Your friend, coworker or a family member has just told you they’re an HSP. What does THAT mean?
It’s not secret code or Internet-speak for something that’s trending. It’s not the name of a new religion, diet, or music fad. HSPs or Highly Sensitive People are about 15-20 percent of the population.
One of the best known researchers on HSPs has even created a handy quiz to figure out if you too might be highly sensitive (you can check out the quiz here).
Even without a test, most HSPs have long suspected they were different. A Highly Sensitive Person is super tuned in to their environment. They notice everything—every sight, sound, and smell. This awareness extends beyond the physical, as HSPs are hyper aware of moods and emotions, their own and everyone else’s.
Such awareness means they can read between the lines and pick up on subtle communication cues others might miss. Highly Sensitive People tend to have rich inner lives; their brains work overtime, and are apt to be creative.
Yet, these sensitivities can lead to feeling overwhelmed. To combat this, HSPs need quiet time to reboot, refresh, and recover. NOT understanding this reality can lead to misunderstandings between you and the Highly Sensitive People in your life.
Overly sensitive or hypersensitive tend to be words tossed out towards others when what we really mean is, “You’re more sensitive than I am” or “You don’t react to the world the same way that I do.”
Diversity, in all its forms, makes life rich and interesting. Yet, it is not always easy to understand people with a different temperament.
So, if someone takes the incredible risk of telling you that he or she is a Highly Sensitive Person, here are a few things they want you to know, but may not be able to say right away.
What Highly Sensitive People Want You To Know
1) Highly Sensitive People are not weak, mentally inferior, or broken and in need of fixing.
They are simply tuned into the world in a different and more intense way.
In the same way that you’d never send your left-handed friend off to obtain right-handedness therapy, resist the urge to tell your HSP friends or loved ones where to go for help.
Certainly, we all need to adapt at some time so that we can work and play well with others. Highly Sensitive People are aware of this, sometimes painfully so. However, there is NO reason to try to change all our friends or coworkers into clones of each other.
2) The rich inner lives of HSPs can be inspiration generators.
All of that awareness and consciousness of the world needs to go somewhere.
It usually bubbles out of the sensitive mind as creativity. The Highly Sensitive Person in your life, given the opportunity, will probably create beautiful things and solve stubborn problems in innovative ways. This creativity is a win-win situation for all concerned.
- First, you or your organization or community can get to enjoy the results of the sensitive, creative mind.
- Secondly, a creative outlet is a necessary safety valve for the HSP, giving him or her a way to exercise some control over a chaotic world.
The fear of being harshly judged can stall these necessary creative impulses. If you want to be a REAL support for your HSP, then encourage creativity whenever possible.
3) You too, might profit from the Highly Sensitive Person “early warning system.”
Most of us could benefit from cutting down on the amount of stimulus and stress we allow into our lives. Take the example of your sensitive friend or colleague and carve out time for quiet reflection and recovery from daily strife into your day.
At the end of life, there is no reward for having spent time overworked, over-stimulated, or overwhelmed. Yet we know that many people, especially at the end of life, DO reflect upon missing tender moments or not taking the time for quiet appreciation of a loved one.
4) HSPs are not “thin-skinned” as we now understand the term.
Traditionally, the term thin-skinned was used to describe those deemed to be overly sensitive, especially to criticism. In today’s media obsessed world, thin-skinned is no longer used just to describe those who wilt under criticism, but instead those who lash out publicly when they feel offended.
It’s this new modified version of thin-skinned that really does NOT apply to HSPs. Highly Sensitive People are painfully aware of how much criticism hurts, and they are unlikely to lash out and risk stomping the feelings of others.
So the social media version of thin-skinned, a person who is reactive or cruel in response to comments they don’t like, is NOT your HSP colleague or friend.
5) It is possible to give feedback to HSPs.
Does knowing or working with a Highly Sensitive Person mean you are doomed to walk on eggshells and never ever have an opinion or disagreement again? No. Just having a Highly Sensitive Person in your network does NOT mean you can never voice your views.
However, to get the best results, you should keep a few things in mind:
- Don’t try to give important feedback, especially constructive criticism, in a chaotic or noisy environment. Vibrant and busy places like coffee shops or parties may be enjoyable for you, but they are NOT the places to drop important information onto an HSP. Dealing with or filtering out all the stimulus is going to take up all their available energy. Your efforts will be wasted at best. In the worst case, you will simply add to your HSP’s feeling of discomfort.
- Talk to HSPs about important issues when they’re fresh and NOT at the end of a busy day. At the end of the workday, or after a big social event, Highly Sensitive People have had enough—enough noise, enough smells, and enough people—and is longing for alone time. This is NOT the time to start an intense discussion.
- Stay honest. In addition to being hyperaware of their own emotional state, HSPs can read others very easily. If you try to hedge on the truth, the Highly Sensitive Person in your life is going to pick up on it and become even more uncomfortable.
- Watch out for “sympathetic over scheduling.” Since Highly Sensitive People are so highly attuned to the emotions and needs of others, they are reluctant to say no and risk disappointing you. This means that if you work with or supervise a Highly Sensitive Person who hasn’t mastered time management, you will have to resist the urge to ask for the impossible, because your HSP will make themselves sick trying to deliver.
True confession time: I am a Highly Sensitive Person. I’ve been told if roaches ran across the neighbor’s kitchen, I’d hear it and be bothered. Why didn’t I say so at the beginning? Because sensitive has become a negative label and it sometimes blocks people from really hearing what I have to say.
6) Not all HSPs are alike.
Bonus: Like any other personality trait, sensitivity happens on a continuum. Highly Sensitive People want what YOU want—what we ALL want—to be seen and appreciated as individuals.