A sensitive person can be a super feeler, a super sensor, or an “aesthete.” Here’s what the research says — and how to use your type(s) to thrive.
HSPs, did you know there are actually three different “types” of highly sensitive people?
For a long time, sensitivity was seen as a single, unified trait — either you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) or you’re not. Research strongly suggests, however, that there’s a lot of variation within HSPs, so much so that highly sensitive people may fall into three different groups or “types.”
Each of the types has its own strengths and drawbacks, and each one can tell you a lot about yourself and how to harness your sensitivity to thrive.
Here’s what researchers have to say about the three types of highly sensitive people, and how to tell which one — or ones — you are.
How Did Researchers Discover the Three ‘Types’ of HSPs?
In the late 1990s, sensitivity researcher Elaine Aron developed the HSP Scale, a test that is still used today to assess how sensitive a person is. In Aron’s original theory, high sensitivity was a single trait that comprised many kinds of sensitivities — for example, the same person who is sensitive to caffeine or hunger will likely also be sensitive to emotions and moods. Since early data seemed to support this view, the HSP Scale included questions related to many kinds of sensitivity. If a person checked enough boxes — of any kind — they scored as highly sensitive.
As sensitivity researchers began to work with larger sample sizes, however, they noticed a pattern: People’s answers on the HSP scale tended to cluster around certain groups of questions.
For example, a person who is sensitive to hunger might indeed also be sensitive to caffeine, but not as much to emotions. Meanwhile, another person might strongly agree with all the questions related to emotions — both their own and those of others — but not with the questions about physical sensations. Both could score as highly sensitive, yet they seemed to be reporting very different experiences.
It was neuropsychologist Kathy Smolewska who first brought these differences to light. In a 2006 paper, Smolewska and her colleagues identified three distinct patterns in how people responded to the HSP Scale, representing three different styles of sensitivity. Today, researchers including Aron have largely accepted this finding, and refer to it as the three “subscales” of the HSP Scale.
The three subscales are:
- Ease of Excitation (having strong reactions to things, especially emotions)
- Low Sensory Threshold (being highly aware of sensory sensations), and
- Aesthetic Sensitivity (a deep attunement to art and beauty).
Any given highly sensitive person might fit one, two, or all three of the subscales. Thus, you can think of them as representing three styles or “types” of HSPs.
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What Are the Three ‘Types’ of Highly Sensitive People?
In our book, Sensitive, my co-author Jenn Granneman and I decided to give the three types of HSPs nicknames, to make them easier to understand: the “super sensor” (Ease of Excitation), the “super feeler” (Low Sensory Threshold) and the “aesthete” (Aesthetic Sensitivity).
Below are each of the three types and how to tell if you fit that type. Remember, you might not just be one type — some HSPs fit more than one!
1. The “Super Sensor” (Low Sensory Threshold)
Super sensors are HSPs who score high for the Low Sensory Threshold subscale, meaning they are highly aware of their external, sensory environment. If you’re a super sensor, it means you do not filter out as much information about your surroundings, instead noticing every little detail with all five senses — hearing, sight, touch, taste, and smell. This makes super sensors so perceptive that, at times, it may seem you like have “super hearing” or other “super” senses. In reality, your eyes and ears are no sharper than anyone else’s — it’s just that you pay more attention to what they pick up.
Signs You’re a Super Sensor
Signs you are a super sensor include:
- You are particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine, medications, recreational drugs, or alcohol
- You struggle to tolerate loud noises, strong smells or bright lights
- You are very sensitive to the texture of the fabric in your clothing
- You notice sounds, smells or subtle details that other people don’t seem to be aware of
- You get overwhelmed in crowded or chaotic spaces
- You feel nervous or on-edge when a lot is happening around you
- Loud, aggressive, and violent media bothers you
Super Sensor Strengths
Being a super sensor comes with many strengths. Super sensors tend to be highly observant, which can make them excellent at detail-oriented tasks like accounting, coding, or the fine arts. If you’re inclined toward sports, you may find that your super-sensing gives you terrific “field vision” — the ability to remain aware of every player on the field or rink, like you have eyes in the back of your head. (In our book Sensitive, we argue that sports legends Wayne Gretsky and Tom Brady are both HSPs — and likely super sensors.)
