What does it mean to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) or someone with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS)? Does it mean you cry all the time, can’t stand drama, withdraw from society, are depressed or have a psychological disorder requiring medications? What are the five top misconceptions people have about those with HSP/SPS?
1. HSP/SPS is a medical diagnosis.
SPS or HSP is not a disability, handicap, medical condition, genetic abnormality or diagnosis. Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a genetic trait that has evolved over time in humans and many other nonhuman species throughout generations and occurs in about 15-20% of the population. Highly sensitive species are sometimes better equipped at surviving certain situations. For example, if an animal with highly sensitive hearing notices a dangerous sound, it can run or fly away to protect itself, also causing other animals of the same species to follow and get to a safer location. SPS or HSP is not a negative trait or a positive trait. It is a neutral trait because sometimes it has advantages and sometimes disadvantages. Sensory Highly Sensitive People are exceptional, but all of us are different. Each person is lovable and a valuable asset to society, deserving of compassion, respect, patience, and understanding.
2. Children and adults who are HSP/SPS are shy or introverted.
Elaine Aron, Ph.D., author of The Highly Sensitive Person (1997), defined a highly sensitive person (HSP), as someone with a “sensitive nervous system who is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings and more easily overwhelmed or overstimulated.”
Highly sensitive people tend to need downtime. They also tend to be reflective and take time to process information before jumping into a task. Their sensitivity may cause them to avoid or leave noisy or chaotic environments. These traits are similar to those who are introverted. However, this can be misinterpreted as being shy, neurotic, or antisocial. Actually, people who are SPS/HSP do enjoy socialization and aren’t necessarily introverted. In fact, about 30% of those who have Sensory Processing Sensitivity, or are HSP, are extroverts and exhibit strong leadership qualities. They also tend to get quickly bored with repetitive tasks. Some, in fact, are risk-takers and thrive on the rush of exciting new experiences and stimulation. These people are known as HSP/HSS or highly sensitive people who are also high sensation seekers. They are more likely to take risks, are spontaneous, eager to “go for it” and more likely to experiment with drugs.
3. Highly sensitive people tend to be female.
Research has shown that human and nonhuman species with a highly sensitive nervous system do not tend to be female. Men may be less likely to communicate their sensitivity than women. However, this trait of high sensitivity is experienced equally across different ages, genders, cultures, and species, whether it be an insect or mammal, man or woman, child or adult. Although the highly sensitive child might need time to learn to cope and adjust and need a break from overly stimulating situations, the adult HSP most likely has gained knowledge and experience and developed coping strategies. In fact, the HSP adult male or female might be more skilled and able to deal with everyday pain or discomfort than the average person.
4. Highly sensitive people are weak. They need to “man up.”
There is no evidence to support this belief. Again, the percentage of highly sensitive people varies across all body types, male or female, and animal species. A highly sensitive person may cry and/or laugh more often, or be quiet and nonreactive. An HSP might express more compassion, more joy, more sadness, or pain, than those who are less sensitive. An HSP might be a robust and disciplined athlete, a minister, or a dancer. This is because their range of emotions is much higher than less sensitive people, and they tend to be deeply affected by what is happening in this world. They are more aware, noticing minute details of design, sound, texture, smell, touch, etc. However, this does not mean they are weaker. In fact, it means they are more tuned in and perhaps better able to suggest alternative solutions. It takes an incredible amount of strength to learn how to manage more environmental stimuli as an HSP in this complex, highly stimulating world. They might be very skilled at finding creative, “out-of-the-box” solutions to problems where others who are less sensitive, might give up more quickly, and only see popular “tried-and-true” solutions.
