I always knew I was wired a bit differently than the majority of people. For example, there is no way I can fall asleep if I’m not in complete dark and silence, in my own pajamas, lying on a hard enough mattress. There is no way I can fall asleep if there is somebody anxious sleeping near me.
Loud noises make me very nervous, I always know how other people feel, there is no way you would get me on a roller coaster or convince me to do a bungee jump, and especially as a child I was considered extremely shy, sensitive, difficult and introverted.
Actually, I answered true on all the statements that point to the highly sensitive person in the test that specifically measures how sensitive you are (you’ll find the test soon in this blog post). I never really knew what was going on with me or why I am so different, until I read the book The Highly Sensitive Person, written by Elaine Aron.
It was a big relief for me to read a structured and insightful book about people who are wired in a highly sensitive way, with many recommendations for how to live with such a personality trait and examples of other people and their life situations.
High sensitivity also explained why my emotional flashbacks were always so strong. As a highly sensitive person, having an understanding and motivational environment matters even more than it does for other people; any shocking, unfair or toxic situation gets imprinted in your mind more strongly and intensively than with other people. That can lead to things like chronic anxiety, depression and isolation.
Unfortunately, you are rarely understood, because only around 15 % of the population is highly sensitive. And many times you can be seen as a weak, shy or fearful person when you are too sensitive. Those are not the qualities attributed to successful and assertive people.
That’s why I learned to hide my sensitivity behind a cold emotionless mask. What a mistake. Being over sensitive can hinder you in some situations if you don’t know how to manage it properly, but it also brings so many advantages to be proud of:
- Great creativity,
- deep understanding of people and situations,
- powerful sensing and thinking abilities,
- caring about social welfare, and much more.
Highly sensitive people are often considered gifted; and it’s very beneficial for highly sensitive people if they are labeled as gifted, because their sensitivity is seen as part of a larger trait.
So instead of hiding this personality trait, being confused about what to do with it or angry why you aren’t a pure assertive warrior type of a person, it makes sense to learn how to manage high sensitivity and get the most out of it.
What’s really important, as stated in the book, is to see high sensitivity as a neutral trait. It brings advantages in some situations and disadvantages in others. And when you learn how to manage high sensitivity properly, you can finally see it as a special gift that can give so much to the world and people.
A simple test will show if you are a highly sensitive person
The best way to start with the summary of the book is a simple personality test that roughly shows how sensitive you are; it’s the test you can find in the book, of course. If you find yourself as a highly sensitive person, I highly recommend that you read this summary and then the book. It can really change your life, like it has changed mine.
And even if you aren’t a highly sensitive person, you can gain a lot by understanding how to connect, work with or manage people who are. Highly sensitive people can be the best friends in the world, the most creative employees, and usually care about things, goals and missions more deeply than others. That can be a very precious thing.
Now let’s move on to the test. Below are 23 statements. Answer each one according to the way you feel. Answer true if the statement is true for you or if it’s at least somewhat true for you. Answer false if it is not very true or if it’s not at all true for you. If you answer true, the statement shows a specific side of your sensitivity.
Here are the statements:
- I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.
- Other people’s moods affect me.
- I tend to be very sensitive to pain.
- 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.
- I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
- I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.
- I have a rich, complex inner life.
- I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.
- I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
- I am conscientious.
- I startle easily.
- I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
- When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating).
- I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
- I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.
- I make it a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.
- I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.
- Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.
- Changes in my life shake me up.
- I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art.
- I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.
- When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.
- When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.
Source: Aron, Elaine N. 1996 The Highly Sensitive Person. HarperCollins Publishers.
If you answered more than 12 questions with yes, then you are probably a highly sensitive person. The more questions you answered with yes, the more sensitive you probably are. The more questions you answered with yes, the more crucial it is for you to learn how to manage your over-sensitivity.
The explanation of why you are so damn sensitive
The level of sensitivity is determined by how much your nervous system can take, and it’s more or less an inherited trait. The same situation and the same stimulation cause different levels of stress and arousal in different people. If you are highly sensitive, your nervous system is wired so that it’s very easily aroused. And again, you inherited it, not learned to be over sensitive.
Some people (and even animals) are a little bit more sensitive than others, some a lot more. So there is a scale of how oversensitive you really are in which direction. Differences in sensitivity exist and they’re very real and normal. Your over sensitive nervous system makes you different.
