I’m intuitive enough to be easily thrown off balance, but not actually psychic. I joke about me being a “delicate flower” in certain ways, but I’m still totally badass. This is a real find for me!
Do you feel like you reflect on things more than everyone else? Do you find yourself worrying about how other people feel? Do you prefer quieter, less chaotic environments?
If the above sound true to you, you may be highly sensitive. The personality trait — which was first researched by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., in the early 1990s — is relatively common, with as many as one in five people possessing it. Aron, who has written multiple studies and books on high sensitivity, including The Highly Sensitive Person, also developed a self-test (which you can take here) to help you determine if you are highly sensitive.
While recent interest in introversion — driven largely by high-profile publications on the subject, including Susan Cain’s book “Quiet,” — has brought more awareness to personality traits that value less stimulation and higher sensitivity, Aron notes that highly sensitive people still tend to be considered the “minority.”
But “minority” doesn’t mean bad — in fact, being highly sensitive carries a multitude of positive characteristics. Read on for some of the commonalities shared by highly sensitive people.
1. They feel more deeply. One of the hallmark characteristics of highly sensitive people is the ability to feel more deeply than their less-sensitive peers. “They like to process things on a deep level,” Ted Zeff, Ph.D., author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide and other books on highly sensitive people, tells HuffPost. “They’re very intuitive, and go very deep inside to try to figure things out.”
2. They’re more emotionally reactive. People who are highly sensitive will reactmore in a situation. For instance, they will have more empathy and feel more concern for a friend’s problems, according to Aron. They may also have more concern about how another person may be reacting in the face of a negative event.
3. They’re probably used to hearing, “Don’t take things so personally” and “Why are you so sensitive?” Depending on the culture, sensitivity can be perceived as an asset or a negative trait, Zeff explains. In some of his own research, Zeff says that highly sensitive men he interviewed from other countries — such as Thailand and India — were rarely or never teased, while highly sensitive men he interviewed from North America were frequently or always teased. “So a lot of it is very cultural — the same person who is told, ‘Oh, you’re too sensitive,’ in certain cultures, it’s considered an asset,” he says.
4. They prefer to exercise solo.
Highly sensitive people may tend to avoid team sports, where there’s a sense that everyone is watching their every move, Zeff says. In his research, the majority of highly sensitive people he interviewed preferred individual sports, like bicycling, running and hiking, to group sports. However, this is not a blanket rule — there are some highly sensitive people who may have had parents who provided an understanding and supportive environment that would make it easier for them to participate in group sports, Zeff says.
5. It takes longer for them to make decisions. Highly sensitive people are more aware of subtleties and details that could make decisions harder to make, Aron says. Even if there is no “right” or “wrong” decision — for example, it’s impossible to choose a “wrong” flavor of ice cream — highly sensitive people will still tend to take longer to choose because they are weighing every possible outcome. Aron’s advice for dealing with this: “Take as long to decide as the situation permits, and ask for more time if you need it and can take it,” she writes in a recent issue of her Comfort Zone newsletter. “During this time, try pretending for a minute, hour, day, or even week that you have made up your mind a certain way. How does that feel? Often, on the other side of a decision things look different, and this gives you a chance to imagine more vividly that you are already there.” One exception: Once a highly sensitive person has come to the conclusion of what is the right decision to make and what is the wrong decision to make in a certain situation, he or she will be quick to make that “right” decision again in the future.
6. And on that note, they are more upset if they make a “bad” or “wrong” decision. You know that uncomfortable feeling you get after you realize you’ve made a bad decision? For highly sensitive people, “that emotion is amplified because the emotional reactivity is higher,” Aron explains.
7. They’re extremely detail-oriented.
Highly sensitive people are the first ones to notice the details in a room, the new shoes that you’re wearing, or a change in weather.
8. Not all highly sensitive people are introverts. In fact, about 30 percent of highly sensitive people are extroverts, according to Aron. She explains that many times, highly sensitive people who are also extroverts grew up in a close-knit community — whether it be a cul-de-sac, small town, or with a parent who worked as a minister or rabbi — and thus would interact with a lot of people.
9. They work well in team environments. Because highly sensitive people are such deep thinkers, they make valuable workers and members of teams, Aron says. However, they may be well-suited for positions in teams where they don’t have to make the final decision. For instance, if a highly sensitive person was part of a medical team, he or she would be valuable in analyzing the pros and cons of a patient having surgery, while someone else would ultimately make the decision about whether that patient would receive the surgery.
