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HSP Topics: Not All Highly Sensitive People are the Same

Peter has written extensively about high sensitivity since 1997 when he learned he was an HSP.


HSPs and the Journey of Self-Discovery

After a lifetime of feeling like "something" was "not quite right" about me, one day I discovered that there was actually a name for the slight strangeness and intense deep feelings I almost always experienced.

This happened back in 1997, when I accidentally stumbled across a copy of the book "The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You" by Elaine Aron in a Borders bookstore in Austin, Texas.

Although my initial approach to the whole concept of being "highly sensitive" (and being a highly sensitive GUY, at that!) was a little hesitant, skeptical and reluctant, I did put a lot of time and effort into learning all that I could. As a result, I gradually came to accept that Elaine Aron's description of a Highly Sensitive Person fit me in so many ways there was really no escaping the fact that I was one.

General background on being a Highly Sensitive Person

Chances are that if you are reading this, you already know that you're a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP. But just in case it's a new concept to you, or you're not entirely sure what it is, here are some links to helpful articles about the trait:

  • The Highly Sensitive Person or HSP: What Exactly IS that?
    A very thorough overlook of what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person, examining the many different ways the trait influences life, choices, likes and dislikes; includes links to many additional resources.
  • Are You Highly Sensitive?
    A quick and easy (and FREE!) self assessment to help you determine whether or not you're an HSP. Developed by Dr. Elaine N. Aron, author of the landmark book "The Highly Sensitive Person."
  • The Highly Sensitive Person: An Introduction
    Maybe you've heard the term Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, and wondered what exactly it is, and whether it applies to you. Some might say that EVERYone is "sensitive," but there's more to being an HSP than just getting your feelings hurt easily.

The joy of discovering we have a "Tribe!"

As part of my journey of discovery and learning, I decided I wanted to connect with other HSPs, to see how they had experienced their lives, and if (and how) they were facing the same life challenges I seemed to be perpetually dealing with.

As I started to consider the question "Where do I find others like me?" I was delighted to discover there were actually a couple of groups online, specifically for HSPs! Someone (who has since gone on to become a dear friend) had set up an "email list" for HSP dialogue on now defunct "e-Groups" and there were others "like me" there.

I had a "tribe!"

There were fewer than 30 HSPs in that group, but we had a lot to talk about.... and it offered a sense of belonging and validation I had not experienced before.

More than 15 years have passed since those early days, and there are now literally hundreds of forums, web groups, meetups, workshops, gatherings, study groups, support groups and more... all with a focus on being a highly sensitive person.

If you're interested in learning more about how to connect with other HSPs, the link below leads to another article I've written here, specifically about HSP groups, workshops and retreats.

A book every known and possible HSP should read

Although I was fairly good at "dealing with life" in a general sort of way, this book completely changed the way I looked at myself. Reading it offered me a long series of "Aha moments," as I came to understand many of the underlying reasons behind why certain situations made me so uncomfortable, or would generally exhaust me.

I highly recommend this book, not only to HSPs... but also to spouses and partners of HSPs who are seeking to understand their beloved in a deeper way.


Other HSPs will be JUST like me... won't they?

One of the "issues" in that original 1997 group-- and one that would sometimes lead to confusion and hurt feelings-- which remains part of the HSP "tribal" landscape even now in 2015-- is the false assumption made by quite a few that "Because I am an HSP, and I am a certain way, other HSPs are going to be JUST like me!"

Unfortunately, this is just not true.

Although HSPs often have some things in common, it often gives rise to misunderstandings and even hurt feelings when someone has JUST discovered and joined the global "tribe" of HSPs... only to discover that others just aren't the same as they.

I distinctly remember when it happened to me, as well... I was super happy to have found these lovely people, and then the rug was pulled out from under my feet when many turned out to have completely different views and interests from me. For a while, I felt this sad resignation that maybe I really didn't have a "tribe," and that HSPs were no more likely to understand me than anyone else.

It may seem like a very minor issue in the greater theme of things, but it's one that arises remarkably often. It bears exploring because it so frequently leads to hurt feelings. So why does this sometimes happen?

I call it the "Tribal Commonality Fallacy."


The expectation of connections that simply don't exist

HSPs-- perhaps more often than the people in most other cultural, social or interest groups-- tend to come from backgrounds where they have often felt diminished and marginalized, in some way. Perhaps we were told we were "too sensitive" and to "toughen up," when we were young. Perhaps we were "left out" of groups and parties, or "overlooked" by our families. Perhaps we were passed over for promotions and raises at work because we were "too nice" or "too soft spoken."

We also know that HSPs "feel things very strongly" because we are, after all, HIGHLY sensitive. So it only makes sense that when we find a group of people with whom it finally feels like we "belong," we grab on and cling to that sense of "belonging" with a lot of determination. And that's only a natural thing.

Where we get "in trouble" is when we start projecting projecting individual characteristics of ourselves-- characteristics not really related to being highly sensitive-- onto our fellow tribe members... and then becoming hurt and disillusioned when it turns out that everyone else in our new "tribe" doesn't "have seven cats" or "only eats Vegan," or some other thing that's important to our sense of self.

The latter was, in fact, at the core of the very first such incident I encountered. Someone vehemently declared "You are obviously NOT really a highly sensitive person, because you eat MEAT and are not sensitive to the feelings of animals."

