Others may not understand why highly sensitive people do these seemingly unusual things.
About 30 percent of the population are HSPs, or “highly sensitive people,” so either you know one or you are one yourself. But if you’ve never heard of the term, you’re not alone. Despite being discovered by researcher Dr. Elaine Aron in the late 1990s, sensitivity is still misunderstood. It’s often mistaken for other things, like anxiety, poor emotional control, “drama,” “pickiness,” or even a personality defect.
Yet being a highly sensitive person is a perfectly normal, healthy trait. In fact, many researchers, such as Dr. Aron, consider it to be an evolutionary advantage, given how easily sensitive people notice details that others miss. As I explain in Sensitive, which I co-wrote with Andre Sólo, the trait of sensitivity may have evolved to prevent the human race from going extinct. As in, hey, my fellow cave people, there’s a saber-toothed tiger hiding in those bushes! I heard the faintest rustling of the leaves. Or, there’s something about these mystery berries that just doesn’t smell right.
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What It Really Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person
If you’re a highly sensitive person, you were born with a nervous system that processes all information deeply. This deep processing applies to information that you take in through your five senses, like sights, sounds, and textures, but it also applies to your thoughts, emotions, memories, and experiences. The “cost” of this deep processing is that sensitive people become overstimulated easily. Imagine looking at a painting and noticing six different shades of blue, whereas a less sensitive person would only notice one shade. Now apply that ability to the workplace, home, or classroom, and you can see how sensitive people feel more stress and fatigue than others — they are taking in so much information all of the time!
As a result of their increased risk of overstimulation, sensitive people tend to organize their lives around protecting their sensitive system, so they may do some things that less sensitive people might find strange. Less sensitive people may not understand why sensitive people act in certain ways — and sensitive people themselves may not always understand the true root of their own actions, either!
So, here are 27 things that HSPs do because of their sensitivity. Not everything on this list will apply to every sensitive person (sensitivity looks different from person to person), but I hope this article will be a good starting point toward understanding and normalizing sensitivity.
‘Strange’ Things You Do Because You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
1. You zone out or shut down in a loud, busy place.
If you’re sensitive, you may find yourself mentally checking out in highly stimulating environments, such as a crowded bar, a big party, a loud shopping mall, or even a busy office or classroom. To others, it may look like you are daydreaming, zoned out, or aren’t listening to them, but really, your finely tuned mind is simply overwhelmed with input. Remember, sensitive people’s brains process every little detail deeply, from the background music to the expression on a stranger’s face across the room.
2. You avoid certain TV shows, books, podcasts, or movies.
I know a highly sensitive artist who is so affected by what he sees that he can’t watch movies or TV shows with spooky or violent imagery, because if he does, the images will haunt and disturb him for days. This reaction is common among sensitive people, whose brains think deeply about whatever they take in. If you’re sensitive, certain themes or images may be “too much” for you, like those involving violence, suffering, cruelty, sadness, or gore. Personally, I change the channel when a commercial about animal abuse comes on, even though I regularly donate money to animal relief groups. To an outsider, when I change the channel, it may appear that I’m being cold and indifferent toward animals, but really, it’s quite the opposite: I am so deeply moved that it’s very painful. Of course, no one enjoys witnessing suffering, sensitive or not, but for HSPs, the emotional response is magnified.
3. You build many little routines into your day.
Bedtime or morning, sensitive people are known for their love of routine, because it brings comfort. Anything new or out of the ordinary means extra stimulation that they then have to process. Change can be quite stressful for HSPs, even positive changes, like getting married or moving into their dream home.
4. You’re easily startled.
Say your roommate sneaks up behind you or your alarm clock suddenly rings. If you’re highly sensitive, you may jump as high as a frightened cat! Many sensitive people experience something called a high “startle reflex,” again due to their finely tuned nervous system. The dial on your nervous system is already “turned up,” so to speak, so even a small amount of added stimulation has the potential to activate your fight, flight, or freeze response.