10. They’re more prone to anxiety or depression (but only if they’ve had a lot of past negative experiences). “If you’ve had a fair number of bad experiences, especially early in life, so you don’t feel safe in the world or you don’t feel secure at home or … at school, your nervous system is set to ‘anxious,'” Aron says. But that’s not to say that all highly sensitive people will go on to have anxiety — and in fact, having a supportive environment can go a long way to protecting against this. Parents of highly sensitive children, in particular, need to “realize these are really great kids, but they need to be handled in the right way,” Aron says. “You can’t over-protect them, but you can’t under-protect them, either. You have to titrate that just right when they’re young so they can feel confident and they can do fine.”
11. That annoying sound is probably significantly more annoying to a highly sensitive person. While it’s hard to say anyone is a fan of annoying noises, highly sensitive people are on a whole more, well, sensitive to chaos and noise. That’s because they tend to be more easily overwhelmed and overstimulated by too much activity, Aron says.
12. Violent movies are the worst.
Because highly sensitive people are so high in empathy and more easily overstimulated, movies with violence or horror themes may not be their cup of tea, Aron says.
13. They cry more easily. That’s why it’s important for highly sensitive people to put themselves in situations where they won’t be made to feel embarrassed or “wrong” for crying easily, Zeff says. If their friends and family realize that that’s just how they are — that they cry easily — and support that form of expression, then “crying easily” will not be seen as something shameful.
14. They have above-average manners. Highly sensitive people are also highly conscientious people, Aron says. Because of this, they’re more likely to be considerate and exhibit good manners — and are also more likely to notice when someone elseisn’t being conscientious. For instance, highly sensitive people may be more aware of where their cart is at the grocery store — not because they’re afraid someone will steal something out of it, but because they don’t want to be rude and have their cart blocking another person’s way.
15. The effects of criticism are especially amplified in highly sensitive people. Highly sensitive people have reactions to criticism that are more intense than less sensitive people. As a result, they may employ certain tactics to avoid said criticism, including people-pleasing (so that there is no longer anything to criticize), criticizing themselves first, and avoiding the source of the criticism altogether, according to Aron.
“People can say something negative, [and] a non-HSP [highly sensitive person] can say, ‘Whatever,’ and it doesn’t affect them,” Zeff says. “But a HSP would feel it much more deeply.”
16. Cubicles = good. Open-office plans = bad.
Just like highly sensitive people tend to prefer solo workouts, they may also prefer solo work environments. Zeff says that many highly sensitive people enjoy working from home or being self-employed because they can control the stimuli in their work environments. For those without the luxury of creating their own flexible work schedules (and environments), Zeff notes that highly sensitive people might enjoy working in a cubicle — where they have more privacy and less noise — than in an open-office plan.
THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON IN LOVE:
Why did I turn to this topic? First, a corny sounding reason, but so true: The world needs love. And I believe HSPs are meant to bring much of that love to light. But we need help with intimacy, I have found. Maybe we are afraid, have been hurt, and can’t forget it. Or we have trouble being known and appreciated for who we really are. Or we have trouble in relationships because of our different needs, so that we always feel “too much” or “overly sensitive.”
Second, before I began studying HSPs, my husband (a social psychologist) and I were very engaged in psychological research on love and close relationships–and we still are. Indeed, in that field we are considered preeminent leaders, although neither of us has ever written on the topic for the public. This book will teach you quite a bit about what’s been uncovered by solid research about relationships. Plus, it unveils my most recent results on HSPs and relationships. You won’t find that blend or those new results anywhere else.
Third, for over thirty years I’ve been an HSP married to a non-HSP–some of it pretty stormy–so I have considerable experience with how temperament impacts a relationship!
The Truth About The “Divorce Gene”
Most of us assume that the success of a relationship between friends or lovers depends on having good communication skills or sharing similar interests. But consider this: A 1995 study found that 50 percent of the risk of divorce is genetically determined. Does this mean success and fulfillment in social life are inherited? What can we do about that?
The single largest reason for this genetic effect is not a “divorce gene,” I’m certain. (To say something is genetically determined doesn’t clarify much–wearing skirts or owning a rifle is almost totally “genetically determined,” thanks to the genes for gender plus a lot of cultural moderators.) Genetics enter into marriage because of the way that certain inherited temperaments cause trouble in relationships. They cause trouble only because most of us are totally ignorant about the reality of the drastic differences that can exist among nervous systems. But with the right guidance, the many “mismatches” in this world can have the most fulfilling relationships of all.
