Are Highly Sensitive People Real?

A person with arms crossed and a skeptical look doubting whether highly sensitive people are real

Does someone in your life not believe HSPs are real? Here’s why — and what you can do to change that. 

I was talking with a high school principal at a party once, and the topic of our book came up. I explained that it was about what makes people sensitive, why we hide it, and how it’s actually one of our greatest human strengths. The principal seemed interested and asked to hear more. 

So I told him. I explained what a highly sensitive person (HSP) is, all the gifts that come with being sensitive, and the one major drawback: overstimulation.

He listened, and then he said, “I don’t know, I think some of these kids need to be less sensitive, not more.” He went on to say that people need to become less sensitive in order to make it in the “real world.” (Which is false, by the way. Your sensitive gifts can take you a long way in the real world.)

I was respectful, but I explained that sensitivity is largely genetic, so sensitive kids can’t become less sensitive — they are are wired that way. 

He shrugged. “Nah, I don’t think so.” 

This was far from the only time I’ve seen this happen. Many of us HSPs routinely run into pushback about being sensitive, even from friends and our own family. Sometimes the pushback is even openly hostile. And, often, at the heart of it lies the question of whether being a highly sensitive person is even a “thing” at all. A lot of people haven’t heard of it, or they have but they think it’s woo. 

And that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

In this article, I’ll dig into the three big reasons why people are skeptical about HSPs — and what we as sensitive people can do to change that and end the stigma.

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The 3 Big Reasons People Doubt HSPs

In my experience, there are three topics that come up over and over when people are skeptical about HSPs. Two of these topics are rational arguments, while the third one comes from a place of fear. All three, however, miss the point of what it truly means to be sensitive — and the research behind it. These three topics are:

1. HSP Is Just Another Word for Autistic

Many HSPs are not aware of this, but there is a strong sentiment against the concept of HSPs among part of the autism community. This is because some autistic people feel that the term “highly sensitive person” actually just refers to people with autism, who don’t know they are autistic. 

While there’s good reason to disagree with that sentiment, I understand it. HSPs do have some traits in common with autistic people. Both groups tend to be very physically sensitive to textures, sounds, etc., and to suffer from overstimulation or sensory overload because of them. Both HSPs and autistic individuals also frequently feel like outsiders who don’t fit in, and both sometimes exhibit unique gifts. It doesn’t help that some researchers use an outdated understanding of autism, or that leading HSP researcher Elaine Aron supposedly based the HSP profile in part on individuals who later turned out to be autistic. 

Does that mean the two are the same thing? 

Not really. Just because two groups of people both report physical sensitivity and overstimulation does not mean it’s caused by the same thing. This is true of any condition. For example, if someone’s heart is racing, it might mean they have an anxiety disorder, it might mean they’re on stimulant medication, or it might mean they just finished their morning jog. There can be more than one explanation for a single phenomenon. 

Research suggests this is the case for autism and sensitivity. Brain scans conducted by neuroscientist Bianca Acevedo revealed that the brain activity of autistic individuals is very different from that of HSPs. Most notably, areas of the brain involved in processing social cues tended to be extra-active for HSPs, who are highly tuned into the emotions of others, but showed far less activation in the brains of autistic individuals. This makes sense, because autism typically comes with difficulty understanding the social cues of neurotypical people, whereas HSPs report not only being able to read or sense the emotions of others but taking those emotions on as if they were their own

In other words, the autistic brain appears to be very, very different from the HSP brain.

Likewise, any group of people who are different in some way are likely to feel like misfits at times. And most traits come with a mix of gifts and drawbacks — not just sensitivity and autism. 

With that said, I do suspect there is some level of overlap between the two traits. They may be very different, but a person can be either or both. And there probably are HSPs out there who are autistic but don’t realize it. Most HSPs, however, do not check the boxes of autism. Both traits deserve to be understood and accepted equally. 

2. There Isn’t Enough Data to Prove HSPs Are Real

One sentiment I’ve seen more than a few time is that the concept of HSPs comes from “just” one researcher — Elaine Aron, the psychologist who coined the term — and therefore isn’t supported by evidence. 

To be fair, if there really were just one researcher promoting the idea of high sensitivity, that would indeed be cause for skepticism. Of course, even on its own, Aron’s work contains compelling evidence, but scientific claims are far more credible when numerous researchers review and agree with each other’s data. 

The truth, however, is that Aron’s pioneering work was only the beginning of an entire field of research now being conducted by more than a hundred neuroscientists, biologists, psychologists, and child development researchers worldwide. Even Aron herself was building on the discoveries of earlier sensitivity researchers; her work represents just one of four separate theories to explain sensitivity

But you don’t have to take a researcher’s word for it. The data speaks for itself: we can now test for the trait of sensitivity two separate ways — with a personality test or by looking at your DNA — and the results from both typically match. That very strongly suggests that sensitivity is a real, independently verifiable trait. 