Being a super sensor may also give you greater situational awareness, meaning you notice indicators of a problem or threat before anyone else does — a skill that can save lives. Hospitals actually train their staff on situational awareness so they notice when something is going wrong with a patient, but super sensor HSPs may be naturally good at it.
Super Sensor Challenges
Super sensors also face challenges. For one, having keen senses isn’t always fun. (As one super sensor who had a particularly strong sense of smell told me, “It’s the worst superpower ever.” He worked in a gym.) The biggest, though, is likely overstimulation. Super sensors get overloaded by external sensations, especially when they’re extreme (like yelling) or there are too many at once (like a crowded, chaotic event). If you’re a super sensor, the best thing you can do for your self care is to control your physical environment as much as you can, and make time to sit alone in quiet or dark places to “de-stimulate.”
2. The “Super Feeler” (Ease of Excitation)
Super feelers are HSPs who score high for Ease of Excitation. This means they tend to have strong responses to stimuli of all kinds, whether it be internal (like hunger or pain) or external (like the weather). Often, this means means having stronger emotional responses, and super feelers tend to be highly aware of and attuned to the emotions of themselves and others. The archetypal HSP who absorbs people’s emotions and may be an empath is likely a super feeler.
Super feelers have a special relationship with emotions and can seem to channel or embody them. (Actress Nicole Kidman, a self-avowed HSP, says that “Most actors are highly sensitive people,” perhaps because of this ability to channel emotions. When Kidman acted in an abuse scene for the show Big Little Lies, she says it was so emotional for her that she had to just lie down on the set with a towel covering her, unable to speak. It was almost as if she had lived through the abuse herself, rather than acting it.) This emotionality is the source of both a super feeler’s greatest strengths and their biggest challenges.
Signs You’re a Super Feeler
Signs you are a super feeler include:
- You are affected by the moods and emotions of others
- You’re easily startled
- You tend to be more sensitive to pain, almost as if it hurts “more” for your than it may for others
- You have a strong sense of empathy
- You feel overwhelmed when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time
- You tend to be conscientious about doing things right, avoiding mistakes, and being on time
- You worry whether you’re doing a good job and feel guilty if you’re not
- You have a strong reaction to hunger, so that it’s nearly impossible to ignore
- You worry a lot or overthink things
- You get very self-conscious when being observed while you do something, so much so that you actually do worse at it.
- You take great efforts to avoid conflict and upsetting or overwhelming situations.
Strengths of Super Feelers
Strengths of super feelers include their incredible ability to read other people and sense what they are feeling. They often have a very strong sense of empathy, even by HSP standards, and if they harness this empathy by practicing compassion they can be a force for change in their own lives, the lives of those around them, and the world. Similarly, if they practice emotional intelligence, a super feeler has a tremendous ability to unite people and get things done. They can be very passionate, inspiring individuals who know how to make each person feel at home, listen to everyone’s needs and perspective, and find solutions that work for all. With practice, super feeler HSPs can become great leaders.
Challenges of Super Feelers
The biggest challenge that super feelers face is the sheer power of their emotional reactions — especially when it comes to negative emotions. For a super feeler, anger or sadness can feel all-consuming, and it can be hard to remember that the emotion will pass. They may get overwhelmed, much like a super sensor, but rather than sensory overstimulation the cause is more likely to be emotional overload. In some cases a super feeler may even feel “stuck” in an emotion and unable to move on from it. This is exacerbated by the fact that super-feelers often take on the emotions of others, not just their own, so they may find themselves feeling stressed or upset and not even know why.
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3. The Aesthete (Aesthetic Sensitivity)
Aesthetes are HSPs who score high for Aesthetic Sensitivity. That means you are highly attuned to art, beauty, and the way our physical surroundings influence us. For example, you might be a foodie, always trying to refine a recipe to get just the right melange of flavors. Or you may be a natural interior decorator, fashionista, landscaper, or artist, intuitively sensing which combination of things will look just right. Above all, you have an emotional reaction to artwork and beauty, whether it is natural (like an autumn tree with golden leaves) or human made (like van Gogh’s Starry Night).
Signs You’re an Aesthete
Signs you are an aesthete include:
- You are deeply moved by artwork and music, and may have a strong emotional response to certain pieces
- You are strongly affected by the “vibe” of a place
- You have a rich, complex inner life. You may daydream often, journal regularly, or spend long periods of time just thinking.
