Peter has written extensively about high sensitivity since 1997, when he first learned he was an HSP.
Why Does Talking About Being Highly Sensitive Matter?
I quite often run into people—HSPs and non-HSPs; health professionals and lay people alike—who will listen to my story and then make some statement along the lines of, "Well, sure there are highly sensitive people; sure high sensitivity is a 'real' thing. But so what? Why does it matter? Why are you always out there talking about this trait like it's something really important to people? I don't see how it makes any practical difference in the outcome of someone's life. You just need to accept you have this trait and deal with it."
In some ways, these folks are well-meaning. In their paradigm, the outcome of life doesn't depend on "knowing yourself." Their intent is good because they perceive all that self-study as people getting mired down, rather than just enjoying life.
Of course, some folks are just plain offended by the idea of there being labels that differentiate people... period. Others are offended by the implication that because some people are highly sensitive, others (including them) must be IN-sensitive. Then there are people who—even though quite well-meaning—assert that high sensitivity is nothing more than the "New Age Pop Psychology Concept of the Month." Yet another group assert that high sensitivity is nonsense because "ALL people are basically sensitive, in their own way."
So Why Bother?
Many of these statements tend to come up because the person I am speaking to really doesn't have a clear understanding of what High Sensitivity actually is, in a scientific context. Their opinion is based on (often negative) societal and pop culture definitions of what someone allegedly "sensitive" is about. They also seem concerned that the label "Highly Sensitive Person" somehow was created to allow a group of people to consider themselves special or better than.
However, the question I most often face amounts to why I bother to always write—and talk—about being a Highly Sensitive Person like it's "something important." Why don't I just say, "Okay, fair enough, I'm highly sensitive," and then go about my life with no further ado?
Short answer... because there are both global benefits to highly sensitive persons knowing that they are HSPs, as well as individual benefits. In addition, there's a secondary benefit to those who are not HSPs gaining at least a fundamental understanding of the trait.
Missing the Point: Senstivity is a TRAIT, not a Choice!
I should start by saying that I have no issue with people being critics of new concepts. Science—and scientific tenets—are established through a process of theory and challenge. As more research is done, more facts about the "what" of being highly sensitive emerge. Perhaps the most consequential is the mounting evidence that the brains of highly sensitive individuals are, quite simply, hard wired differently from other brains.
Through observing people connected to EEG and fMRI equipment, it has now been shown that a sensitive brain and a normal brain actually fire different neural pathways, when exposed to the the same stimuli. This has enormous medical and psychological implications, in that it challenges and largely invalidates popularly held beliefs that sensitivity is something people can "just get over." In other words, telling a sensitive person to get over being sensitive and just deal with it may, in fact, be a bit like telling someone with size 14 feet to just get over having such large feet—and just deal with wearing size 10 shoes. Of course, most of us would never do such a thing, chiefly because feet are observable and tangible, while "sensitivity" is fluid and IN-tangible.
These growing findings have similar significance to the recent research showing that differences between introverts and extraverts is actually part physiological. Studies have now specifically shown-- for example-- that extraverts access speech from short-term memory, while introverts access speech from long-term memory, offering a tangible explanation for why extraverted people tend to be "quicker" with their words, while introverts generally are slower and more "measured" in conversation.
Of course, the studies only explain some of the "base mechanics" of high sensitivity, not the reason why I believe it is so important for all HSPs to participate in the process of educating and spreading the word about high sensitivity as a trait.
Whereas the term "Highly Sensitive Person" might sound somewhat subjective to a lot of skeptics, the ongoing research has given birth to the more scientific term "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity" to describe what an HSP experiences in the world.
Let's Talk About Numbers: There are a LOT of HSPs
A significant part of my "calling" in life involves working with HSPs, and helping this particular group of individuals understand themselves a little better.
Of course, I am an HSP myself, as well as 25+ year student of psychology. And I know-- both from interacting with others, and from learning about myself-- that being highly sensitive is NOT "just in my head," as some health/mental health professionals would prefer to think.
Based on the original estimates made by Dr. Elaine Aron, 15-20% of the population fit the description of a "Highly Sensitive Person." Using even the conservative end of those numbers, there are at least 45 million people in the US alone, who fit the HSP description!
And yet, on a GOOD day? Maybe... maybe 3-5 million are aware that the strange "quirks" and moods, and their desire to find time alone, their tendency to get easily overwhelmed by external stimuli are all the biproduct of high sensitivity, rather than depression, anxiety, shyness, sensory integration disorder, SAD or some other "illness."
