I am what’s known as a Highly Sensitive Person. Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term “Highly Sensitive Person” (or HSP for short) in 1992 after her groundbreaking research using fMRI. Carl Jung had previously referred to this personality trait in several of his lectures in 1913 as “a certain innate sensitiveness.”
Being a Highly Sensitive Person is a healthy, innate biological trait that is found equally in both men and women in 15% to 20% of the human population. Biologists have discovered that this trait also exists in over 100 species, including fruit flies, fish, dogs, and primates. It is thought that these neural differences developed to be an evolutionary advantage, since HSPs tend to use caution and explore with our brains first, whereas others rush in, which can lead to more consequences. HSPs have evolved to be markedly more responsive to themselves, others, and their environment.
fMRI studies have shown that highly sensitive people have increased activity in areas of the brain called the “mirror neuron system” and “anterior insula,” which correspond to higher levels of awareness and emotional responsiveness. HSPs are a minority segment of the population with a naturally more finely tuned nervous system, and a sharper perception of the world.
For those of us who strive to be the change we wish to see in the world, certainly the fact that a portion of the population is intrinsically more sharply attuned to the heartbeat of the world is a biological blessing that we can and should harness as a catalyst for healthy, holistic change. The world is in serious need of increased emotional responsiveness and empathy—precisely what HSPs are evolutionarily hardwired for.
Common Characteristics of the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
Highly sensitive people have certain traits that occur naturally to them, similar to the way left-handed people tend to be more right-brained (intuitive, holistic, creative, imaginative, emotional). Some common traits of the Highly Sensitive Person are:
- HSPs have highly attuned sensory perception.
- HSPs have amazing intuition and are highly observant.
- HSPs possess a naturally heightened ability to empathize with others, and frequently “pick up moods” from other people.
- HSPs are naturally better listeners.
- HSPs process information and perception to a much deeper level.
- HSPs are extremely creative and have heightened abilities in the areas of higher order thinking, and complex problem solving.
- HSPs are naturally in a constant state of heightened awareness.
- HSPs show a tendency to think deeply about the world, others, and their lives.
- HSPs are naturally more aware of subtleties in their environment.
- HSPs typically have a higher than average reverence for nature, animals, music, art, beauty, and the interconnectedness of all things.
- HSPs are highly conscientious and have a tendency to be perfectionists.
- HSPs tend to be more cautious when facing new situations and in decision-making.
- HSPs have a natural aversion to toxic foods, toxic environments, toxic attitudes, and toxic people, and a natural inclination towards a healthier lifestyle.
- HSPs are motivated by meaning and purpose.
- HSPs are often drawn to the service of others.
- HSPs build alignments, and resolve differences through connection. Cooperative, rather than competitive.
- HSPs tend to reject typical authority structures and hierarchies.
Sensitive People in an Insensitive World
HSPs are often told that we’re overly sensitive, that we care too much, or that we need to grow a thicker skin. I’ve heard these phrases more times than I can count. As children, HSPs tend to have unusually deep thoughts, and ask odd questions that require more thoughtful answers. Sensitivity can sometimes be seen as a weakness. But sensitivity is also a strength, especially in an insensitive world. The truth is, HSPs can’t change the workings of our nervous systems any more than anyone else can. We were born this way, and I believe we were born this way for a reason—the world needs us.
HSPs are sometimes mislabeled as being shy, introverted, or neurotic. When in fact, shyness, introversion, and neuroticism are entirely separate things from being a Highly Sensitive Person. Additionally, not all HSPs are introverts; 70% of HSPs are introverted, but 30% are extroverts. I happen to be an extroverted HSP, but I do enjoy some alone time to decompress and recharge my batteries.
The modern world is plagued with violence and bigotry, hatred and ignorance, corruption and greed. The awareness of its suffering can be overwhelming—especially for the Highly Sensitive Person.
By being constantly tuned into ourselves and our environments, the feelings and moods of others around us, and even world suffering, HSPs can become overstimulated and overwhelmed. Through our desire to be well-informed and engaged, we may tune into mainstream media’s 24/7 news stations, which can drag us down emotionally. Even social media can inundate both HSPs and non-HSPs with its constant flow of negative images and information.
I believe that we not only need to regularly unplug from these negative sources and give ourselves a much needed vacation from all the toxic input, but we should also consider refocusing our efforts in a proactive, positive way.
With our natural inclination towards service and empathy, HSPs are well-positioned as stewards and teachers to help usher humanity into the more beautiful world that we know deep down is possible.
A More Compassionate, Sustainable, Peaceful World is Possible
It can’t be for no reason that a portion of the human population has this inherent set of abilities. The world needs more sensitive people. HSPs have the intrinsic ability to tap into our innate wisdom and help lead the way. The first step is making incremental–yet impactful–changes in our own lives. This means, better self-care, mindfulness, as well as cleaning up our diets, our medicine cabinets, our minds, and our environments. We also need to claim our heightened sensitivity and awareness as our birthright and our power. A paradigm shift to a more compassionate, sustainable, peaceful way of life has to occur internally before it can occur externally. And HSPs just might be the change agents the world so desperately needs to bring about this change.
Tuning into others’ hearts, being more compassionate, and living with a focus on interconnectedness is something everyone can do, not just HSPs. But HSPs can help guide our non-HSP counterparts by modeling what that looks like. Highly Sensitive People can lead the change by stepping into our empathic and holistic purpose, and by showing others the way through our own inherently indomitable abilities—empathy, intuition, and grace.
The world can be an insensitive place. But I sense it won’t be that way for long. Just like Sam Cooke’s song says, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come.”