1-Sentence-Summary: The Highly Sensitive Person is a self-assessment guide and how-to-live template for people who feel, relate, process, and notice more deeply than others, and who frequently suffer from overstimulation as a result.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
One of my favorite Superman moments is when, in Man of Steel, a young Clark Kent first discovers his heightened senses. He can hear every faint noise in the classroom, even some happening outside the building. He can see people’s insides, their bones, blood vessels, and organs. Overwhelmed with all the impressions, he runs away and locks himself in a supply closet.
It is not until his mom arrives and tells Clark to “make the world small” that he finally manages to focus on one thing, calm down, and get his senses back under control. Though we don’t have literal superpowers, about 15-20% of us can be described as “highly sensitive.” This trait, too, comes with advantages and drawbacks, and in The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine Aron helps us understand and manage them so we can thrive in a world that’s not exactly designed for us.
Here are 3 lessons to help you decide if you’re “an HSP” and navigate the world a little more smoothly if you are:
- A Highly Sensitive Person (or HSP) has 4 characteristic traits.
- Overstimulation is the one big, recurring problem HSPs experience.
- To better navigate social situations as an HSP, come up with a persona.
Do you commonly feel overwhelmed? Does the world seem too noisy at times? Here’s some insight into what might cause these feelings and how you can deal with them!
Lesson 1: There are 4 traits commonly associated with “Highly Sensitive Persons” or HSPs.
If you just think about it for a second, you probably already have a strong gut feeling on whether you would consider yourself “highly sensitive” or not. That said, our gut can be wrong, so here are the four most common traits that unite most HSPs:
- Deep and thorough information-processing
- Above-average attention to detail
- Highly empathetic and emotional
- Easily overstimulated
According to Dr. Aron, high sensitivity is genetic and often goes hand in hand with ADHD and/or introversion. Thankfully, three of the four main “features” of HSPs are mostly positive.
For example, while it might take you more time to process all the information before making an investing decision, chances are you’ll have a more granular picture of the market when you do and can thus better allocate your money. Likewise, noticing subtleties will allow you to stand out at work, for example by pointing out an important metric in project planning that your boss may have missed. Finally, a strong sense of empathy allows us to form lasting connections with others and share meaningful moments.
Some other fringe, possible-but-not-necessary traits of HSPs are:
- High dexterity and fine motor skills
- Improved creativity
- Early risers
- Heightened sensitivity to stimulative substances like caffeine, alcohol, and medication
What does your gut say now? Are you an HSP based on these traits?
Lesson 2: The price HSPs pay for their heightened senses is overstimulation.
While the first three traits of HSPs mostly help them succeed at work, connect well with others, and have meaningful life experiences, the fourth, overstimulation, can torpedo their inner balance. When you add up the upsides, it makes sense: If you’re good at noticing subtleties, process these subtleties deeply, and react strongly to other people and your own emotions, you’ll also have a tendency to feel overwhelmed by all of life’s infinite inputs.
In today’s world, we are all overwhelmed. Millions of impressions are pushed onto our sensory systems every day. Between social media, work notifications, and ever-present advertisements, many of us feel exhausted at the end of the day. For HSPs, however, overarousal, as Dr. Aron calls it, is especially pronounced.
A pungent smell, shining lights, big groups of people, noisy backgrounds, even acute hunger can send HSPs into a classic freeze-fight-flight-response, and none of the outcomes are pretty. They might shut down and zone out, experience a meltdown and start crying and yelling, or literally run away and hide.
What can you do to handle overstimulation as an HSP? Manage your stimuli as best as you can. You can’t control your environment, but you can control which environments you enter under which conditions. If you haven’t slept well, avoid large public gatherings. Carry headphones, sunglasses, and your favorite scented candle wherever you go. And if you really need a break, don’t be afraid to excuse yourself and spend 5 minutes on the toilet to focus on your breath and calm down.
Everything in life has a price, and for HSPs, their sensory superpowers come with occasional overstimulation — but it’s nothing that can’t be handled.
Lesson 3: Craft a persona to better get along with others as an HSP.
For HSPs, social situations can be challenging. Due to their lower tolerance for stimulation and heightened need for rest and (solo) recovery, others might think they are rude or don’t like them.
One way to deal with these understandable but misguided judgements and expectations is to craft a persona, Dr. Aron suggests. A persona is a role you consciously decide to play for society at large in order to more smoothly navigate social life.
Let’s say you’re the personal assistant to your company’s CEO. Most people will expect you to be lively and quirky, but you can just as well cultivate a reputation for being “a calm, calculated, precise planning machine.” That way, it will be easier to justify the alone time you need to plan your boss’s schedule and have conversations over email instead of the phone. Ultimately, people will respect you and your boundaries because your work speaks for itself. Your role defies people’s expectations, and even though you had to grow into it, it now allows you to be more of yourself on an everyday basis.
Personas can cover an unlimited range of traits and reputations, so if you use them well, the sky’s the limit when it comes to thriving as an HSP!
The Highly Sensitive Person Review
Though now over 25 years old, The Highly Sensitive Person is an informative classic that will open the doors to self-knowledge for many people, especially in today’s super-stimulative environment. Scientifically sound research combined with practical tips make this a book worth picking up for everyone who suspects they might be more sensitive than the average person.
Who would I recommend our The Highly Sensitive Person summary to?
The 13-year-old who struggles with all the inputs from the larger school she recently switched to, the 35-year-old clerk who spends too much time hiding in his office, and anyone who sometimes wishes they could stop the world from spinning at the push of a button, if only for a minute.