Even if you're not an HSP, odds are you know someone who is.
Are you a highly sensitive person?
If you don't know, here's a quick and easy "sensitivity self-test." Take the quiz... and post a comment to let me know how it went, and if the outcome was surprising, or "what you'd expected."
One of the primary reasons it truly matters to know... is because it you don't choose to know, you could be trying to get treatment for something that's not a treatable condition, and feeling the frustration and defeat of "nothing changing."
Back to the "Sensitivity Awareness Crusade:" WHY does it matter?
As you can see from the above statistic, highly sensitive people represent a very large but often overlooked group in our society. This is not just an issue of concern to "a handful of people with some strange psychological condition." Just the fact-- alone-- that maybe only 10% of HSPs are actually aware that they are HSPs makes it important to increase public awareness of the trait.
The most important issue, however, is that some of the natural manifestations of high sensitivity are "lookalikes" when put side-by-side with anxiety disorders, depression, shyness, social phobia, ADHD and various other conditions which are "medicalized" by our society and treated with pharmaceuticals and other treatment methods.
Why is this so important?
To reiterate the final point from above, even as you are reading this, millions of people are being ineffectively treated and drugged for (mis)diagnosed "conditions" that are nothing more than the natural manifestations of the highly attuned nervous system that's an integral part of being a highly sensitive person.
I should know.
I was repeatedly told to "get help" for Social Anxiety. And yet? I never disliked or feared people-- in fact I like the company of people. Social situations do not make me anxious. They merely exhaust me, very quickly... for no reason other than I take in a lot more stimuli from my environment than most people, and thus wear out more quickly.
I've come to understand that it's about how I process information from my environment, not about a "disorder." If most therapists "had their way with me" my brain would not only be dulled by some medication, but I would still be getting exhausted around groups of people!
If you are genuinely an HSP, be part of the Solution!
And that, in a nutshell, is why I continue to spread the word about high sensitivity as a trait, and why I continue to do my part to help HSPs around the world become more informed. We cannot afford to maintain a status quo in which high sensitivity continues to be treated as a treatable pathology.
This is also why I encourage all the HSPs I meet to become active catalysts in helping to generate more and broader awareness of high sensitivity. It benefits not only you, but the world, in general. "Hiding" your sensitivity for fear of judgment does nobody-- least of all yourself-- any good. Nothing will ever change.
Of course, there are some who may still not "see the point." They'll agree that perhaps there's "something" to the whole "high sensitivity thing" but then might suggest that there's no reason to care because "it isn't going to kill you, and it doesn't cost society anything." Typically, those who argue from this perspective are very pragmatic folks who are somewhat suspicious of things that can't be measured, counted, or seen.
In return, I ask them why we bother to spread awareness of such things as Dyslexia, or ADHD. Those don't "kill you," either. Typically I get the reply that spreading awareness about these helps create more productive and well-integrated people, as well as saving society billions of dollars in wasted education, and subsequent lost productivity in the workplace.
To which I ask "And this is different from billions of dollars being wasted on the medical and psychological treatment of what's actually something that falls within the range of normal human experience... exactly HOW and in what ways?"
I have no expectations that HSPs should want to become "crusaders for change," I'm merely encouraging anyone who's highly sensitive to be part of the ongoing process of quietly making changes-- when they can-- rather than just letting things slide by. Share articles and books with people you know; post articles (maybe like this one) to your Facebook page or blog. After all, we're HSPs... so it'll be a "quiet revolution!"
This article is part of ongoing series about the joys and challenges of life as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). For more extensive basic background information about HSPs please read my article: The Highly Sensitive Person: An Introduction.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Talk back! Are you Highly Sensitive? Do you think you know someone who is an HSP? Either way, do you see the value in establishing that HSPs are not "ill?"
Veronica on May 28, 2019:
I found out last year about HSP and its me to a tea; yes i was highly sensitive as a child, things affected me more.
Also hearing music or nature, the arts move me. Once listening to the radio and I heard a song that shocked me - i had to sit down (from a song!!) It was by Dido and Eminem.
I can't watch horror movies - sometimes even the news! I deleted my twitter account recently as i saw too much animal cruelty - it stays in my head for a long time :-(
The thing is, people have said I am an open book; this i dont like. I cant hide my feelings and oh man sometimes i wish i could; i open my mouth before thinking - always trying to be helpful (not in a negative way).
