You’re at work and an email comes in from the boss, providing a few tweaks to a presentation you spent all week working on. You know that most of the feedback is no big deal, but nevertheless, it leaves you feeling like complete, total crap.
Even though you logically realize there’s loads of evidence that proves you’re a smart, efficacious person, you can’t seem to shake the terrible feeling of inadequacy. Although others might not find this situation such a big deal, to you it holds the weight of predicting your entire career to be a failure.
Sound familiar? If so, you may be one of the 20 percent of people who fall into the “highly sensitive person” (HSP) category.
In general, this includes people who feel everything in the world around them more intensely, from emotions to sights and sounds. This can manifest itself in heightened sensitivities including an aversion to loud noises and itchy clothes as well as a keen ability to pick up on others’ feelings or concerns, however subtle.
The Highly Sensitive Person
Highly sensitive people tend to react more strongly to environmental stimuli and notice more details than other people. If you’re an HSP, you have may felt out of place growing up, wondering why you were so deeply affected by the world around you while your friends brushed it off. Because HSPs sense and react so intensely, they often report feeling isolated, like there is something wrong with them for being so sensitive. And often when people notice that you’re so sensitive, they’ll point it out, making you even more self-conscious of your emotions and reactions.
While being an HSP may come with its fair share of challenges, it’s far from all bad. By leveraging your special way of being in the world, you’re better suited to deliver enviable traits that help you excel and flourish in any relationship.
Wondering if you may be a highly sensitive person? Here are 10 key qualities that signal you may fit the profile, and if so, how to craft your sensitivity into an advantage.
- You’re used to hearing “don’t take things so personally”—HSPs tend to react more strongly to situations, both good and bad. If people are often telling you not to take things so personally or not to be so sensitive, that may be a sign that you fall into this category. HSPs are also empaths, meaning they possess a keen ability to sense others’ feelings, needs, insecurities, etc. Your emotional intelligence makes you a master at problem-solving, conflict resolution, and inspiring others to action.
- Receiving feedback is your worst nightmare—Because they are sensitive to subtleties and nuances, HSPs react more strongly to criticism than non-HSPs. Therefore, they may go out of their way to avoid being criticized, such as by working extra-hard and sacrificing to their own detriment in order to please others.
- You live inside your head—HSPs are often highly imaginative, creative people who have vibrant inner lives. Their high levels of empathy can lead them to imagine the feelings and thoughts of others. This can help them find creative solutions to problems, but can also lead to anxiety if what you’re imagining tends toward the negative.
- Decisions are majorly stress-inducing—HSPs are maximizers, meaning they often struggle to make decisions out of fear of choosing the “wrong” option even if the stakes are low (such as choosing whether to buy a black or navy shirt). Because HSPs are so conscientious about how their decisions impact others or how they may be perceived, all choices—even small ones—carry immense weight. Putting routines around decisions, such as knowing if your energy is highest in the morning or evening, can help you become less fearful about decision-making and can help you take action more quickly.
- You’re a stickler for details—HSPs are extremely perceptive. They pick up on the specifics of situations and notice the tiniest changes—from pointing out that the CEO has a habit of always wearing the same suite Tuesdays to catching typos in a presentation. This detail-orientation is a highly positive trait in many scenarios, such as when you’re perfecting a pitch to your boss or trying to connect with a particularly tricky client. You’re highly attuned to others’ likes, dislikes, and preferences, and that perceptiveness can win you friends and allies right off the bat. On the flipside, your meticulousness for crossing every “t” and dotting every “I” can also drive you crazy if you don’t manage it carefully. Remember, sometimes done is better than perfect.
- You exude kindness—If you’re often complimented on your politeness, courtesy, and clear understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong, you have many of the characteristics of an HSP. You’re probably the champion of integrity and upholding your word at the office and in your friend group. While these traits are important to creating relational harmony and engendering likability and trust inside the boardroom or out at a bar, HSPs are often peeved by rudeness or errors, further compounding feelings of isolation and feeling different.
- You’re a problem solver—Attention to detail, commitment to perfecting projects, and dedication to hard work are qualities that make HSPs great team members. You may have noticed you’re an expert at sitting down and banging out a high-quality project, but may struggle to get on board with ideas pitched by the pie-in-the-sky, visionaries at your company. Project-people to a fault, HSPs are able to sense conflict and help mitigate it before it becomes a problem, and they can help keep the group on track. However, due to their difficulty with decision-making, highly sensitive people aren’t great at making the final say.
- Tiny annoyances grind your gears—Ever left a meeting and remarked about your client’s extremely annoying, incessant pen-tapping only for your coworker to say, “Oh, I didn’t notice that”? Highly sensitive people feel noise, chaos, and other external stimuli profoundly, so what may be a major annoyance to you could go pretty much unnoticed by a non-HSP.
- You go through tissues like it’s your job—Are you one of those classic Hallmark-commercial-weepers who cries at both happy moments and sad? If so, that might indicate you’re an HSP. HSPs become overwhelmed more easily than others, and that often manifests itself in tears. But how great do you feel after a good, hard cry? Crying is a constructive, healthy release of emotions and thought-patterns. A good cry can reset your mood and mind to be more productive and even-keeled later.
- You’d rather go for a run than play on a volleyball team—Have you ever gone to an exercise class and felt like everyone was watching you, never to return to it again? HSPs tend to prefer solo activities and sports such as running, spin, or swimming over group settings because they hate feeling closely observed. For this same reason, highly sensitive people often prefer work environments where they can control the external stimuli, such as how well-lit, quiet, or uncluttered their workspace is, making them partial to working from home as opposed to an office with an open layout. Unlike most people, HSPs have the rare strength of being able to be alone without being lonely, enabling them to be more productive and satisfied by intrinsic factors (such as finding meaning and enjoyment in their work), rather than external ones (such as money or prestige).
Being a highly sensitive person can sometimes feel like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people appreciate your politeness, depth of personality, and overall conscientiousness. On the other hand, things that non-HSPs find relatively easy, such as receiving feedback and making decisions, can send you into a downward emotional spiral.
If you can relate to any of the above scenarios and have spent your life confused and upset for acting these ways, better understanding the qualities that compose the HSP profile can shed light on some of your challenges. Next time you’re feeling totally out of sync with other people around you, think instead about ways that you can use these traits as gifts and leverage them as strengths.