13 signs you’re a ‘highly sensitive person’, and what that means for your relationships
Whether you’ve watched The White Lotus or not (where have you been?!), you’re probably familiar with the term ‘highly sensitive person’. Yeah? It’s the diagnosis that’s popping up everywhere right now – and it’s got tons of people suddenly identifying themselves as HSPs.
But while it might seem like a new Gen Z kinda thing, HSP is actually a very real trait that means a lot more than just being “too sensitive”.
If you’re a HSP, essentially you’ll have a heightened sensory system, meaning you’re increasingly sensitive to physical, emotional and social stimuli – everything from sights to sounds and textures.
In saying that, it’s nothing major to worry about – so don’t freak out. Being a highly sensitive person doesn’t affect your health in any way (it’s a normal trait), and is actually often seen as something that is quite beneficial.
However, there are some occasional disadvantages of feeling too much, too deep.
Here, we asked psychotherapist Lissy Abrahams everything we need to know about HSPs – and what kind of impact it might have on our relationships.
What is a ‘highly sensitive person’ diagnosis?
Originally coined by researcher Dr Elaine Aron in the early 90s, HSP is not really a disorder or diagnosis.
“HSP is a personality trait which has a particular pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are consistent and stable across one’s lifespan. Another example of a personality trait is introversion or extroversion,” explains Abrahams.
“It is not a disorder; it is a sensitivity, and its scientific name is Sensory-Processing Sensitivity. There is sensory processing disorder, which is a condition where the response to sensory input is impaired. For HSPs there is no impairment, however they have a stronger reaction than those without the sensitivity.”
According to research by Dr Aron, HSP is completely normal and something that is found in 15 to 20 per cent of the population. Meaning? Around one in five people will be HSPs.
So, chances are you either know one or you are one.
“HSP is innate and also evident in other species. Being HSPs may increase their chances of survival as HSPs observe and reflect on the subtleties of others before acting.”
However, while HSPs might easily notice details and patterns that others miss, the drawback is that HSPs can get easily overwhelmed.
Think of 15 people calling and texting you at the same time.
“HSPs expend their energy noticing people and environmental stimuli. Therefore, they often withdraw to replenish their energy and calm down their nervous system,” explains Abrahams.
“They are often overstimulated and easily overwhelmed. This makes them sensitive to sounds or light or crowds.”
What are the signs of a highly sensitive person?
Okay, so how do you actually ~know~ if you’re on the HSP side of things? Well, according to Abrahams, there are 13 common symptoms that are related to HSP.
However, it’s important to point out that not all of these will resonate with someone on the sensitivity spectrum, yeah?
As per Abrahams, HSPs typically experience many of the below –
- Easily overwhelmed by external stimuli (lights, strong smells and sounds).
- Easily overwhelmed by internal stimuli (thought, emotions and realisations).
- Higher empathy and awareness of other’s needs.
- Aversion to large groups or crowds.
- Rattled when they feel time pressured.
- Avoid violent movies and TV shows.
- Need alone time as can experience overwhelm, exhaustion and even burnout.
- Often withdraw to get relief into a private space.
- Arrange their lives to avoid situations where they will feel upset or overwhelmed.
- They notice or enjoy delicate scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art.
- They have a rich and complex inner life (intuition or creativity).
- Difficulty with transitions and changes.
- Were often sensitive or shy as a child.
Are empaths and highly sensitive persons linked?
Well, not necessarily. While the two do share some common traits and crossovers, they also have a lot of differences, too.
“I believe Dr Judith Orloff’s notion of an empathic spectrum describes the difference between HSPs and empaths well, and it is a matter of degrees of empathy that distinguish them,” explains Abrahams.
“You can imagine a spectrum moving from no empathy on the left of the spectrum (those who are deficient in empathy such as narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths) to normal loving, empathic people as you move along the spectrum, to HSPs and at the other end of the spectrum are empaths.”
To give you an idea of what this might look like, here’s what the Empathic Spectrum looks like below –
While empaths share all the traits of HSPs, Abrahams said the main difference is that “empaths take the empathic experience much further and absorb even more of the emotional energy or stimuli from others and the environment.”
So, it’s kind of like an accelerated version of HSPs, where they’re wired to process other people’s feelings more intensely, effecting them in numerous ways.
“I see empaths as being more porous than HSPs, as if they have less of an internal/external boundary – where it is difficult to differentiate between what is my stuff and what is your stuff? It all becomes the empath’s stuff and they often cannot tell the difference as they internalise the feelings and pain of others.”
“Empaths differ from HSPs as many empaths feel intuitively connected within themselves, and to animals and nature. This is not part of the HSP personality trait.”
Why is there such a buzz around the term ‘highly sensitive person’?
If you’re wondering why there’s suddenly so much talk around a term that’s been around for yonks, so are we. But according to Abrahams, there are a few reasons behind it – and it’s got nothing to do with The White Lotus.
“Humans love to categorise and put people in understandable boxes. We have done this forever by declaring someone is narcissistic or borderline or bipolar if we don’t understand or appreciate their behaviour,” said Abrahams.
“I believe the unqualified diagnosis and labelling someone HSP is similar, where we have deemed their behaviour as ‘too sensitive’ and clearly a failing of some sort.”
And you know who’s sitting at the crux of it? You guessed it…
“Millennials are often the target of this unprofessional diagnosis, with the notion that they have all been wrapped in cotton wool. Calling them HSPs implies they are a ‘snowflake’ – where they lack resilience and are more prone to taking offence. This does not recognise the gifts and limitations in combination that HSPs experience.”
“I believe the term is being overused without understanding the impact the sensitivity has on the person,” adds Abrahams.
