The Highly Sensitive Person Explained
Tracy Cooper, Ph.D.
Do you feel overstimulated and frazzled by too much going on around you? Do you cry easily or feel like crying? Did you have tantrums as a child and never understood why? You may be a highly sensitive person. Highly sensitive people are 1 in 5 of the overall population, equally divided between men and women, and share the naturally occurring and neutral personality trait sensory processing sensitivity.
High sensitivity is best thought of as having four aspects:
- How we process stimulation. Deep thinking and reflecting within the brain.
- How we react sooner to overstimulation. Highly sensitive people have a lower threshold for feeling frazzled by too much going on at once or particular kinds of stimulation.
- How we feel the experiences of others. HSPs are high in empathy or the ability to relate to the way other people feel or what they’re experiencing.
- How keenly we notice little details that others overlook. HSPs tend to be more aware of their environments and take in more information, as well as think about it more deeply.
How can you know if you are a highly sensitive person? You can find a scientifically validated self-test at https://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/.
“All virtues have a shadow.”
― Elaine N. Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You
The personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity can be said to be a virtue. Most notably:
HSPs are usually high in empathy, or an ability to take another person’s position and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is a prosocial behavior that connects people and provides emotional support.
A broad emotional range means HSPs feel and experience stronger and quicker emotions that feel more intense. This range enables HSPs to experience art, music, and all sensory experiences in a more profound way.
Greater openness to all stimulation may increase the amount and quality of options and alternatives we are able to develop. This ties in with being innately creative, though it is best to think of creativity as for everyone, every day and not simply as artistic end products.
Deep thinking HSPs may be much better at planning, since they have already thought of numerous alternatives and possibilities for every scenario.
Highly sensitive people often serve as the “canary in the coal mine,” where their finely tuned nervous system detects dangers and warns when we should think before acting. Pausing to think prior to taking action is a hallmark of the trait.
Need to do meaningful work throughout life. A need for all people but especially important to HSPs, who may feel a deeper sense of satisfaction and fulfilment from serving others and improving the world during their time in this life.
Willingness to take up passionate social change. Highly sensitive people have been important historical change figures likely throughout history and have helped culture make huge leaps forward in fairness and equality. Some suggested historical HSPs: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Jim Morrison, Fred Rogers, and many others.
Strong intuition often leads HSPs to answers without knowing exactly how they got there. HSPs’ keen skills of observation and noticing subtle cues makes them great at reading people and knowing what they are thinking or feeling before they may even know.
In the 2015 documentary film, Sensitive-The Untold Story, singer Alanis Morissette described how she has been “creating music from the age of 9,” yet felt misunderstood by most of those around her. Her father later in her life expressed the feeling that “we never knew what to do with you, we were at a loss.” The difficult path that Alanis had to walk as she sought personal development and expression eventually led her to achieve quite amazing successes as a performer but also helped her reach personal successes such as high self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion that has extended to unschooling her own children. Unschooling is an approach to homeschooling that seeks to allow children to follow their natural curiosities trusting that, because of deep dives into fascinating topics, they will accumulate an equivalent or better breadth of knowledge than their counterparts in structured programs.
Parental support is crucial in the early years for highly sensitive children, since having the trait means we are more sensitive to everything in our environments, including positive and negative circumstances and situations. One theory, vantage sensitivity, says that HSPs do far better than average in positive environments and far worse in negative ones. Providing a supportive, encouraging, and accepting early foundation enables highly sensitive children to later feel more secure in venturing out into the world with less fear and anxiety.
Highly sensitive children may have a natural sense of curiosity and creativity that mirrors Morissette’s experiences as a child and needs to find outlets for healthy expression, whether that’s through the arts, sciences, humanities, or other forms of expression. Many HSPs feel misunderstood, undervalued, and invisible in a world that seems to prize extraversion, high levels of stimulation, and aggression. The quiet leadership that HSPs are so capable of must be nurtured and patiently tended with real efforts made to mentor HSPs at all stages of life as they attempt to navigate complex feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Dr. Elaine Aron has said that many HSPs simply do not know themselves well enough until midlife to truly find a way of being that works for them.
Living in the 21st century is beneficial for HSPs in important ways but one of the most significant is the availability of not only good science to back up the trait, but well-made documentary films that explore key aspects of the trait. Three films have been made to date: Sensitive-The Untold Story (2015), Sensitive and in Love and Sensitive Lovers (both 2020). All three films offer intimate glimpses into life as a highly sensitive person, while highlighting key challenge areas and opportunities for growth and development.
Highly sensitive people offer the world what it has always offered: creativity, empathy and compassion, meaningful prosocial attitudes, and the bigger picture of what the human species could become if it can overcome its inherent tendencies to divide away from each other in favor of narrow group or self-interests. HSPs offer a deeper, more profound way of looking at life and the world that may chart a new path forward for us all.
Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is a high sensation seeking highly sensitive man, an assistant professor at Baker University teaching in the Ed.D. in Leadership and Higher Education program, a researcher and author of several books: Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person, and Empowering the Sensitive Male Soul. He appeared in the 2015 documentary film, Sensitive-The Untold Story. His website may be found at drtracycooper.wordpress.com, on Facebook @tracycooperphd, and on LinkedIn at tracycooperphd.