5. Highly sensitive people are worrisome, nervous people.
The brain of a highly sensitive person interprets outer stimuli differently than those who are not highly sensitive. Particular smells, sounds, textures, etc., might be very uncomfortable and disturbing. No one can fully understand the degree to which someone is in pain or discomfort, or know how they choose to handle it. Sometimes those who are highly sensitive might tap their fingers, wiggle in their seats, blink their eyes, shift positions, or pace the floor, exit the room quickly, display a grimacing or worrisome look, or ask a lot of questions a little more often than others. This can be interpreted as nervousness, worry, or anxiety, and it might possibly be true. However, this isn’t necessarily true. The HSP is more likely adjusting to over-stimulation, pain, or discomfort, and these fidgety mannerisms behaviors are probably coping strategies–not nervousness. Moreover, the highly sensitive child or adult might handle their troubles quietly and withdraw socially, without exhibiting any nervous behaviors. Additionally, any coping behaviors often disappear when the HSP can get out of the situation and into a more comfortable environment.
6. Highly sensitive people are over-reactive, paranoid, and dramatic. Ignore them and don’t believe them.
All people deserve to be believed, trusted, loved, and valued. This reaction of ignoring the complainer is not an uncommon reaction. It might be helpful to consider the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” In the story, the boy repeatedly plays a practical joke on the townspeople, lying about seeing a wolf. But because the boy repeatedly expressed fear, alarm, or worry for an invisible expected tragic outcome, and there was no credibility or proof of such outcome, the people lost trust or faith in him. They wouldn’t believe the boy later, when something really bad happened, in this case, when a wolf actually appeared. The moral of this story is about credibility through honesty. The boy created drama and paranoia, where there was none. When people are honest, others trust them. However, in the case of the HSP, their concerns are often invisible to others. Others do not know if a person with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) can be trusted. The HSP appears to be dishonest, when in fact, the person, animal or child, is alerting others to genuine dangers. For example, the HSP might react to the levels of radioactivity, toxic chemicals sprays in foods, or be tuned in to underlying emotions and dishonesty, while others see nothing of concern. Most HSPs are not overly dramatic. They have learned to be capable of extreme empathy, although they might occasionally become overstimulated and need a break. Because of this invisibility and misinterpretation of extremism or drama, their concerns, although valid, are often ignored.
7. The highly sensitive person is emotionally ill and needs to be “fixed” with medication or therapy.
Perhaps the HSP needs medication or therapy, but not any more than those who are not highly sensitive. The HSP is not emotionally ill. Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a healthy trait occurring in 15-20 percent of the animal and human population. It is critical to the survival of our planet and definitely needed by all species to evolve and thrive. Our beautiful world needs more caring, compassionate, sensitive individuals to voice concerns through art, theater, poetry, writing, and speaking out about needed world change. Highly sensitive people make this world a better place. We all benefit from their presence in this world. Highly sensitive people are often a voice for those without words (animals, the earth, children, the elderly, and physically, emotionally, or mentally challenged individuals). Although the HSP needs their quiet time and isolation, they are highly compassionate, and often the first to lend a helping hand.
8. HSP (people with Sensory Processing Sensitivity) don’t “fit in” and dislike being sensitive.
Highly sensitive children generally need time to adjust and understand that they have special traits and how to manage their sensitivity. They need time to develop coping strategies and greatly benefit from parents who are understanding, knowledgeable and supportive. However, over time, the HSP adults who are educated and have developed coping strategies are very successful and necessary to our society. If they surround themselves with others who understand the valuable contributions and traits of the highly sensitive person, they can successfully contribute to society in almost any vocation, but especially in the caring professions that require a compassionate and sensitive heart. Some of the most favorite jobs held by HSP include artists, writers, editors, or authors, online teachers, workshop presenters, dog groomers, gardeners, carpenters, coaches, therapists, self-employed business owners, IT professionals, bakers, musicians or music composers, ministers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and others. HSP can be extroverts, leaders, sociable and successful at most any job but might require more “down time” or time to get away from overly stimulating environments.