How being a ‘highly sensitive person’ can impact your relationships.
Relationships can be complicated AF – no matter your personality type. But being a HSP and having this kind of deep emotional intelligence can heighten a lot of the usual nuances – whether it’s with your friends, family or significant other.
Below are some of the native impacts being a HSP can have on your relationships…
“Even though HSPs may have a high awareness of themselves and others’ emotional states, it does not mean that they can necessarily handle negative emotions inside of themselves.”
What’s usually absent is the regulation of emotions, with HSPs feeling overwhelmed at higher levels than others.
“When this happens, they can feel fear, anger, shame or sadness that they express impulsively in an outburst,” said Abrahams.
“This can lead to conflict with their partner who may feel attacked, shamed or blindsided by what their HSP partner saw.”
For those who cannot self regulate this trait, it can end up being a case where you are able to be sensitive and aware of others, but unable to support your own wellbeing.
“HSPs take on the feelings of their partner and others which leaves them affected by changes of states in others. This can be difficult in a relationship; we all need to be able to have emotional variations in our day-to-day lives without something always ‘being wrong’ or needing attention brought to it,” said Abrahams.
This might mean there’s way too much focus on everyone else around you, and not enough focus on yourself.
What’s more, Abrahams said HSPs often have emotional or interpersonal challenges in that they often want others to be more like them.
“Whilst they may be aware and sensitive to others, they also feel upset when they feel others don’t meet their standards or feel sufficient reciprocation of similar care, thought about them,” she said.
“It can feel lonely and there is often a large gap between how the HSP thinks about others and their needs versus what they receive in return.
“They can feel disappointed, anxious, depressed by this gap. Some can also be highly critical of those who fall short. As said previously, emotional awareness does not necessarily mean the HSP has the ability to regulate their emotions.”
Restriction on one’s partner
According to Abrahams, HSPs often have heightened startle responses which often prevents them being able to tolerate TV shows where there is horror or for some even thrillers, or certain styles or volume of music.
Um. We feel… seen.
“This means they create rules so that they do not become overwhelmed. In a relationship, a partner or family member will be restricted by the conditions imposed on them.”
This might include restrictions on what TV shows or movies are acceptable. If you’re the kind of person who hides behind the sofa during a cringe-y movie or a thriller – you know what we’re talking about.
“The problem when viewing is that HSPs never know when the tension or suspense will increase, and all of a sudden it becomes too much to handle.”
The same goes for music, with Abrahams saying that some HSPs may be able to tolerate rock or pop music yet unable to tolerate their partner’s jazz music.
“The partner may only feel free to listen to this when they are alone as they don’t want to impose the jazz on their partner and cause them to suffer.”
Avoid, miss out and have FOMO
Because HSPs find it hard to be reactive and overstimulated by the environment, Abrahams said they will often opt out of arrangements with their partner, friends, or family when they know that they will struggle.
“This is because their discomfort is not mild, for HSPs the environment becomes unbearable, and this will alter their emotional state immediately. For many they cannot go to concerts as they are too loud, shopping centres are too crowded, and even the sun is too bright.”
Being an emotional sponge for everyone around you can be… exhausting.
“It is tiring to be so overstimulated by the environment and other’s emotions. HSPs often focus on their energy levels and pay a hefty price when they are exhausted. In a relationship, they can be the couple handbrake or the killjoy.”
For HSPs, sleep is a way to soothe their over-worked senses. So when they don’t get enough sleep – everything kind of goes to sh*t.
“Their partner often needs to make concessions around them, such as leaving early or going alone even though they want their partner with them. It is frustrating for both partners and life limiting.”
Abrahams said HSPs need to take close care of their mental and physical wellbeing as they are more susceptible to burnout.
“For the HSP they need to prioritise sufficient sleep, sufficient down time following overstimulation and healthy food.”
While it might seem just like a little bit of harmless self-care, Abrahams said having a relationship with an HSP may be limiting for some partners.
“The relationship may lack spontaneity, and one’s partner may get tired of generating ideas that are rejected due to the need for self-care and the threat of overstimulation.”
The positives of being a highly sensitive person
But! It’s not all bad! Promise, you guys. On the flip side of things, there can be numerous benefits to relationships with HSPs.
Abrahams said some of the positive impacts include…
“HSPs can be kind and caring of their partner, often focusing on their wellbeing. They have a lot to give. The health of the relationship matters a lot to them.”
Creative, appreciating and sharing with one’s partner and others
If a HSP has an interest in arts and music, Abrahams said they will usually possess the ability to be able to tap into more of the emotional experience created by the artist.
“It is likely that their emotional awareness to others, art, music and the environment hooks into their being and allows them a deeper connection with their visual, auditory, and emotional world,” she adds.
“This can be shared with one’s partner and they develop a deeper understanding of these landscapes too. The partner of an HSP can overtime develop a deeper understanding of people’s minds, intentions and motivation.”
How cool is that!
“It is a rich and fascinating world that the HSPs can bring to others and offer different perspectives, show curiosity for others, and be generous of themselves. Others may benefit greatly from their emotional wisdom.”
While the idea of having superhuman emotional intelligence might sound like fun, Abrahams said it’s important to acknowledge both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects of the trait.
“Whilst it can be an asset to have emotional intelligence, it is not given without a price being paid. It’s like superman having incredible powers to fly, change time and save people, until he encounters a blob of kryptonite that weakens him completely, taking him out.
“We should not overvalue the benefits and gifts HSPs have and ignore the price paid for the gift. It’s a package deal.”
If you’re a HSP and you’re looking for some help in improving your communication with your partner, Abrahams has a free e-book available here.