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Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?
03.07.17
Are You a Highly Sensitive Person Man Repeller Feature

I drafted an email yesterday and, before clicking the ‘send’ button, I read, re-read and re-re-read what I had written, scouring the letters for errors that would somehow impart to the destined reader the impression that perhaps I don’t have a basic grasp of grammar. I have a Chrome extension that tells me when I’m using “weak” words and phrases, like I think or I’m sorry or just, words that, according to the app’s creator, “diminish our voice.”

I’m like this — highly self-conscious and sensitive to details — when it comes to basically everything in my life. When I enter a conversation, I immediately pick up on subtle, almost imperceptible behavioral cues. I overthink everything, absolutely everything, often to my very serious detriment. Until pretty recently, I thought that I was just neurotic.

Then a friend who is very similar recommended a book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Dr. Elaine Aron. A self test in the book’s introduction prompts: I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation. True.

I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens close by. Last Halloween, dressed as Axl Rose, I shared a cab with my husband, my friend and her friend, let’s call her Laura. Within minutes of being within two feet of Laura, bless her heart, I got the headache of my life. “Take your wig off!” my husband prompted. “Do you think you’re having a preemptive hangover?” my friend asked. No, it was Laura’s perfume. It entered my nose like vile poison and rested somewhere in between my eyes until, mercifully, we were dropped off somewhere in Brooklyn. I avoided her for the rest of the night.

I startle easily. Yes. I have a rich, complex inner life. Why, yes. I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things. True. Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration and mood. Yes: hangry, anyone? I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations. I have a dentist’s appointment on Friday that’s been consuming my every waking thought for the past three weeks.

Are You Sensitive Man Repeller 3

But okay, I know a lot of people who would answer these questions positively. Does that make us all Highly Sensitive People (HSPs)? According to Dr. Aron, there’s an optimal level of arousal that allows us to function ideally; the HSP’s nervous system gets much more aroused in the same situation, from the same stimulus, than most other people’s. That means we’re perpetually on alert.

Bad news first: Constantly reviewing your own or other people’s thoughts and actions is time-consuming and exhausting. You may come off as introverted or antisocial when you slink away to be with your own thoughts. You might also have issues with performance: you’re amazing at something, but put on the spot, you tend to get flustered. It will take you longer than other people to recover from a negative stimulus, or from stimuli that deviate from the “rational” or expected.

The good news is more than redeeming. According to Dr. Aron, HSPs are more detail-oriented and tend to be much more sensitive to other people’s feelings. We are able to concentrate deeply, and we’re, “especially good at tasks requiring vigilance, accuracy, speed and the detection of minor differences.” While we’re good at noticing outward cues, we also spend a considerable amount of time looking inward, “thinking about our own thinking.” We’re in our own heads a lot which, depending on the day you’re having, can be a fascinating place to live.

Certain experiences, obviously mostly negative ones, often push me to agree with the old adage ignorance is bliss. Yeah, it would be nice to walk into a room and not immediately Jason Bourne it. It would bring me such relief to be able to read an email and be absolutely certain of what the person meant when they signed off with best (“Is she annoyed? Because last time I’m pretty sure it was all my best”). Or to just not care. Dr. Aron warns against seeing this personality trait as a handicap. Being an HSP doesn’t make you inhibited, introverted or shy. And if you are any of these things, you’re not necessarily an HSP.

She explains the HSP personality in a nutshell: We are the trusted advisors to history’s warrior kings. Thoughtful, prescient and discreet, we are the creative designers of the future. Not bad for someone who’s stumped by a casual email signoff. So, how do you score on the HSP test? Take it here and let me know in the comments!

Photo by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Abby

    I’d be president of the HSP club, but I think that’d make me too anxious.