Why the sensitivity of your nervous system is that important is very simple. You perform best at any kind of situation or task when your nervous system is moderately alert and aroused. Too little arousal makes you dull and bored and you need extra stimulation (coffee, social activity, career change etc.). On the other hand, if you are too aroused, you become distressed, clumsy and confused.
Since your nervous system is very sensitive, you can easily get too aroused. That kicks you out of the center and out of the optimal arousal state when you can perform best at a certain task. Over arousal doesn’t happen because your senses are more acute, but because you reflect more and sort things into finer distinctions. You are more aware of the subtle happenings in the environment, which you process in a semiconscious or unconscious way.
Processing more information leads to higher stimulation and to the final difference where something that is moderately arousing for most people can easily be highly arousing for a highly sensitive person. The longer you are exposed to over arousal, the more frazzled you become until you reach the point called “transmarginal inhibition” – you need to hibernate and recharge.
Different types of stimulation
As a highly sensitive person, you have to be extremely careful about the level of stimulation you are exposed to. Stimulation is everything that wakes up the nervous system and makes brain neurons active. The source of stimulation can be external or internal.
You might have control over the situation together with how much stimulation you are exposed to or you don’t (at work or as a child, for example). If you don’t have control or even feel as a victim in a situation, it adds additional stimuli and everything becomes even more upsetting.
Last but not least, the stimuli can either be very obvious or you can be over stimulated by very subtle thoughts and low levels of excitement that aren’t connected to any severe emotions. You have to be extremely careful about the latter. And an over sensitive person reacts with arousal to any kind of stress.
Different types of stimulation:
- External stimulation (social activity, performing a task, being on a roller coaster etc.)
- Internal stimulation (intensive thoughts, hunger, pain etc.)
- Stimulation in your control
- Stimulation out of your control
- Emotional stimulation
- Subtle stimulation
- Stress as stimulation
Let me give you a practical example from my own life of how complicated all the stimuli can become. When I enter a room of known people, I never engage with them with ease. I first sense what kind of a mood every individual is in. I assess who is talking to whom and why, and what all the potential topics could be. I grasp the vibes in the air, I notice if there were any changes made to the room, and so on.
Only when I understand in detail and on a very subtle level what is happening with energies, words and actions in the room, can I properly engage. I calculate all the possible ways to engage in the smoothest way possible. I need to first understand, and then I can act. I can easily take in vibes that are in the air, and if things are really out of the ordinary I might have trouble engaging at all.
Two different types of highly sensitive people
There are two systems in your brain. One is called “behavioral activation” and the other “behavioral inhibition”. Behavioral activation takes in the information from the senses and gives orders to the limbs to get moving. The purpose of this system is to move you forwards, especially towards new things (food, new alliances etc.). When this system is active you are curious, bold and impulsive.
Behavioral inhibition, on the other hand, moves you away from things and makes you attentive to danger. This part of your brain makes you alert, cautious and watchful for signs; it compares the current situation to what had been normal in the past and what should be expected in the future. If there are deviations, behavioral inhibition makes you stop and understand the situation first.
Highly sensitive people have a much stronger behavioral inhibition system. But there can be two versions:
- Weak activation system and average inhibition strength – These people are usually calm, quiet and like a simple life. They are usually advisors or monk type of people.
- Strong activation and inhibition system – These are people who are curious and cautious, bold and anxious, easily bored and aroused. There is a constant struggle between the advisor and warrior within.
The environment of a highly sensitive person matters a lot
Being a highly sensitive person is an inherited trait. But every inherited trait can be enhanced, decreased, woken up or eliminated by repeating life experiences or a subject functioning in a specific environment. For highly sensitive people, bad environments can make things much worse.
If a highly sensitive child doesn’t feel safe in the home environment and doesn’t have a caretaker that they’re securely attached to, constant long-term arousal becomes present. Life starts to seem frightening, the caution system gets even stronger, and all the negative experiences seem even more traumatic.
Statistically, almost all depressed and anxious sensitive people had a troubled childhood.
That leads to a huge level of stress, damaged health, complete inhibition, different kinds of mental problems, severe negative thoughts, low self-esteem, and issues like Complex PTSD. Highly sensitive children need to be understood and not to additionally deal with special problems caused by inadequate parents – underprotective or overprotective ones.
- If you had a troubled childhood, you have to reframe it in a positive situation and use other psychological tools to make peace with it. More about that in the rest of the article.
- If you have a highly sensitive child, you need to become an especially understandable and encouraging caretaker. The same author wrote a book dedicated to over sensitive children that you should absolutely read.
