You’re too Emotional and too Sensitive…get a Grip! The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

Ever heard these words? Most of the population are not highly sensitive and that is why if you are you may have heard these words as the majority of people don’t understand.

This blog is about Highly Sensitive People (HSP), even if you are reading this as a non-highly sensitive person and you think this is not you then it may help someone you know or perhaps your children. I have discovered psychological research which has helped me by Elaine Aron (1999) and according to her research, 15-20% of the population are Highly Sensitive People (HSP). It has also been given the term psychologically ‘Sensory Processing Sensitivity’ and Boterberg et al (2016) describes it as a ‘temperamental or personality trait which is present in some individuals and reflects an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli’.

As you know I’ve written about strengths in previous blogs and this has helped me understand what I’m good at and what I’m not and how people are actually more complex than simply introvert or extrovert and the brain can change. So this research I see as being just another part of the human uniqueness of experience and with its recognition and acceptance I feel we can become more aware of ourselves, our responses and our bodies and health. We know the brain can change so I don’t want you reading this thinking if you identify with being HSP it’s the be all and end all as its not but with the awareness and acceptance we can start to make kind and gentle changes to our lives to help us to flourish. Aron’s research has found that our environments can play out and we can absolutely change our brains.

The research on HSP shows it’s both extroverts and introverts (if you agree with those concepts) that have this. I personally feel overwhelmed if I go somewhere there are lots of people, loud noises and lots of sensory inputs. I struggle with London as soon as I step off the train my senses tune into everything going on and the buzz of noise and people rushing about. Working in a corporate environment I would spend a lot of time in offices and by 3pm those days I would be unable to look at my computer screen as I was so tired and unfocused. I thought it was something about being an introvert and being around people even if I didn’t have many meetings or workshops but I came to learn that this was because spending time around all the computer screens, noise, phone calls and coffee was just too overstimulating for me.

I would need time alone and around nature to recharge again and as I felt increasingly more aware of this I felt guilty, a failure, weak and misunderstood, I went to the doctors for blood tests for iron and thyroid, IBS problems but it was all just symptomatic of being a highly sensitive person.

As I developed my Mindfulness practice over the years and took part in deep Mindfulness practice enabling me to teach and help others with their Mindfulness . It also became more apparent of how sensitive I was. I could tune more into the feelings, the anxiety, the overwhelm and the pressure. This was a double edged sword, I became increasingly more aware of my sensitivities and felt unable to do things I once used to but what I realised is that I did them and they would break me in other ways, I would get sick, I had tonsillitis far more times than I can remember, IBS and other health conditions.

Because I carried on and pushed through without the awareness my body was telling me I needed to stop. It was only when I developed my Mindfulness practice I was able to more deeply tune into the sensations and the difference that different environments made me feel and start to consider whether I needed to step back a bit and make some changes to my life. I didn’t seem to know anyone else at the time who was like this. I knew introverts and extroverts and people with different strengths but I felt weak in comparison to people as they always seemed to be able to do so much more than me and I pushed on through trying to be ‘normal’ but acutely aware of my body breaking as I was doing so which I have talked about in previous blogs.

The research suggests there are upsides to being a highly sensitive person, those I’d not appreciated initially when thinking about being overly sensitive. For me these play into the strengths space and my strengths seem to align well with high sensitivity. Some of these strengths are about being more creative and intuitive, able to spot things that others don’t as they are more tuned in and aware. A counsellor once described this to me that most children grow up in a bubble of positivity, they see no harm with the world and that it’s a safe place, oblivious to the dangers that life can bring. I was the opposite, when I described myself to her she said I didn’t grow up in this bubble, I grew up thinking the world was a dangerous place and that I needed to be high alert and aware to stay safe.

One of the upsides of being an HSP is being able to save lives, yes seriously I am not being dramatic and I have just realised how important this story is!

I can actually say I have done this, I saved my family’s lives and hadn’t really appreciated the importance of it until recently. I remember an incident when I was 8 years old, I was with my parents and sister and staying in a caravan in Kent on holiday. I remember not liking the caravan when we arrived and a feeling that I wanted to stay playing outside and I didn’t want to be in there. When it came to bedtime I just could not relax. With the caravan all closed up I could smell a funny smell which I didn’t like.

I remember crying and crying and it got to the point where I was so worked up I was screaming at my parents saying it wasn’t safe to go to sleep, I felt a real sense of danger. To start with they didn’t believe me and just told me to calm down and go to sleep but I was so adamant that something was wrong that eventually after 2 hours they called out the caravan park security/maintenance to come and check out our caravan.

The maintenance man checked around and found that our gas boiler was faulty and carbon monoxide was leaking into the caravan. He said if we had gone to sleep we wouldn’t have woken up in the morning. I saved my whole family.

So there are upsides to being HSP, not all so dramatic and one for me that has helped people I work with to flourish is that is has enabled me to become a great coach. Because I am more intuitive I’ll spot things you may not spot, subtle clues to emotions or thoughts or see them in a different way and this helps the people I coach get to resolution quicker and think differently in a way that is more aware.

The same goes for my Mindfulness teaching, I can sometimes just intuitively pick up if someone’s is feeling overwhelmed and needs a more calming, centering practice or if they aren’t being kind to themselves and we need to focus more of self-kindness and care as part of the practice. Sometimes I’ll blend the two and know intuitively when to bring Mindfulness into the coaching space to really help people flourish, I’m not always right but the feedback that I get is I’m usually accurate!

As this defines just 20% of the population, if you are a Highly sensitive person you may feel highly misunderstood by others, labelled as shy or over sensitive, or emotional. If you aren’t an HSP then you may have someone in your life who is, a relative, friend, colleague or perhaps your child. Use this to help them feel understood and to help you know how to best work with, love or communicate with them.

Here’s how you can help yourself if you’re an HSP or someone you know is

- Allow recharge time in quiet alone space – this is not selfish it is essential, you will be better able to be there for everyone else once you have recharged.

- Mindfulness can help you be more aware of situations that make you feel over stimulated and when you need to take a step back. This will help you become more aware of it earlier before you are stressed, burnt out and or unwell.

- If being HSP and in particular through your Mindfulness practice you can identify the impact certain situations are having on your life then don’t be afraid to seek help, find a therapist you can work with.

- Mindfulness is simply not just about the awareness its also about the action step you can take when you become more acutely aware. You wouldn’t notice that sitting on a chair was uncomfortable and not move/correct your posture for example.

Overall I think that this research on HSP is really interesting and has helped me realise I am okay how I am and it brings strengths as well as anxiety/stress. Its all part of being uniquely human, what we bring with strengths and what we may need more support on. Our brains can change and we can make new pathways (see my TEDx talk) so there are ways HSPs can flourish and change their lives but through acceptance and change this happens, in a kind and self caring kind of way. Not through being told to get a grip or be less emotional!

If I can help you understand who you uniquely are and what your strengths are, coach you or teach you Mindfulness to help you flourish please get in touch, I would love to help. I’ve added some links below to help you.


Quiz to find out if you might be an HSP (if you are let me know!)

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My TEDx talk about Mindfulness and Happiness

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