Dive 21: Psychologists say I’m a “Highly Sensitive Person”... what does that really mean?
Hey, it’s Alvin!
I wasn’t in a good headspace in my twenties, so I read a lot of books to try to make sense of why I was the way I was. During my research, I stumbled on a book by Dr. Elaine Aron titled, The Highly Sensitive Person. I’m not being paid by Dr. Aron. But she has been researching high sensitivity since 1991, and almost everything described in the book resonated with me. Since I was a child…
I seemed to notice subtle details in things others gloss over
I always preferred to observe and think before acting
I seemed to get overwhelmed by stimuli others may not even notice
I was always labeled as a shy, quiet fellow, and possibly mislabelled as an “introvert,” too
Aron suggests that it’s possible I might be what she calls: a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). So, I took a self-test from the book to gauge my sensitivity and scored strongly as an HSP. I recently took a more updated version of the test and scored a 5.5 out of 7, where a score between 5 to 7 shows high sensitivity.
I won’t be sharing much advice today on how to live with high sensitivity. That’s, in part, because I’m still gathering my thoughts on it after all these years. What I want to share with you today is what it’s like from my own experience. So, if you see some of these traits and behaviours in others, you can recognize that high sensitivity might be a reason. And if you have high sensitivity, recognizing these behaviours in yourself is a critical first step towards learning to live with it in a healthier way.
Like all people, HSPs react strongly to things that threaten them. The threat could be physical or mental. It could be real or perceived. And the reactions are instinctive, knee-jerk, fight-or-flight responses everyone has. The difference between an HSP and others is that HSPs react much sooner and more aggressively to the emerging threat.
For example, recently, I was in a highrise where the fire alarm went off. In my mind, I focused on keeping calm—calm enough to find my way out, in case I needed to. But my heart was racing uncontrollably. It wasn’t fear. “Excitement” might not be the best word. It was what psychologists call a state of arousal.
My heart/gut was telling me I should get going. But sometimes there's this battle between what my head is telling me and what my gut is telling me. At that moment, I thought, “it could be a false alarm. No one else is leaving. Maybe it's nothing. Maybe my gut feeling is wrong.” So I stayed put, scouring for more information on what to do next.
Several minutes later, I could hear the faint sounds of sirens approaching. Those around me kept doing their own things like nothing was happening. I couldn’t concentrate, though. Peering outside a window, I could see fire trucks downstairs. Seeing a firefighter unroll a water supply hose confirmed what my gut and heart told me several minutes before they even arrived.
The building was on fire.
When I was a kid, I played pickup basketball with my friends. So, sometimes, my best friends would end up on an opposing team. There were no referees. And when they stole the ball from me illegally, I would become furious. Somewhere in my mind, my friend was a traitor. I saw a threat to me (betrayal), and I responded aggressively to it with anger. Let’s just say I committed some fouls. If my friends didn’t value me for other reasons, I would’ve lost many friends this way.
Being an HSP isn’t all bad. In fact, some researchers concluded that high sensitivity could have helped ensure the survival of the human species because HSPs could detect dangers long before the dangers arrived.
HSPs are more aware of subtleties and process information more deeply. The threat-detecting mind of an HSP automatically gathers in the background as much information as possible from small amounts of data.
When I was in high school, I led some club activities. And there was a wildly energetic, in-your-face kind of girl who joined the club. She was sociable enough to hang out with a small group of friends, but goofy enough to rub strangers the wrong way. One day, I was looking for people to help gather some materials for a project. And she mentioned she had some special adhesive tape she could bring from home. I said, “that sounds great!”
After the club meeting was over, a friend of mine approached me and asked me if it was a good idea to trust her. I understood where he was coming from because her goofiness made it seem like she couldn’t take even a simple job seriously. But I assured him I trusted her.
Because a few days prior, I saw her in the cafeteria after school. I noticed she was uncharacteristically quiet, serious, and focused on discussing something with a teacher as I walked by. Reflecting on that, I realized her eccentricity was probably more of a façade. I saw someone responsible on the inside. And sure enough, she brought the tape as promised at the following meeting.
High sensitivity allows me to get more information out of seemingly ordinary everyday interactions. It’s the reason I could take interactions with my managers about software estimations to get more unspoken information about them and the companies I worked for.
But it’s also likely why I’ve had frequent bouts of anxiety and borderline high blood pressure since I was young.
In that sense, it can be both a blessing and a curse.
I could dive deeper into this topic, but I’ll leave it here for today. I’ll share with you more about how I live with high sensitivity in future editions after I’ve done some self-reflection and gathered more of my thoughts on it.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of highly sensitive people. Whether you think you’re an HSP, are curious about HSPs, or you know you are one, feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com. Let me know if you have questions or if you’d like to share your experiences. Not everyone understands the challenges, so I want you to know my inbox is open if you need to reach out to someone.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. And I’ll see you in the next one.