Why you are special as a highly sensitive person
Every personality trait is a neutral one. It works well in some situations, and it’s a disadvantage in others. Being highly sensitive is no exception to that. Nevertheless, you can very quickly see high sensitivity as only a disadvantage, because it’s not a very valued trait (especially in men).
That’s why it’s really important to have all the advantages of being highly sensitive person in front of you, never forget them and be aware of how they make you special. As a highly sensitive person, your mind works differently and that brings special benefits like:
- You are probably very creative and appreciate some kind of art
- You can develop a deep understanding of people and situations
- You have very powerful sensing and thinking abilities
- You more easily spot errors and avoid making them
- You always want to do what is right, you are more conscientious than others
- You can do deep work and concentrate for long periods of time, if there are no distractions
- You can easily spot minor differences and you can work accurately and quickly
- You can process material to deeper levels and find underlying new patterns
- You understand other people better and are deeply affected by other people’s feelings
- You can easily do self-reflection and learn without being aware that you are learning
- You need to be more inventive, because you are sensitive to hunger, insecurities, and exhaustion
On a practical level, that boils down to a few very important personality traits – being very creative/intuitive and being an excellent advisor who cares about people, future and ideas.
You were born to be among advisors and thinkers, the spiritual and moral leaders of your society. There is every reason for pride. – E. Aron
Possessing strong intuition and creativity
As a highly sensitive person, you have very strong intuition. You can basically read the subtitles in the environment or intuitively know what’s happening behind the scenes. You have a very strong sixth sense and you often know just how things will probably turn out.
That’s why highly sensitive people usually assume the roles of visionaries, highly intuitive artists, inventors, writers, historians, philosophers, judges and researches. As a highly sensitive person, you are the one who sees possibilities and who can come up with new solutions that all of humanity can benefit from.
Being an outstanding advisor who minds the whole society
Highly sensitive people are usually known as outstanding advisors. They often also take up roles of theologians, therapists, teachers or consultants.
The key thing is that as a highly sensitive person, you usually mind the future of everyone involved and the whole society. You think about all the possible effects of an idea or action. And that’s really important for the world to develop in the right direction.
The downsides of being a highly sensitive person
Much like there are positive sides to being a highly sensitive person, there are also the downsides you have to learn how to manage and live with. Here are the most frequent and distinctive ones:
- You often wait to understand a situation really well before you act; sometimes even a little bit too long (that’s why people often see you as shy)
- You can take things too hard or take things personally too quickly
- Things can quickly get too stimulating and thus you need to back off (crowds of people, adrenaline sports and other social activities)
- You need time for yourself and time to hibernate more often than others
- You may have problems falling asleep or you may often feel too frazzled to sleep
- You can be more cautious and thus slower in learning some physical skills
- Sometimes deep emotions can lead to occasional depression
- You can get easily lost in daydreaming or your mind wanders off
- Relationships can be a greater challenge, especially the intimate ones
- You can get more easily distracted by small things or if something bothers you in the environment
- You probably have trouble selling yourself properly, going after promotions and charging people for your work
- Many people can see you as shy or introverted (even though you are maybe not)
- You can be negatively affected by other people’s bad moods
- You can be very sensitive to pain, medications, certain foods, stimulants etc.
- You can easily start to feel under pressure if there are too many things to do
If you are a highly sensitive person, it’s really important that you don’t see yourself as flawed or isolate yourself. Being over sensitive is not something to fear, but something you only have to learn how to manage.
You have to organize your life around this personality trait, maintain an optimal life of arousal, and put yourself out there in the world.
By isolating, things only get worse
The logical reaction of highly sensitive people is to withdraw – isolate, avoid new things etc. But that leads to a negative spiral. The more you avoid things, the more everything becomes new. The more you hide, the more frightening everything seems.
If you expose yourself to moderate amounts of stress regularly, you learn to live and manage stressors better. The more you go out into the world, the more you know what you like, dislike and how to handle certain situations. The only way to start enjoying life is to be out there with people doing things.
General directions for managing your hypersensitivity
The main point of knowing about over sensitive personality types is that you learn how to manage your hyper sensitivity. First of all, you must find just the right amount of stimuli for you to optimize your performance in everyday life.
You shouldn’t push yourself too much with work, risk taking and exploring, and you shouldn’t keep yourself in too much by overprotecting yourself. Don’t be only a bystander watching life passing by, and don’t abuse yourself for any reason.
Every highly sensitive person has to find the right spot for themselves. Finding the right spot includes getting enough sleep. For highly sensitive people it’s extremely important to get enough rest. Going to bed early and getting enough sleep should be your number one priority.
