I’ve always been a sensitive person. And I’ve always been told that it’s a bad thing —as if being sensitive makes me weak. Turns out, that’s just not true.
I get it though. Because a highly sensitive person (HSP), experiences the world differently than others.
And I think it’s because only 15 to 20 percent of the population are HSPs; so we’re often misunderstood.
I just wish I knew about this earlier. Because for the longest time, I was told there was something wrong with me.
Friends of mine (family too) couldn’t understand why I acted the way I acted. Heck. I didn’t even know why. Until now. I recently found out that I have a personality trait called HSP (I’m a highly sensitive person). It’s not a disease or a disorder. And it’s not something learned; it’s something I was born with —like in my DNA. When I understood that, things finally made sense.
Because now I see that my sensitivity is a gift —like a sixth sense. Because I feel things deeply. Intensely. But it’s not what you think. What I’m getting at is that my empathic nature makes me a master of emotional intelligence. Meaning, I relate to people extremely well. I quite literally put myself in other people’s shoes. Like when I watch TV, I immerse myself in each of the characters; feeling exactly what they feel, when they feel it. And it’s not just on television.
Because if a friend of mine (strangers too) insist that he or she is doing great but their body language tells a different story, I pick up on that. As a result, I’m extremely self-aware. In general, HSPs are more cognizant of and affected by external stimuli as opposed to non-HSPs. We are often empaths, implying, we possess a keen ability to sense others peoples’ feelings, needs, and insecurities —making me a really good host.
Because I want you to feel comfortable. Because I’d want to feel comfortable.
HSPs are also able to sense conflict and mitigate it before it becomes a problem (often before others are even aware of it). This is one reason HSPs are great problem solvers as well as team members. But it’s not all positive. Because yeah, I think before I act. I excel at strategy and planning — that is, if I can move past my perfectionism-induced procrastination, which is another common experience for HSPs. Because I’m internally struggling. Most of the time, I’m filled with self-doubt.
I find that I beat myself up for making even the smallest (most meaningless) mistake. And I can’t let things go. But I’m working on it. Because I used to be plagued by low esteem. Because I always felt broken. Luckily, with all the things I’ve gone through, I’ve been able to (slowly) put myself back together. It’s just, for a while, it felt like I was operating by a different set of rules. And if you think about it, we kind of are. But now, I see that it’s a good thing. Because I’m conscientious. I care. And I’m always prepared.
All of this makes me trustworthy and reliable (or so they say).
But when I’m caught off-guard, I’m easily overstimulated. So much so, I usually end up withdrawing altogether. Because I get extremely overwhelmed. And I need a second. Because as outgoing, as I am, I also need some alone time. Because for me, being alone isn’t lonely; it’s grounding. At the same time though, those who know me, know I cry a lot. In my past life, I hated it when people called me a cry baby. Because to the human eye that may be true. But it’s not.
Because in our society, crying frequently, feeling deep emotions, and/or needing to retreat and recharge are all seen as weaknesses. They’re not. Because there are biological reasons for the components of this personality trait. Like I said, an HSP’s brain is wired differently. Consequently, our nervous system is highly sensitive with a lower threshold for action. This means that our hyper-excitability contributes to increased emotional reactivity. So yeah. We have a lower tolerance for sensory information.
We’re easily bothered by noise or too much light.
And it’s weird because I’ve always had this thing with extremely bright lights and loud noises (they give me a headache). But it’s really cool learning that I’m not alone. Plus, I’m finding out that it’s not all bad. Get this. Our strong emotions are easier to identify than the average person. This helps us communicate more effectively. We don’t just hear words coming out of people’s mouths. We catch on to subtleties in gesture and tone. And I think it’s because we have a hyperactive insula.
The insula is a small region of the brain’s cerebral cortex. It helps determine how intensely we experience negative emotions. Researchers say it’s the source of feeling your feelings. Feelings like lust and disgust, pride and humiliation, as well as guilt and atonement. It helps give rise to moral intuition, empathy and the capacity to respond emotionally to things like music and art, which is why a lot of us are the creative type. The insula also reads body states including hunger and cravings.