    • Carson McCrullers

      And you know finalizing the agenda for that meeting would be a nightmare

  • BarbieBush

    I am so glad to see this topic covered! I have identified with being HSP for a few years after reading Dr. Aron’s stuff. It’s unfortunate that she seems to be the only researcher on this. My favorite part of learning about HSPs is that you are actually very powerful. Our extrovert society doesn’t make it seem that way but if you are in tune with yourself, it is actually like a 6th sense.

    You can sense things that other people don’t–like mood swings, new tension entering the room. You can have a better grasp on your life and happiness because you understand things deeper and your place within all these things.

    It helped me accept that I just don’t like certain things and that’s okay. I love the idea of going to parties but the majority of ones I’ve went to,I don’t enjoy. I used to feel bad about that and anti-social and would force myself to go anyways. Now that I understand my own tendencies and what I actually want, I can check in with myself and know if I am just being a baby and will have fun, or if it really isn’t something for me.

    I really recommend Aron’s stuff if you feel sensitive or introverted and want to understand that–or even if you don’t and are just interested. It has been a huge huge tool in my life and honestly improved every aspect of it, my relationships, my health, my job. And I am pretty cynical..

  • BarbieBush

    I have this quote on my desk and it makes so much sense to me, “The trick for introverts is to honor their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.”

  • Lucy Smith

    So, unless i misunderstood the context, it is bad news to come off as introverted? It sounds like the author is implying that introversion is a negative way to be perceived. And introversion and being anti -social are two very different things.

    • Kattigans

      I don’t think that’s being implied at all. We live in a culture that typically caters to extroverts which poses a challenge for people to understand introverted personality types.

    • streats

      Yeah people often say “anti-social” when they actually mean “asocial” — antisocial is being disruptive, like riots/vandalism, or youths loitering outside a shop and yelling, etc (I sound like an old lady, get off my lawn). When a person is withdrawn from society they are asocial, but yes that is as you say, very different from introversion.

  • Hannah Nichols

    I don’t feel like I have anxiety at all, but I scored a 17 on the test. I am definitely hyper sensitive to people’s moods and how they act towards me, but the stressful situation part doesn’t seem to bother me. apparently I’m an enigma!!

    • I think the performance anxiety aspect of the test is pretty divisive–a lot of people seem to identify as HSPs while also having little trouble stepping up to the plate, so to speak. But Dr. Aron does say that you don’t have to check every box in order to qualify.

  • Abby

    Oh god, the email re-reading. I just spent almost 20 minutes proofing the most bland email of all time to make sure the tone was right 🙁

    • Spandangle

      And the devastation when you find a mistake after you’ve sent it. (Yes I reread for mistakes after sending and that’s totally normal)

    • Every email, even if it’s to my MUM, must be read through at least 5 times.

  • Didi Ramirez

    I definitely fall into the hyper sensitive category and it drives me to the edge of insanity. It makes it very difficult to enjoy living in the moment because I second-guess, scrutinize what happened in the past, what’s happening in the present, and what might occur in the future. Maybe its just me but a HSP is the ultimate people pleaser. There’s this desire to be liked by everyone and if it isn’t achieved then you assume that you are socially inept and therefore disliked by everyone. You remember every negative/dumb thing you’ve ever said and it just tumble dries in your brain for eternity. It’s a very unhealthy state of mind…. *sigh* but I scored a 13 on that test.

  • RattlesnakeKate

    My closest friend told me about HSPs a few years ago, and I identify so strongly – I can’t stand loud noises (or my god, MOUTH NOISES), bright lights, strong odors, crowds, a messy house… I wish my parents had known about this when I was young, because I think they interpreted my behavior as me being picky or difficult rather than being easily overstimulated.

    • Habaloo

      MOUTH NOISES 🙅🏻🙅🏻

    • Meg S

      I used to work with a mouth breather. I thought I was just offended because it was disgusting (which it was), but now I’m starting to realize it’s part of HSP.