Mixed shifts and jet lags can have a bigger negative influence on your daily rhythm than they do on other people; keep that in mind when planning. You can also greatly benefit from active rest, like prayer, meditation or contemplation.
Mental and practical tools that can help you manage sensitivity
As mentioned several times, because it’s really important, you have to see your high sensitivity in a positive way. When you have a problem doing that, you can use the reframing technique to focus on positive angles in a situation. Never forget what you are getting out of this personality trait, and focus on the positives.
Many other techniques to manage your mind can also help you when you become over aroused – learning to love over arousal and particular situations you have to cope with daily, witnessing your over arousal (looking at yourself from the 3rd person perspective), repeating a specific mantra, emotional accounting, writing a self-reflective journal, using transformational vocabulary, and so on.
If managing your mind doesn’t work, there are other tools you can use – you can get yourself out of the situation, take a break, breathe deeply, drink water, take a walk, move, adjust your posture, smile softly, shut out the stimulation by closing your eyes, and so on.
When you know yourself well, there are many ways you can manage your over sensitivity better. Here are some additional ideas that many highly sensitive people benefit from:
- Go into new situations and life experiences with someone you trust
- Find a mentor who will help you through a new life situation
- Talk back to the fearful part of yourself and focus on what is familiar and safe
- Accept that you need time to adjust to unfamiliar situations; practice enduring it
- Slice and dice things and take one step at a time
Having safe places and setting boundaries
As a highly sensitive person, you absolutely must always have safe places and safe people or “containers” in life that you go to when you get overwhelmed (home, car, gym, forest, friends etc.). Highly sensitive people can benefit a lot from having a place to escape; not to isolate themselves in the long term, but only to refresh, recharge and then get back into the world.
Equally important to having containers is setting strict boundaries for highly sensitive people – with themselves and especially with other people. You shouldn’t get involved in things that are not your business, try to solve other people’s problems, let too many people cause you stress, say more than you want to say, deal with other people’s messes, or become intimate too soon or with the wrong people.
Always remember: highly sensitive or not, boundaries are your right, responsibility and greatest source of dignity, so you have to learn how to set strict boundaries. You let in what you want in your life and you keep out what you don’t like.
You can achieve that only by setting strict boundaries. But when setting boundaries, you should watch for any extremes, like merging with others or shutting everyone out.
You probably aren’t shy, just over aroused
Over sensitivity is often confused with shyness. Shyness means that you are afraid other people won’t accept you and like you. It’s a learned state, not a personality trait.
Shyness develops after feeling several times that you failed in a social situation – others said that you did something wrong, you had a feeling that you weren’t accepted or you didn’t meet your own standards. Shyness is something that anyone can feel. It can be learned and unlearned.
High sensitivity is not learned but inherited. When keeping highly sensitive people in mind, it’s many times not about being shy, but about not wanting the extra arousal. Nevertheless, it’s true that shyness can develop faster in highly sensitive people, because they read all the subtle clues from the environment, including the negative ones.
Calling yourself shy is damaging, inaccurate, negative and self-fulfilling. If you learned shyness, it makes sense to work on your social skills; but if you aren’t shy and just don’t want to be exposed to too much arousal, that’s perfectly okay. It means you aren’t shy, you just need time for yourself. At this point, it makes sense to emphasize that highly sensitive people can be extroverts or introverts.
- As a highly sensitive person, you can be shy or not (if you are, you can unlearn it)
- As a highly sensitive person, you can be extroverted or introverted (if you are the latter, you have to read this guide)
Highly sensitive people in business and career life
The big advantages of highly sensitive people in the business world is that they are most often very curious, intuitive, inventive and operate on high levels of energy. They care and are devoted to a cause. But they can also be impulsive, introverted and emotionally sensitive. They most often have a great need for independence and are real nonconformists.
Selling, managing complaints and charging for services are often big challenges for highly sensitive people. As a highly sensitive person, you might always have a feeling that you are charging too much, you have trouble selling products, yourself and your ideas, and it can be quite painful to make any complaints.
But it’s mandatory that you practice and learn healthy assertiveness. You need to sell yourself, your ideas or products from time to time; there is no other way. You don’t have to be a pushy salesperson, but you can, for example, build your sales strategy on asking questions and reading subtle clues.
You have every right to charge for your work and when you aren’t treated right you have to stand up for yourself and make a complaint.