5. You feel stressed and anxious when someone raises their voice at you.
Similar to #4, when someone yells at you, it may activate your fight, flight, or freeze response, which may cause you to shut down or lash out with an uncharacteristic response. Conflict is stressful for most people, but for sensitive people, it’s downright overstimulating. As a child, if you felt nervous when you overheard your teacher scolding other students — even when you had nothing to do with the situation! — you might be a sensitive person. As an adult, a fight with a friend or your spouse may leave you feeling so physically unwell that you struggle to eat, relax, or sleep.
6. You can predict the future.
No, sensitive people aren’t psychics, but they usually saw it coming and are holding back an I told you so! Because you take in so much information, both sensory and social, and you are constantly reflecting on it, you tend to be quite good at discerning what will happen next. This ability is a valuable asset in your workplace, friend group, family, and in your own life in general.
7. Time pressure really rattles you.
Deadlines can be stressful for anyone, such as getting out the door to catch a flight or turning in an assignment on time, but sensitive people feel this stress deeply. They may even feel it it in their bodies in a physical way, in the form of aches, pains, headaches, nausea, and trouble sleeping. (Read more about the science behind why sensitive people hate feeling busy and rushed.)
8. When you fall in love, you fall hard.
Falling in love is wonderful and exhilarating, and for sensitive people, that exhilaration is even more intense, overwhelming, and all-consuming. Remember, changes — even positive ones! — are processed deeply by sensitive people.
9. Sometimes you absorb other people’s feelings as if they were your own.
If you’re sensitive, you may struggle to draw a line between your own emotions and the emotions of other people, especially when it comes to strong emotions like outrage, stress, or grief. Due to your heightened empathy, you may move through life as if you were an emotional sponge — and it’s exhausting. Thankfully, there are some things you can do to stop absorbing other people’s emotions.
10. When your significant other is stressed, you feel stressed, too (even if you were having a good day).
Similar to #9, this is one of the biggest challenges that all sensitive people face in their relationships. As a sensitive individual, it’s crucial that you surround yourself with people who regulate their own emotions well (because their emotions will inevitably leak out to you).
11. A “normal” day at work or school can be utterly exhausting.
So much noise, so much pressure, so many demands. If you’re a sensitive person, you may need time to yourself to rest and recover after what others would consider just another “normal” day at work, at school, or as a stay-at-home parent. Maybe you head to your bedroom, where you turn the lights low and relax in silence. To less sensitive people, this behavior might seem strange, but it’s what you need to calm your overactive senses and process the day’s events.
12. You can’t ignore strong smells.
Pleasant smells invigorate you as a sensitive person while unpleasant smells may make you feel “smangry,” again due to your deep processing of all sensory information. For example, when someone wears strong perfume or cologne, you may struggle to ignore the intrusive smell and may need to physically move away from them — even though you don’t mean to be rude!
13. You love certain foods and have a strong aversion to others.
Maybe raspberries are too tart, seafood is nauseating, and dark chocolate is divine. Other people judge your food preferences: “Stop being so picky!” or “You’d like it if you tried it this way!”
14. You’re very sensitive to dips and spikes in blood sugar.
When sensitive people get hungry, they might get really hungry, which can make them feel extra irritable and unfocused.
15. Certain substances hit you harder.
Caffeine, alcohol, prescription drugs, and other substances can have a stronger effect on sensitive people, because their nervous system is designed for subtlety. On the one hand, this effect can be beneficial, because it means that only one cup of Earl Grey tea will do the trick. On the other hand, if you’re a sensitive person, it probably means you’ve woken up with some nasty hangovers or have experienced a medication’s side effects even from a low dose.
16. When a room feels uncomfortable, you know exactly how to fix it.
Because you’re so in tune with your environment, you can quickly diagnose what’s “off” about a space. You know when the lights are too bright, the layout is claustrophobic, or the chairs are too stiff. No, you’re not being “picky” — you really can’t help but notice these things!