      • RattlesnakeKate

        My boss does this thing where his mouth gets really dry and I can sort of hear his tongue sticking to his mouth, and then I can’t pay attention to what he is saying because my body is trying to turn inside out. And I once told a friend that the hardest part of marriage is having to listen to another person chew.😖

        • Meg S

          The horror. I can’t imagine that. I can already feel the cringe coming on just thinking about it. Once a week I go to school after work, and I can’t handle it when the markers squeak on the white board. At least it’s not chalk, the bane of my education.

        • The chewing is really hard! My husband’s jaw also makes a popping sound and his teeth hit each other sometimes. It makes me a little crazy. This morning he was eating a yogurt and the way the spoon scratches on the plastic really irritated me. When we’re eating together it doesn’t bother me, but alone I’m all ears.

          http://www.shessobright.com

  • Jina Bae

    Hey guys, nice to virtually meet you all here! I scored 27. Every night before I fall asleep, I salute myself for getting through. I’ve managed to have now a lower stimulating but quite fulfilling lifestyle and I find having a keen passion for arts and science salve my anguish tremendously. Wish you all success!!

  • I tried an online HSP test just now (out of curiosity) and scored 20, not sure if it’s the symptoms of PTSD coming into play though rather than that I’m an HSP. Sounds like a really interesting read! Might have to get this book…

    • Kattigans

      I recommend checking out the FAQ on the website to get some clarity on this. PTSD is a form an anxiety disorder and can be confused with being HSP. You can also experience PTSD while also being HSP. I’m not an expert just regurgitating what I read because I also have social anxiety so there is a lot of overlap for me in HSP test

  • meme

    I scored 23 on the test and I feel identified with the article (the e-mail stuff alone gives me SO much anxiety) but I am quite extroverted and normally I do well in stressful situations although I suffer through it, specially when I can’t control the outcome of something. Are those traits compatible?

    • Tracy Travaglio

      Yep! I’m sort of similar, but I’ve known for several years that I’m an HSP. I generally love people and do well in high-stress situations, but I absolutely need to recover afterwards. Recovery time is key.

      • meme

        Thank you for your reply! That’s exactly how I feel, like I can do a sprint but marathons are not for me. I find it kind of relieving to know it’s just a character trait.

        • Kattigans

          Extroversion and introversion can be confusing terms. You could could actually be an introvert and not know it. Being one doesn’t mean you don’t like people and are as quiet as a mouse. I like people and being around them but I def need time alone to recharge the batteries. A good way to figure out if you’re an extrovert or introvert, or even an ambivert, is how you recharge yourself. Does being around people pump you battery to full or does that happen when you take time to be alone?

          • CM

            Agreed, I think people often conflate introversion with shyness, but they aren’t necessarily correlated.

  • “I startle easily. Yes. I have a rich, complex inner life. Why, yes. I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things. True. Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration and mood. Yes: hangry, anyone? I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.” okay so this is all me, ALL of it.

    Thanks so much for this post, I’d never considered myself as hypersensitive but everything you’ve said I identify with so so much

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • I read Dr. Aron’s book a little less than a year ago at the suggestion of my therapist. At the very least, it has calmed my fears that I’m just really picky or touchy, and it’s almost given me a pride in knowing that I’m just more highly attuned to certain stimuli. (And it gives me a reason not to have to run the really loud vacuum!)

  • Hannah Cole

    Something I have literally just been thinking about this week – considering why I get so lost in my own mind and think about things so thoroughly it’s overwhelming. NOW I have an answer, and reassurance that it’s not just me 🙂

  • Julie

    This couldn’t have come at a better time! I’m trying to apply for some internships and because I am so sensitive to literally EVERYTHING, it’s hard to get out of my head and actually get started. I’m constantly freaking out about what people may think when they read my emails/cover letters that I give up before I even start writing a full sentence.

