All the Feels All the Time: What it Means to be Highly Sensitive

HSP BELatina

In George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece Middlemarch, one of her most famous quotes considered what it might mean to be highly sensitive to every detail within our realm of perception. She wrote, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” In other words, if we were highly attuned to all that surrounds us, we’d end up being completely overwhelmed and unable to function: This is the plight of the Highly Sensitive Person. 

Dr. Elaine Aron, a researcher who wrote the book “The Highly Sensitive Person,” shared with The Telegraph her acronym to describe what she considers to be the traits of a highly sensitive person or an HSP. “I explain the condition in four letters: DOES,” she said. “D is for depth of processing, which is the key to the whole condition. They process everything around them very deeply.” That leads to O, because there’s just so much information (or depth of information) coming in that it’s too much to handle within the context of everyday life; HSPs, find themselves overstimulated or moved more deeply by details that their less-sensitive peers might overlook.

Aron continues, “E is for emotional reactivity and empathy. Research shows HSPs respond more to the emotions of others and to situations in general.” HSPs are incredibly attuned to other people’s emotions. It’s a plight that is similar to the one encountered by empaths — which, according to research cited by Vice, account for 1 to 2 percent of the population. In contrast, HSPs make up approximately 20 percent of the population. Finally, the S stands for sensitive stimuli, things that might register for an HSP but not for others. Stimuli like itchy fabric, jarring noises, violent imagery, or flashing lights can be completely disruptive to an HSP’s equilibrium. 

Reclaiming What it Means to Be Sensitive

Being “too sensitive” is generally considered a negative trait in our society, especially among men who are expected to be stoic in nature. “Man up,” lest you want to be a wimp, and “Never let ‘em see you cry.” Women, on the other hand, are expected to be more sensitive but are regularly dismissed as being too sensitive when it serves the needs of others — for example when women negatively react to comments about their bodies or are cast as being too emotional to sit at the head of a company. 

Add being an HSP on top of all the other baggage a lot of our societies have with what it means to be sensitive, and it could set up that special, highly sensitive 20 percent of us to struggle with our everyday existence as an HSP.

But, as with any trait that we have that makes us “not normal,” being HSP is not inherently a negative thing; in fact, it can be of great benefit. “If you are an HSP you shouldn’t want to ‘cure’ yourself. It’s who you are,” Dr. Ted Zeff, another HSP expert, told The Telegraph. Zeff explained that HSP is more likely to find purpose in pursuits or careers that involve art, music, teaching or caring for others, and suggested that they actually might be well-liked because they are so tapped into the needs of people around them. 

Recognizing that you’re an HSP will go a long way to validating that what you’re feeling is, for one thing, very normal. It also allows you to understand that you’ll thrive in conditions where you’re not bombarded by stimuli. Aron, whose findings have been featured by Oprah Magazine, has a self-test available on her own site that presents statements that you believe to be true or false, including whether you are sensitive to caffeine, are uncomfortable in the presence of loud noises or strong smells, become beyond hangry when you skip meals, and are easily disturbed by having too much to do or too little time to do it. The site also has available a test for parents to use when they want to understand if they have a highly sensitive child; according to Aron’s research, being an HSP is a genetic condition. 

Highly Sensitive People HSP BELatina
Illustration by David Wilson

By the way, Aron emphasizes that neither of these tests are diagnostic, as some of these descriptors also describe other medical conditions. If you’re really struggling to get by on a day to day basis, you’ll want to for example have a clinician rule out mental health conditions like anxiety and depression or have a doctor test you for thyroid imbalances and what not. Also, consider whether you aren’t an HSP but simply really do have too much on your plate or are constantly in dire need of a nourishing meal. 

How to Navigate the World as an HSP

We can look to the conclusion of Eliot’s quote from Middlemarch for some general direction on how this is done. Don’t take it too literally. “As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” As an HSP, you can’t make yourself become “stupid” and change who you are, but you might be able to work toward being “well wadded” by adapting to limit your exposure to stimuli. 

This process can mean anything from literally sticking earplugs in your ears and wearing your sunglasses to a live concert that you otherwise might not be able to enjoy, to carving out time for yourself to meditate in a dark, quiet space. Instead of automatically saying yes to multitasking at work or in the home, consider whether there’s a way for you to only take on one task at a time. Invest in clothing that feels good to you, lest you want to walk around all day completely distracted by uncomfortable underwire or a scratchy wool sweater. Go for a walk if there’s too much going on for you to handle, or simply avoid stinky, crowded, loud places in general. Obviously, these fixes are universally beneficial and can improve anyone’s day, but for an HSP, having a more focused, peaceful existence can make or break their wellbeing and long-term quality of life.

Ironically, Middlemarch is considered one of the greatest novels ever written (in fact, Leo Tolstoy modeled his own masterpiece “Anna Karenina” after Eliot’s book only a few years later). Much of its greatness is due to how poignantly Eliot captured the mundane observations of domestic, everyday life in the town of Middlemarch, which might lead you to speculate whether she herself was an HSP. Regardless, Eliot’s novel is a testament to there being beauty and value in how you, as an HSP, see and process the world. Take heart in feeling all the feels — or, if you’re not an HSP, recognize the people around you who are — and know that as much as it can hurt sometimes, it’s also precisely what makes being an HSP great.