9. HSP/SPS children and adults are always overly stimulated and never bored.
Even though highly sensitive people must guard against over-stimulation, they also need to be wary of boredom and under-stimulation. Highly sensitive children and adults are comfortable and content when they are involved in life. They tend to be highly creative and productive. They must find the right work, life, and play environment to help them be consistently engaged and stimulated. It is not true that they are always overly sensitive and stimulated. They can easily become bored. Therefore, instead of always trying to limit stimulation, instead, they must work to be surrounded by people and situations that bring them the highest intellectual, emotional, and physical stimulation. HSP/SPS children or adults tend to be very reflective. Those who are married or in relationships with partners tend to want to “go deeper” in relationships, for example, they might find themselves bored if the other person is unwilling to put extra effort into the getting the most out of a relationship (for example they might enjoy attending relationship retreats). As mentioned earlier in this article, some HSS/SPS individuals are risk-taking extroverts. They are seeking thrills. These people are known as HSP/HSS or highly sensitive people who are also high sensation seekers.
10. HSP/SPS in children or adults is the same as ADD, ADHD, or autism.
It is true that autistic, ADD, ADHD, and highly sensitive children each have challenges adapting to noisy, busy environments and “fitting in” socially or behaviorally with others. Autistic children are easily frightened and sensitive to bright lights, loud noises, strong odors, uncomfortable textures, and overstimulating surroundings. These traits are similarly found in those who are highly sensitive people. However, HSP/SPS is not a biological disorder. It is a trait one is born with.
Highly sensitive people (HSP) differ from ADD, ADHD, and autistic individuals because they know instantly what is wrong within the room and how to modify or change the environment to make it more comfortable. High sensitivity includes positive emotional traits of empathy, compassion, creativity, and enhanced intuitive abilities. Highly sensitive people are also very adept at reading a person’s mood and are highly aware of underlying or hidden emotions. They can communicate their experiences and use their sensitivity to change the environment. They can be very focused on a task and take it to a deeper level, whereas ADD, ADHD children and adults are often easily distracted and influenced by others. People with SPS are often misdiagnosed as children. It is essential for parents to be educated and aware of the differences so that they may advocate for their children.
11. HSP/SPS children and adults are easily offended.
Highly sensitive adults and children with SPS avoid criticism because it is emotionally painful. They are generally hard workers and first to criticize themselves and will work diligently to perform at a high level of excellence. If they have received criticism, they will spend time in contemplation, dig deeper to reflect on how best to make modifications in behavior or performance, and reach a higher level. They are not necessarily easily offended, however, they more deeply feel the emotions of others who are offering criticism.
12. Highly sensitive people get sick easily, are fragile, and prone to poor mental or physical health.
Poor mental or physical health and stamina are determined primarily by genetics and the environment. On average, a highly sensitive person is not at any more risk for psychological or physical health issues, than a child or adult who is not highly sensitive. In fact, if an HSP is surrounded by people who are supportive, loving, educated, and nurturing, and living in a stable, healthy environment, the trait of SPS can be a benefit. People who have SPS and are HSP can be hyperaware of what is needed to stay healthy and happy, more so than others who are oblivious to their mental, emotional, and physical surroundings.
The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron
Highly Sensitive Person Test, Elaine Aron
High Sensation Seeker, Elaine Aron
The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, Elaine N. Aron (1997)
The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide: Essential Skills for Living Well in an Overstimulating World (Step-By-Step Guides), Ted Zeff Ph.D. and Elaine Aron Ph.D. (2004)
Brain Training For The Highly Sensitive Person: Techniques To Reduce Anxiety and Overwhelming Emotions: An 8-Week Program, Julie Bjelland, LMFT, (2017)
The Highly Sensitive: How to Stop Emotional Overload, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Energy, Judy Dyer (2018)
Jean Voice Dart, is a published author, speaker, and life coach, and has written hundreds of health articles as well as hosting a local television program, “Making Miracles Happen.” She is a Registered Music Therapist (RMT), Sound Therapist, and Master Level Energetic Teacher, and is the Executive Director, founder, and Health and Wellness Educator of the Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance, a 501(c)3 health education nonprofit organization. To find out more about the Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance visit www.montereybayholistic.com
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