  • Tracy Travaglio

    Heyyy fellow HSPs! So glad to see other people who have heard of Dr. Aron and HSPs. My therapist recommended Dr. Aron’s book several years ago, and it gave me a brand new perspective and appreciation for who I am. Our world doesn’t really recognize or appreciate the benefits of being an HSP, but the more in touch I am with my HSP-ishness, the better I feel about myself and the environment around me.
    Dr. Aron’s site has also really helped those around me better understand me. My husband is well trained: He feeds me when I’m hangry. compares me to a skittish woodland critter when there’s an unexpected noise (and knows to warn me when he’s going to sneeze), and takes secret snapchats of me bawling profusely at the Beauty and the Beast trailers when they’re on TV because he thinks it’s so sweet (and let’s be honest, it’s pretty funny, too).

  • Tiffany Mouton

    Jesus, this is me!!

  • Meg S

    I scored 24 and I didn’t even know that HSP was a thing. I thought I was just high maintenance or overly sensitive. I was so over stimulated at a party when I was 6 years old that I went in my room and shut the door. I live alone and am still very much like this.

    I get headaches if someone at work wears too much perfume and I take the elevator after they do. I generally don’t wear perfume and if I do, it’s two light sprays for wrists, neck and behind my ears. Anything more is overkill. I discovered the perfect laundry detergent combination (Tide PurClean honey lavender, and snuggle free fabric softener, with wool dryer balls for anything that goes in the dryer). The only way I can sleep at night is with a lavender pillow spray after a cup of herbal tea. Otherwise, I’ll keep myself awake thinking all night long.

    As for email, I toil over the most mundane things, like wrapping it up or closing greetings. I usually just stick to “thanks” and my name for casual emails, but thank God for email rules when writing formal ones. But what if I said too much? Or too little? Or didn’t convey myself properly? And then someone wants me to send an email to my entire department tomorrow about a pot luck at work next week. What if I say the wrong thing, and I’ve sent it to everyone, including my boss? I’m already mildly panicking, and I was mildly panicking when I saw it earlier today. I ignored it for the sake of a test I had to take tonight, which was panic-inducing on it’s own. But now I need something else to panic about, so sending an email out about lunch is it.

    I think I need to read those books.

  • Alicia Johnston

    What a great article thank you! I feel the need to email this to all my friends to explain why I retreat to another room and check out their books at parties.

  • Yes, I read that book last year and have since recommended it to friends who seem to have similar qualities. I’m glad you brought this up.

  • Clara

    Hey,
    I scored 26… and felt relieved.
    I’ve always thought I might not be normal, to be that sensitive. My dad always told me, and in a nicely way of course, that I actually had to cry sometimes, just to feel better, because I had too much going on.
    Thank you very much, for interrogating such interesting things on Man Repeller. I tend to read you more and more, because what you highlight here makes me think about my life in a better way.
    xxx
    Clara, a French fan loving you all the way from the other side of the ocean

  • I scored 21 and omg i thought i was the only person on earth with HSP, so relieved that i was wrong!! i am trying to train myself to stop rereadeing those emails though because it takes me like 15 minutes to send a two line response and it’s not productive at all *~*! i just reread this message four times *~*

  • Mariana

    “That means we’re perpetually on alert.” That sums up my permanent state. Sometimes my veins seems they don’t run with blood but with adrenaline, since I am always in a state of attention (not the mindfulness kind) and always trying to control what I feel, what I say, what others perceive of me, my future…aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh (online scream lol).

  • Not very sensitive (9) now … I think I was more sensitive when young, because I remember how many of the situations/questions from the test felt like in the past and because I still automatically allow other people to use these states as an excuse (knowing they do feel as described) if they wish so … but it would seem life has quite hammered/steeled/manned me up – and I prefer my current state.

  • Giulia Bottaro

    Oh boy. Thank you so much for this, I’m now running to get this book. I spend so much time evaluating what I say or I have been said and I can’t get my head round the fact that NO ONE ELSE cares. I’m extroverted and enjoy clubbing and need people around me which doesn’t go nicely with perpetual overthinking. Need to sort this out

  • Nicole

    You guys… I feel like I’ve been waiting for this article for the better part of my adulting life. I regularly subject my friends to basically extended monologues just word-vomiting anything/everything troubling my mind at any given time, more often than not met with the reply “here we go again,…”.

