Highly Sensitive Refuge
A portrait of a highly sensitive person

Everything You Need to Know About Highly Sensitive People

In a world full of conflict and bad news, we could use more sensitive people. We’re fortunate that millions of people 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 HSPs can get overstimulated and worn out very easily. And many HSPs face a stigma of being “different.”

Here’s everything you need to know about the HSPs in your life.

What You Need to Know About 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. I say “gift” because this ability allows them to take in more sensory input than others and process that input more 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.

2. Simply going outside can be a nightmare for HSPs.

For highly sensitive people, the world is turned up a little louder than it is for everyone else. They hear nearly every sound, notice every movement, and process the expression on every person’s face. And that means that simply walking through a public space can be an assault on their senses — and anywhere crowded or fast-paced (like a busy shopping mall or train station) is even worse.

3. Sometimes they need to withdraw.

And it’s 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. For many HSPs, this is a daily ritual, and it’s key to their mental wellbeing.

4. Criticism is much more painful.

No one likes being criticized, highly sensitive or not. But think about how an HSP is wired: Highly empathetic and attuned to others’ emotions, they’re always aware of displeasing the people around them, and they try hard to keep everyone happy. That means they experience critical words in a very personal way and may have stronger a emotional reaction to negative feedback than others.

5. HSPs thrive on love and affection.

For the highly sensitive person, support and affection are necessities. Because they easily pick up on the moods of others, expressions of caring are important — it creates a sense that all is well. And a sense of connection with others can help soothe and reduce anxiety, which statistically, HSPs are more prone to.

But 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. And it goes both ways — if you’re good to an HSP, they’ll show true caring and loyalty in return.

6. Don’t tell an HSP to “toughen up.”

Many people only notice high 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 coworkers 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 successfully 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. They learn early on that their gift — although sometimes challenging — comes with tremendous abilities. Many HSPs consider their sensitivity a superpower.

Rather than trying to change them, love your HSP friends and family 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 time to adjust to change. A lot of time.

Because a sensitive person’s brain processes every piece of new information much more deeply than others’ do, too much change all at once can overwhelm them. That means that even positive changes 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.

8. HSPs have a really hard time with 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 or respect.

This can lead to a silent struggle. Depending on the situation, HSPs may go to great lengths to avoid causing a conflict in the first place (such as not speaking up even when they feel strongly about something or not pushing for something even though it’s important). This can cause frustration all around — for the HSP, who feels unheard, and for the other person, who’ll often be taken by surprise when they later find out how the HSP really feels.

While there’s no easy solution, it helps if you can handle disagreements without a raised voice, and if you can 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 also be more willing to consider your viewpoint.

9. They crave a strong sense of purpose.

No highly sensitive person is content with simply punching in and punching out of work (or life!) every day. Because HSPs see the connections between things, and tend to want to serve others, they need a bigger purpose in life. That can be something very individual, like creating art or literature, or something community-driven, like working toward a cause they believe in. Either way, for an HSP, meaning (not just a paycheck or social 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. Most HSPs truly care about the way things look. Whether it’s artwork or nature, they like to be 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. They can be great conversationalists.

Although the majority of HSPs are introverts (who tend to be quiet), 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 them as they are.

There’s no greater gift you can give a highly sensitive person than to respect and accept their sensitive nature. Because for most 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 and hurry around, can yell and get yelled at, and can deal with huge 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 cry with joy? Look at them, see them, and affirm their needs.

HSPs, what would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments.

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