Highly Sensitive People


How do you define Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

An HSP is identifiable by the four characteristics discovered and researched by my colleague and mentor, Dr. Elaine Aron.

We use an acronym to describe them called D.O.E.S. (see below). HSPs of all ages were born with the innate trait called Sensory Processing Sensitivity. It is not a disorder, but rather a personality trait that is genetically predetermined in 20% of the population.

What is D.O.E.S.?

A great way to describe the characteristics of highly sensitive people or orchids:

D: Depth of Processing. We just process things more deeply. We think things through and though it gives us great insight, it can be a struggle and burden to be thinking so much.

O: Over-arousal is the scientific term. Everyone has an optimal level of arousal, and the HSP often struggles to maintain it. Other ways to describe this “O” include overwhelm and overstimulation. Of course, if you are thinking so much about things, having strong emotional responses, and noticing everything around you, you are likely to become “overaroused.” This is the ONLY disadvantage to being a highly sensitive orchid, but it’s a big one, and managing your arousal level is the key to thriving as an HSP.

E: Emotional Reactivity & Empathy. Your highly reactive brain and finely tuned nervous system cause you to feel more highs and more lows. You cry easily and experience a tremendous amount of empathy for others. When you cry or experience great joy, you are experiencing emotional leadership for those around you. Emotional leadership is a very important role in our society and families.

S: Sensitivity to Subtle Stimuli. You encounter thousands of sensory stimuli every day, everyone does, but you notice most if not all of them. Your sensitivity makes each little thing more acute. Maybe you are bothered by noises or bright lights or smells or too many people.

On the other hand, when you enter a room, you know that the curtains could be shifted just a bit to make everyone more comfortable and you notice your friend’s new haircut or that they moved their couch 10 inches when no one in their family did.

Aren’t women more sensitive than men?

All people can be sensitive at times (to their environment) or behave in a sensitive way toward others, and in some cultures, we see this more in women. That sensitive behavior is different than the trait of high sensitivity (sensory processing sensitivity).

The trait of SPS occurs equally across genders, but it is sometimes harder to recognize in men or male-identified people in western or younger civilizations.

In older, more established cultures, sensitivity in men is often valued differently.They are revered, popular, and respected. This is backed by research conducted in some countries, and we expect it to continue to prove true as sensitivity research expands across the globe.

What about highly sensitive men?

Male highly sensitive people – highly sensitive men (HSM), boys (HSBs), and male-identified folks (HSM) – can be harder to identify.

They are often misdiagnosed or written off as avoidant because western culture usually doesn’t value the trait in men and boys, even though half of all highly sensitive people are men or male-identified.

What a paradox this is in an era when we westerners claim to value and desire more sensitivity in men! HSM and HSB may withdraw and become stoic, since the world doesn’t seem to value their sensitive nature.

In fact, my mentor, Elaine Aron, PhD, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, declared the year 2020, the Year of the Highly Sensitive Man. And in 2023, we expect the release of the new documentary, Sensitive Men Rising. 

In celebration of the new film, I hosted a Community Conversation on Highly Sensitive Men. Check it out: Community Conversation – Sensitive Men Rising

Working with highly sensitive men and boys is one of the highlights of my practice. Along with Elaine Aron, I recognize that the world will be changed by honoring sensitivity in all areas of life. And, we have more work to do in supporting and advocating with and for highly sensitive men and boys. I am honored to a part of this journey.

Is high sensitivity the same as sensory processing disorder or the autism spectrum?

High sensitivity is an innate trait found in one out of five people. It is not on the autism spectrum, sensory processing disorder, nor is it a mental illness – although the highly sensitive can have other problems and are often misunderstood and misdiagnosed when the world overwhelms them.

Like orchids, highly sensitive people who are carefully nurtured grow into unique, thoughtful leaders who can become the world’s change-makers as philosophers, artists, politicians, authors, teachers, healers, and spiritual advisors.

What is Differential Susceptibility?

It may sound like jargon, but differential susceptibility is quite literal: An orchid, or highly sensitive person, has a different level of susceptibility to their environment.

Low-stress environments cause orchids to fair significantly better than the rest of the humanity because they use their finely tuned nervous system to process things more deeply and make use of the information they gather.

They are less likely to experience illness, injury, or other negative results. The converse is true: A high-stress environment will create much more susceptibility to negative results for a highly sensitive orchid, including anxiety and depression.

Final word: Taking care of yourself if you are highly sensitive is critical, and you will greatly benefit from any solid stress-reduction, from exercise to sleep to meditation to therapy.

What about High Sensation Seekers (HSS)?