    But also mostly this article made me chuckle every time I read the word HSP, because in Australia that is the acronym given to that holy grail of foods also known as the Halal Snack Pack. If you haven’t heard of it, be sure to chuck it a google and (probably) end up asking yourself how an innocent snack food became a point of national political controversy.

    • We need to have an HSP convention–get all the commenters together who self-identify as HSPs and see what that meeting is like. And we can serve Halal Snack Packs.

  • KK

    Yes! In fact, I have a lot of these qualities in common with you and think I have several symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder https://www.spdstar.org/basic/about-spd…maybe something for you to look into as well!

  • Diana C.

    You don’t even want to know how many times I edited this post to say what I want it to say, I have so many feelings about this!!

    I have always taken things to heart and knew I had a certain…disposition, but this makes a lot of sense to me.
    Oftentimes I’ve treated ‘simple’ occurrences like traumatic experiences i.e. presentations, any confrontation, even my first kiss–and I liked the guy!
    (I obviously say this with respect to my own reality and day-to-day life, as some people have experienced true tragedy.)

    I just can’t really talk myself down from things even if I lay out the rationale and logic of why I feel a certain way. It’s very much entwined with the physical and although I haven’t done a 180 after reading this (and buying the book!), I feel comforted to have come across this at all.

    Man Repeller, you’ve done it again.

  • june2

    Public Service Announcement: maybe no one wants to hear this but daily exercise is radically helpful for this. I speak from experience. And I mean sweaty exercise, not yoga 3 x a week or whatever. It will change your life and also brings so many other obvious benefits. FYI <3

  • Kattigans

    Definitely an HSP. I found out about this term about a year ago because like you, Helena, I thought I was neurotic and possibly a little nuts. After my revelation, I told my boyfriend that I was an HSP and he was just like, “duh, I could’ve told you that”. Now its a funny joke between us for him to tell me to reel in my HSP-ness when he sees that I’m getting overwhelmed. It’s a good reminder to take a deep breath and chiiiiillll. Learning to chill for an overly anxious person like myself is not easy, but once I remind myself to get into that mindset things that were once very hard (hello, social interactions) have become much easier and less draining to get through. I still need days to retreat into my room and be completely by myself. Its where I still feel my most comfortable and happy.

    Some good habits I’ve picked up to deal with myself are writing regularly in a journal and exercise!

    Seriously though, cheers to all mah HSP ladies -we’re making it through life!

    • Kattigans

      Also, Helena I love your pieces on Man Repeller!

      • Thanks so much for reading! Definitely with you on the writing and exercise–and your room being your little slice of heaven in the everything pizza that is our messy little world. I fear we’ll become shut-ins if left to our own devices–thank goodness for understanding friends and boyfriends 🙂

        • Kattigans

          You’re welcome! I was seriously blown away by your interview on Oh Boy. Your honesty, authenticity and humility about your life and yourself made me feel like I wasn’t alone because I connected with some much of the sentiments you shared.

          P.S Love your comparison of our lives being like an everything pizza. Ha its so true! Once I started to understand and listen to myself I started to feel more grounded & able to embrace life’s everything.

  • b_rose96

    I scored 20. This is such a good topic to be open and talk about. Being sensitive is not a handicap but definitely feels that way sometimes. Does anyone else ever break out in hives due to stress?? This happens to me occasionally due to certain social situations or when work gets overwhelming.

    • bookeater

      Had stress-hives for a couple of months when I worked at a particularly stressful job. Strangely, that was the only time I ever had them, even though I have had stressful jobs before and since.

