What Is a Highly Sensitive Person — and Are You One?

portrait of a highly sensitive person

You’re such a cry baby!

I’ve known from an early age that I’m more sensitive than most people. I’m hard-pressed to get through a movie or church service without crying. Anything that sounds even remotely critical or accusatory causes me intense pain. Growing up, I was told I was too sensitive and I took things too personally.

The truth is, I feel things very deeply.

It turns out some of us are wired this way. Our nervous systems are extra sensitive to emotions, energy, sounds, light, and physical stimulus. We’re highly sensitive people.

Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?

So, what is a highly sensitive person — and how do you know if you are one? Well, here are 10 signs that you’re highly sensitive.

1. You’re very emotional.

You experience emotions intensely — both the positives and the negatives. You cry easily. You react strongly. Sadly, this isn’t seen as an asset in the U.S., especially in boys or men. You many have been teased by others or internalized shame for being so sensitive.

2. You’re an exceptionally compassionate and giving person.

You’re a natural caretaker. You’re the first to respond when someone’s hurt or in trouble. You can sense others’ pain and respond with empathy. And you go out of your way to avoid offending or hurting anyone’s feelings.

3. You’re sensitive to criticism.

You think people are noticing and judging you when they probably aren’t. Criticism feels personal and painful. You can’t just “brush it off” like some people can. Instead, you try to avoid situations where you might fail or be criticized. As a result, you might stay in your comfort zone and don’t like to try new or risky things.

4. You feel alone, different, or like something’s wrong with you.

You recognize that you’re not like everyone else, but haven’t been able to pinpoint why. Other people notice your sensitivity, too. As a child, you were told to “toughen up” and “stop crying.” You were told that your sensitivity is a weakness and a burden. You try to fit in. You suit up in your emotional armor and try to bury your emotions, distract and numb yourself in order to cope with the flood of emotional and sensory input.

5. You’re more sensitive to external stimulation.

You pick up on all that’s going on around you. You find the sound of other people chewing infuriating, for example. You’re bothered by loud sounds, violent movies, and bright lights. You’re more likely to be sensitive to rough fabrics or tags in your clothes as well.

6. You overthink and worry.

You might overthink what should be a simple decision such as where to go out to dinner. You notice all of the details and possibilities, and it’s hard to screen out all the external stimuli, making it hard to make decisions. Sometimes you get caught up in rehashing the details and what-ifs.

7. You’re intuitive.

You can sense how others are feeling. You pick up the energy in the room. This can feel great when you’re around positive people, but you also feel negative energy just as strongly, which is draining.

8. You’re a perfectionist.

Your attention to detail and avoidance of criticism are components of perfectionism. You hold yourself to overly high standards and are self-critical when you don’t live up to these unrealistic expectations. Staying focused on goals and performance helps you push down your feelings in an effort to mask your sensitive nature.

9. You often get overwhelmed, overstimulated, and fatigued.

Dealing with all the emotions and stimulation that are coming at you is tiring. Similar to introverts, HSPs often feel drained when they spend time in busy, crowded places.

10. You’re probably an introvert.

Although not all HSPs are introverts, most are. (According to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, about 70 percent of HSPs are introverted — although extroverts can be highly sensitive, too!) Due to your heightened sensitivity to everything and everyone, it makes sense that you need time alone to replenish your energy.

What Helps Highly Sensitive People

Life can be challenging for highly sensitive people. Because you process all kinds of stimulation deeply, you can get easily overwhelmed — which can lead to fatigue and burnout. Here’s what will help you live a happy, balanced life:

  • Look for aspects of  your sensitive nature that are an asset
  • Remember you’re not alone and there’s nothing “wrong” with you
  • Avoid negative people
  • Limit exposure to overwhelming stimulus
  • Be careful not to over-schedule yourself and take on too many activities and commitments
  • Set boundaries with people who take advantage of your compassion
  • Journal to help clear your head and make decisions
  • Express your emotions through music, artistic endeavors, or talking to supportive people
  • Relax through meditation, a hot bath, massage, guided relaxation, prayer, or anything that promotes a relaxed body, mind, and spirit
  • Allow plenty of time alone or in quiet, calming spaces
  • Give yourself the same love and kindness that you extend to others

Do you struggle with perfectionism and finding balance? Check out my upcoming book, The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance. You can pre-order it on Amazon here.

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A version of this article was originally published on Psych Central. It is republished here with permission from the author.