It encourages people to reach for that next sandwich, cigarette or line of cocaine.
For example, the insula has been said to “light up” when people do certain things. Things like craving drugs and feeling or anticipating pain. It does the same thing when we empathize with others, when we listen to music, or when we see someone hurting. All of this explains our heightened awareness of inner emotional states and bodily sensations. This hyperactivity explains our sensitivity to pain, hunger, as well as caffeine. There’s also some evidence that this trait is related to the serotonin gene (known as 5-HTLPR).
That gene is linked to many psychological conditions like depression. And let me say, when I first read a description about what it means to be an HSP, it was like looking at myself in the mirror. I never realized there was a specific term to describe my way of perceiving the world. It brought incredible relief to know I wasn’t the only one. So if you can relate to any of this, here are 13 signs you’re a highly sensitive person (just like me).
1. You’re Extremely Empathetic
HSPs tend to “absorb” other people’s emotions. It’s not unusual for an HSP to walk into a room and immediately sense the moods of those in it. That’s because highly sensitive people are particularly aware of shit like facial expressions, body language, and the tone of someone’s voice —shit that others may miss. Pair this with the sensitive person’s naturally high levels of empathy, it’s no wonder HSPs feel emotions that are not our own.
As a result, we tend to experience emotional exhaustion.
I know I do. You may also pay close attention to how your behavior affects other people —that’s the self-awareness I was talking about above. Chances are, you have good manners too. So I encourage you to take advantage of your predisposition for higher empathy to strengthen relationships, to become a better co-worker, and to secure your self-worth. At the same time, you may get particularly irked when other people are rude, which is probably why you need time alone.
2. You Withdraw Often
Solitude calms your overactive senses. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you need plenty of downtime, preferably alone. You often find yourself withdrawing to a quiet, darkened room at the end of a long day —in order to lower your stimulation level, soothe your senses, and recharge. Like if I’m out and about all day but I also have dinner plans, I need at least two hours of quiet time or I won’t be my best self. And it’s because of this solitude that we’re able to create.
Because we thrive on stillness.
Within stillness, ideas sprout —ideas that our inner voice can actually hear. And these vital messages need a way to express themselves, which is actually the basis of our creativity. Because withdrawal leads to self-awareness and ultimately drives that artistic expression. For me, like in terms of my artistry, being an HSP has helped my writing tremendously. Because I can tap into different points of view and channel different emotions better than the average person.
3. So Yeah, You’re Creative
It’s not surprising that this trait is found in artists, poets and is linked to giftedness, creativity, and as you already know, empathy. We’re also attuned to nuances of all kinds, and a richness in things that others may overlook (more on that later). We draw inspiration from our complex inner lives, and in turn, create beauty and joy. We know how to turn our mess into a message. At the same time, an HSP is at a higher risk for mental health shit, which is why it’s critical to know if you have this personality trait.
For example, singer-songwriter, Dolly Parton once said, “I hurt real easy and real deep, which is why I think I have to write songs, [and] why so many of them fit the feelings of so many that can’t write.” She also addressed the fact that it’s because she feels everything to the core. And so, the downside, I too find, is feeling overwhelmed with the endless string of possibilities and ideas, which can make my work spiral into something almost too big. It’s like, I’ll freeze, not knowing which option to choose, leading to a bad case of writer’s block.
But I’m learning that if this happens, it helps to set firm boundaries in place to contain those endless thoughts and ideas, which is where planning comes into play. It’s weird though. Because I can’t create if my environment is a mess. And I mean this literally and probably figuratively too. It’s like my collection of books, far too many sticky notes, and a growing pile of whatever is around is just too much for my brain to handle. The thing is, if we know how our own mind works, we’ll be able to make better decisions.
And that includes decisions about how we create, what we create and when we create.
