Due to their wiring, highly sensitive people observe more, think more, and move slower — which is a good thing.
“Hurry up,” my 4th grade teacher scolded me. All the other kids had left for recess, while I stood alone in the hallway, still putting on my coat.
“You’re very thorough,” my boss told me at my first job where I cleaned a furniture showroom. “But I’d like you to speed up.”
Hurry up. It’s a phrase I’ve heard all my life. For the longest time, I thought something was wrong with me because I do things in a slower, more deliberate way, compared to most people — and I prefer a calm life over a busy one. Then I learned I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), the 20% of the population whose brains process information deeply, and my “slow and steady” style finally made sense.
Even better, in a chaotic and often too-busy world, I started to see my thoroughness as a strength.
No one likes feeling too busy or rushed, whether you’re highly sensitive or not — but for HSPs, that stress can be intense. Like, really intense. Here’s why.
What Is a Highly Sensitive Person (and Are You One)?
Would you rather spend a relaxing weekend at home… instead of hopping from event to event with little downtime in between? When your to-do list runs off the page, does it feel like a whole football team is standing on your chest? If someone tells you to hurry up!, does it, in fact, have the opposite effect — making you feel so frazzled that you mess up and slow down?
If so, you might be a highly sensitive person.
“Highly sensitive people,” a term coined by researcher Elaine Aron in the late 90s, have more sensitive central nervous systems than the rest of the population, making them more attuned to physical, social, and emotional stimuli. In other words, what others see as subtle sensations, HSPs experience intensely. This could be anything from a bright overhead light, a busy office with lots of noise, or even work deadlines or a loved one snapping that you’re late.
Wondering if this is you? Here are 21 signs that you’re highly sensitive.
How Deep Processing Affects HSPs (and Slows Us Down)
According to researchers at Ghent University, HSPs “process stimuli cognitively deeper,” than non-HSPs, as well as notice and respond to more cues in their environments. “This may result in taking more time to observe and react slower,” as well as making them “less prone to act when confronted with a new situation and have more aversion towards risk-taking,” they write.
Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, sums this up as “depth of processing,” which can affect HSPs in many ways, from causing us to not notice time passing, to overthinking things, to being overstimulated when there’s a lot going on — either in our environment or on our calendar.
For example, Aron explains why it’s not unusual for HSPs to run late, even though we’re generally very conscientious and thoughtful of others. The sensitive person’s depth of processing might cause him or her “to be thinking, maybe planning or imagining, and not noticing the time passing” — in other words, we get lost in a rich state of concentration.
Our depth of processing may also make it harder for us to get out the door and get to appointments or scheduled events on time.
For example, let’s say you’re an HSP who’s leaving the house for a vacation. As you pack, your depth of processing kicks in. You start thinking about all the possible scenarios that might happen on your trip (and all the little things that could go wrong). Wait, I need my umbrella because it might rain. Hold on, these shoes won’t be comfortable for walking — I need to change them. And so on.
Unfortunately, people often dismiss this behavior as HSPs being “too picky” and “getting hung up on little things” — but they should remember that what is minor to others can be major to us! For example, clothing with a tight waistband or uncomfortable shoes can make all the difference for an HSP between a fun day and a torturous one. No wonder HSPs put a lot of energy into trying to predict or avoid what others would call “minor” inconveniences.
The downside: All that preparation takes time.
The HSP’s Strength in a Too-Rushed World
We all know people who speed through things, make mistakes, and cause big problems. Those people are probably not HSPs.
There are upsides to our deliberate ways. For one, when traveling with a group, HSPs are usually the ones who have exactly what’s needed, from Advil to pre-printed bus passes.
HSPs are also the ones who are most likely to be praised by their bosses, teachers, and clients for turning in exceptional work. Think: the four years it took Leonardo to finish his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa.
And the decisions we arrive at — slowly — might be better and more trustworthy. According to Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, thinking slowly can take us off “mental autopilot,” which allows us to better tap our intuition and not jump to hasty conclusions.
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How HSPs Can Cope With Time Pressure
Of course, sometimes the world demands we move quickly, plus, always doing everything to the most thorough degree leads to burnout. So, here are some tips to help you:
1. Leave extra time (more than you think you’ll need).
When you have to get to somewhere, leave extra time. More time than you think you’ll need. Ridiculous amounts of extra time! That way, when your depth of processing kicks in and you start thinking about grabbing extra tissues or changing your clothes, you’ll have the time you need.
2. Write lists of what you need ahead of time.
I have a master packing list that includes everything I need when I travel, saved on my laptop so I don’t have to recreate it every time. You can do this for other things, too, such as a list for what you need when you leave the house in the morning for work — and it’s especially helpful if you’re responsible for getting young children out the door.
3. Remove any extra stimulation (that means you, spouse and kids!).
If possible, make your preparations — like packing your suitcase or purse, or fixing your hair in the bathroom — without other people around. Close the door. Ask your spouse to watch the kids (or not talk to you while you’re getting ready). Doing things quietly and alone removes excess stimulation.
4. Give yourself permission to say no.
This is the best defense against a too-busy calendar. When you say no, you’re saying yes to more energy for the things that really matter.
5. Like a parent to a child, give yourself gentle time warnings.
If you run late because you struggle to pull yourself out of your current task, keep an eye on the clock and give yourself time warnings (like you’d do for a child who needs to quit playing soon and pick up his or her toys). “Twenty minutes until I need to get ready to leave… 10 minutes…” and so on. You may even want to set a timer.
In a lot of ways, the busy modern world works against the HSP’s thoughtful, deliberate way of doing things. While this can create problems for the sensitive person, it’s also a powerful strength. Who would you rather have doing your taxes, watching your children, or planning the company’s next big move? The thorough HSP, of course!
You might like:
- 14 Things Highly Sensitive People Absolutely Need to Be Happy
- 21 Signs That You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
- 13 Problems Only Highly Sensitive People Will Understand
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