The "accusation" hurt my feelings quite a bit, and I felt like I had just been "kicked out" of a club on account of "wearing the wrong clothes" right after they had accepted my "membership."

Of course, the person doing the "finger pointing" had only very recently discovered the trait, and was very wrapped up in "ALL HSPs are just like me!" thinking.

So what gives?

The situation is not unlike new love relationships. At first, we tend to have expectations-- even if just subconsciously-- that our marvelous new partner is going to share all our likes and dislikes, and will see eye-to-eye with us on everything. But after a while "the bloom comes off the rose" a bit, as we discover that they actually are their own unique person and don't really see the world exactly as we do.


The differing ways of being an HSP

In the course of the past decade and a half, I've since come across dozens-- if not hundreds-- of such incidents, typically the result of someone feeling "let down" when their inner definition of "being an HSP" turns out to not be a match with someone else's.

The important thing to remember-- which can be difficult to do while immersed in the rush of enthusiasm we feel when we discover that we are part of this "Tribe of HSPs"-- is that HSPs are, in fact, NOT all the same! We happen to have one trait in common... and, granted, it's a trait that steers many of us in similar directions... but ultimately we are all unique and different individuals, just like all the other people in the world.

Something to also keep in mind-- aside from basic "likes" and "interests" and "passions"-- is that high sensitivity affects different people in different ways-- and herein lies a large part of the reason for misunderstandings.

The simplest and most openly "visual" example of this can be shown by simply examining Dr. Elaine Aron's self test for sensitivity. There are 27 different items on the quiz, but if you answer "yes" to just fourteen of them, you're probably an HSP.

If you look at the questions, someone could easily answer yes to 14 that were primarily about physical sensitivities, someone else emotional sensitivities, and yet someone else environmental sensitivities. And those are just a few of the primary variables.

Of course, most HSPs relate to a broader cross section of the items... but for example's sake, it's easy to see how there can be different "kinds" of HSPs... and by extension, they will most likely have very different interpretations of "The HSP Experience."

Share Your Experience


Another approach: Examining "HSP Subcultures"

Although no formal scientific research studies have been done on different "kinds" of Highly Sensitive People, HSP expert Jacquelyn Strickland has been exploring the concept for many years. As a therapist and coach for HSPs, as well as the creator and organizer of numerous "HSP Gathering Retreats," she has met and interacted with thousands of HSPs in person.

As a result of her experiences and feedback from HSPs around the world, she developed detailed descriptions of a number of "HSP Subcultures" which basically summarize the different "types" of HSPs she has encountered and identified in the course of her work. These offer some very interesting insights into the ways we-- as HSPs-- are actually quite different from each other. I encourage you to visit the page at the preceding link to learn more and get a sense for which HSP subculture(s) you might belong to.

Just like being an HSP is often an "intense and complex" experience, similarly the very concept of sensitivity and all the nuances of the trait and how they affect us can be quite a complex puzzle. But since we know the trait is innate and not a "condition" we can somehow "get treatment for," our best path is to learn all we can to help us keep an even keel through life. As part of this learning, an important lesson is to understand that whereas we may all belong to the "tribe of HSPs," individual tribe members are by no means identical!

Thank you for reading!

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The more awareness we all generate about the HSP trait, the better off we will ALL be!

How have YOU experienced being an HSP? Are there certain ways in which you feel more sensitive? What is your greatest challenge? Please leave a comment!

Caroline Gatchalian from Vancouver, BC on December 31, 2014:

Thank you Peter (#Denmarkguy) for sharing your insights. This post is a timely discovery. In the past 2 months, I've met so many new people at our HSP Meetup events. I've also encountered great dynamics amongst us even though we all self-identified as being highly sensitive. I admit to silently questioning if some people were HSPs because of such convincing contradictions that I sensed. However your interpretations of Aron and Strickland's concepts have enlightened me- thank you!

Going forward, I will refrain from using the term "likeminded" to explain why I joined the HSP Meetup group, because it isn't completely true for me. Perhaps the only true fact is that I share a commonality with them, which is one or more common "variables" of the HSP trait. I have yet to meet someone who shares my visions, goals, values, opinions & my dispositions in life. I know I'll find that person in a room filled with HSPs, no doubt!

As Barbara A. Allen stated in her reply, "...once we have built our inner self-confidence, we can feel comfortable with difference again and delight in it, rather than fear it." Love it! Thank you, too.

Barbara from Hampshire, UK on February 04, 2014:

Differences among HSPS? Thank goodness for that :). Of course we are not all the same, if you look at Elaine Aron's work, she clearly identifies just four commonalities: DOES, depth of processing, overstimulation, emotional intensity and sensory sensitivity. That's all. The interaction of all these with our other traits creates similarities, but thankfully we are all different and therefore capable of being helpful members of the general (non-HSP and HSP) tribe of man whatever and wherever that tribe is in the world. How else could we offer such a wide and far-reaching advantage to those around us with our views, ideas and insights if we were all the same?! Really, you would only need one HSP if that were the case :). I love that we are all different, it helps with the survival of the human species that there are variations in all of the population including HSPs. Always someone who can understand or adapt to what's going on. I agree that for a lot of us it is just so heartbreakingly wonderful to find others like us, that for a while, we only notice the similarities, we feel less isolated and more 'normal' and more valued. But after a while, once we have built our inner self-confidence, we can feel comfortable with difference again and delight in it, rather than fear it :)

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