Picking up on people’s body language is an HSP superpower — and it proves actions do speak louder than words.
There is a popular myth that 93 percent of effective communication is nonverbal, with 55 percent of the weight on body language and 38 percent on tone of voice. The truth is that these statistics cannot be applied to everyday communication. However, researchers have come to recognize that the nonverbal elements that accompany the spoken word are at least as important as the actual words themselves in creating meaning.
Body language, according to Oxford Languages, is “the conscious and unconscious movements and postures by which attitudes and feelings are communicated.” This can include things like micro-expressions, posture, stance, proxemics, gestures (kinesics), eye contact, speech style, and speech tone. And when you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you pick up on such cues even more so since you’re renowned for noticing the little things — as well as the littlest things.
After some deeply personal experiences, I will never, ever doubt my intuition — and knack for reading other people — again. I’m convinced that HSPs have a natural ability to read between the lines, and this is why I believe we are the best at reading body language. See if you agree. Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, believes there are four main ways to summarize being highly sensitive. She uses the acronym DOES: Depth of processing; Overstimulation; Emotional responsivity; and Sensitive to subtleties. I’ll get into each below and how they relate to body language.
4 Reasons Why HSPs Are the Best at Reading Body Language
1. They process things deeply.
The first HSP characteristic in Aron’s DOES acronym is all about how we process things deeply — meaning that we have high levels of self-awareness and emotional honesty. This is why living an authentic life is so paramount to our mental well-being; we know ourselves very well and doing anything other than living with our values makes us internally disturbed. We take everything in and form impressions, both about ourselves and others — we just can’t help it; it’s how we are wired.
These qualities put HSPs at a great advantage when processing others’ actions and behaviors; we even get mentally and emotionally flooded sometimes. Although many would also deem this as “overthinking,” I disagree. I believe that the only time one can think too much about a situation is if it turns into rumination. Rumination is thinking in a negative manner, rather than thinking deeply. As an example, the brilliant thinker Dmitri Mendeleev spent three days and nights working himself to exhaustion locked away in his room thinking. And it’s thanks to his brilliant processing of the abstract that he was able to arrange the elements in what we now know as the Periodic Table, leaving gaps in the appropriate places for elements not yet discovered. How remarkable! (Of course, HSPs are known for being creative and their attention to detail, and he is proof!)
But back to body language and how processing things deeply plays a role. In the instances where someone is being inconsistent or contradictory in their communication, their body language and tonality may well be more accurate indicators of meaning and emotions than the words themselves. As a result, not only are we able to point out our own hypocrisies and become our own emotional sleuths, but we can also come to know the intentions of others in our gut before we recognize it intellectually. Using our Spidey-Senses, we’re able to tell when people aren’t being authentic, when their words and body language don’t match up. And this is where for me, personally, I’ll never doubt my intuition again.
2. They are prone to overstimulation.
According to Dr. Aron’s acronym, the second main characteristic of being an HSP is that we’re prone to overstimulation. Research demonstrates that HSPs tend to be faster and more accurate at sifting through information for the proverbial needle in a haystack, but it leaves us feeling more stressed than non-HSPs. Applying this insight to the reading of body language, we can therefore notice extra social and emotional cues in a given timeframe than others by paying more attention to subtle facial expressions — as well as all the little details around us — which can leave us feeling overwhelmed.
It’s unclear whether this heightened state of arousal is due the result of our minds working overtime to process large swathes of subtle signals at faster speeds than non-HSPs, but I suspect that it is. However, this doesn’t mean that overstimulation is a bad thing — quite the contrary. HSPs have reported that they tend to avoid negative overstimulation and need recovery time after viewing arousing stimuli — we may experience an “HSP hangover” and need to just hole up in our HSP sanctuary.
In other words, meaning that in the context of evaluating social situations, perhaps it’s a warning sign for us to protect ourselves. Maybe we have too much conflicting information about the situation or a person, indicating that we’re unable to make an accurate assessment at that moment and there’s too much ambiguity. (After all, absorbing others’ thoughts and feelings gets tiring!)
Overstimulation can be a sign for us to take a step back to recalibrate and gain some perspective. And although we like to see the best in people, it’s good to have something to counterbalance any naivety or overly positive expectations. Because if anyone is going to get hurt in any social interactions, the HSP is never going to leave unscathed.
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3. They’re empathetic and really feel for you.
The third main characteristic of being an HSP is that we’re emotionally responsive and extremely empathetic. It has been shown that the areas of the brain of highly sensitive individuals associated with awareness, empathy, and self-other processing have stronger activation (i.e., blood flow) than those of non-HSPs. This provides evidence that awareness and responsiveness are fundamental features of HSPs.
In fact, perceiving empathy is often intuitive and based on nonverbal behavior, and because HSPs are authentic in our interactions, we often put others at ease, making others feel safe and understood. Not only does this mean that people open up to us, which is really where we can start connecting some of those conceptual dots to form a picture of what someone is really like, but we naturally sense when someone is perhaps saddened, grieving, or uncomfortable. We like to make the world a better place, and by being empathetic, we’re more alert to others’ discomfort — including through their body language — and will do what we can to alleviate it for them.
4. They’re sensitive to subtleties.
The final main characteristic of being an HSP is that we’re sensitive to subtleties. We can read micro-expressions that the majority of the population misses, we have access to information that doesn’t come through logic and reason alone, and can have strong knowledge about something without realizing how we received the insight. This certainly ties in with our ability to process details deeply, but it is different, because we’re sensitive to taking in a variety of data that we then go on to process. If we’re out to coffee with a friend, we can tell if something’s off with them by several cues they give us via body language: they may put their head down, look off, pause a lot in their speech; fidget, you name it… and we’ll notice it all.
For example, at one job I had, during an induction week activity, a group of us were looking at a piece of artwork and had to discuss our thoughts and impressions about it with a partner. It was an intricate and colorful illustration that depicted a man at the center of what appeared to be an abstract archway that got more elaborate as it extended toward the outer page. My interpretation was that the image depicted the man’s mental strife and specific situation in which he felt stuck. I felt silly at first giving my thoughts on the topic, especially as my assigned partner mentioned that she hadn’t even noticed most of the details to which I was referring. Looking back on it now, I realize that this is a massive HSP strength — we definitely are able to more naturally take into account subtleties that others gloss over or perhaps see as unimportant. And the more we do this, the more our HSP superpowers shine through and work as an asset in our lives.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on my work or your personal experiences; please drop by my website to read more and leave some comments.
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You might like:
- HSPs Are the Ultimate Body Language Experts
- 8 Superpowers of Highly Sensitive People
- Here’s Everything Researchers Know About High Sensitivity, as of 2021
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