I would like to meet more people who are HSP's as i find a lot of people do not CARE about anything but themselves. This hurts especially when parents/siblings are involved.
People are always telling me i am thoughtful and a great listener. I feel sometimes people use me to talk - im always open and honest with people - and i wish people were the same back to me!
Wow, I've revealed a bit too much info on here- but i feel better for it!! Sorry to vent!
A great article btw. I am still learning more every day
Have a good day peeps!
strangemift on July 31, 2017:
I am definitely HSP and I suspect an Empath as well.
I always had comments about my strangeness, being different or the only misfit in the family. And everything said here, is very true.
I am very social, but contacts with large numbers of people, or those who are constantly talking, and making noise can put me into overload, and then I need to find a place alone to recharge. I am most comfortable alone, to spend time in nature, in reading, in art activities.
Even walking my dog has become a problem as he is a Maltese cross, and others with very large dogs...like the Rottweiler encountered last week, have taken over the closest dog park, so we don't go there any more.
It is good thing that in my 80 years of living this way I am able to find comfort in being alone.
I understood as a very young person that I was 'different', of course from what I was being frequently reminded, but for some reason I understood it was "their problem' more then my own.
I hope for much happiness for all of you HSPs out there—and that you each find a PCP who accepts you as you are. I am still searching for that one individual, but I know there is one out there!
BethanyD on December 25, 2016:
Hi, I took the test & definitely aHSP; as I expected. Been toldy whole life I'm to sensitive. Unfortunately I'm one who is dealing with sexaul,physical & emotional abuse. Suffered from depression since second grade(a repressed memory there I haven't uncovered yet probably because the one from fifth grade was 3rd degree incest which therapist made me tell my parents. The both just look at me,I broke my father's heart since it was his dad & have mom a reason to keep me away from my father cause she blame me, twenty years later she told me I was right cause he tried to touch her. Too late damage done. Anyway been diagnosed with just about everything. Been on Prozac for twenty some years, the medical profession has failed me.Just want to keep giving medication, I tell them I'm sensitive to medications but they over medicate. I had a seizure from going off one of their meds that they deny, & they tell me not to read drug info cause they don't think I can understand it & have been told I have to decide what side effects I'm willing to accept. I tried getting off all my medicine but my body needs it now. They said it wouldn't change my personality but it did. I just found the book by Dr. Aron& feel validated that I'm just wired differently. I'm fifty now & wonder what my life could have been if I hadn't got caught in the medical hoax of a chemical balance in my brain that made medication sound necessary. So VERY happy your getting information out there!! Also wondering if there is a tendency for HSP to develop Tricotilomania? It has been getting worse as I get older and consumes hours of my day & would love to have a fellow HSP to talk to about it.
Robyn on December 22, 2016:
worthy work,Peter. thank you for sharing.
As an HSP, I know first-hand the battle we are up against. No one should have to go through life feeling that their natural traits are inferior or compromising -and yet we do. Every day. How many people below have said that they are finally understanding themselves well into their adult lives? how vehement is the opposition to granting HSPs any recognition - the whole reason behind your post!!
Please don't underestimate your own words: it is indeed time to crusade for change.
and it doesn't have to be quiet... Aron estimates that about 30% of HSPS are extraverts. though at this point, all and any means are very much needed!
maybe some of us can & should be crusaders for change.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on September 06, 2016:
Well, we can start with the fact that this is an opinion piece, not a scholarly article...
Opor on August 24, 2016:
If you have been studying psychology for 25 years, how is it that you don't know to cite your sources?
DebMartin on June 11, 2015:
I've known for about 15 years now that I am an HSP. I'm a Life Coach and Adventure Leader so I have plenty of opportunity to talk about HSP and refer folks to Elaine Aron's book. About 50% of my clients are HSP (more than the general population but we tend to find each other easily) and I often have the privilege of introducing them to their HSP-ness for the first time in their lives.
But beyond that, I don't share my HSP with others socially. I did when I first discovered that I was an HSP. But addressing the "challenges" from those who are not HSP was too exhausting. Now I just quietly sit back and use my HSP as a craft in social situations. Once I got a handle on being HSP, I could read so much more into a social situation and trust my intuition.