  • elpug

    Yes. Was just on the phone while going from class to class and said to my bf “campus is too crowded”. The staircase was so full of people and I just needed tog et away. Sometimes my friends show me EDM music and in trying to explain why I don’t like it I realized there are simply too many sounds going on at once for me to enjoy it. HSPs unite!

  • Emily

    My mother read this book when I was little in order to understand me…true story.

    Helena–I loved your Oh Boy episode!

  • bookeater

    Scored 23. All kinds of sounds startle me, even a phone vibrating or high heels clicking on a hard floor. I mentally replay and analyze conversations hours or days after they happen, especially if they involved anything negative whatsoever. When I’m anxious or overstimulated, my skin feels like it’s burning with electricity. I can’t simply relax at will. On the other hand, I enjoy noticing small details that other people miss, like an interesting beetle on the ground or a subtle bit of wordplay in a movie.

  • I scored a 12, which isn’t high, but I definitely have some of these traits. I can’t sleep when someone’s face is towards mine because of their breath blowing on me. I also had a single room in college because I liked to get away from people. I’m not sure how introversion and HSP come together, but I think I have some bits of both. I don’t scrutinize emails or anything like that, but I do get headaches from strong smells (UGH Lillies), bright lights can be too much, and I am highly aware of people. I also have trouble thinking/working while in a room with one other person. Guess I should probably check out that book!

    http://www.shessobright.com

  • Summer Fulp

    I scored an 11, so not very sensitive, but my sense of smell ohmygosh. I can smell people from down a hall and am the first to pick up on unpleasant smells. Does not help having two pets!

  • Vanessa

    I so identify with this and I’m definitely adding some of these characteristics to my next cover letter:
    “We are able to concentrate deeply, and we’re, ‘especially good at tasks requiring vigilance, accuracy, speed and the detection of minor differences.'”

  • streats

    I only got 14 on the test but I do worry sometimes about how sensitive/neurotic I am:

    – I get enraged at unnecessary repetitive noises, like texting or tapping, etc. Sometimes even just a person’s voice annoys the hell out of me. I have literally run away from a person in the street because their laugh was annoying me.

    – People smoking in unsociable spots like right outside the door of a train station, workplace etc bothers me a LOT, especially if I have to walk through it to get where I need to go.

    – I get into shame spirals. If I think I may have upset someone (e.g. said/done something that might have bothered/inconvenienced them) I get really on edge and sometimes can’t relax until I know it’s okay. And since I hate conflict I’m too anxious to ask so I just have to wait it out.

    – I overanalyse and curate things a LOT, particularly in written/visual form. I think I have very high emotional intelligence almost to the point where it gets in my way; I worry a lot about saying things just in the right way and interpreting emotional/professional situations correctly. If I’ve decided I want to express feelings or thoughts, I have a hard time limiting it to be concise (case in point: this comment). Once I trust or care for someone I want to let them in completely and unabashedly and sometimes I have to prepare myself that they might not do the same for me (and remember that that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t value me to the same level).

    – For creative projects (I’m a writer/designer), sometimes one small kernel of demotivation or obstacle (even something like, “bah this room is too cold, I can’t create in here!”) will derail me for the whole thing and I just have to retreat. Sometimes it makes me really despondent and I get melancholic and my confidence is shot and I doubt my abilities and even my conviction in what I really want.

    – While I’m actually really good in an actual crisis or being under pressure at work, I don’t do well being put on the spot for certain things if I wasn’t prepared for them in advance. Once during staff orientation for a summer job, they sprung it on us that we were going to play water balloon volleyball: it took everything I had not to get upset and start crying because I didn’t know that was going to happen and I really didn’t want to play 🙁 🙁 🙁

    Some of this is anxiety/introversion, but I definitely feel like I need to learn to let little things go.

  • Law

    Even reading this post made my senses feel heightened in an uncomfortable way! I am without a doubt a HSP. This post was great, I feel like for all the downside of being HSP the upsides are far greater.