If you’re a highly sensitive person like me, you know that life sometimes feels overwhelming. When you’re tired, you’re really tired. When you haven’t eaten for a few hours, you’re really hungry. When something bad happens to you, it might weigh on you for days or weeks — and when everyone else is telling you to move on and get over it, you’re still turning the event over and over in your mind.
The worst part is, when you try to explain to people how you feel, you worry that you sound like you’re complaining or exaggerating. So you often end up saying nothing at all.
The trait of sensitivity can sometimes make us HSPs feel like tortured souls. The world is too much, too loud, too harsh. If only we could just be normal, we tell ourselves, life would be easier. We compare ourselves to other people who seem to float through life and take things in stride. If only everything didn’t have to be such a big deal for us.
It’s easy to focus only on the difficult aspects of being an HSP. Yet it’s this remarkable, rare trait of ours that also gives us our advantage in life. Our sensitivity is a unique biological difference that can give birth to incredible focus, insight, and empathy.
What advantages do HSPs have?
Remember that this list is on the average, and most people will not have all of these traits. Yet according to researcher Dr. Elaine Aron, author of the wonderful book The Highly Sensitive Person, HSPs have these advantages, compared to non-HSPs:
1. We’re able to concentrate deeply.
This is especially true when there aren’t any distractions.
2. We notice subtleties that others may miss.
This trait may be the most noticeable to us personally. It’s not that our eyes, nose, skin, taste buds, or ears are different from those of non-HSPs. It’s that we process sensory information more carefully, because we use areas of our brain that are associated with more complex processing. “Our awareness of subtleties is useful in an infinite number of ways, from simple pleasure in life to strategizing our response based on our awareness of others’ nonverbal cues (that they may have no idea they are giving off) about their mood or trustworthiness,” writes Dr. Aron.
3. We’re good at tasks requiring vigilance, accuracy, speed, and the detection of minor differences.
Likewise, we’re better at noticing errors and avoiding mistakes. This is due to our ability to notice subtleties.
4. We’re able to process material to deeper levels.
We relate and compare what we notice to our past experience with other similar things. We process information in what psychologists call “semantic memory,” which is a type of long-term memory that deals with meanings, understandings, and other concept-based knowledge.
5. We’re able to learn something new without being aware we have learned.
We’re intuitive, which means we can pick up and work through information in a semiconscious or unconscious way. We may suddenly just “know” the answer to a problem, without knowing how we know. Our intuition may seem like a “sixth sense.”
6. We’re highly conscientious.
We’re more likely to be considerate and show good manners — and we’re more likely to notice when someone else isn’t being conscientious. In a crowded public space, we might be more aware of where we’re standing or where we’re placing our belongings, to make sure we’re not getting in someone else’s way.
7. We have high levels of empathy, and we’re deeply moved by other people’s emotions.
We’re aware of other people’s moods and intentions, and we may actually feel another person’s emotions ourselves to some extent. In a study by Bianca Acevedo, sensitive and nonsensitive people looked at photographs of both strangers and loved ones showing happiness, sadness, or a neutral feeling. In all situations in which emotion was shown, but especially when looking at the happy faces of loved ones, sensitive people showed increased activation in the areas of the brain associated with empathy. When looking at photographs of their loved ones being unhappy, sensitive people showed more activation in areas suggesting they wanted to do something — to act — even more than in areas associated with empathy.
8. We relish a good outcome and figure out more than others do how to make it happen.
HSPs react more to emotions, because we process events and information deeply. We especially react to positive emotions like curiosity, anticipation of success, a pleasant desire for something, satisfaction, joy, and contentedness. We figure out more than non-HSPs do how to make good things happen, so we can enjoy those positive emotions. For example, we might plan a really good birthday party.
9. We’re specialists at fine motor movements.
This may mean we excel at things like sewing, sculpting, drawing, or playing a musical instrument — anything that requires movements produced by the body’s small muscle groups. We’re also better at holding still.
10. We learn languages better.
Because we process information deeply, over time we understand and remember more.
11. We consider the past and the future more.
When making a decision, we think about related events that have happened in the past, and we think about all the possible ways our decision might affect the future.
12. We think about our own thinking more.
This is not self-centered. In fact, HSPs are no less likely to think about other people. What it means is we are more aware of and better able to talk about our own inner reflections and musings. We may reflect on how something went wrong to help us avoid a similar mistake in the future.
13. We’re more “right-brained.”
We’re less linear and more creative in a synthesizing way.
14. We may be more “soulful” and spiritual.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re committed to an organized religion (although many HSPs attend religious services and have deeply held religious beliefs). It means we’re concerned with the fate of humanity, the future, and big, complex ideas that are not black-and-white. We might frequently ponder, what is the meaning of life and why am I here?
Highly sensitive people are too often perceived as weaklings or damaged goods. To feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness, it is the trademark of the truly alive and compassionate.
Anthon St. Maarten
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