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Are You Highly Sensitive?

Are You Highly Sensitive?

  • Do you experience the world brighter, louder, more intensely than most?

  • Have you noticed that you experience stronger emotions than others?

  • Do you feel that you are overly sensitive?

You May Be a Highly Sensitive Person

You may be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). This is not a joke. There are some of us, about 20% of the population that are born more sensitive than the rest.

Dr. Elain Aron identified the temperament trait in 1991. She then started to gather research on adults to see if others shared her experience of High Sensitivity. At the same time other scientist were studying sensitivity in animals, and still others were studying sensitivity in infants and toddlers. They were all on the same track. Elaine finally wrote the book The Highly Sensitive Person in 1996.

The actual scientific term for the trait, which may fit more accurately is, Sensory Processing Sensitivity.

It is not a disorder or a condition. It is a temperament trait found in 20% of over a 100 species including humans, meaning the trait has survival advantages. It is found in the same percentage in both men and women. You might be thinking this is introversion. It isn’t. Apparently, 30% of HPSs are Extroverts.

How Highly Sensitive People Tick

HSP’s take in and process more stimuli from their environment, and as a result can be easily overwhelmed and need to takes break to settle down. It is not that HSP’s have better senses. There are HSP’s who wear glasses. It has more to do with the way HSP’s process the incoming information. They have a more sensitive nervous system.

Dr. Elaine developed a simple DOES framework for therapeutic professionals to more easily help someone identify if they are an HSP. Here’s a break down of DOES.


  • Deep Processing: HSP’s process information, thoughts, feelings more deeply. This means they can take a while to decide on something, weighing all the factors.

  • Overstimulation: It is easy for HSP’s to get over-stimulated, by doing too many things at once, having to hurry, or even too much caffeine.

  • Emotional – HSP’s have strong emotional responses like crying easily. They are also highly empathetic.

  • Subtleties – HSP’s are sensitive to subtle stimuli in the environment, meaning they notice lights that are too bright, furniture that is uncomfortable, or other’s emotions in the room.

If this sounds vaguely familiar and you are thinking that you might be a Highly Sensitive Person you can take a self-test at www.hsperson.com.

My HSP Journey

Someone suggested I might be Highly Sensitive over a decade ago. I bought the book, then quickly discarded it as too whimpy, thinking, “I’m not an HSP. Those people are just using the title as an excuse for not being able to handle life. Buck up!” I gave the book to Goodwill.

I know - not very empathetic or sensitive huh?

So then how did I come to the conclusion that I am a HSP? Well, I reverse-engineered it. Here’s how.

Susan Clarke and I work with leaders and teams that are dysfunctional, stuck in – or avoiding – conflict. During our work with teams, I started noticing I was having predictable reactions when people were disagreeing. I’d look down, curl my shoulders and my arms in towards my center, and brace. I’d go mute, and dissociate from my body and trying to go somewhere safe, even if just in my own mind.

I didn’t like it.

I got curious about what was happening for me and why. This took me to on my own Mind-Body journey, recognizing that these were signs of chronic childhood trauma.

Growing up, conflict, or let’s be more specific, disagreeing with Dad, felt like igniting a war. The Colonel was not going to lose. To me Dad was loud, scary and ruled with force. He demanded compliance, achievement, order, and efficiency. As a little one I felt terrified, overwhelmed, and helpless to protect myself.

High sensitivity was a clear detriment.

To survive I armored up, focused on achieving, and built a drive to succeed. I now realize that I forced my High Sensitivity into a box, underground. By the time I left for college stress related physical issues began to pop up. I had back problems, and allergies, which I believe were a result of the trauma and repressing my natural temperament.

Separating Trauma from High Sensitivity

Was it the trauma or High Sensitivity? I looked earlier in my life. Apparently, infants born with this trait show up with a highly negative and difficult temperament, which I did. I was a colicky, finicky baby. As I progressed into adolescence, common complaints about me were:

“Why do you have to be so emotional?!”

“Don’t be so picky!”

“You’re always so sensitive!”

“Why do you have to be the Princess and the Pea?”

Okay, Okay, Maybe I am an HSP!