It’s mandatory for highly sensitive people to accept the “darkest”, Machiavellian part of the personality that everyone possesses, and listen to its voice when you need to protect yourself. The point is not that you become Machiavellian, but that you learn not to be exploited by others. The more you deny the Machiavellian part of yourself, the more it can grow in terms of negative feelings (of being abused).
And when you are choosing vocation, it makes sense to go for something practical and not to be supported by others (family, social funds etc.), or you can easily lose touch with the rest of the world. It often happens that you have many different inner voices fighting where to go next, and that may lead to needing more time to choose the right career path.
Self-employment and the danger of burning out
Self-employment or being fully autonomous in a larger organization is often the most appropriate option for highly sensitive people, because they can choose with whom to work, they can control the work hours and level of stimulation. Highly sensitive people are usually excellent planners, which is often beneficial in the business world.
When talking about work, it’s extremely important not to expose yourself to unneeded stress and over arousal, or you will burn out sooner rather than later. Highly sensitive people usually see all the things that should be done and how they should be done, and so take too much on themselves.
They start with self-destructive and martyring behavior, which leads to a complete “lose-lose” situation. Others feel guilt or envy, and you are on the way to burnout. Much like it is important to set strict boundaries in personal life, the business world is no exception to that.
Everything we’ve mentioned often leads highly sensitive people to finding themselves in the following situations:
- Having better ideas than others, but others don’t get their ideas
- Finding work as play and thus working long hours that others can’t keep up with
- Switching to a new project before the last one is properly finished because of their curious mind
- Getting involved in coworkers’ private lives, which is rarely a good idea in the workplace
- They might guide other people and feel like they are getting little in return
For highly sensitive people, it’s extremely important to take enough time to socialize with coworkers, include others in projects and to not appear cold, distant and elevated. But on the other hand, it’s also important to speak up and take good credit for work when it’s time for promotions and bonuses. And as mentioned, setting boundaries always leads to constructive relationships.
A highly sensitive person falls in love
Highly sensitive people can have intense crushes as children and a rich internal fantasy life; that includes their love life. As adults they don’t fall in love easily and more often choose being single, in firm monogamy or having close relationships with friends and family instead of a romance.
In close relationships, they can be really intense and strive for perfection, which is hard for them and their partner. They can be very demanding and unrealistic, and their loved one can quickly feel smothered. The less involved you are in the world as a highly sensitive person, the more intense and overwhelming the intimate feelings can be. So again, it’s extremely important to go out into the world and socialize.
On the other hand, if you are a highly sensitive person, your spouse may feel rejected or ignored when you do need the time for yourself. So it’s really important to communicate clearly why you need to take a break when it comes time for retreat.
It’s also important not to use sensitivity as an excuse to get away when it’s time to talk or solve a problem. You shouldn’t avoid confrontations, anger, tears and scenes, because they are a normal part of every relationship to a certain extent.
Otherwise highly sensitive people are very loyal, conscientious and appreciative in relationships, and they are excellent communicators. Things like reflective listening (repeating the feeling the other person is experiencing) and metacommunication (talking about how you talk) can be very beneficial in every relationship – with a highly sensitive person or not.
Closing thoughts on highly sensitive people
You really are special by being a highly sensitive person. If you were lucky and raised in an encouraging environment, be grateful for all the support and be proud of all the special personality traits and gifts you possess. Make the most out of them.
You should do the same if your childhood was troubled, but you then have an additional job to learn how to cope with emotional crises and the labile part of your personality. We mentioned many techniques that you can use. But if things are too hard to cope with, going into psychotherapy greatly helped many highly sensitive people. There are so many different therapies you can choose from.
In any way, you also have to pay special attention to your body. Your over sensitivity expresses itself on all levels – body, mind, emotions and soul. So you have to be very careful when choosing a general practitioner. It has to be somebody who really understands you. As a highly sensitive person, you are probably more sensitive to your body’s signals, pain, symptoms and medications. You can also more easily develop psychosomatic disorders.
In the end, it’s all about accepting your special personality trait, seeing it as normal and finding the balance where you aren’t too shy, too sensitive, but just okay, ordinary. It’s about finding wholeness, which for highly sensitive people often lies in being less spiritual, less psychological and more extroverted, practical, material and out in the world.
Because highly sensitive people are usually good with the psychological and the spiritual by nature. That is usually also the source of their special powers, talents and courage; but as a highly sensitive person, you have to learn how to use all these gifts in the practical material world for your own benefit, for the good of the people you love and to create great things for all of humanity.
Now read the book and thrive as a highly sensitive person.