10 Things to Love About Being a Highly Sensitive Person

 Tea time! Wonky toppling jars and all. :)

Tea time! Wonky toppling jars and all. :)

Welcome! This post is part of my HSP Thrive Series, an advice column based on reader-submitted questions. HSP stands for Highly Sensitive Person, a designation coined by researcher and psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron. High Sensitivity (also called Sensory Processing Sensitivity or SPS) occurs in 15-20% of the population. Moderate sensitivity occurs in approximately 22% of the population. High Sensitivity is a normal trait and comes with myriad benefits and challenges. It is not a disorder, but a sort of evolutionary adaptation. I started this series to share the tips and resources I’ve learned as a Highly Sensitive Person myself as a response to the endless questions I get from other sensitives and sensitive-allies about how I’ve figured out how to live vibrantly and successfully as an HSP. You can find out if you’re Highly Sensitive via this self-test. For more posts on this topic, check out the rest of my HSP articles via this link.

The following is a question submitted by multiple readers, which I’ve mashed up into one collective query:

“Dear Renee, how do I see my sensitivity in a positive light? I feel like all I read about are the down sides, like getting easily overwhelmed or needing more down time than other people. But I grew up feeling that I was especially attuned, even gifted. Could you share some of the upsides?” — Positively Sensitive Sally

Dear Sally,

You’re completely right to feel that there are many upsides to being Highly Sensitive. It’s true that HSPs have a tendency towards overstimulation and high emotional reactivity. But we’re also gifted with high empathy and deep intellectual processing.

HSPs are extremely valuable and important for a thriving, well-rounded culture. The Western world has been dominated by a “warrior-king” personality archetype for millennia. We could all (as a human race) benefit from the subtle, thoughtful, yin leadership that HSPs bring to the table.

HSPs bring balance back to The Force. I often think of The Thriving Sensitive as a Jedi Master — inhabiting a subtle, attuned awareness that impacts everyone that comes into contact with him or her. Even if he or she chooses to live a quiet, hermit-like life (Yoda was the definition of a hermit!).

There are many wonderful things to love about being sensitive. So without further ado… here are 10 Things to Love About Being a Highly Sensitive Person!

High empathy.

The ability to “feel” other peoples feelings is one of the trademarks of HSPs. According to recent research into the brains of HSPs, we now know that sensitives exhibit more mirror neuron activity than their less sensitive peers. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when you act and when you observe an action performed by someone else. So a mirror neuron fires when you hug your friend Paul, and when you see someone else hugs your friend Paul.

HSPs are especially attuned to the positive or negative experiences of their partner or loved ones. So when your boyfriend/girlfriend smiles, it makes you “smile” (in your brain). High empathy makes us amazing friends, parents and partners, as we’re able to deeply understand the feelings of our loved ones. Many HSPs also identify with having keen intuition or insight. It’s also the reason so many HSPs are attracted to careers as healers, counselors, teachers, spiritual mentors or artists. We typically (not always) tend to have a deep desire to use our refined empathy to help the world.

A talent for deep listening.

Because HSPs are deep processors, they also tend to be deep listeners. It’s much easier for HSPs to sit and quietly listen or observe a partner in conversation than it is for most people. HSPs are less likely to be thinking of the next thing that they’re going to say in a conversation while the other person is talking. They have plenty of ideas of course, and can be gifted conversationalists — when the conversation is deep and intellectually engaging, that is. HSPs usually despise small talk. Because HSPs are deep listeners, they often excel at hobbies and careers that require listening skills — like creative writing, journalism, music, linquistics, mental health services, medicine, holistic healing arts, academia and teaching.

Quiet leadership.

HSPs make profound leaders when they follow a calling. Many of the most inspiring and gifted leaders I know are sensitive introverts, although they may not always see themselves as “leaders” in the traditional sense. And certainly many of them are sensitive extroverts! Often they take up careers wherein they become highly proficient in a nuanced, technical or niche skill that accidentally places them in a position of leadership. Or they may be propelled into the public eye due to the success of a creative talent. This is very common.

When they do take on leadership roles, HSPs have a gift for understanding the needs of their people, whoever they might be, however diverse. They’re leaders with heart and soul. HSPs tend think deeply about morality and mortality, which means they often have a spiritual, moral quality to their leadership style.

Refined senses.

HSPs are characterized in-part by subtle awareness to sensory stimuli. It’s one of the reasons loud noises, unpleasant smells, fluorescent lights, itchy fabrics and “bad vibes” are so bothersome to them. It’s also why they are attracted to and excel at careers or hobbies that benefit from refined sensory awareness, like dance, music, culinary arts, film acting, painting, weaving, pottery, poetry writing, perfumery, collecting fine wines, interior decorating, growing beautiful flower gardens etc. It’s also why HSPs can spend hours on quiet activities with great joy. I could personally spend hours just canoeing down the river, watching ripples in the water and listening to crickets and birds chirping, in complete bliss. Where most people don’t see the value in the subtle, slow details of living, HSPs appreciate the finer things in life with an above average depth of awareness and feeling.

