A point of distinction must be made between introverts and highly sensitive people—HSPs. They may appear identical at first glance, but that’s where the similarities end. The HSP is characterized by the acronym DOES, which stands for depth of processing, overstimulation, emotional reactivity, and sensing the subtle. This all amounts to HSPs wearing a proverbial hearing aid turned up to the max when none is needed. They are sensitive, and this merely overlaps with social capacity and recharging.
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A final piece of the temperament spectrum is to distinguish between introverts and similar labels. The general perception of introverts—most usually coming from non- introverts—is that in addition to having different social leanings and insights, they’re really, really sensitive.
That may be true to a certain extent.
The way introverts deal with the world at least implies that they’re more emotionally responsive to certain sensory stimuli.
But there are important differences between introverts and what are known as highly sensitive people, or HSPs for short. on coined the term HSP in the: 1990
They found that HSPs make up roughly 15–20% of the general population, so they are not as rare or misunderstood as they may sometimes feel.
While introverts and HSPs have some things in common, it’s important to draw a distinction so you can understand yourself better.
HSPs are viewed differently according to who’s doing the viewing.
Those who are more inclined to be intuitive (and diplomatic) might call HSPs “empaths,” people who have an almost otherworldly ability to understand someone else’s mental or emotional being.
Those who are clinical professionals might say HSPs possess “sensory processing sympathy,” which amounts to an extremely sensitive central nervous system and a strong response to various stimuli.
And people who are insensitive would call HSPs “too darned sensitive.” How do you detect if someone’s a highly sensitive person?
Remember that like being an introvert, sensitivity is a quality, a personal characteristic.
It is not a character flaw, nor is it a terrific asset.
It’s simply something someone is.
You either have a lot of it, not enough of it, or just the right amount.
HSPs tend to get overly affected by excessive outside stimuli.
They may get overwhelmed out by extremely bright lights or loud noises.
They may be overly affected by a sentimental song or a tear-jerking movie.
HSPs do have a stronger response to negative experiences.
They feel profound impact when they feel slighted or hurt.
HSPs are also susceptible to being greatly offended by people who sincerely have no intent to hurt or criticize them.
When it comes to downtime, HSPs don’t just like it—they desperately need to have it.
After they’ve spent a hectic day in a thriving, overactive, and possibly threatening world, HSPs absolutely need a prescribed amount of time to relax and recover.
The same researchers who coined the term went on to elaborate that HSPs are characterized by DOES—an acronym that describes four of the main traits of the HSP.
D stands for depth of processing.
HSPs do not simply hear something—they hear it, analyze it, ruminate on it, and file it away for later.
In this way, everything becomes interconnected in a web of thoughts and processing.
This makes the subtlest stimuli grow in size, sometimes to unreasonable heights.
Research by professor Jadzia Jagiellowicz has confirmed that there is extra activity in the parts of the brain of an HSP when put to tasks of analysis and observation.
O stands for overstimulation.
This is where the comparison to introverts may primarily come from.
HSPs are more prone to feeling overwhelmed by their environments, including the people around them.
Naturally, this causes them to want to retreat to solitude.
In addition, if everything in an environment appears to hold significance and meaning through deep processing, then it can be difficult to understand what to focus on.
E stands for emotional reactivity.
What does this mean?
It means that HSPs are more easily triggered into negative or positive emotional states.
A single movie can cause tears of terror, happiness, sadness, or anger.
For this reason, E also stands for empathy—feeling the emotions of other people and assuming them as your own.
This is partially because the mirror neurons of the HSP—neurons that put us into the perspective of whatever we are observing—are particularly active.
S is for sensing the subtle.
Something is never nothing; something always has to be something.
This means that even in a blank room, an HSP may find something to question or analyze.
There is always significance that can be teased out; the radar is always functioning at high alert.
Obviously, this can be tiring, especially when the subtle truly turns out to be nothing.
This isn’t necessarily about having great vision or powerful hearing aids—it’s about perceiving complexity in all areas of life.
Taken together with the other elements of DOES, you can see how the HSP can feel paralyzed and simply want to spend time alone—something they share with introverts.
