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Inner Reflections: On Being a Highly Sensitive Person
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On being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
My path through the Danish woods
I am a Highly Sensitive Person.

I am a Highly Sensitive Man.

By most standard conventions of society, those two statements are almost certain to get you labelled as at least "a bit strange," but more likely as a "sissy boy," "doormat," or "girly man." Although the dictionary defintion of sensitive is essentially neutral, society (at least in the west) seems to have added a negative connotation to the word, often related to an undesirable "weakness."

It used to bother me a great deal that I seemed, somehow, "different" from the rest of the world. As a boy and a young man, I had a slight "softness" in demeanor, and my approach to life. It wasn't that I was being "effeminate" in any way, it was more a case of my being less aggressive and boisterous than my peers; of wanting to save the frog in the creek, rather than squash it; of wanting to work with my friends, rather than against them. I was peace loving.
Although the idea of someone being "Sensitive" has been around for a long time, and may have its original roots in C.G.Jung's "Melancholic Temperament," the current definition of what makes someone a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP for short) can be attributed to Dr. Elaine N. Aron, whose landmark research established that 15-20% of the human population are actually born with nervous systems that are more sensitive. The implication, of course, is that "sensitivity" isn't just some "personality quirk," but a substantial and normal genetically inherited trait. As additional research has been carried out, it has come to light that the brains of HSPs are physiologically different from those of non-HSPs. What's more, in spite of the historical tendency to label Sensitivity as a "female trait," there are actually equal numbers of male and female HSPs.
2003.06.25  2012.07.09
White Stars in pond, Denmark 2003
All content Copyright ©1995-2012 Peter Messerschmidt & Inner Reflections. All Rights Reserved.
So what exactly is "High Sensitivity?" How does an HSP feel different from other people?

There are a number of different aspects to High Sensitivity, and there are actually different "kinds" of HSPs. At the heart of High Sensitivity is the idea that because HSPs have more sensitive nervous systems, they are more easily overstimulated by a variety of inputs from the world around them. As a result, HSPs have a greater need for "quiet time" to recharge their batteries after certain events. If you are curious, I'd suggest that you take Elaine Aron's Self Test for High Sensitivity on her web site.

For me, being an HSP means that I am particularly sensitive to bright light, loud noises, strong smells and rough touch. I am also very easily overstimulated by sudden movement, crowds of strangers and having to do multiple things at once-- especially if I have to do them in front of an audience. This is quite different from Social Anxiety, in that these things don't actually scare me, or concern me-- they just wear me out, very quickly.

It is important to note that being an HSP is about a lot more than the typical assumption: Sensitivity means that you get your feelings hurt really easily. Whereas this may be true of some HSPs, it is NOT the defining characteristic of the trait.
Field with Flag poppies, Denmark
How do you recognize your HSP-ness?

I think almost everybody experiences their Sensitivity in their own unique way. The initial awareness usually forms around a question in your mind: "Why do I feel so out of step with the world?" Some HSPs say they feel like they are "from another planet." Some feel like "misfits" in the world. Some report being extensively told things like "Oh, you're just too sensitive!"

Almost always, there is the sense of feeling overwhelmed and/or overstimulated by the immediate environment, people and activities in situations where nobody else seems to be having trouble. Many feel like they are constantly "absorbing" everything around them-- from noise to the emotions of others-- and have no "filters" to keep anything out. A percentage of HSPs are deeply intuitive to the point of appearing psychic, but by no means all.

I have met a number of HSPs who report having had these feelings all their lives-- and have felt frustrated by the fact that they have been unable to figure out what was "wrong" with them. Learning about the HSP trait brings a tremendous sense of relief!
More specific HSP characteristics include a tendency towards beeing overly conscientious or perfectionistic; being profoundly empathic-- often to the point of having trouble separating another's feelings from your own; very high sensitivity to caffeine, drugs or other stimulants; a tendency to be overwhelmed and upset by life changes, roughness, violence and upsetting situations, in general; a tendency to get hurt feelings very easily; very deep reactions to music, art, nature, beauty and feelings-- sometimes to the point of breaking into spontaneous tears; a very finely tuned awareness of people's intentions, the environment around you, as well as very subtle changes. Of course, the best thing to do is to take the HSP self-test and see for yourself, and then buy Elaine Aron's book "The Highly Sensitive Person."

I hope you'll explore the many pages in the Highly Sensitive Person section of the web site. I have tried to present a mixture of personal experiences and anecdotes, as well as some "tips and facts" that might be useful to someone exploring their Sensitivity.