It’s common to assume that highly sensitive people are “weak,” “fragile,” or “too emotional.” But here’s the truth about HSPs.
In the past 12 years of working with highly sensitive people (HSPs) as a credentialed transformational coach, I frequently hear errors in perception around what it means to be a highly sensitive person.
It’s confusing enough to be one in our very loud world, especially if you have just discovered that you are one. (I still remember the day I discovered Dr. Elaine Aron’s seminal book, The Highly Sensitive Person, and with my mind thoroughly blown, I gushed to my sister, “I feel so validated! It’s like I found a user manual to myself!”
So let’s talk about what being a highly sensitive person entails.
What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?
As a personality trait, scientists define high sensitivity as taking in more information from your environment than others and processing things more deeply, according to Andre Sólo, coauthor of Sensitive and one of the founders of Sensitive Refuge. Sólo says that the sensitive brain is actually wired to process all information more deeply — so it spends more time and mental resources doing so. In turn, sensitive people tend to notice details others miss and make connections that others miss, too.
Due to this deep processing, sensitive people tend to have certain characteristics. Many pick up on subtle details and nuance, are highly creative, and have high levels of empathy. They tend to be highly attuned to their physical environment, as well, absorbing and noticing even the most minute changes around them. These are all pluses to being a sensitive person, yet the sensitive brain can get overstimulated when in loud, chaotic, or emotionally intense environments. Therefore, they do best in calm, quiet settings, where they’re allowed plenty of time to think.
Naturally, everyone is sensitive to some extent. Sólo says that researchers now see sensitivity as a continuum, with many people falling in the middle of the spectrum, a few at the low end, and about 30 percent scoring high for sensitivity. These highly sensitive people, or HSPs, are what we mean when we refer to “sensitive people.”
Suffice it to say, education around the “Why” and the “How” of our highly attuned nervous system is one of the most important factors in building resilience and partnership as an HSP. This is why misinformation can be so potentially harmful.
I have collected a list of the six most common misconceptions around the identity of sensitive people, commonly heard in my own private professional coaching practice.
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6 Common Misconceptions about HSPs
1. They are always empathetic and nice.
Sensitive people are highly empathic, compassionate, and spookily in-tune to other people’s feelings. However, after years of being told they’re “too sensitive,” many of them learn to use repression and suppression as strategies for reducing their powerful emotions.
After all, they’ve been baraged with subconscious messaging their entire lives that’s told them they’re “too much,” “too emotional,” “too dramatic,” etc. etc. And, in response, they’ve adapted by wearing an emotional suit of armor to fit in, as well as keep themselves safe.
This level of repression sets them up for potentially volatile responses to neverending stressors, especially if they have not yet learned how to harness their sensitivity as their superpower. When their nervous system inevitably exceeds its limits — there is no suppressing high sensitivity — their anger and reactivity can rival a Mount-Vesuvius-level eruption. So if a highly sensitive person you know isn’t always “nice,” now you know why. They likely have the best of intentions, but all the overwhelm and overstimulation can get to them.
2. They are the only sensitive people out there.
There are millions of sensitive individuals on this planet that don’t have the sensitivity trait. And, as I mentioned above, nearly 30 percent of the population is highly sensitive. However, if a person does not happen to have the collection of traits that signify an HSP, this does not mean they aren’t a sensitive individual. Everyone is sensitive to a degree — we HSPs are just more so.
3. Sensitive people are weak and not the least bit resilient.
In my experience of more than a decade of working with highly sensitive people undergoing enormous transformations of spirit, I am constantly awed by the resilience and grace my HSP clients demonstrate to me. HSPs and resilience are like a power couple, born to bring out the best in each other.
Thanks to their sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), highly sensitive people have spent years learning how to adapt to change, respond rather than react, and find balance in their lives due to their unique energy requirements. They are built for gratitude, cherishing small moments, and enjoying solitude (especially in nature) — all traits connected to resilience.
I’m not saying that many highly sensitive people don’t have to work to build up their resilience reserves, but when they put their heart, mind, and spirit into it, nobody does it better.
Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System?
HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?
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4. They’re people-pleasing pushovers.
Honestly, calling an HSP a pushover could not be farther from the truth. Have you ever tried to get a highly sensitive person to do something they don’t want to do? Have you asked them to go to a party on a Friday night, with a group of people they don’t know, after they’ve had a long work week? I imagine no amount of begging rocked them even the slightest.
Yes, some HSPs may be prone to people-pleasing. But… When a sensitive person who has perfected the art of personal boundaries understands they’ve reached — or exceeded — their energy limits, not even dynamite could nudge them away from their “plans for no plans.”
And never mistake their ability to listen to other points of view, or their gifts of compromise, collaboration and inclusivity, as being anyone’s doormat. In fact, these gifts are their greatest strength, and what often makes them the best leaders.
5. That they should be ashamed of being an HSP.
In a world that grows more complex every day, and seems wallpapered with chaos and conflict, I consider each and every highly sensitive person to be a beacon in the storm. These people were born to explore the questions of: How can I make the world kinder? How can I make the world safer? How can I bring my innate gifts into existence?
In this way, they can heal and help others. There is not one detail about the traits that make up the highly sensitive person that should be anything less than celebrated. Ashamed? Never. Wear this identity with pride and think about all the pluses, not any negatives.
6. Because “highly sensitive person” is not in the DSM-5, it is not “real.”
The “highly sensitive person” classification is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is like the bible of mental, emotional, and behavioral illnesses.
And do you know why? Because it is not considered a disorder. Let me repeat that. If you are an HSP, you are unique, but there is nothing about you that is disordered.
Your nervous system has special requirements, yes. But in some cases, and some cultures, this biological set of traits may be (and may have been) evolutionarily beneficial to you. I consider every sensitive person highly gifted — and hope you do, too.
You might like:
- 5 Misconceptions Every Highly Sensitive Person Has to Deal With
- Why Highly Sensitive People Tend to Be People-Pleasers — and How to Stop
- Here’s Everything Researchers Know About High Sensitivity, as of 2021
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