Being a highly sensitive person (HSP) comes with its own set of perks and drawbacks, just like anything else. If you’re an HSP, I know you will understand what I’m talking about. For those of you who are not, it can seem like you’re stepping into a foreign land. You’ve heard of high sensitivity, but it’s hard to fully wrap your mind around it.
Personally, I’ve never been able to fully wrap my mind around those who enjoy public speaking or loud parties.
The term “highly sensitive person” was coined in the mid-90s by scientists Elaine Aron and Arthur Aron. Dr. Elaine Aron writes, “The highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.” She describes it as a personality trait that 15 to 20 percent of the population has, or about fifty million people in the United States.
As an HSP, I would like to clear up some misconceptions about people like me. Here are five of them.
1. Highly sensitive people are weak.
The nature of being highly sensitive means that we have emotions — lots of them. And there are many times when we cannot hold these emotions at bay, however hard we try. So, yes, we cry. Sometimes a lot. This can make us seem like we are easily broken, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It takes gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing strength to make it as an HSP in our world. Yeah, you might see us break down sometimes. But that isn’t because we’re weak. It’s because we care so much.
2. We have low self-esteem.
This misconception comes from the HSP’s tendency to apologize for things — a lot. Imagine it: I give a light knock on your office door, regrettably interrupting your meeting because someone needs you and it can’t wait. Everything about your response is courteous and professional, but since I am in tune with everything to the ultimate level, I can sense the drop of irritation that emits from you. It’s most likely not at me, but rather at the situation as a whole. But it’s still there. So I apologize. That solicits an even stronger note of irritation from you, which makes me apologize again. See where this is going? It can become quite the cycle.
HSPs tend to apologize a lot, but it’s not because we have low self-esteem. It’s because we sense everything, even the smallest of negative emotions, and the only natural response to that is, “I’m sorry.”
3. We are uptight.
Were you that student in school who had to sit next to that one kid who loved knocking and clicking on his desk all day long? There’s always a drummer in every class, right? If you were like me, you could only take it for so long before every cell in your body wanted to scream, “Stop!”
Despite how it looks, I’m not being an uptight teacher’s pet. Being an HSP is like living in a magnifying glass. Everything — every sound, smell, thought, and feeling — is magnified. That means that it’s very easy for us to get overstimulated, so we have to constantly protect ourselves from it. Other kids may not even notice the one guy in the back who is happily treating his desk like an audition for Guns N’ Roses. But HSPs notice, and the sounds crawl into us like microscopic bugs, stimulating an already sensitive nervous system. We don’t ask you to stop because we want to kill your fun; we do it to save our sanity.
4. We are babies about pain.
Remember how we talked about the heightened emotional pain and awareness that HSPs experience? That goes for physical pain, too. We aren’t just crying for attention or being drama queens. It really hurts. So don’t tell us to “toughen up.” We are who we are, and we are biologically wired to be that way. We can’t change that.
This is a particular rule that should go for all people, whether they are HSPs or not. None of us can know how bad another person’s pain is. Even if something doesn’t bother me much, that doesn’t mean it won’t bother you, and vice versa. All of us are different, and we are all deserving of compassion and understanding.
5. Highly sensitive people are introverts.
This one is the monkey wrench that you may not have seen coming. There are plenty of people (like myself) who are both introverted and highly sensitive, and I suspect that most of us lurking around here are introverted. But if a person is an HSP, must they also be an introvert?
According to Dr. Elaine Aron, about 30 percent of all HSPs are actually extroverts. I suspect this misconception exists because, on the outside, HSPs and introverts show similar tendencies. Both can become overstimulated, and both prefer low-key environments.
Despite that, being an introvert has to do with the way your body processes energy. Being an HSP has to do with the way your nervous system operates. So, extroverts, ambiverts, and introverts alike can be HSPs.
Being an HSP is a unique thing to live with, but I bet most of HSPs would say they would not trade their high sensitivity if given the chance. Personally, I think I would be a completely different person if I weren’t an HSP — and I wouldn’t want that. It would be as if a good friend suddenly became a total stranger. There are certainly challenges that come with living as an HSP, but I believe the rewards are even greater.
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