While this was a revelation, I was still stuck with my uncomfortable reaction in the midst of conflict. First, I worked with Sherrie Toews, a therapist-coach at Effortless Momentum (www.EffortessMomentum.com) to help me process through the emotions of the childhood trauma.

Then I realized that my highly sensitive nervous system was chronically dysregulated. I started working with Irene Lyons, a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (www.irenelyon) who taught me how physically settle my fight, flight, and freeze response on a daily basis. I wrote about a couple of the tools she taught me in my previous 406 Magazine article: Stress: It Doesn’t Have To Be “The New Normal”

This work provided so much relief for me that I was able to tell my personal story of conflict growing up in our TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It!

Recognizing The Positive Side of My HSP

There’s a silver lining to everything. Because I’m an HSP, I have always learned things pretty naturally, as if my body is figuring it out for me.

This applies to physical activities such learning a new dance, following my partner’s lead, or emotional connection. In yoga, my instructor Jodi Petlin of Shanti Yoga (www.shantiyogamontana.com) has told me that my body is intelligent because it can easily adjust into a pose. Even when we are working with a new business team, I am able to assimilate the nuances of their business and culture quickly, without effort.

My High Sensitivity has made me a successful actor. On stage it is helpful to take what your scene partner is doing or saying personally. Hell, I am awesome at taking things personally, noticing subtle shifts in demeanor, and boy can I have an authentic emotional response!

As a coach and consultant, I am highly empathetic and comfortable with all things emotional. Since I have struggled to calm my nervous system and find my own voice in conflict, I find I am very suited to helping other women do the same.

Today as an HSP

Now, working with business team clients I know how to ground in my own body even when something uncomfortable is happening on the team. I am able to find my voice in the midst of conflict to say, “I’m uncomfortable with what is happening right now.”

I still don’t like conflict, but I now have the tools to actively settle my nervous system and am explicit if I need to take a break. What I have found is that when I can lean into it, meaning tolerate the tension that does arise in me, without going away, I help the team do the same.

Basic HSP Self-Care Tools

If you think you are an HSP here are some basics to take care of yourself:

• Avoid Overstimulation

Notice when you are getting agitated, and overwhelmed. Don’t try to push through it. See if you can take some time to reduce the stimulation – take a walk, close the door to your office. Even short little breaks will help your nervous system settle. Long term you might want to build in regular meditation or alone time.

• Learn To Say “No.”

Often we think we should keep up with everyone else’s pace and activity. It doesn’t work for you as a HSP. Learn to say “No.” You don’t need to give any explanation. If you do explain, the other person is liable to try to convince you to say yes with all their good ideas. Just say, “That doesn’t work for me.”

• Reframe Your Childhood

If you are a HSP that grew up in good environment you will be well resourced because you took in more of the good. If you are HSP that grew up in a chaotic or traumatic environment, you may need to do some repair work to help you recover, because the chaos likely impacted you more. If that takes you to therapy, go with it. Don’t be dissuaded by people who say, “Oh, get over it. Everyone had a hard childhood.” Get the support you need.

Often growing up we felt defective, like a failure, or that something was wrong with us. High Sensitivity is like being left handed – you either are or you aren’t. So take time to heal any past wounds from your childhood.

In Summary

If you think you, your child, or your partner might be an HSP, go to www.hsperson.com. There are books, self-tests, newsletters and even workshops.

Our culture is not kind to the sensitive. Just like my dad, we seem to value toughness, speed, and invincibility. However, HSP’s have many gifts to offer. They are often our artists, thought leaders, and advisors. Please see beyond the cultural norm, and learn how to take care of yourself.

Finally, it is important that HSPs stand up for themselves. Instead of using your trait as an excuse or a club, become proactive in managing your own needs. You’ll be so much happier!

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke are Master certified life coaches, business consultants, speakers and authors of The Beauty of Conflict. They believe real relationships are the key to creating great business results. They’ll take your team from mediocre to great.

Interested in coaching? Check out CrisMarie’s executive coaching and personal coaching, or Susan’s personal coaching and equus coaching.

Want to take a class? Sign up for one of their virtual classes: Get Unstuck, Relationship Mojo or come to their signature retreat Find Your Mojo in Montana. Click here to check out all their service offerings.

Click here to contact them to coach with you, consult with your team, or speak at your next event.

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