A simple guide for the family and friends of HSPs
In a world full of conflict and bad news, I sincerely believe we could use more sensitive people. We’re fortunate that millions are born every year with a special trait: high sensitivity. Often misunderstood as being “too sensitive,” these souls are actually deeply compassionate, caring, and thoughtful about how they navigate the world.
Known as highly sensitive people (HSPs), these individuals are the 15 to 20 percent of the population who feel and experience things deeply. This comes with tremendous advantages, but it also means getting overstimulated and worn out easily. And many HSPs face the stigma of being “different.” Even their closest friends and family are sometimes baffled by their behavior.
Is there an HSP in your life? Here’s a simple guide to understand them better.
A Guide to Highly Sensitive People
1. “Sensitive” is about our nervous system (not just our feelings).
Highly sensitive people are born with the gift of a high-performing nervous system. Although sometimes it feels anything but a gift, it can actually be a powerful ability. Essentially, it allows HSPs to take in more sensory input than others and process that input deeply. Everything — from sights, smells, and textures to ideas, relationships, and social cues — gets processed in a heightened way.
Sound exhausting? It can be, but it also gives HSPs the ability to draw connections that others miss and pick up on the subtle emotions and hidden intentions of others. Because of this, HSPs tend to be extraordinarily empathetic and great at predicting the behavior of others. But it also means they’re often the ones leaving the family event early, or at the very least, taking refuge in a quiet corner of the room.
2. Simply going outside can sometimes be a nightmare for HSPs.
Due to their depth of processing, the world is turned up louder for HSPs than it is for everyone else. That means simply walking through a public space can sometimes feel like an assault on their senses — and anywhere crowded or fast-paced (like a busy shopping mall or train station) can be even worse. It’s why many HSPs skip the bar or party in favor of something more intimate, like a one-on-one coffee date with a friend.
3. We need time alone.
Time spent alone is not just a way to relax — it’s a survival strategy. When your brain is designed to process every single stimulus, sometimes the only way to avoid burnout (or recover from it) is to go somewhere completely alone and quiet.
Once alone, some HSPs need to simply lie still and focus inward, while others will pursue low-stimulus activities that let them rest their mind, like reading or journaling. For many HSPs, this is a daily ritual, and it’s key to their mental wellbeing.
Don’t take it personally when an HSP wants to be alone. It’s not a rejection of you; it’s for their mental health.
4. Criticism can be much more painful.
No one likes being criticized, highly sensitive or not. But think about how an HSP is wired: They process everything intensely, including emotions, words, and their deeper meaning. That means HSPs experience critical, negative, or sarcastic words in a very personal way, and may have a strong emotional reaction to them. “Mean” humor is probably not for the gentle HSP, and when you have to give feedback, do so constructively.
5. HSPs thrive on love and affection.
For the highly sensitive person, emotional support and affection aren’t just nice — they’re necessities. Because they easily pick up on the moods of others, expressions of caring are important (like a hug or kind words) because it creates a sense that all is well in the relationship.
It’s not just about avoiding the lows. HSPs also feel the “highs” of life much more intensely, so feeling loved and affirmed is like rocket fuel for the sensitive heart. It goes both ways. If you’re good to an HSP, they will likely show true caring and loyalty in return.
6. Don’t tell an HSP to “toughen up.”
Many people only notice sensitivity when they see the downside of it — the sense of overwhelm that HSPs often deal with. They don’t notice the positive side, like the immense creativity, compassion, empathy, and ability to think deeply and make intuitive connections. As a result, it’s all too common for friends and family to want to “help” by getting a sensitive person to be, well, less sensitive.
But here’s the thing: You’re not helping.
And it’s not going to work. High sensitivity is determined by genes and stays with a person for life. Although HSPs can learn to navigate the challenges they face, there’s no way to change their innate sensitivity. More to the point, most highly sensitive people don’t want to change, nor should they — their sensitivity is their superpower.
Rather than trying to change them, love the HSPs in your life for who they are. Do your best to support and understand them, and let them know you see the strengths they bring.
7. They need extra time to adjust to change.
Because a sensitive person’s brain processes every piece of new information much more deeply, too much change all at once can overwhelm them. Even positive changes, like a new job or relationship, can quickly slide into high levels of stress or panic.
To combat this, HSPs like to keep regular routines when possible, and they may need extra self-care to deal with transitions.
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8. HSPs hate conflict.
Remember how HSPs thrive on affection, and suffer when it’s withheld? And that stuff about being criticized? Well, put those two together, crank it up to 11, and you’ve got the emotional impact of conflict — especially fighting with someone they love.
This can lead to a silent struggle. Depending on the situation, HSPs may go to great lengths to avoid causing conflict in the first place (such as not speaking up for their needs). This can cause frustration all around.
While there’s no perfect solution, it helps to handle disagreements without a raised voice, and to give the HSP a chance to be heard without debate or criticism. If they can trust that you’ll really listen, they’ll share far more — and be more willing to consider your viewpoint.
9. We crave a strong sense of purpose.
No highly sensitive person is content with simply punching in and punching out of work (or life!). Because HSPs see connections between things and tend to want to help others, they need a bigger purpose in life.
That can be something very individual, like creating art, or something community-driven, like working toward a cause they believe in. Either way, for an HSP, meaning (not just a paycheck or status) is what’s important.
10. HSPs thrive in beautiful surroundings.
Environment affects everyone, but when you process everything around you deeply, it affects you far more. Whether it’s artwork or nature, HSPs thrive when surrounded by beauty, and they tend to feel anxious in cluttered or chaotic environments. They turn to their environment to provide them with calm, stability, and inspiration.
11. We can be great conversationalists.
Although the majority of HSPs are introverts (70 percent), they have a strong ability to connect deeply with others, even people they’ve just met. They thrive on creating and receiving warmth in personal interactions, and many of them are good listeners who give heartfelt, insightful advice.
HSPs also have a tendency to offer a unique perspective. Since they process things deeply, they pick up on far more connections between ideas, topics, or causes and effects. The result is an ability to present things in an entirely new light and help others see a bigger picture.
12. Please accept us as we are.
There’s no greater gift you can give a highly sensitive person than to respect and accept their sensitive nature. Because for HSPs, the world is not a very understanding place.
The world is made for people who can ignore small sensations. It’s made for people who can shrug off thoughtless words, can rush around, can yell and get yelled at, and can deal with crowds. That’s the world most people inhabit, and for most of of them, it’s no big deal. That stuff is below their radar. But for an HSP, their radar picks up everything.
In a lot of ways, all that highly sensitive people really want from those around them is for someone to say, I like you. I like you because you’re sensitive. And I think it’s okay if you need some time to process. Or to leave early. Or if you’d rather not meet at a crowded place, or want the temperature turned down a bit.
Want to make a highly sensitive person happy? Look at them, see them, and affirm their needs.
HSP, what would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments below.