Do you typically startle easily from loud noises, find yourself wanting to seclude after a stimulating day, or feel drained after taking on the moods or energies of those around you? There is a solid chance you may be what is considered a Highly Sensitive Person! Roughly 20% of the population fits into this category, which is something hardwired from birth. While it can initially present as feeling picky or rigid, there are enormous benefits to being highly sensitive, and most clients I work with feel relief and better understanding of themselves when they take the self-assessment.
HSP’s experience high empathy, sensory overload from their surroundings, and are more sensitive to bodily sensations such as physical pain or hunger. While it is not a diagnosis, many clients who possess the HSP trait experience clarity in separating some of their ‘quirks’ from fears of a major diagnosis or personality flaw. The shame associated with being highly sensitive typically starts in childhood where these individuals were labeled by parents or teachers as too sensitive, implying they were difficult or over-reactive.
The largest trait associated with HSP’s is their high levels of empathy. Highly Sensitive Persons typically avoid certain settings or movie genres, as they ‘take on’ the emotions of what they are observing. For example, violent and action-oriented movies can increase heart rate and anxiety, rather than feeling the rush of excitement their peers may experience as a pleasant sensation from the same movie. The vicarious embarrassment of certain comedies where everything seems go to against the protagonist’s best interests or prank shows can make a HSP feel squeamish and uncomfortable. Most of us experience the same sensations, but to a HSP, they are uncomfortable to the point where they are unable to finish the movie or avoid those genres entirely.
Where Highly Sensitive Persons typically experience the most distress that can impede functioning is running errands in highly stimulating environments or feeling pressed to complete several tasks within a short period of time. Many of my clients describe feeling flawed or rigid for not being able to run errands in big box stores, especially on the weekends. Many of them experience anxiety in those situations and I have known one to share that they abandoned their cart in the store from feeling so overwhelmed by the crowds and input. Again, most of us would like to avoid those same crowds and situations, but a HSP will become quickly irritable and overwhelmed, needing time and space to recover.
Similar to introverts, HSP’s typically recharge in solitude, and are more likely to limit their social calendars. Once a HSP client can identify with how sensory overload creates anxiety, they develop more empathy for themselves, rather than feeling flawed or that they should ‘suck it up’. Recognizing that their social and sensory battery gets depleted more quickly than others, they are then able to balance their schedules and errands around their energy levels without feeling ashamed. This is where I use the image of a jar full of jelly beans:
Each morning, we start off with a certain number of jelly beans in our jar. On days we may be battling a head cold or a poor night’s sleep, we have a lower number of jelly beans to work with. As we go throughout our day, each task or situation we encounter takes different handfuls of jelly beans; taking the dog for a walk is a much different amount than battling rush hour traffic to make a medical appointment in time. So, the silliness of the image comes down to the end of the day, social obligations, or extra ‘to do’ items where we can ask ourselves, “Do I have enough jelly beans for this?” Adding a bit of humor helps create grace and limit expectations of oneself to prevent emotional burnout.
Not every aspect of an HSP is a detriment, and in fact, many of the same qualities can be seen as sources of strength. Due to high sensory input, HSP’s are drawn towards aesthetic environments and the arts. They can create a soothing home atmosphere focusing on lighting, color coordination, and works of art. They are sensitive to the moods of those around them and can easily adapt to catering towards those needs by addressing the issue, suggesting a change of scenery or background music for example. Highly Sensitive Persons are highly empathic and may consider others’ emotional needs before the rest of the group is aware there is tension or an issue. HSP’s can use this empathy to aid in leadership roles or serving in a helping profession.
With awareness and understanding, the intent of informing clients about potentially being a Highly Sensitive Person is to help communicate when they are feeling overwhelmed and create freedom in listening to their needs. More parents have identified their children as HSP’s, reducing shame around experiencing larger emotions and giving that child awareness and strategies they can use to self-soothe. With 1 in 5 of us being highly sensitive, chances are high that you know several! With our ever-increasing fast-paced society, perhaps we could all benefit from pushing back against the need to constantly feel productive and say, “I don’t have enough jelly beans for this…”.