17. You’re deeply moved by art and beauty.
If you’ve ever felt a deep sense of awe — or pain — when standing before a piece of art, listening to a song, or reading a book, you might be a sensitive person. Or maybe you delight in the beauty of your surroundings, such as the fall leaves blowing in the wind, the brightness of the night sky after a snowfall, or a beautifully decorated room. You may wonder why other people aren’t moved to tears after watching a play or why they aren’t asking the deep questions about life after reading a poem.
18. You have a vivid inner world.
Sensitive people tend to have rich imaginations and a natural sense of creativity. There’s a good reason they are among our world’s best writers, artists, poets, musicians, actors, and performers.
19. You have a low pain tolerance.
Similar to #15, a headache can really hurt; a muscle cramp can feel like a vice. When sensitive people say it hurts, believe them, because they are not exaggerating.
20. You turn down social invitations, even if you’re an extrovert.
Dr. Aron estimates that about 70 percent of sensitive people are introverts, so it makes sense that these HSPs would love their alone time. However, even extroverted HSPs need plenty of downtime, and they may decline social invitations, too. It’s not because they don’t love their friends (they do, madly!). It’s because socializing is loaded with stimulation, which even extroverted sensitive people will eventually find tiring.
21. You avoid certain public spaces or shopping at certain times because of the sensory overload that they create.
Similar to #1, busy public spaces can simply be too much for sensitive people. You might be an HSP if you know exactly when the grocery store is busy and you avoid shopping at that time.
22. You’re always trying to get the volume just right…
…on the TV, white noise machine, or music. One click up or down makes a big difference to your sensitive ears. You find yourself trying to sneak the remote control away from your kids or spouse!
23. You excel at reading people.
Sensitive people are wired to be extremely attuned to other people, according to research. Essentially, other human beings are the brightest “things” on their radar — more so than, say, the architecture of a building or the decorations in a room (although they notice those things, too). It’s no wonder that many sensitive people are drawn to caretaking roles, such as teacher, counselor, therapist, social worker, nurse, doctor, stay-at-home parent, and more. They are among our world’s most inspiring healers and leaders — if they can learn to tap the strengths of their sensitivity and thrive.
24. You need more sleep than others.
For sensitive people, sleep is more than just a necessary fact of human life; it’s also an important form of self-care that soothes their overwrought senses and allows them to process their emotions and experiences. If you’re the one in your family who is militant about bedtimes, you might be a sensitive person. Because when you don’t get enough sleep? Everything. Is. Awful. The. Next. Day.
25. You’re easily “flooded.”
“Flooding” is the extremely uncomfortable feeling of being overwhelmed mentally and emotionally, and sensitive people are more susceptible to it. Here’s how to recognize and calm flooding.
26. Sometimes you don’t say no, even when it hurts you.
Because of their unusually high levels of empathy, sensitive people don’t want to disappoint anyone, so they may struggle with people-pleasing and setting healthy boundaries. Inevitably, this leads to imbalanced relationships, burnout, and exhaustion. Here’s how to set better boundaries when you’re a peace-loving introvert or sensitive person.
27. You seek meaning in all that you do, from your work to your relationships.
If you’re a sensitive person, life doesn’t revolve around your paycheck, your “toys,” or your social media likes. Sure, you want to live the good life, and we all need certain resources, financial security, and relationships to do just that. Sensitive people, however, can have all of those things and still feel deeply unhappy if a larger sense of purpose and meaning is lacking from their life. They need a job that provides more than just a paycheck, and they need relationships that provide more than just companionship and small talk. Sensitive people are seekers, and their deep processing means they think deeply about all aspects of their life. Simply put, a sensitive person will never be satisfied with an ordinary, shallow life.
For too long, society has told us that sensitivity is a weakness, when it’s actually your greatest strength. To learn more about your superpower, check out my book, Sensitive. It was named an Amazon Best Book of 2023! Susan Cain says, “This important book reframes the way we think about sensitivity and shines a light on the great power of being highly attuned to the world.” Click here to buy it on Amazon.
You might like:
- There Are 3 Types of Sensitivity. Which One(s) Are You?
- This Is a Better Term for ‘Highly Sensitive Person’
- How Sensitivity Is Linked to Brilliance
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