I was surprised that the assessment didn't directly address the senses other than hearing (noise) and feeling (pain). I've found as an HSP, that I'm the first one to smell the coffee burning, the first to smell the smoke of a fire (often miles away), the first to smell an animal that has crossed my path earlier, etc. And my taste is more acute. I can often identify ingredients in a recipe that others cannot. Interestingly, I'm not highly sensitive to pain but I am incredibly sensitive to textures. There are just some fabrics I cannot touch.
Thanks for your hub.
Suzie from Carson City on August 13, 2014:
The mystery of me....my loves...my life......it's all unfolding and most marvelously of all.....it's making sense. Perfect damned sense!.......I'm so overjoyed, I'm crying. Of COURSE I'm crying..............Paula
mythara on January 02, 2013:
So true. Thank you I scored 25 on the test. I already have the HSP book but am ordering the workbook and one about my daughter so I can help her. I still have a long way to go myself...
Steeny Lou from Canada on January 01, 2013:
I enjoyed reading this. Thank you for putting it out there. I have included a link for this in a recent blog entry of mine which deals with the subject of highly sensitive souls such as us. Here is a link for it:
David on October 12, 2012:
Great article as always. Maybe you should write a book.
I agree with above comments. Sensitivity is not a flaw that needs to be 'fixed'. It does have some downsides but so do other personality traits. The key is to rearrange your life to maximise your strength and use sensitivity where it is valued most.
Really enjoying the book " Do What You Are".
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on October 02, 2012:
Thanks for commenting, and for your kind words! I firmly believe that the best way to explain and approach the HSP trait is from the perspective of Elaine Aron's original assertion that it is a NEUTRAL trait. HSPs are neither "special" nor "damaged," just a little "different." And that has upsides... and downsides. We can sit around and whine, or we can self-aggrandize... but ultimately we have to DEAL with life.
Christine on October 02, 2012:
Thanks for advocating on behalf of us HSP's - what an amazing gift yet so misunderstood. I want to approach someone I know who I believe may benefit from your articles - the way you explain in the positive rather than just highlighting all the 'issues' of being HSP - really encouraging.
Melanie on May 26, 2012:
Good of you to spread the awareness.
Laura on February 16, 2012:
I stumbled across this article when researching whether emotional sensitivity is genetic. Growing up, teachers, parents, and well-meaning friends told me over and over that I had to "toughen up to survive this world." Now, here I am 40 years old and recognize these same traits in my 5-year-old daughter. I try hard to resist the urge to tell her to "toughen up," because I know from experience how useless and hallow such advice is. I just wish I knew how to help her cope a little better with being a HSP.
Mechele on November 18, 2011:
I agree that there are HSP's, I am one of them being an Empath all my life. I believe that educating people is what needs to be done so that people like us know that we are not alone. However, I also believe we can learn to accept and manage it as well. I still have my bad days. But I tell myself to "not take it personally, its not about me, most people are just projecting what they see in themselves" I also tell my ego, "It's none of my business what others think of me". As I can read their thoughts and feelings, this one is the hardest to achieve, and I have not mastered it yet, however, I keep working on it. However, there is a catch 22 with that b/c there are times its very useful to protect myself from that individual. So I try to find the balance in it. I appreciate your journey in educating the public, they do need to know. I have learned that the brain can be retrained, perception of oneself can change and change brain patterns over time. I choose to do this for me b/c living as a sensitive person is hard sometimes and I don't want to perceive my life to be such a struggle. I want to just live it and love me and accept me for who I am. And we don't need medication to achieve this, there is nothing wrong in who we are, I have accepted that and now I choose to change my perception on how I choose to deal with it, instead of allowing it to devastate me in the moment. Thank you so much for sharing this article with the world.
milla on November 16, 2011:
I am definitely this - HSP and my boyfriend too. I always had comments about my high sensitivity, being different or very art, etc. And everything said here, is very true.
i am very very social, but contacts with a lot of new people can make me very anxious and yet, i go out a lot, to all sorts of events and places.
but, true again, i adore to be alone, to spend time alone in nature, in reading, in art activities, in a church, etc, even to be alone in a restaurant, sat alone at a table, not shy to do that.
it is true life at your work place can be very difficult sometimes, i remember getting easily exhausted if i had stress at my workplace.
anyway, just to join the choir and to say to everyone who is HSP: enjoy yourself, because you are very special and may be you are very intuitive, musical, artistic or deeply spiritual?? and this makes a very nice person to be with!
