can totally relate, and I’m here to tell you that you are not broken, and you are DEFINITELY not alone!

I’ve known for a very long time that I struggle with anxiety, and that I am a detail person who is hyper aware of every situation I’m in. I recently learned that those tendencies fit into a larger category—that of “highly sensitive people,” or HSPs. Learning that I might be highly sensitive really changed how I view myself and my “hang-ups,” although now I see them in a much more positive light and probably wouldn’t even call them “hang-ups” anymore. 🙂

Dr. Elaine Aron’s book

Before we get into specifics, I want to mention the woman who is generally credited with “discovering” the highly sensitive person, Dr. Elaine Aron. Aron is a psychologist and author of the book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. (I highly recommend it).

Dr. Aron and her husband spent several years studying highly sensitive people and learning what makes them tick. She developed the Highly Sensitive Person Scale, a survey by which the traits that make up HSPs can be measured. When her book came out in 1996, it was an insight into something no one else had really explored. 

Aron found that being highly sensitive is a temperamental or personality trait, not a disorder. She also acknowledges that while being more sensitive can be a disadvantage at times, at others, it is certainly an asset.

What is a highly sensitive person?

So what exactly IS a highly sensitive person?

Dr. Aron uses an acronym to describe the main traits of HSPs. DOES.

DOES stands for:

  • Depth of processing
  • Overstimulation
  • Emotional responsiveness / Empathy
  • Sensitive to subtleties / Sensory stimuli

How do these traits actually show up in your everyday life, though? Here are a few signs you might be a highly sensitive person.

1. You take a really long time to make decisions.

Does anyone remember that Spongebob Squarepants episode where he stands in the grocery store comparing two brands of paper towels for what seems like an eternity? That’s pretty much me. As I said before, highly sensitive people take in lots of details and process them deeply. Since we’re considering so many factors in our assessment, we take a long time to make decisions. #sorrynotsorry.

Spongebob compares paper towels

Me, every time I buy anything

2. Speaking of grocery stores, you get super stressed out if it’s crowded or noisy in there.

HSPs are susceptible to overstimulation in environments with a lot of, well, stimuli. A busy store or loud concert might be your friend’s idea of a good time, but you’d rather be anywhere else. It makes sense when you consider that highly sensitive people process things deeply—if there’s that much to process, you’re quickly going to run out of processing power!

3. You can’t stand intense or violent tv/movie scenes.

Gruesome horror films? Count us out. If you’re a highly sensitive person, you can be affected by violence and upsetting scenes much more than other people. 

I recall a time my mom was watching one of the Exorcist movies. I happened to walk into the living room in the middle of a really violent scene. I started crying and begging my mom to turn it off. I was, like, 16. 

Strangely, I really enjoy horror movies about ghosts and even the occasional possession, but when things venture into torture or gore, I’m OUT. Even overly-detailed descriptions of these scenes can be upsetting to me.

4. You feel really sad or angry when those around you are sad or angry.

woman worrying

Many people call this being an emotional sponge. We HSPs are an empathetic bunch. We tend to absorb the feelings of others, even when it’s trés inconvenient. On the bright side, this empathy allows us to appreciate and understand people better.

5. You are easily affected by strong smells.

Highly sensitive people have sensitive noses, and tend to notice scents that other people can’t pick up on at all. 

Doesn’t matter if it’s the delicious smell of crispy bacon frying, if the house is full of it, you want to open a window. Personally, I can’t stand having my clothes smell like whatever food I cooked. In fact, I can’t stop sniffing my clothes to check if the scent is still there (although this part might just be a ‘me’ problem).

This sensitivity to scents can be very pleasant, though, when a person walks by you wearing a lovely perfume, or when you’re out for a stroll on a summer evening and notice the subtle aromas of honeysuckle and freshly cut grass.

Since we have sensitive noses, we also have sensitive palates. We can detect subtle flavors. Sometimes this is wonderful and helps us appreciate our food even more. Sometimes it’s annoying, like when you think you might detect an “off” flavor in something you’re eating and feel compelled to throw it all out despite the pleas of your husband.

Personally, I think goat cheese smells (and therefore tastes!) like goats. Many, many people who love goat cheese disagree with me. But I cannot get past the barnyard smell, and therefore will never enjoy foods made with goat cheese. 

6. You notice things about people that they don’t even notice about themselves.

woman observing surroundings

When I first started dating my husband, I constantly surprised him by describing things I noticed about his decisions and mannerisms. “You seem like you really have a knack for X.” “Do you think you do that because you feel X?” Because I noticed all those subtle things about him, I was able to accurately (scarily, is more like it) predict what he was going to do or think at any given time. I still do. We joke that I know him better than he knows himself.

HSPs are really great at piecing together patterns, oftentimes subconsciously. We pick up on details and our brains mull them all over in the background (that depth of processing I mentioned earlier), forming a cloud of information that solidifies into a conclusion about a person or situation. Combine that with our knack for noticing subtleties (body language, small details about appearance) and our penchant for empathizing, and it can be pretty easy to get a good grasp on the feelings and motivations of other people.

Why it’s great to be an hsp

You might think, “Great, Erin. Now I know that I’m always gonna be averse to goat cheese and I’ll never watch 60 Minutes (does anyone actually still watch that?) without having a breakdown. Can you tell me some more GOOD things about being highly sensitive?”

And to that I say, of course! Being an HSP is wonderful for all of the same reasons it can be frustrating. We feel and enjoy and love deeply, and we can appreciate subtle things about the world that might go unnoticed by others. We have a rich inner life that keeps us from ever being bored. 

It can be frustrating to be an HSP in a society that’s not really built for us. But once you know you have this personality trait, it can be really liberating.

Once you stop comparing yourself to non-HSPs and trying to figure out why you aren’t happy with what they’ve got or are doing, you can intentionally seek out experiences (and people) that bring you joy and begin to confidently set boundaries around those that don’t. Frankly, this advice goes for any individual human person, not just HSPs.

Bottom line

So what do you think? Are you a highly sensitive person? It’s likely that if you’ve found yourself reading this article, you already suspect that you are. If not, maybe you learned that someone you’re close to is a HSP! That’s cool, too. Regardless, I encourage you to check out Dr. Aron’s book to learn more about highly sensitive people. 

If you are a highly sensitive person, right on! Learning this is the first step in embracing your strengths (and pain points!) as an HSP. 

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