3. A Bias Against Being Sensitive 

The biggest pushback I get has nothing to do with evidence or theories. Instead, it’s rooted in something much deeper: the fear that being sensitive somehow makes you weak. People with this fear are often much more likely to be dismissive of the idea of HSPs, because it’s easier to mock sensitive people than it is to confront one’s own sensitive side. 

This fear of sensitivity is baked deep into our social fabric. Everyone is pushed to do more, go faster, work harder, and pretend to have no limit. But human beings are sensitive creatures by nature — even non-HSPs — and we do all have a limit. When we hit that limit, we may burn out, snap at someone, become emotionally overloaded, or experience headaches, exhaustion and brain fog. The only solution we are offered at this point is to “toughen up” and push through it. This is what my co-author Jenn Granneman and I call the Toughness Myth in our book, Sensitive.

The Toughness Myth doesn’t just mean that sensitivity is undervalued. It means it is misunderstood. The average person does not hear the term “highly sensitive person” as a neutral descriptor for a healthy personality trait. They hear it as taking that sin of sins — to be “soft” — and doubling down on it (“highly” sensitive, not just sensitive — what a scandal!). Thus, they translate highly sensitive as meaning highly whiny, highly ineffective, highly fragile, and highly a handful. If that’s what they think being sensitive means, can you blame them for not believing it’s a healthy personality trait? 

The best thing you can do when you encounter this stigma is to remember that it is motivated by fear: fear of looking weak, fear of falling behind, fear of not being able to hack it in the “real world.” That doesn’t mean you have to give it a free pass. But, often, being open about your own sensitivity is a far better response than trying to prove something to the people who doubt you.

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?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

How Do We Gain Acceptance as HSPs?

As surreal as it is to hear people doubt your existence, there are things you can do to help change this bias and gain acceptance if you want to. For example:

Know Your Facts

Facts don’t always change minds, but it never hurts to spread them. The three most useful facts to have on the tip of your tongue are:

  • “Being sensitive just means you process information very deeply. It’s a trait tied to giftedness.”
  • “Being sensitive can be hard because of big emotions and overstimulation. But it also comes with major strengths including deep thinking, creativity, and sensory intelligence.”
  • “Nearly 1 in 3 people are highly sensitive, including 1 in 3 men. It’s considered a healthy, normal trait.”
  • “If you’re sensitive, you were likely born that way. It’s in your genes.” 

You don’t have to say them word for word, and you may never use them at all. But I personally find that even just knowing these facts helps me feel a lot less overwhelmed when I feel like my sensitivity is under attack. 

Know Your Audience 

If someone is being skeptical or dismissive of your sensitivity, it’s fine to respond (or not). Just remember that they are not your audience. No, your audience is the people around who overhear what you both say. 

It’s those bystanders who you’re really speaking to, because they are the ones who might listen. You never know how many of them are proud HSPs too nervous to speak up — or someone slowly realizing they’re an HSP for the first time ever. The rest are likely pretty neutral, which means they’re the ones most likely to remember what you said and take it seriously. 

This is good news, because it means you do not have to enter conflict in order to have an impact. Don’t waste your breath and energy on people who are already hostile to you. 

Know It Pays to Be Proud

The best way to talk to people about your sensitivity is to do it in positive terms. That doesn’t mean ignoring or hiding the various real struggles, like overstimulation. It just means that it’s the best parts of sensitivity — not the downsides — that are going to make people more accepting. 

For example, here are some positive phrases you can use if they feel accurate to your own experience:

  • “I’m actually a pretty sensitive person. I think that’s what helped me succeed.” 
  • “Our son is a pretty sensitive kid, and that’s something we encourage.”
  • “I wouldn’t be this creative if I weren’t a highly sensitive person.”
  • “I think people should be more sensitive, not less. It’s one of our greatest human traits.” 
  • “I wouldn’t trade my sensitivity for the world. It’s one of the things I like best about myself.” 

Know to Pick Your Battles

While every HSP faces these conversations sometimes, not every HSP needs to be in constant “educate” mode. Remember: the best way to change the stigma around highly sensitive people is to lean into your sensitivity in everything you do. Embrace your emotions. Trust your gut feelings. Take time when you need it. And show your creativity, deep thinking, and empathy with your actions, not just your words. 

When you do, it’s surprising how people suddenly take your sensitivity seriously. And, who knows — maybe they’ll even start to believe you’re real. 

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