Anastasia on November 14, 2011:
This article is the most amazing thing I've read in a long time. After doing a lot of research on verbal abuse, wondering why it kept happening, I discovered a site which linked it to HSP. Then I found this article which explained so much of my life. It is very important to get this information out so more people can understand what is happening to them!
Caroline on August 02, 2011:
I agree 100% with the article, and most of the comments too. It is so important to be educated about our trait. How else could we go from judging our trait to appreciating it?
Robert on February 03, 2010:
After 30 years as an adult, maybe there is something here that is starting to make sense. From what I have read, I would say I am HSP. Being HSP has pretty much devastated my life in a lot of ways, dealing with everyday life can be very difficult, especially around other people. Maybe a bit of self knowledge about this subject may help, thanks.
kayakgurl on February 01, 2010:
Just found these sites and glad i have. As everyone has said, so much of the past suddenly makes sense. So i'm not a freak afterall?!! yippee!!! lol.always knew i wasn't but sure feel like it much of the time. I've always joked that i'm anti social, not very friendly, "don't play well with others" knowing it not really to be true, its just how i learned to deal with folks who are non hsp not understanding my need for quiet, alone and small groups....the article put it perfectly, its not that i don't like them, its just that "they exhaust me"....i could never define it properly until i read that. thank you. As another commenter posted, i also have no one I dare mention it to (save for my husband)besides i see it as making things worse and messy anyway ( on an individual basis)
Does anyone else know things before they happen? or able to describe verbatim how an upcoming scenario will play out?
reu on December 16, 2009:
Recently discovering im an hsp has explained alot, but also left me worried
Ive been in various relationships with people all of whom im pretty certain were not hsp. I could never understand their lack of these overwhelming strong emotions i was feeling.
Now i ask myself, how can i ever love a non-hsp? I didn't realise not everyone felt the way i did about things, I knew i was a touch different but i didn't realise this was why.
I feel i would be selling myself short if i was to fall in love with a non-hsp as i don't think they will ever appreciate the world around them as much as me.
I also am starting to feel i don't deserve love as to me it is such an overwhelming emotion, nothing else possibly matters when i feel love. I get the feeling like i don't deserve it
Michelle on August 14, 2009:
everyone tells me i take everything to heart. I know i'm a HSP, but I've also been researching borderline personality disorder. To me these two things are a lot a like and i can't figure out how to tell the difference. To me they can both have the same traits. HSP can often say things they don't mean because they get angry when the other person doesn't understand them. I also have childhood drama that they say causes BPD. How do i know the difference?
Michelle on June 11, 2009:
I am convinced this is a very real trait as it has gone a long way toward explaining my life. I am actually stunned at how accurate the HSP information is, and how it applies to me. It has already provided excellent insights into my life. I was originally driven to find out what was wrong with me when I was having troubles with a friend and at work, and ran across Elaine Aron's site. Several HSP traits that would have otherwise seemed disparate definitely apply to me, and the article on friendships, again, explained a lot. This is really amazing and I'm thrilled that I am normal after all.
However, absolutely no one I know has responded positively to this HSP business so I can't talk about it.
Takayu on May 21, 2009:
Thanks for your motivation in education on this topic. I first stumbled on it as the term Empath which lead me down the road of HSP. The more I read the more it explained life situations that made no sense to me from childhood. Like how I would much rather be at a small gathering than a large party when most kids my age would jump at a chance to party as a teen. Also the small talk rings a bell for me as well. I find myself at work avoiding conversations just because it is such an annoyance to me to deal with small talk when I would much rather be pondering the mysteries of life and solving problems. Keep up you good work. -Takayu
dents on April 29, 2009:
I'm just finding out about HSP and so much of my life is making sense all of a sudden. Thanks for the good work!!
renaissancegirl on August 24, 2008:
Who knew there were so many of us! Thanks for another enlightening and informative article!
Theresa on August 17, 2008:
I love how you put it, "Sensitivity is a TRAIT, not a choice!" I had a bf once that tried to push me to be a bit more outgoing. He was more social than me, of course. I have to give him credit that he noticed my sensitivity, even if he didn't understand it. Anyway, I agree that it's important to edcuate HSPs & non-HSPs alike. I have told a few non-HSPs about how sensitive folks replenish their energy stores when alone/drain when social, while pointing out how extraverts generally are the opposite. In having it pointed out how they replenish their energy, they are more able to imagine how us introverts (and especially HSPs) can be drained by the very thing that replenishes them.