Home is where the heart is.

There is nothing an HSP loves more than a cozy abode. A place to shut out the outside stimulation of the world, curl up with a good book and chill out. One of the best things about HSPs is that they make any living space a little slice of the Shire. Good food, pleasant smells, comfy blankets, beautiful accoutrement. A kettle whistling on the stove. Now, I’m personally a very messy person, but I’m happiest when my home is intentional and simple, and when I have a few of my favorite things lovingly set around (crystals, candles and plants on the windowsills).

When my home feels good, it’s very hard to get me to leave. It’s always nice to spend time at an HSPs home as, whether they know it or not, the quiet softness they tend to create is very nourishing for other people. I know I’m that friend who always has tea and treats to offer, and cut flowers in my den, even if it is a tad messy.

Heightened positive experiences.

HSPs actually experience more joy from their positive experiences than the rest of the population. Isn’t that wild? When we reach the pinnacle of a mountain climb and look out over the valleys below, the experience is more intense for us than for most. We can become overwhelmed with joy, to the point of tears. In the best way. We also tend to get a “contact high” from other peoples positive experiences. This was one of my favorite things about photographing weddings — experiencing the joy of the couple and everyone around them.

Deep learning.

HSPs are typically highly intelligent, and seek out opportunities to do deep work. Many HSPs are academics, artists, researchers, scientists and technicians with high level proficiency. HSPs are deep learners, and so enjoy going deep on their chosen subjects, and often gain proficiency early in life. They are more likely than most to become “career students” — pursuing learning at the expense of developing a paying career. Because of their depth of processing and deep learning skills they’re hugely important to continuing innovation in almost every field.

Always a lesson learned.

In pre-history, Sensory Processing Sensitivity likely developed as an evolutionary strategy — a portion of the population was always able to sense when danger was coming, when weather was shifting, when food was spoiled, when water was tainted. They’ll never go near that poison berry again, after witnessing what it did to their friend. More than most, HSPs truly learn from their mistakes and failures. For example: if an HSP dates a narcissist and they have a bad break up, she’s more likely than most to avoid repeating that mistake in the future. Furthermore, she’ll probably go to therapy to work through her feelings about it to really ensure she doesn’t make that mistake again. You can trust that HSPs understand the consequences of their mistakes and will work hard to avoid repeating history.

A spiritual nature.

HSPs tend to identify as spiritual, regardless of religious affiliations. Curiously, the majority of HSPs tend to identify as Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). Perhaps this is due to their tendency to ask existential questions, or to analyze the inner world of the self. Or it may simply be the observation that it’s the individuals responsibility (as opposed to an organizations) to experience happiness, fulfillment, freedom or god-consciousness.

HSPs usually have some sort of regular, daily practice such as meditation or prayer. They’re often attracted to spiritual lifestyles, or have at some point considered “leaving this mundane world” to pursue a higher spiritual path. Many spiritual renunciates are HSPs. Perhaps this is because HSPs find it quite difficult to be sensitive and spiritually-oriented in a world full of suffering and delusion. But, really, if you’re not depressed about the world as it is, the lights probably aren’t all on in the ol noggin.

HSPs have a rich inner life, and often have a sense of feeling intuitively connected to spirit / consciousness / God / The Universe. This can bring joy, fulfillment and comfort to daily life.

In overcoming our shadows, we shine light through the dark.

HSPs as a group exhibit lower serotonin in the brain, as a rule. This is why HSPs are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. But interestingly, lower serotonin in the brain has been shown to cause “improved memory of learned material, better decision making, and overall better mental functioning, plus gaining even more positive mental health than others from positive life experiences” (quoted from The Highly Sensitive Person).

One of my theories is that much of our Depression / Anxiety crisis in America is a result of Highly Sensitives having no tools to manage the over-arousal of their nervous system response when exposed to stress. Couple that with our trauma-insensitive culture and the styling of our culture for the “warrior-king” archetype, and we can become crippled with fear, self doubt and self-criticism. However, when we gain tools to overcome our traumas, manage our over-active nervous systems and confront our shadows — we are powerful beyond our dreaming.

We can use our subtle senses, empathy, deep learning, quiet leadership and spiritual gifts to serve the world and shine a whole lot of light into the vast darkness. HSPs are about 1 in 20 people. Imagine if collectively we felt empowered to sound our barbaric yawps over the roofs of the word? What immense beauty and insight we could offer.

BONUS: Giftedness!

Highly Sensitives often exhibit giftedness in some area. And by gifted I mean: exhibiting high performance capability in intellectual, creative, artistic, athletic, leadership and/or academic fields. Although technically it’s estimated that less than 4% of the total population is gifted, it’s hard to ignore the high level of giftedness in the Highly Sensitive Population. There isn’t much research on this, but it’s observable in an anecdotal sense. Almost every HSP I know is highly gifted in multiple areas. What do you think? Are you an HSP that has been called “gifted”? Do you have HSP friends you consider gifted? How so? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

P.s. I grew the pumpkin, persimmon and flowers in this photo! *pats self on the back* — Renee