Have you ever been told that you’re “too sensitive”?
Or that you “shouldn’t think so much”?
You may be what is known as a “Highly Sensitive Person,” or HSP.
It’s thought that 15-20% of the population are Highly Sensitive People. You can be an introvert and a HSP.
A term coined by Elaine Aron, a Highly Sensitive Person is someone who becomes more disturbed than others from confrontation, violence, and overwhelm. Because of this, they may make more of an effort to avoid these situations.
The reasons behind this is that it is thought that a HSP has an increased or deeper central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. Some people refer to this as having sensory processing sensitivity (or SPS for short).
Aron created the checklist below. If you answer “yes” to most of the statements, you are probably highly sensitive.
- Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
- Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
- Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
- Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
- Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
- Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
- Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
- When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?
Being a HSP is a beautiful quality. You have such wonderful strengths. High sensitivity is thought to be linked to a greater appreciation of beauty, high creativity, and deep rich relationships.
Aron also writes that 30% of all HSP are social extroverts who like:
- Meeting strangers
- Thrive in a group setting
- Have many friends
So you are introverted, but also have ways of being that are stereotypically extroverted.
HSP and introversion
Initially, Aron thought that all introverts were also highly sensitive. It’s true that a lot of introverts would self-identify as sensitive.
We find lots of noise and stimuli overwhelming.
Perhaps we find ourselves with an “introvert hangover” after a particularly grueling social event.
Some of us, especially Thinking Introverts, have a rich complex inner world.
(Did you know there are different shades of introversion? Social, Restrained, Anxious, Thinking. Find out your shade here).
However, not all introverts are Highly Sensitive People.
On the flip side, the majority, if not all (although I tend to avoid sweeping generalisations) of HSP are introverts in the sense that they have a deep, complex, and rich inner world.
They tend to reflect a lot about life and give much weight to their intuition or their inner guide.
If you do identify as a HSP who is also socially extroverted (in the way that Aron describes it), you may have grown up feeling comfortable among a community of people, perhaps in a boarding school or having had lots of siblings. What feels safe and normal to you is being surrounded by people.
To put it another way:
- You can be an introvert and a HSP
- You can be an introvert and a HSP social extrovert
- You can be an introvert
- You can be a combination of all the above 😉
The beauty of being a HSP
When I think of people I know who are highly sensitive, I associate them with being more in touch with raw feelings in the world.
The extremes of human nature and emotions. Pain. Elation. Sadness. Bliss.
They are moved by awe and terror.
As a HSP, you might feel more in touch with nature than most other people. The sight of dew drops on a spider’s web at 5am on a crisp summer’s morning might move you to tears. Or you may fall in love at the glimpse of a waterfall in the distance.
Keeping a gratitude journal is something that might feel more natural to you. You see and appreciate so much in your life that the feeling of gratitude is normal.
Highly Sensitive People also tend to be deeply moved by the beauty around them.
It’s a superpower being able to truly appreciate the moment you are in and be fully present.
This ability to be deeply present can lead to deep and rich relationships—in all senses of the word. Platonic, romantic, with books, objects, and pets. You care deeply about people or beings that mean a lot to you, and will invest time to forming deep bonds.
However, this can lead to some really big challenges. You may get more stressed when faced with certain situations. Overwhelm might be a familiar feeling.
You may also pick up on the needs and expectations of other people more than usual. This can lead to people pleasing and learning to say “no” might be a challenge.
Setting boundaries as a HSP
Because confrontation is such a big thing if you identify as a HSP, you might put it off again and again and again.
The right time and the right place just never seem to materialise.
Expressing that you disagree with someone can be terrifying.
Years ago, rejection meant death. Being pushed out of a tribe meant isolation, a lack of security, a lack of food. The possibility of being eaten by a wild animal became much higher.
Our brain hates even the possibility of confrontation.
Expressing your thoughts and feelings in writing feels like the best way to go. However sometimes the tone can be lost in a text message.
When you are in a place of discomfort where someone is imposing on you, your needs, and your boundaries, it takes a certain kind of courage to tell that person face-to-face on on the phone how you are feeling.
It may be a good thing to prepare before an important conversation. Write down what you want to say and practise saying it out loud.
Practise breathing deeply.
You can use this exercise to slow down your heart rate and your mind within minutes:
- Deliberately enter a relaxed position & roll your shoulders back.
- Focus on your breathing with 4×4:
- breathe in for 4 counts
- hold gently for 4
- breathe out for 4 counts
- hold for 4
- Notice your mind chattering away to you. Just noticed it and breathe.
