5 Things You Need to Know to Survive and Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Person
Being highly sensitive means so much more than getting your feelings hurt a lot. Here's how to cope
When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?
My family often told me as a child that I was “too sensitive.” I never understood why — all I wanted to do was talk about my feelings. My kindergarten teacher told my parents that I was “extremely shy.” I was probably around ten or eleven when my siblings began teasing me about being oversensitive. I shared a bedroom with my twin sister, and whenever I asked her to turn the music down or shut off the bright lights because they were bothering me, she would turn the music louder or flick the light on and off. She’d laugh because she knew it bothered me. Her comment often was, “Oh Susan, you are too sensitive.” Whether it was bright lights, too much noise, or being annoyed by my inquisitive nature, I felt like my family did not understand me.
What started when I was young continued into my teen years, and then into adulthood. What I didn’t know at the time was that I’d eventually come to lose the ability to feel anything. Because my feelings became squashed repeatedly, my body learned to shut them down completely. As I entered my twenties, I was afraid to show any emotions. I blocked out all pain, happiness, and true joy. It was better that way, because I felt like no one understood me.
That all changed when I read the book, The Highly Sensitive Person, by psychotherapist Elaine Aron. The first edition came out in 1996, when I was in my thirties. Aron, a clinical research psychologist, identified the sensitive personality in her book. She listed traits that I identified with. For the first time in my life, my feelings felt validated, and I understood myself better. It became life-changing for me. I no longer felt flawed. Her book gave me permission to “be me.”
What Is the Definition of a Highly Sensitive Person?
Aron coined the term Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, and it describes a distinct personality trait that affects as many as one out of every five people. According to Dr. Aron’s definition, the HSP has a more finely attuned nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his or her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.
Dr. Aron uses the acronym DOES to describe the Highly Sensitive Person:
D: Depth of Processing
HSPs are highly intuitive. We process everything more, relating and comparing what we notice to our past experiences with other similar things. We do it whether we are aware of it or not. We decide things without knowing why or how we came to that decision. It’s what we call our intuition.
While others feel overstimulated occasionally, it’s a fact of life for those of us who fall into that 15-20 percent of the population considered highly sensitive. Sometimes, the world is distressing, too loud, and just too much.
E: Emotional Reactivity
HSPs are more in tune with others. We can easily, sometimes subconsciously, take on the feelings and emotions of others and put ourselves in their shoes (which can be a strength and a challenge).
We have a strong sense of empathy, awareness, and self-other processing. And because of that, we react more to both positive and negative experiences.
S: Sensing the Subtle
We are aware of the subtle things in our environment that others would most likely not notice, like sights, sounds, and smells. Nature and the arts move us. We can sense hostility or tension in social situations where others may not notice it.
As you can see, being a highly sensitive person is much more than just being hurt by what someone says about you. Because we experience our emotions more profoundly, our feelings can get hurt more easily. If this sounds like you, here are five ways to survive and thrive as a highly sensitive person:
1. Honor Your Intuition
Because HSPs are more in tune with the environment and what is going around them, they tend to think, feel, and process things intensely. Since we are aware of the subtle things, some have called it the “sixth sense.” Sometimes we “just know” something, without realizing how.
Psychologist Elaine Aron says highly sensitive people “are all creative by definition because we process things so thoroughly and notice so many subtleties and emotional meanings that we can easily put two unusual things together.” This can be a huge advantage in life, so trust your intuition!
2. Limit Sensory Overload
Certain external stimuli, like loud noises, brightly lit places, and highly crowded areas, bother us. The sounds of many people talking and noisy traffic may be heavier for highly sensitive people. Try to limit your time with these. If you can’t, noise-canceling headphones are fabulous.
3. Give Yourself Down Time
The world is overwhelming sometimes, because we feel so much more. Taking in and processing too much information from both inner and outer worlds can be “too much” at times. Reduce the chance of burnout by focusing on early signs like anxiousness and feeling overwhelmed.
We can quickly become worn out after a busy day, so make sure you have a quiet place to retreat. Try to cut down on multitasking. Time to relax is essential. I curl up in a comfy blanket and listen to music or read a book.
4. Get Plenty of Sleep
How much sleep you get can make or break your day.
For most people, lack of sleep (less than 7 hours a night) makes the average person irritable and less productive. But lack of sleep for the sensitive person will make life almost unbearable. If you need help practicing good sleep hygiene, check out Covey’s guide to getting more rest.
5. Enjoy Nature
Avoid violent movies or television shows. Instead, get out in nature. Being outside in nature is calming to highly sensitive people. We are deeply affected by the beauty of the natural world, and feel alive there. It is a healing place; we love the quiet, and it centers us.
Most of all — believe in yourself. Instead of becoming angry with people who offend or don’t understand you, focus on your journey. What others think or say about you does not matter when you believe in yourself. There is no need to apologize for feeling too deeply or caring about the world around you and the people you love — the world needs more people who love and care deeply.
Susan Frances Morris is the author of The Sensitive One, a memoir dealing with childhood trauma, abuse, health, and healing. She was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, the second oldest of seven siblings (with two sets of twins). She holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing and was a practicing nurse from 1989 to 2011, primarily in women’s health.