One in five of us are born with the trait and there's actually some serious strength in it. Here's how to find out whether you're an HSP and use your sensitivity to get ahead in work and in life

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Are you often told to ‘stop being so sensitive,’ or to ‘toughen up?’ Do you get stuck in your own head, experience regular overwhelm or feel a need to withdraw on a frequent basis? If yes, then you could be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

Sensitivity is a sensitive subject. It’s often regarded as something we need to be less rather than more of. I know that when one of my best friends described me as ‘sensitive’ in a game where we had to pick three adjectives for one another, I took it as an offence rather than a compliment. But (as she later told me), she hadn’t meant it as an insult, just as a way to show an appreciation of how I can pick up on things in a room that most other people don’t. It was a good thing.

It hit a nerve initially though due to the connotations that I associate with the word (weakness, fussiness, easily offended…). But it turns out that my friend’s refreshing perspective reflects a growing school of thought that views more extreme versions of the trait as a strength rather than a weakness. High sensitivity is being celebrated - and about time too.

What is a highly sensitive person?

“An HSP, in my experience, is someone who experiences the world in an unusually deep way,” Michelle Woodall , counselling psychotherapist and HSP specialist tells me. “This depth originates from their sensitivity, an ability to pick up on details through a more sensitised receptivity to the stimulus around them, and the ability to reflect on this information in a meaningful way.”

Despite it being estimated that 1.4 billion people have the trait (with one in five of us being born with it), it’s hugely misunderstood. The ‘highly sensitive’ can often be inaccurately described as ‘highly strung,’ and it can therefore be seen as a negative rather than a positive in today’s world where very often, only the loudest are heard.

That’s not to say though that HSPs are shy, silent, wallflower types. Psychotherapeutic counsellor and HSP Mel Collins, sees a mixture of introverts and extroverts who exhibit HSP tendencies in her line of work and counts them as some of the strongest people she knows. “HSPs contribute huge value to society,” she highlights. “This value tends to be more recognised in countries such as Japan, Sweden and China where their culture is more accepting and nurturing of behaviour associated with the sensitivity trait. For example, in Japan, things like gesture, body language, being ‘tuned’ into the moods of people and the use of silence are viewed by many as important communication skills.”

Appreciation for HSPs and their traits is definitely increasing on our side of the pond though with new book releases such as Give a F**k  by journalist and life coach Felicity Morse and The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People  by Mel Collins, helping us embrace rather than shy away from our sensitivity superpowers - much like the ‘kindfulness’  movement did last year.

HSPs make highly effective leaders and managers because of their person-centered skills, empathic abilities, attention to detail, ability to see ‘the bigger picture,’ loyalty and dedication

What are the traits that a highly sensitive person has?

In Mel’s experience, the following are some of the most common traits shared by HSPs:

  • They process emotions more deeply than someone without the trait, and often for longer;
  • They can be more reactive on an emotional level to events in their life or to the positive and negative emotions of others;
  • They can pick up on subtleties that others are unaware of and are highly empathic;
  • They can get affected by environmental and sensory stimuli and have a low tolerance of high levels of stimulation (which can lead to instances of overwhelm);
  • They can be extremely intuitive, reflective and deep thinking;
  • They can often be considered perfectionists;
  • Many are artistic or creative;
  • They have a strong sense of duty;
  • They tend to avoid public speaking;
  • They are acutely sensitive to loud noises, crowds or negativity and they often feel like they need to withdraw to a quiet place or be in nature to recharge.

I’ll be quite honest with you, I’ve never resonated more with a list before. It’s somewhat comforting to know that enough people exhibit the above to deem the trait worthy enough of closer examination (and that I now no longer need to blame being a Pisces for it either too).

It’s also great to know that these qualities won't hold you back. One of the biggest misconceptions that Mel would like to see put right is that HSPs are too ‘soft’ or too ‘emotional’ to make strides personally and professionally. “HSPs make highly effective leaders and managers because of their person-centered skills, empathic abilities, attention to detail, ability to see ‘the bigger picture,’ their loyalty and dedication,” she tells me. “Many HSPs are CEOs or have high-ranking or senior positions in their chosen corporate careers.”

How to make the most of being a highly sensitive person

1. Embrace it

The experts agree that acceptance of your HSP traits is pivotal for unlocking your full potential. This involves, “Solidly building a sense that the way you think and feel is by no means wrong and the way you process the world is an essential part of who you are,” says Michelle. “So often, my clients have been told in so many direct and indirect ways (and HSPs are good at picking up on the indirect) that there is something ‘wrong’ with them, because of how they respond, how they feel and how they think.”

By embracing your attributes rather than trying to change them, you’ll feel more confident and authentic and less overwhelmed, and this will be reflected in your behaviour.

2. Don’t allow your energies to get drained

Your empathy is a huge strength, but as Mel highlights, it’s important to learn how to not absorb other people’s energies or emotions: “This is vital for HSPs to thrive. Many HSPs either end up feeling like a sponge that is completely saturated or end up feeling completely drained, especially those who work in caring professions.”

3. Don’t feel that you need to fix every problem

Due to their great listening skills, a lot of HSPs may find that people pour out their troubles to them. Their sense of duty may make them feel like they have to problem-solve however, there might be instances where it’s best to fight the urge. “It’s a wonderful quality to listen and be supportive and many HSPs thrive doing this,” says Mel. “But a lot of HSPs have a tendency to try and ‘fix’ others instead, so take some time to reflect on whether you do this, and whether you take on people’s problems as your own. If you do, then make a commitment to yourself to stop and work on healing these patterns.”

4. Make self-care a priority

Burnout is common among HSPs because of the fact they are natural givers. “They tend to put others first and their own needs can often get neglected,” says Mel. “They can end up struggling with exhaustion because of this and other aspects of the trait, so they need to take good care of themselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually if they are to thrive.”

5. Make time to enjoy and explore your sensitivities

If you’ve gotten used to fighting your high sensitivity, it can be hard to start seeing it in a new light. One small but effective way to start doing so though is to make time to notice, and more importantly enjoy, your finely-tuned senses. Walks in nature and enjoying all of the smells and sounds around you can be a particularly good way to start in Michelle’s experience, as is taking time to savour all of the flavours in a meal, engrossing yourself in a deeply philosophical book if you’ve been told that you ‘think too much,’...the list goes on. Essentially, anything that you enjoy that taps into a range of different senses and helps you explore all of the various facets of being an HSP.

The change in mindset won’t happen overnight. “It can be a long process, but it’s important to learn which needs must be recognised and valued, so you can live as a sensitive person and develop the resilience to live well in an insensitive world.”

It’s the strength you perhaps never knew you had. If a friend ever describes me as ‘sensitive’ again, I’ll make sure to give them a hug and say ‘thank you.’

Read more: 7 of the best books to boost your mental health.

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