Sneak Peek: Highly Sensitive People (HSP)

by | Nov 28, 2023

Facts: life as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)!

To say I was angry about the misrepresentation of HSPs by Cosmopolitan Magazine is an understatement. 🛑 Being an HSP is NOT a label!  So though I was going to do these less frequently, please let me set the record straight by sharing some more insight from The Damage of Words

From Chapter 4: Michelle in The Damage of Words


Highly Sensitive People (HSP) & Empaths

Everyone can adopt other people’s emotions or moods periodically, but if this happens constantly, they are likely highly sensitive. It is a genetic trait, and HSPs have senses that function at a higher level than neurotypical people. A gene that increases the vividness with which we experience emotions is also linked to high sensitivity. (I will discuss life as an HSP and these genes in Katrina.)

Michelle introduced me to the work of Dr. Elaine Aron, who has been researching high sensitivity since 1991. The traits of a HSP are found in 15-20% of people; it is innate and found in over 100 species. ‘It reflects a certain type of survival strategy, being observant before acting. The brains of highly sensitive persons actually work a little differently than others.’

HSPs notice everything, observing and processing subtleties at a deeper level, which means they can be easily overwhelmed when things are too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time. HSPs are usually introverts and need alone time. In my case, I am sensitive to light, sound, smells, and touch. I love being alone; though many think I am an extrovert, I am a social introvert.

Since then, I have also discovered that I am an empath. I can sense subtle energy and absorb it from other people and environments. By energetically internalising the feelings and pain of others, which, until I understood it, I found difficult to distinguish from my own. In retrospect, it makes sense that I was jumping around to get the toxic energy I had absorbed from my mother out of my body!  Some empaths have profound spiritual and intuitive experiences, which aren’t usually associated with highly sensitive people. I’ll share more about my gifts in Monica and Isobel.

Of late, I have noticed a lot of chatter around hypervigilance versus empathy. In my lived experience – remembering this is my opinion; I am not a trained psychologist, therapist, etc. – I believe both start from childhood trauma. Hypervigilant people are looking for threats everywhere and expecting the worst; until I healed my core wound, I was definitely doing that. As an empath, I am aware of subtle energy changes, and as I can feel and absorb other people’s emotions, I can comprehend their feelings and express compassion; this is the polar opposite of a narcissist!


Of course, if that wasn’t enough. According to the test on Dr. Aron’s website, I am also the contradiction of being a high-sensation-seeking, highly-sensitive person. She describes it as having one foot on the gas and one on the brake pedal, which resonates. I love to travel to new places and experience new sensations. I will do it so that I won’t get overwhelmed by, for example, being active in nature, travelling alone or with like-minded groups where I know I don’t need to worry about the logistics nor be actively involved in the conversation if I need space.

From Chapter 12: Katrina 2.0 in The Damage of Words

Living as a Highly Sensitive Person

Sadly, I often feel defensive when I say I have high sensitivity because I know so often people immediately think I mean super sensitive, which is usually wielded as an insult. As mentioned in Michelle,  HSPs have senses––sight, smell, sound, touch and taste––that function at a higher level than someone deemed neurotypical.

I notice everything, and because I absorb subtleties and process information deeply, I am conscious of the bigger picture. So, when the builders working next door park their van, and I can see that it creates a hassle for other people, they get snapped at, though later, I wish I hadn’t as I sheepishly park my car. When I walk Banjo, I pick up glass bottles before they smash and cut any paws. Considering others, I will never place his poo bag in a bin at a bus stop. And so on.

I also experience life vividly, which can be overwhelming. So, I block my nose while walking through Duty Free at the airport because the perfumes give me a headache. I can smell cigarette smoke from people on the footpath up here on the 5th floor. I’ll go down the same five flights to pick up an empty can that is rolling in the wind because the sound is bugging me. It is feeling relieved when music is turned down or white noise is turned off because the ceiling seems higher. Sounds like the clicking keyboard on phones makes me want to scream.

But my high sensitivity is still a gift, and I use it, in particular, to deliver better work.

Sensitivity shaming

Extraordinarily, in my experience of living with high sensitivity, few will accept that my senses are higher than the norm. Sometimes, I can demonstrate it, like showing my personal trainer how far across the park I could walk and still hear the music coming out of his little speaker. Even though it is found in between 1 in 5 and 1 in 6 people, there needs to be more awareness of the differently wired neurological system of people with sensory processing sensitivity.

