This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Highly Sensitive Person" by Elaine Aron. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What is meant by a “highly sensitive person” or HSP? What are the key characteristics of the HSP personality?
A highly sensitive person is someone who experiences a higher degree of sensitivity than the average person. HSPs’ personality traits include high empathy, an ability to process things more deeply and discern subtleties, and a tendency to become overstimulated.
Keep reading to learn about the HSP personality traits and key characteristics.
What Does It Mean to Be a Highly Sensitive Person?
High sensitivity is a trait characterized by higher levels of sensitivity than are usually found in the general population, writes Aron. About one-fifth of people are highly sensitive. There are four major characteristics of an HSP:
1) The ability to process information very deeply
2) The ability to discern subtleties better than the average person
3) A high level of empathy and strong emotions
4) A tendency to become overstimulated.
(Shortform note: Note that you don’t have to have all the HSP personality traits to be a highly sensitive person. In fact, many HSPs struggle with getting up in the mornings, and HSPs who also have conditions like ADHD may have impaired motor skills. In addition to these traits, other experts suggest HSPs are more likely to be people pleasers and to suffer from imposter syndrome because they are so attuned to others’ feelings and perceptions.)
Deep Processing: According to Aron, being able to process information more deeply means HSPs can often concentrate intensely for long periods of time, especially when they’re in a distraction-free environment. They also tend to engage in metacognition, or thinking about their own thinking and learning. This deeper processing often takes longer than a more shallow level of processing, which can make it seem like HSPs are slower learners than non-HSPs. But once they’ve processed information fully, HSPs usually have a better understanding and better retention of what they’ve learned.
(Shortform note: Research shows that practicing metacognition improves learning and memory, and it also helps students understand how they learn best. While metacognition may come more intuitively to HSPs, it’s a skill that anyone can cultivate, especially with the guidance of a teacher or expert. If you want to train yourself to have deeper processing skills, set aside extra time when you’re learning something new to practice metacognition and reflect on your thinking and learning.)
Deep processing also means that HSPs are particularly skilled at using past experiences to inform decisions in the present, explains Aron. By recognizing that they’ve already learned how to deal with a situation like the one they’re in presently, HSPs can often react to danger or take advantage of opportunities more quickly than non-HSPs, giving them strong intuition. However, with less urgent decisions, HSPs may take longer to make their choice than non-HSPs because they consider all their options so meticulously.
(Shortform note: Research suggests that the speed with which someone makes a decision may impact how others view that decision. Making a decision quickly makes you appear more certain than if you make it slowly, and if that decision is a positive one—like deciding to distribute bonuses to your staff—a quick decision is viewed more favorably than a slow one. On the other hand, a slow negative decision is viewed more favorably than a quick negative decision—like deciding there’s not enough money in the budget for bonuses. If you have to make a decision that’s not going to be received well, think slowly and deliberately both to ensure you’re choosing the best option and to make it clear to others that you didn’t take the decision lightly.)
Attention to Subtleties: Aron also states that HSPs have a keen eye for subtle details that might go unnoticed by non-HSPs. This usually makes them very good at spotting and avoiding mistakes, and they remember mistakes more clearly so they can spot them more easily in the future. They can also be especially good at tasks requiring high alertness, accuracy, and attention to detail.
(Shortform note: This keen eye for detail can be highly beneficial in the workplace. Picking up on subtleties that others miss can help you catch others’ mistakes quickly, and tactfully pointing these mistakes out for the sake of team or project improvement can make you stand out to your boss as a skillful team player.)
High Empathy and Emotionality: HSPs also have intense empathy for others, says Aron. This means that they can be deeply affected by the moods and emotions of others, and because of their intuition and eye for detail, they tend to be more aware of these moods and emotions as well.
(Shortform note: While empathy can be a highly beneficial trait, it becomes a problem if your empathy overpowers your ability to take care of your own emotional needs, an issue called toxic empathy. To avoid becoming overwhelmed by others’ emotions, maintain boundaries and be conscientious of how much of yourself you are devoting to accommodating other people’s feelings. Also, make sure you are receiving empathy from others in return. You can also try to turn your feelings of empathy into action by asking the other person how you can help rather than simply feeling their feelings with them.)
HSPs are also more likely to experience intense emotions themselves. They tend to have strong consciences and senses of justice, and Aron says they’re prone to experiencing intense feelings of awe, which can be deeply meaningful and joyful—though it may also contribute to overstimulation, which we will examine in the next section.
(Shortform note: HSPs’ strong senses of justice can make them excellent activists, as they often feel an intense desire to help when they see others in pain or struggling. However, since the activities involved with activism—such as marching, protesting, and speech-making—can be highly stimulating, it’s important to avoid straying too far outside your comfort zone for too long. Some methods of activism that might appeal more to HSPs include writing letters, donating to charitable causes, and directing others to educational and artistic resources to help them better understand injustices.)
Aron lists some other characteristics that many—but not all—HSPs have:
- They’re good at fine motor skills.
- They’re highly creative.
- They’re morning people.
- They’re more sensitive to substances like caffeine, alcohol, and medications.
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- The strengths and challenges associated with being a highly sensitive person
- How to manage your sensitivity in your personal, social, and professional life
- Why you should stop labeling yourself as "shy"