Introverts and HSPs do share some rather identifiable similarities.
Both types deal with heightened sensitivities.
Both of them have neural bases for their “conditions.” Both tend to be more cautious, and both place a high value on “me time.” However, there are a few major ways in which introverts and HSPs contrast.
Not all HSPs are introverts.
Studies have seen that three out of 10 highly sensitive people actually lean toward extroversion.
They process emotions with great complexity and have to recharge themselves after extensive overstimulation—but they also feed off the energy of social contact and consort with a lot of other people.
Introverts do the reverse:
they discharge energy in social situations.
Long exposure to them eventually wears them out and they have to recharge.
HSPs are not identified by the expense or collection of social energy, however.
Their state doesn’t have anything to do with the increase or decrease of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, the brain’s pleasure and reward regulator, and what roughly defines introverts and extroverts.
Rather, HSPs are defined by their special response to stimuli and the deep processing of emotions.
So why are HSPs so sensitive?
It’s all about their central nervous systems.
Human beings function best when their nervous systems are aroused and aware at a reasonable level.
If their nervous systems aren’t sufficiently engaged, then they get bored and potentially depressed.
If their nervous systems are too stimulated, they get stressed out, awkward, clumsy, and basically turn into an overwhelmed mess.
HSPs’ central nervous systems are wired like a time bomb.
They get overstimulated and aroused a lot more quickly than other people—even non- HSP introverts.
This is what defines them.
The more information they have to process, the closer that bomb is to exploding.
That’s why they have deep emotional responses to tear-jerking movies that more hardened people would call too hokey or sappy.
There are two different kinds of mental “systems” that regulate how a person responds to a stimulus:
“behavioral activation” and “behavioral inhibition.” When someone with behavioral activation tendencies receives information from sensory inputs, their brain orders them to move.
Stimuli activate behavior.
Someone with more pronounced behavior inhibition receives that same sensory information but orders the body to move away.
Stimuli inhibit behavior.
HSPs are strong in behavioral inhibition—they seek to avoid mental overstimulation.
I’m worried that I might have painted a picture of HSPs as constantly on edge and liable to detonate at any moment.
That’s not entirely fair, at least in the suggestion that HSPs take away from others’ energies rather than give back to it.
Remember, sensitivity isn’t a defect—it’s simply a trait.
Even with HSPs, what really matters more is what they do with their sensitivity.
They care very strongly about other people’s feelings and can channel those deep feelings into great works of charity or assistance.
They have no hesitation in expressing great gratitude for what they have.
They can also enjoy events, food, entertainment, and other simple pleasures on a level that other people simply can’t.
True, they carry a lot of their past emotions with them—they tend to keep the memory of past failures around for much longer than most other people do—but that ongoing processing of their emotions means they may be able to help other less cognizant people process their emotions.
You might be wondering at this point whether you qualify as a highly sensitive person.
You’ll be happy to know there’s a heavily circulated “test” that purports to give you the answer.
This test contains 23 statements that you can label as “true” or “false” as they pertain to your feelings.
If you feel you strongly or somewhat agree with the statement, you’d mark it “true.” If you strongly or somewhat disagree, you’d mark it false.
Here you go:
• I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment.
• Other people’s moods affect me.
• I tend to be very sensitive to pain.
• I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation.
• I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
• I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.
• I have a rich, complex inner life.
• I am made uncomfortable by loud noises.
• I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
• I am conscientious.
• I startle easily.
• I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
• When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment, I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating). • I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
• I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things.
• I make it a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.
• I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.
• Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.
• Changes in my life shake me up.
• I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, and works of art.
• I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.
• When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.
• When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy.
If you’ve answered “true” to at least 12 of these statements—slightly more than half—then you, too, are probably an HSP.
Remember that sensitivity, even a surplus of it, isn’t an inherent fault.
It’s a trait; it’s simply the way you are.
What matters is how you use your sensitivity for constructive purposes.
It may be a challenge, but it’s loaded with the potential for good.
Show notes and/or episode transcripts are available at https://bit.ly/self-growth-home
Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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