This lack of awareness leads to something I call sensitivity shaming: the gaslighting from people who don’t believe me. Though people can agree that not everyone can wiggle their ears, curl or roll their tongue, etc., many are unwilling to believe that I have heightened senses. So, some facts:

  • HSPs have a different neurological makeup from birth.
  • It is not a condition, a disorder, or a diagnosis; it is a neural trait that evolved in circa 20% of the human population and 100 other species.
  • As I mentioned in Michelle, not all HSPs are empaths.
  • Though extremely rare, it is possible to be born with high sensitivity and be a narcissist. My mother, for example, has easily overwhelmed senses and NPD.
  • HSPs are often called ‘too sensitive’ and told to ‘lighten or toughen up’.
  • Biologists believe it is an evolutionary advantage and that three separate sets of genes may play a role – The “Sensitive” Gene (Serotonin Transporter), The Dopamine Genes, and The “Emotional Vividness” Gene (related to norepinephrine) – and different highly sensitive people may have some or all of them.
  • Famous artists with HSP include Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Beals, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Chastain, and many more.

If this sounds familiar, take the HSP test on Dr Elaine Aron’s website or consider reading her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You.

I am sure that Richard found living with me exhausting. Early in our marriage, my ex-husband would react in frustration if I asked that he spray his antiperspirant outside; thankfully, he switched to roll-on. He endured nagging to stop dripping taps or the irritation I would feel when I was affected by too much light. There were so many daily niggles that he had to cater for, and until the recent work trip I mentioned earlier, I don’t think I fully appreciated just how much Richard adapted so I could, quite frankly, function.

Our work trip took us to India, Poland and the US twice. Thankfully, I am a high-sensation-seeking, highly-sensitive person, so contemplating the travel, with its countless flights, hotels, and transport, didn’t overwhelm me. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t impacted, and during a long conversation about living with HSP, I realised how much I have adapted my behaviour over the years to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Dulling of senses

Having this chat with Sue in the Texan hotel lobby, I struggled to concentrate and explained that as I tried to hear her, I was being distracted by the volume from two TVs, the reception phone, and the loud hum of the air conditioning. The noise stopped me from feeling peaceful and being present. During the trip, Sue saw first-hand how I can react to a strong taste, a loud noise, or a pungent smell and how this leads to breakdowns in communication and loss of sleep. But the incessant use of screens in lobbies, restaurants and bars across Texas was a huge source of frustration. As an HSP and empath, I don’t want to feel this constant stream of negativity, especially when I want to enjoy a fabulous meal and conversation. Though I have learned how to protect myself energetically, sometimes I just don’t have the energy.

Discussing this on my return with Isobel, she queried why it was worse than in India, known for its noise and vibrancy. I could only describe it using the energy or intent behind the noise. Walking into the hotel lobby in Pune, no TV screens were blaring out a stream of constant negativity. There was only the sound from the water feature, the natural scent of flowers in the display, and soft background music. It was calming. And even on India’s crazy roads, the ceaseless beeping of horns isn’t from aggression; they’re simply to say, ‘Hey, I’m here’.  Though the specifics of safely driving in India are definitely unknown to me, it is easy to sense that everyone knows the pecking order. Hence, people are kind and tolerant of each other and happy to give way. This behaviour and grace sharply contrasts with my experience here on UK roads.

As someone who experiences life vividly, I wonder why so many screens and distractions are being installed in lobbies, bars and restaurants. What is being lost by interrupting people and their conversations? How many ideas are never developed because people cannot sit in relative peace to exchange thoughts, hopes and dreams? Is there some weird attempt to silence people from their thoughts and daydreams with a barrage of negative news and fear-mongering? What is so uncomfortable about sitting in silence and just pondering? Must we always be entertained?

Perhaps I sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist. Still, as someone who wants to hear my inner dialogue with my Soul and Guides, I don’t know how people can listen to them if they are addicted to screens and bombarded with pessimistic sounds. Imagine if Ian had been absorbed in his phone and not daydreaming about helping the people of Africa. I, for one, would have missed great healing, and countless others would never have received the emotional and financial support that his one daydream has created.

And while I am pondering, I wonder too about the impact of artificial intelligence on our senses. The AI-cat is already out of the bag and about to irreversibly impact the livelihood of workers worldwide. It, too, could take us away from hearing our souls and dull down our senses, as people become overly dependent on its capabilities and allow it to produce more sameness. It is more important than ever to embrace the human skills that AI cannot replicate and to spend more time in wonder daydreaming so we do not lose our creativity, critical thinking, empathy, emotional intelligence, collaboration skills, adaptability and flexibility, ethical awareness, cultural intelligence and diversity, and more.

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