Know that you are allowed to feel all the emotions and you may not understand all your reactions.
You do not have to explain this. This is your private way of being. Sometimes what we feel is puzzling and inexplicable.
If you choose to respond, give yourself time before taking action.
Introverts and HSP have very high standards for our behaviour. When we choose to speak up, we select our words very carefully.
When you feel like you want to set a boundary, for example if a friend or loved one is saying something to you that makes you upset, be really clear with what you’re saying.
Separating the issue from the person will help it come across as non-attacking.
A framework to set boundaries
Start with you.
- “I feel ______________________ ” (insert how you feel: sad, angry, anxious, happy)
- “When you __________________” (insert one or two (max) specific behaviours. Try to be objective as possible: interrupt me, when you call me stupid)
- “Because_______________ “(a brief explanation of the effect on you)
- [finish with a specific request]
- I feel angry
- When you don’t listen to me
- Because I really need some extra support
- I’d really appreciate you listening, do you have time now?
How to disagree with someone
Confrontation can be hard.
Your heart is pounding, knees become weak, and palms are sweaty.
There are ways to express you disagree with something without being offensive:
- “How about this other option?”
- “I can think of an alternative explanation.”
- “I’m not sure I follow your reasoning.”
Gentle disagreement is as valid (perhaps more so) as aggressive disagreement.
Voicing your opinion while still respecting the other person can lead to greater self-confidence.
It’s a wonderful combination of respect and politeness.
How to discuss conflict with a HSP
Sometimes the people close to us are Highly Sensitive. Knowing the best way to express and communicate when emotions run high can go a long way to maintaining a strong relationship.
Isle Sand in her book On Being an Introvert or Highly Sensitive Person put together ways to inspire gentle and loving communication about conflicts with a HSP, including:
- Don’t shout. They will become shocked, afraid, and lose any ability to listen to what is being said.
- Try not to express yourself too violently. Their nervous system will probably be affected and out of balance for several days afterwards, even if the conversation ended well.
- Speak calmly and quietly. Say what’s upset you in a calm tone and what you want them to do differently. They will be extremely cooperative and use all their empathy to try and understand you.
- When a HSP is angry, give them time to think. They may need to withdraw for a while to ponder what’s happened and formulate what they want to say.
- Stay calm. If you interrupt with anger, they will freeze.
- Know that the situation feels dangerous to them. Tread gently.
We are humans before our labels
There are benefits and downsides to assigning labels, like a HSP, to ourselves.
If you recognise elements of Aron’s definition of a HSP, it may explain why you react a lot of violence, or become overwhelmed incredibly quickly.
Having that clarity around our behaviour and actions is liberating.
You realise that there is nothing wrong with you. It’s simply how you show up to the world.
And that is beautiful.
However, sometimes we box ourselves inside these labels.
We start to use them as excuses for why we are not living the life we want.
We may blame not getting a promotion on our introversion: “I’m an introvert so I can’t be tactful in social situations.”
We might attribute the reason we hate our life from our fear of talking with people.
It comes down to how much control you think you have over your life.
Also know as the concept of locus of control. People who have an internal local of control believe they are responsible for creating their own success. If you have an external local of control, you believe success comes from luck, destiny, and other external forces.
Personally I think it’s a combination of the two.
The more you work towards a set goal, the more momentum you create and the more luck you attract.
When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’Paulo Coelho
If you recognise elements of yourself in the description of a HSP, it may help you lead a more enriched life. Knowing what your triggers are and what you need to fill your cup with joy is incredibly empowering.
I am celebrating you!
- 15-20% of us identify as a Highly Sensitive Person. Some HSPs also are social extroverts and enjoy the company of other people.
- Someone who is a HSP becomes more disturbed than others from confrontation, violence, and overwhelm.
- Being a HSP is both beautiful and challenging. Having greater self-awareness can help you leverage your strengths. and look after yourself when your energy is low.
- Setting boundaries and dealing with confrontation can be difficult for a HSP, but there are ways to do it.
- You are in control of your life and can use self-identifying labels as springboards to new ways of living.
Do you cringe late at night at the thought of previous awkward conversations?
Or when you said something to your boss that you wish you could take back?
Or when you became tongue-tied talking to that attractive person?
Click on the blue button below.
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In it, you’ll learn:
- Strategies to melt away awkwardness when starting conversations
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- How to navigate fears of saying the wrong thing or social blunders