What It's Like to Be Highly Sensitive: An Introduction

"I were but little happy if I could say how much."
-William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

"You've been crying."
"Beauty does that to me."
-An Affair to Remember

"Their happy is too loud."
-We Bought a Zoo

"Jesus wept."
-John 11:35

I am an HSP.

What is an HSP, you ask? It is a "highly sensitive person", as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron, the pioneer for research on the trait of high sensitivity. You could also say, like Kelly O'Laughlin of highlysensitiveperson.net, that HSPs are "people who experience the world intensely".

I recently rented and watched Dr. Aron's documentary, the first of its kind about this trait, called Sensitive: The Untold Story. I ended up showing it to my husband the same day I watched it myself. The film ends with Dr. Aron saying that what she wishes for HSPs is that they would start speaking up about this trait.

So, here I am.

The movie, as well as Dr. Aron's website about high sensitivity, summarize the trait by these four characteristics:

1. Depth of processing
2. Easily overstimulated
3. Emotionally reactive
4. Sensitive to subtle stimuli

For more information on the above aspects of the trait, this article is a good one to check out. If you are curious about whether you might have the trait, there is a handy self-test on the website that you can find here.

For me, learning more about the trait of high sensitivity has been a real decoder key for understanding a lot of the hard things--and wonderful things--in my life. Understanding this trait is definitely a process for me, but I am excited about all that I am learning, and so thankful for Dr. Aron's research. I have also been chain-listening to Kelly O'Laughlin's "The Highly Sensitive Person Podcast", and listening to her podcast has given me the hope that maybe it is okay to say that this thing is real and that there is a way to live with it, and to even thrive with it, and most amazingly, to ultimately utilize it to serve the world.

What is it like to be a highly sensitive person? Well, looking back, for a lot of my life, it has made me feel different or weaker or less than. But I also see that much of the beauty and insight I am able to bring to the world also come from the same trait.

Let me give you some illustrations of what I am talking about:

  • Looking back, I realize that two of the biggest emotional injuries I have received and had to really work through in my life were probably directly related to the fact that I am highly sensitive and was being lovingly corrected by someone who is not. We just didn't speak the same language, and they didn't know that to me, "a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise" (taken from a quote by Pearl S. Buck about creative minds). What they meant for loving discipline was felt by me as an overwhelming, unloving hurricane of words and emotion.
  • I have tried to explain to a few people in the past that for me, so many things in life--people, good words, experiences, images, sensations--are full of meaning. The picture in my head of this is of me walking up to a stone and touching it, and as I touch it, color and light and information and meaning immediately explode from the stone, and my face lights up in the glow of all of these new revelations and ideas.
  • I remember one night when my husband and I were missionaries in China, I stood on the roof of our apartment complex and looked out over our town, and just felt so overwhelmed by the needs of the Chinese people. I knew I needed to express the burden I was feeling, but my empathy for them went beyond words. So I stood on that dusty roof that night and sang a song I knew about God giving us his heart for people, and I imagined that song being sung over everyone I wanted God to reach, and I think I remember asking him to accept it as a prayer and to use it.
  • As an actor, I have a hard time separating myself from the characters I play. 
  • As a person, I have a hard time not sponging up the moods of the people around me. 
  • There was this one time as a kid when our youth group or Girl Scout troop paid a visit to a cemetery. We were there to do grave rubbings or something. At some point, I separated myself from the group and just walked alone, in this otherworldly state of mind, contemplating the weight of life and death. The other 11-or-so-year-old girls in our group came up to me and were like, "Are you okay?" and I had no idea how to explain what I was going through. That is one of many experiences that I don't know how to explain except in poetic language (one big reason I am still writing this blog after almost seven years). 
  • Along those lines, a lot of my inner life just does not fit into casual conversation. When I am talking to someone, I am much more interested in and attuned to the essence of who they are and where they are in life than to the image they are wanting me to see of them. I sometimes feel like I can see through people. This is why, as an actor, discussing a character's subtext can feel so natural to me.

Disclaimer: The list above is my attempt to describe a little bit of what it is like to be an HSP, but it is possible that some of the above overlaps with other aspects of my personality type. I am also trying to understand my spiritual gifts, and so some of the above could reflect those aspects of who I am as well. With that said, I believe it is helpful to share these experiences, which I believe are at least in part related to the trait of high sensitivity.

Do you think you have this trait? Or do you think someone you know might be an HSP? I would love to hear from you guys. 

As with the recent rise in the understanding of introversion, I am excited that the trait of high sensitivity is finally being identified and discussed. I feel like I have been waiting for decades to understand myself in this way.

Most of all, I am curious to see what God has to say about why he made me this way and what he wants to do with it. I am starting to believe that as he continues to heal me from the wounds of this trait, he will also continue to bring out his kingdom power in my life. This is truly exciting stuff. 


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