People and places have had a profound impact on me for as long as I can remember. A cup of coffee makes me feel like I’ve catapulted head-first through the Earth’s stratosphere. I pick up on smells other people can’t detect, my thoughts give me goosebumps, and there’s a raging dance party in my mind whenever I have headphones in.
I feel things on a deep level. The physical sensations that course through my body when I’m in a good mood are nothing short of euphoric. Conversely, my chest takes on the weight of an anvil when I’m sad, and tense situations make my heart do jumping jacks.
That’s right, I’m a “highly sensitive person,” or HSP, meaning I have a heightened nervous system that processes external stimuli far deeper than others do. It’s not classified as a condition, but rather a genetic personality trait that occurs in 15 to 20% of the population. Whether it’s heart-pumping elation or “I’m about to burst into flames” levels of stress, each flavor of feeling in my world has the magnitude of a small earthquake. It’s overwhelming, beautiful and challenging.
Thanks to research done back in the ’90s by a psychologist named Elaine Aron, we HSP folks are slightly better understood nowadays. The trait, scientifically known as sensory processing sensitivity, is perfectly normal. It’s actually found in more than 100 species, from cats to horses to even fruit flies. And according to Aron, it’s something we’re simply born with.
I didn’t know it until my early 20s, but sensitivity shapes my perception of the world. I detect even the smallest shifts in my ecosystem — both physical and emotional.
Journaling as early as second grade, I’d scrawl things in developing handwriting such as “Clare said she didn’t like my skirt,” proceeding to deliberate on 18 different reasons as to why that might be. Stern tones from my teachers and other authority figures would send me into a nervous tizzy over the thought of doing something that might make them upset. I reflected deeply on the passing of the new school year, holiday and spring break — reviewing my relationships and marveling at how life had evolved, all at 8 years old.
You’d think someone with this high level of internal processing would be an introvert, but that’s not always the case. Aron found that around 30% of HSPs are actually extroverts, and those of us in that category get a bit of a high from powerful human connections. Unlike many other HSPs, I love a rowdy party and the music I play is always on full volume. Overly personal conversations with strangers are my bread and butter.
I spent my high school years heavily socializing. Behind the scenes, however, unfounded anxieties boiled in my brain. Working as a server in a restaurant, I worried about getting fired any time my boss was less than cheerful. I excelled in public speaking in high school, but usually felt like I was going to pass out in the moments leading up to it. My crushes took me eons to get over.
Other people are often at the forefront of an HSP’s brain, according to research published in the peer-reviewed journal Brain and Behavior. If your mood seems off, I’ve probably already analyzed eight potential reasons for why that might be. My relationships, both romantic and platonic, mean so much to me that I’ve shed tears just thinking about them.
Some friends refer to me as a “back alley therapist,” a title that I take great pride in. I’ve noticed that people often feel comfortable enough to confide in me about personal matters after only a short amount of time.
It is a double-edged sword, however. Friendship is a serious commitment to me, and because of my sensitivity and high expectations, I’ve been notoriously disappointed when the effort isn’t reciprocated. Many times, I’ve actually wished I could care less.
My first serious relationship in the beginning of college turned my world upside down. I struggled to cope when things went downhill, questioning whether there was something wrong with me due to the weight of my emotional responses. It was that very torrential breakup that led me to speak to a therapist, who held up a book titled “The Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine Aron herself.
And suddenly, things made more sense.
With years of personal work and self-discovery, I’ve learned to adapt and thrive as who I am. My cataclysmic panic spells are now fewer and farther between, but I still reap the benefits of an existence that is immensely vibrant and full of feeling. Despite challenges, the HSP experience is beautiful — and it’s even better if you put in the necessary work to understand yourself.
Before I learned how to communicate my needs, my sensitivity played a role in plenty of unnecessary arguments and misunderstandings. Don’t get me wrong, things still get complex sometimes. That’s just life. The difference is, I’ve found peace with my sensitivity, allowing it to flow freely with far less self-inflicted judgment. I breathe a little easier nowadays.
I strive to practice self-compassion, holding kindness for who I was before I knew better. The road is long, bumpy and full of “aha” moments if you’re willing to dig deep. The more that I explore the limitless depths within myself, the more I think sensitivity is my most kickass strength. I sure as hell wouldn’t be who I am without it.