Because if I know what kind of person I am, I can play to my strengths and combat my weaknesses. I remember walking into my home office this one time and wanting so hard to write but I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t focus long enough to draft a complete thought. I remember feeling my pulse rise as my breath quickened. And my head. It felt like it was going to pop off like a freaking pressure cooker. I had reached my limit of stimulation, which may be why I’m startled super easily.
4. You’re Jumpy and Loud, Sudden Noises Startle You
I think a big part of my jumpiness can be contributed to P.T.S.D. But I just found out that it’s also because I’m an HSP. Like when someone sneaks up on me, I jump like a frightened cat. Many HSPs have a high “startle reflex” —because even in non-threatening situations, our nervous systems are dialed up. Oh. And that pen you’re tapping during a meeting doesn’t go unnoticed by an HSP. Because we’re always on guard (and we’re probably tapping along too).
Chances are, you also have a low annoyance threshold. It’s particularly difficult for you to work in noisy (sirens going by are the worst), overly bright, or aesthetically abrasive environments. This is because you (most likely) have trouble concentrating if you feel slightly uncomfortable. You also might be extra-sensitive to fragrances or coarse fabrics (more on that below). That’s why HSPs typically thrive in a freelance work-from-home situation. Regardless though, you always find a way to get shit done.
5. You’re a Seeker, Always Looking for Purpose
HSPs tend to seek answers to those big life questions. We ask why things are the way they are and what their role in all of it is. If you’re a highly sensitive person, you may have always wondered why other people aren’t as captivated by the mysteries of the universe as you are. We’re often driven by an internal search for meaning —like if something doesn’t feel meaningful, we can’t just do it anyway. At the other end of the spectrum, we usually loathe small talk and unnecessary discussions.
I mean, really, who has time for that anyway?
6. You’re a Deep Thinker
There are days where I spend most of my time thinking. Meditating. And my dreams. They are always wildly vivid. Sometimes to the point that I can feel pain in them, which isn’t fun when you’re prone to nightmares. Similarly, when something is ending, you may have trouble letting it go. Whether it’s a relationship, a job, or a chapter in your life, you think deeply about its significance, and you don’t just “move on” as quickly as other people seem to.
Unfortunately, this also means you’re prone to a lot of negative overthinking. It’s probably because the cornerstone of this trait is that you process information deeply. This suggests you do reflect a lot on your own experiences —more so than the average person. Sometimes you obsessively play events over and over in your mind or spiral into anxious thoughts. It’s not something you enjoy. But it happens whether we like it or not.
7. You Have a Low Pain Tolerance & You Get Hangry Easily
I can’t believe this is even a thing. But man. I’m so happy it is. Because hangry is real and it makes me feel less crazy knowing that it’s actually a personality trait of an HSP. Because my friends and family joke about my hanger. But it’s not my fault. Because HSPs in general, tend to be sensitive to changes in blood sugar levels, so we may quite literally become “hangry” (hungry + angry) —if we haven’t eaten in a while. And this shit is unrelated to my type one diabetes but oh so ironic.
From a physical standpoint —sights, sounds, smells, textures, physical pain, consuming too much caffeine (sugar too), not getting enough sleep, or even feelings of hunger can really throw an HSP for a loop. Many HSPs, like myself, are more sensitive to pain of all kinds —headaches, body aches, injuries, etc. (as opposed to non-HSPs). And when we experience any of the above beyond a threshold that would seem quite low to a non-HSP, well —it’s nearly impossible to concentrate or feel comfortable in our surroundings.
Perhaps you can’t stand a stranger’s perfume at the grocery store, so you switch lines at checkout. Maybe an hour or two into a party, and you’ve disappeared to a quiet corner with fewer people or have even gone home —because it was just too noisy. While all of this may seem odd, it likely isn’t. It’s simply because of our characteristically low tolerance for external stimuli that often makes us feel as if we’re being attacked from every angle.
And don’t get me started on change.