- You have a vivid imagination.
- You notice and enjoy delicate flavors, sounds, scents, and artistic touches
- You seem to appreciate artwork, literature, or music on a deeper level than others
- You have a hard time focusing and working in a space does not have the right “feel” and look
- You are very open to new ideas and experiences
Strengths of Aesthetes
Aesthetes tend to be highly creative, perhaps fitting the image of the “sensitive artist” or the “reclusive writer.” They are the types of HSPs who can produce striking work and seem to intuitively understand what makes a song, story, or work of art compelling. Aesthetes often have an excellent visual sense, turning even their everyday outfits or their office cubicle into a canvas for subtle, tasteful flourishes. At times, they can even use this power to help others: If you’re an aesthete, you’ve probably noticed that you have a sixth sense for what makes a space seem “off” and how to fix it to be comfortable and inviting to everyone.
Notably, aesthetes tend to score higher for the personality trait of Openness, which involves being receptive to new ideas and experiences. Not all HSPs score higher than average for this trait, and many HSPs are very cautious about new things, but aesthete HSPs tend to be open-minded and even experimental.
Challenges of Aesthetes
Little research has been done on the specific challenges faced by those who are aesthetically sensitive — and unlike the other two “types” of sensitivity, it is not as strongly linked to neuroticism. However, one of the biggest pain points I have heard from sensitive creatives is that their aesthetic ability itself is not valued. Many creatively-inclined HSPs find that little attention is paid to beauty or artistry in everyday life; that most products — including most décor — are as aesthetically neutral as possible; that corporate and public spaces are often left in a bland, uninspiring state (either to save cost or to guarantee they are inoffensive); and that the work of even highly trained professional artists is often underpaid and undervalued.
There is no simple fix to make the world see the value of art, but as an aesthete HSP myself, I focus on what I can control: I curate my home, my writing space, and my daily habits to surround myself with as much beauty as possible, from my houseplants to the route I take for my afternoon walks. I cook unnecessarily elaborate meals and share them with friends. And I look for interesting, quirky, creative misfits who fill my mind with the sparks of new ideas. We can’t all live in Montmartre, but we can all make a Montmartre of our lives.
How to Use Your ‘Type’ to Help You Thrive
Understanding which “type” (or types) of HSP you are can be meaningful and help you better understand yourself. But to get the most out of it, there are three things you need to remember:
- Many HSPs are a mix of the the types. Even though people tend to group around the types, their answers on the HSP scale are rarely a clean, “all of this type, none of that type.” Most HSPs have elements of two or all three of the types, even if one type is more dominant for them. Researchers have yet to confirm whether your type is determined more by genetic or more by your life experiences, but the answer is likely that it’s a mix of both. As an HSP, you can likely tap into the strengths of all of the types if you try — you are not confined to just one.
- All of the types are powered by the same deep-processing brain. The best theory we have to explain the trait of sensitivity is still Aron’s theory that highly sensitive people are wired to process information more deeply at a brain level, and there is evidence to support this. That depth of processing, in turn, would explains all of the types. A deeper-processing brain is one that spends more time, attention, and mental energy on incoming information, whether that be related to sensations (super sensors), emotions and implications (super feelers), or beauty and meaning (aesthetes). The fact that a deep-processing brain may learn to specialize in one of these types of information is unsurprising, as some information may prove more useful over the course of a given person’s life experiences.
- None of the types is better than the others, and all have strengths and growth points. All HSPs share certain characteristics: All can end up mentally fatigued or overwhelmed if their deep-processing brain is overloaded. All will struggle more with stressful environments, but benefit more than less-sensitive people from healthy and supportive environments. All can harness the sensitive Boost Effect to radically improve their lives. Understanding the type or types that best fit you is a nice starting point to identifying your strengths and the biggest growth points you might want to focus on. Look at it as a jumping-off point for personal development.
HSPs, which type — or types — do you think fit you the best?
You Might Like:
- This Is Why You Absorb Other People’s Emotions, According to Science
- What Is ‘Aesthetic Sensitivity,’ and Why Is It So Important for HSPs?
- 11 ‘Little’ Things That Overwhelm Highly Sensitive People
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