HSPs in Love
Let’s start with the temperament we know, sensitivity. About 20% of us are highly sensitive persons (HSPs); at least 34% of love relationships involve an HSP. And everyone has at least one HSP friend. I have found that when HSPs aren’t understood by themselves and others, that spells trouble. That’s surely part of why my data show that, on the average HSPs, are a bit happier paired with each other. They understand each other.
My data also show that on the average HSPs’ relationships in general are less happy–implying that relationships HSPs are in are less happy, at least for the HSP. Why? HSPs have nervous systems that pick up more on subtleties in the world and reflect on them deeply. That means, for starters, that they will tend to demand more depth in their relationships in order to be satisfied; see more threatening consequences in their partners’ flaws or behaviors; reflect more and, if the signs indicate it, worry about how things are going.
Because HSPs are picking up on so much, they are also more prone to overstimulation, quicker to feel stress–including the stimulation and stress that can arise in any intense, intimate interactions. They need more down time, which can cause a partner to feel left out. They find different things enjoyable compared to others.
Sensation Seekers In Love
The Highly Sensitive Person in Love also explores, to a lesser degree, the other basic, well researched inherited trait-sensation seeking. Sensation seekers (SSs) are born with a deep curiosity and need to explore. Although this sounds like the opposite of being sensitive, nature planned it otherwise. Different genes and brain systems seem to govern the two traits, so that HSPs can also be SSs. But it certainly complicates their lives. An HSP with very little of this trait, in a relationship with a non-HSP/SS will certainly have a conflict-filled if exciting relationship. Self-tests at the beginning of The Highly Sensitive Person in Love allow individuals and couples to see how they rank on both traits. Even though temperament is invisible, it is very real. I have found many couples in which one person answered every question true on one of these self-tests, the other, false. That makes for a lot of misunderstanding and “what’s-the-matter- with-you?’s.” No wonder genetics cause 50% of the divorce rate– this figure represents the many divorces caused by the pairing of persons with extremely different temperaments who have no clue about how the other really experiences life.
What About The Culture?
As with my first book, this one looks carefully at the effect of culture on HSPs–how it makes an HSP feel less desirable, less confident. The problems are special for male HSPs. As many men as women are born sensitive, but the stereotype is that women are sensitive, “real” men are not. Women love to be friends with male HSPs, but want to date and marry non-HSPs. One goal of The Highly Sensitive Person in Love is to help HSP women realize their mistake and HSP men to feel less to blame for their situation.
Another goal is to explore the different ways that HSPs and sensation seekers approach intimacy. HSPs are naturally cautious and reflective before committing. They also have good reason to fear being rejected for being “too sensitive” or overwhelmed by another’s needs. Sensation seekers also fear commitment, for quite different reasons–the loss of variety, the fear of boredom.
I provide a self-assessment of eight fears about deep love, then suggests what to do about each. After that, we discuss how to meet someone and fall in love, if that’s your desire, whether you would like to meet an HSP or a non-HSP.
Relationship Advice For HSPs
Most important, this book tailors all those relationship self-help books to meet an HSP’s needs. For example, it tells partners who are temperamental opposites why they fell in love and how to get along together now. It’s not simple. The initial, often extraordinary attraction dissolves fast with familiarity. Then each can feel deeply disappointed with the other, even contemptuous.
Similars can get into trouble too. In fact, my husband and I have been granted large research grants to study the effect of boredom on relationships. Boredom is a special problem for a pair of similars, two HSPs in particular. They may be initially excited to find their similarities, but in time tend to use each other as a sanctuary rather than as a partner in exploring new experiences. This is only one of the problems I address in the chapter on HSP-HSP pairs.
Finally, I also develop six crucial pointers for HSPs in relationships, whatever the temperament of their partner.
No, I Did Not Leave Out Sex or Spirit
A special feature is the chapter on sexuality, based on the first survey ever about the preferred sex practices of different inherited temperaments. Here are whole new standards for “normal.” For example, compared to others, HSPs are more likely to find sex to be mysterious and powerful, to be turned on by subtle rather than explicit sexual cues, to be easily distracted or physically hurt during sex, and to find it difficult to go right back to normal life afterwards. Sensation seeking men and women tend to enjoy sex more, want more partners, have had more, and feel they can enjoy “sex without love.”
Finally, I am very proud of the chapter on love and spirituality, even though my editors had grave misgivings. I know what HSPs like. Or I hope I do. Let me know how you like The Highly Sensitive Person in Love.