8. Change is Hard AF
Here it is. Change shakes us up. HSPs take comfort in our routines because the familiar is far less stimulating than something brand new. For this reason, change —both positive and negative —can really throw off HSPs. For example, when dating someone new or getting a job promotion, HSPs may feel as equally stressed as they do overjoyed. Generally, HSPs need more time than others to adjust to shit that’s new. And unfortunately, most people don’t understand because they simply can’t relate.
9. You’re Misunderstood
As a result of all this, high sensitivity is often mislabeled. You may have been called “shy” or “anxious,” and perhaps it was implied that something was wrong with you. Stop taking everything so seriously, Macey. Why are you so sensitive? I’ve heard that my entire life. Similarly, many HSPs are labeled as introverts. Because introverts and HSPs share many characteristics, like needing a bunch of downtime (like I described above). However, nearly half of the HSP population are actually extroverts.
10. Your Clothing Matters
You’ve always been sensitive to what you wear. When you were a kid, you were very picky about the clothing you wore, basing your choices on how things felt. You may not have worn clothing made of itchy fabrics like wool, “footie” pajamas that covered your feet, or leggings —really any pants that tightly hugged your waist. Your parents may have had to cut the tags out of your clothing because they bothered you. You may still do these things today as an HSP adult.
Because restrictive clothing —like the same pair of pants that bothered me as a kid, still irritate the fuck out of me. That’s why I hate jeans (always have). And why, I normally go for the comfy cute yoga pant look. Of course, non-HSPs might dislike these things too. But as an HSP, I’ll carefully select my wardrobe to completely avoid the things that annoy me. But if I inadvertently wear one of these things out, the discomfort usually detracts me from my entire experience.
Like I won’t be my best self and I’ll probably want to go home.
11. You Hate Confrontation
When there’s tension within your close relationships, you feel it deeply. I’ve even heard of HSPs feeling physically ill. As a result, some highly sensitive people become conflict-avoidant —doing or saying almost anything to keep the other person happy. It’s because conflict hurts that much. Slowly though, I’m learning that it’s OK to disagree. Because that doesn’t mean they’ll hate you and get everyone against you. Because everyone has varying opinions on just about everything. So stop people pleasing and try to accept whatever is thrown your way —disapproval and all.
12. Criticism too
Words really matter to HSPs. Positive words can make us soar, but harsh words will send us crashing to the ground. Criticism feels like a dagger, and negativity is toxic to our finely-tuned system. Because criticism can be hard to swallow, as not everyone communicates with the same thoughtfulness and tendency for nuance as HSPs. Consequently, you avoid (and hate) making mistakes at all costs. Because if you’re perfect, no one can criticize you. So you’re guarded around people to ensure you don’t say something wrong.
Which is probably why you’re always anxious.
13. But You’re Perceptive And Deeply Moved by Beauty
Because you notice things that others miss. You’re seen as observant. Sharp. Insightful. Even as a child, you may have been wise beyond your years. The world relies on highly sensitive people like you to make it a more compassionate, understanding place. Fine meals, rich scents, beautiful artwork, or stirring melodies have a deep impact on you. You may find that music or certain sounds put you in a near trance-like state.
Because you love looking at art.
You love being in nature or just noticing the way the sunlight strikes an object. Shit like that moves you. You may even find yourself overwhelmed with happiness, unable to put into words just how much something has affected you. I’ve experienced that. And it’s kind of awesome. Because when you turn that shit into something, well —it’s absolutely beautiful. So use this shit for good. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Because you can thrive despite these differences.
I think you have to shift your mindset in order to view your high sensitivity as a gift rather than a curse, despite what cultural norms say. Contrary to popular belief, embracing HSP qualities like deep self-awareness, emotional intelligence, stress management, and thoughtful communication are the hallmarks of healthy functioning — not signs that you lack the grit and competitive drive needed to succeed. Because you can succeed. Because you are succeeding.
And to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else, well —that’s the greatest gift of all.