High sensation seeking HSPS (HSS) have another trait that can co-occur with high sensitivity or exist without it. Being a highly sensitive, high sensation seeker, means living with one foot on the brake while the other one is slammed down on the accelerator.

Since HSS seek sensation input, it can make them mad, sometimes sad, that they need to keep a foot on the brake. They want to go out there and do everything they can to change and engage with the world.

Self-care, radical self-care, is hard for HSS-HSPs to choose sometimes. It takes mindful training. Just as parents must train their children to be self-sufficient, we must train our brains to be self-aware. HSS often struggle to choose to rest, to meditate, to be quiet, to close their eyes, to take lots of downtime.

What keeps HSPs awake at night?

Anxiety and worry. Stresses about the day that ended and the day ahead. Feeling overwhelmed and guilty about all the daily tasks you didn’t do. Worrying about the world: politics, the environment, the kids, school, work.

What do you most want?

To feel calm and serene, being able to manage your anxiety. You might not know you want it yet, but you want to understand your trait and know how to manage it. You think you want to fit in with the 80% world, but you can’t ever do so. You need to learn you trait is a superpower.

What challenges do HSPs sometimes face that lead them to seek out therapy?

Anxiety and trauma are the two biggest. Relationship problems with parents, spouse, and at work. Dating can be a nightmare—you tend to use your high empathy to go out and be codependent—maybe you find narcissists or alcoholics to fix and then get hurt and betrayed by them.

What would the HSP do with these challenges if they could wave a magic wand and fix everything overnight?

You would know how to manage overwhelm. You would be understood and able to integrate into the larger world.

Where do HSPs want to work?

Libraries, online, caregivers, clergy, spiritual advisors, professors, scientists, tech, artists, songwriters, authors, childcare, creatives, solopreneurs – and you will be the most valued employee in any work environment if you have a chance to practice self-care.

Supervisors and employers rate HSPs’ performance higher than other employees. Yes, you are more likely to be dissatisfied with your work and not feel valued.

What activities speak to the HSP heart?

Generally, you love quiet or intimate activities with a special draw to the arts, nature, or animals: Playing classical music, ballroom dancing, nature, hiking, cross country skiing, the climbing gym, making art/music, museums, yoga, meditation center, art films, the horse barn, the dog park, quiet dinner with a loved one or close friend, deep conversations.

Extroverted HSPs (30%!) like to go out and socialize, even enjoying parties and big events, but they need the above activities to balance the output of extroverting so much.

What about HSP high sensation seekers?

HSS, the sensation seekers, might not want to let off steam, but they need plenty of outlets.They may be introverts or extroverts and thus seek different kinds of sensation.

HSS might choose more intense versions of the above: Salsa dancing, jumping horses or endurance racing, hot yoga or Piyo, downhill skiing, martial arts/fencing, you get the idea.

What about those HSP extroverts?

Extroverts are 30% of HSPs, and they can be easily dismissed or assumed to not be highly sensitive due to their need to be social and their ease with engagement.

Meeting new people at parties, events, and meetings feeds them, and they love it. “Wait… you are really highly sensitive? Yes I am!”

Extroverts may need even more downtime, oddly enough. Their output of energy has a tendency to burn out more quickly. Alone time is needed and critical for self-care, much like an introvert. Don’t let the on-stage persona fool you!

What are the HSP’s highest values?

Beauty and nature. Serenity, spirituality, integrity, peace, animals, kindness, compassion, empathy!!! toward all those things/people – and I will help you develop the empathy you need for yourself.

What do HSPs do for fun?

Go for a hike or to the symphony, create art, museums, self-care retreats, quiet dinners or tea with a close friend, alone time, read, read, read. Every HSP is unique, and there are as many answers to these questions as there are HSPs.

What are HSPs passionate about?

With all that empathy you have for the underdogs, you might be passionate about the environment, saving the planet, human rights, animals, children, your closest friends, self-care (I hope!)

What changes do HSPs want to make in their lives?

You want to feel normal, empowered, functional, and able to do what needs to be done. You would like to be successful. You know you have a gift or many gifts, but you tend to spend your life overwhelmed and over-aroused and can’t use your gifts to their full capacity.

How does a high-sensation-seeking HSP feel?

“Gawd, I’m sick of being tired and anxious. I am really smart and have so many gifts, but I get debilitated by being always overwhelmed. I know I do too much, and I am overstimulated every day; but I feel like I’m missing out if I do less. My to-do list is soooo long that it makes me cry.”

Wondering if you are highly sensitive?

Listen to a short talk on it.