What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?

Early in the 20th century, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung researched innate archetypal psychic dispositions that make up the collective unconscious (structures of the unconscious mind that are shared among all people). One of the dispositions he determined was “innate sensitiveness,” the trait of high sensitivity. Jung thought this innate sensitiveness predisposed some people to be especially impacted by negative or traumatic childhood experiences, so much so that in adulthood they have more difficulty adapting and coping when faced with a particular challenge.                                      

  Events bound up with powerful impressions can never pass off without leaving some trace on sensitive people. Some of them remain effective throughout life, and such events can have a determining influence on a person’s whole mental development. ~ C. G. Jung 
  Jung, an HSP(highly sensitive person), also noticed the positive aspects of being a highly sensitive person, especially during times of relative calm and equanimity. He recognized that sensitiveness was not a personality disorder but often an advantageous trait that can enhance one’s experience of life in the right circumstances. 
  This excessive sensitiveness very often brings an enrichment of the personality. . . . Only, when difficult and unusual situations arise, the advantage frequently turns into a very great disadvantage, since calm consideration is then disturbed by untimely affects. Nothing could be more mistaken, though, than to regard this excessive sensitiveness as in itself a pathological character component. If that were really so, we should have to rate about one quarter of humanity as pathological. ~ C. G. Jung 
  Decades later, dozens of other researchers confirmed Jung’s findings, and one researcher in particular, Dr. Aron, has made an invaluable contribution to the field of knowledge about HSPs. She is a pioneer in studying sensitivity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine what happens in the brains of highly sensitive people.
 Dr. Aron began her research on innate sensitiveness in 1991, analyzing three areas of inquiry she pinpointed in her work: (1) the greater sensitivity of introverts, (2) the innate reactivity of a large minority of infants, and (3) biologists’ descriptions of a similar trait in numerous animal species. “I was encouraged to try to develop a measure to identify and study those with this trait, whatever its final name,” says Dr. Aron in a 2006 article for the Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice.
  Dr. Aron confirms that high sensitivity, also called sensory-processing sensitivity, is an innate trait in which people notice more subtleties and process information more deeply. But this definition only touches the surface of how these sensitivities manifest. On her website, The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aron says, Highly sensitive people are typically good listeners, need more down time, are bothered by noisy or crowded places, may want to do novel things all day (they can be high sensation seekers) but then want to go rest in the evening, notice things that others miss, cry easily, are upset more than others by injustices, feel more joy and compassion, are conscientious and loyal, fussy too, tolerate caffeine poorly, feel pain more, are slow to make decisions, and see the larger consequences of plans and actions. 

The Core Qualities of the highly sensitive person

  Dr. Aron defines the core qualities of the highly sensitive person in her blog, “How Do You Recognize an HSP?” using the acronym DOES:

Depth of Processing 
•  Unusual, creative ideas 
•  Extraordinarily conscientious 
•  Prefers to decide things slowly and mull things over 
•  Decisions are often correct
Overstimulated Easily 
•  More easily stressed by noise, chaotic situations, and deadlines
•  Seeks quiet spots 
•  Prefers to work alone or at home 
•  Needs more downtime 
Emotionally Reactive
•  Reacts strongly to feedback, both positive and negative 
•  Cries easily
•  Shows considerable empathy for others 
•  Worries more about others’ reactions to negative events 
•  Offers more positive feedback to others 
•  Becomes angry, curious, sad, anxious, or joyful sooner than others 
Sensitive to Subtle Stimuli 
•  Notices details and things that others don’t 
•  Arranges home and work spaces with special care, such as adjusting the lighting
•  Comments on others’ clothing or small changes in the environment or weather
   In Western culture, hypersensitivity is often viewed as a character flaw, but during the past few decades, Dr. Aron and other researchers have proven it to be less of a personal defect and more the result of neurological activity that creates a preference to process information differently. HSPs simply experience more activity in certain parts of the brain. In a study published in Brain and Behavior, researchers scanned the brains of 18 married individuals (some with high sensitivity and some with low sensitivity) while they viewed photos of either smiling or sad faces. One group of photos included faces of strangers, and the other included photos of their husbands or wives.
 In response to the findings, Dr. Aron reported,
  We found that areas of the brain involved with awareness and emotion, particularly those areas connected with empathetic feelings, in the highly sensitive people showed substantially greater blood flow to relevant brain areas than was seen in individuals with low sensitivity during the twelve second period when they viewed the photos. 
  Unfortunately, many highly sensitive people aren’t aware of this research, nor do they understand why they feel so different. The vast majority of HSPs have likely never heard of the trait, much less think of it as something normal. Highly sensitive people often try to hide their sensitive traits and alter their behavior and choices in order to fit in and appear normal.

Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

   If you are an HSP and have often been criticized or teased about your nature, you’ve probably also masked these traits. Maybe you’ve been labeled shy, a cry baby, overly emotional, or too intense. More than likely, most of the people around you don’t quite understand you and your reactions. Maybe others don’t know your true nature because you hide it so well. 
   Sheeri, one of my readers  acknowledges the misunderstandings about the trait, both in herself and from others. “A lot of these traits are things that I knew about myself, but not necessarily things I understood,” says Sheeri. I’ve been accused of being overly sensitive and walled off. I’ve had people come into my life who claimed to love me and then want to help ‘fix’ me because it’s not normal to be so protective of my tender heart.
   I see now that it’s more likely that I am a person with HSP, and that I’m really okay. It really is okay to be an HSP as you will learn through this article, but understanding this multifaceted trait can be daunting, as it’s difficult to wrap the highly sensitive personality into one tidy definition. If I had to offer a description to cover it all, I’d say HSPs are “finely tuned”  . We may be wired a bit tighter and require more maintenance, but our emotional instrument is uniquely rich and complex. 
  Yes, we need regular calibration and tender loving care (from ourselves and others) in order to function at our highest and most creative levels. But when we learn to manage our reactions and environments appropriately, we will enjoy deeply satisfying experiences of joy, intuition, creativity, and compassion all of which can make a profound and positive impact on the world around us.

You might like:

The Highly Sensitive Person Traits 
The Highly Sensitive Person Test 

Highly Sensitive Person