Peter learned he was an HSP in 1997. As a student of sensitivity, he has met 100s of HSPs in person and writes extensively about the trait.
Discovering the HSP Trait
Have you ever been told that you are just "too sensitive?" Or that you are "high maintenance" and seem to make a big deal out of basic parts of life others don't seem bothered by? Or perhaps that you are "psychic" because your intuition is extremely attuned? Or that you are "too intense?"
As a child, were you often thought of as "fussy," and maybe very shy or timid? Have you spent much of your adult life feeling like you just don't fit in; like almost everything you encounter feels overwhelming, or loud, or abrasive? Do bright lights, loud noises and strong smells seem to affect you far more than they do most other people? Do violence and harsh words seem to affect you far more negatively than they do your friends and family? Even if you are really good at a task, do you start "messing up" when people are watching you perform? Even if you are quite social and like people, do you find that you often need to be alone, to "recharge your batteries?" Do you feel deeply moved by art, music and nature, sometimes to the point of tears? Are you generally a very creative person? Do you often follow "gut hunches" that turn out to be right, even when everyone else thinks you're nuts?
If more than a few of the above statements ring true for you, you may be a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP.
"High Sensitivity" is nothing new
Of course, sensitivity is nothing new. Psychologist C.G.Jung explored what he described as "the sensitive temperament," as long ago as the early part of the 1900s. However, it was not until 1996 that research psychologist Dr. Elaine N. Aron explored the possibility that sensitivity may not always be a choice or matter of temperament-- but rather, an inborn genetic trait.
What IS new is the idea that extreme sensitivity is not a condition, or ailment, or the result of some kind of trauma... but rather a natural thing for 15-20% of the population.
Simply put, some people's central nervous systems are actually "hard wired" to be more sensitive, or more finely tuned.
But how do you know whether this is you?
A Life Changing Book
The outcome of Dr. Aron's research on high sensitivity was the landmark book "The Highly Sensitive Person." In this book, Aron explains how an estimated 15-20% of the population is more sensitive, as a result of which they often find the world quite overstimulating. She is also quick to point out that such sensitivity is perfectly natural, and not a "pathology" or "diagnosis" to be fixed, and that it exists not only in humans. but can also be observed in a wide range of animal populations.
The book includes a 27-item "sensitivity self-test" that has become the de facto worldwide standard for determining whether or not a person is an HSP. This quiz can be surprising to some people because it actually measures something other than "emotional" sensitivity, which is not always the defining factor of the trait. For those who are interested, a free online version of the sensitivity self test can be found on Dr. Aron's web site (link opens a new browser tab).
The remainder of the book explores the details of the experience of being highly sensitive and offers an assortment of exercises and insights into being an HSP and socializing, romantic relationships, work, general self care and how to heal old psychological wounds.
It Matters to UNDERSTAND what it Means to Be an HSP
When the book was originally published, the concept of high sensitivity as an inborn trait was met with considerable skepticism from the mental health and medical industry.
However, in the course of the subsequent couple of decades, many independent peer studies have been performed, and it has been established that high sensitivity-- or "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity" as it is now scientifically called-- actually means HSPs use different neural pathways for specific tasks than their non-HSP peers. High Sensitivity no longer lives in the realm of "New Age gobbledigook" or pseudoscience-- it has become documented scientific fact.
Understanding the science of sensitivity is extremely important, especially when you are faced with "skeptics" who try to devalue your sensitivity as "nonsense" or "all in your head."
The Most Valuable Thing You'll Get...
I personally read "The Highly Sensitive Person" in 1997, and it not only helped me understand why I had always felt somewhat out of step with the rest of the world, it also helped me "reorganize" how I live my life in a manner that does allow me to thrive, in spite of the fact that I often feel overwhelmed by things other people take for granted. As such, the words "life changing" are very real to me, when I talk about this book.
The greatest value in this book comes through its power to transform a person's self-perception that "something is wrong" with them, to an understanding that there actually is nothing that "needs to be fixed." That validation, alone, is worth multiples of the 10-odd dollar cost of the book. I've spoken to dozens of fellow HSPs who have experienced a large number of "Aha Moments" as they read the book-- I'm not much of a "salesman," but I really do hope you'll give yourself that opportunity, as well!
In short, if what you've read on this page feels "strangely familiar," you owe it to yourself to read this book!
A few Videos featuring Elaine Aron on the topic of High Sensitivity
In the following videos, Dr. Elaine Aron, psychologist, researcher and author of "The Highly Sensitive Person" speaks about high sensitivity as a trait. These videos are well worth watching, if you think you might be an HSP, or if you know someone you think might be highly sensitive. The are by NO means a "substitute" for buying the book... but they will offer you a sense of what high sensitivity is about.
This first one is a good brief intro to the whole concept:
A longer talk in three parts
This next one is part 1 of a longer talk by Dr. Elaine Aron about high sensitivity-- presentation given in Northern California during 2013. Well worth watching all three parts, if you have the time!
Hope you found the videos useful!
I have attended a number of Elaine Aron's workshops and seminars over the years, and her depth of knowledge not only about the HSP trait, but about neuroscience and psychology in general is amazing.
The Companion Workbook for HSPs
If you are considering getting "The Highly Sensitive Person"-- or you perhaps already own it-- and are interested in doing some more "in-depth work" on understanding the HSP trait as it applies to you personally, you may also wish to consider the companion HSP Workbook.
Whereas the main book is a fairly quick and easy read, the workbook demands a lot more introspection and self-examination. It definitely requires a willingness to sit with and example older deeper wounds, as part of the path to self-understanding.
I bought the workbook and worked through the exercises several years after first learning that I was an HSP, and I am very glad that I did.
This book is also well suited to working in a group, with weekly "assignments" and meetings. I know of a number of people who have participated in online study groups for the HSP Workbook and have benefited greatly from doing so.
Thank you for reading this article! Please feel free to leave a comment, suggestion or other feedback... or share your own opinion of the book, or your experien
Maggie on October 19, 2016:
This describes me. It is very interesting because all this time I've dealt with people who have called me crazy, clairvoyant, witch. When I don't have a mean bone in my body! Recently, I had to see a counselor about things I was seeing at work. He was the one who said I was hyper sensitive!
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend, WA, USA on April 20, 2014:
@Colin323: It's definitely an eye-opener with a lot of explanations, if it feels like the description applies to you... or someone close to you.
Colin323 on April 20, 2014:
I've ordered this book. Thanks for the heads-up.
DebW07 on January 13, 2014:
Sounds like a good book. Thanks!
Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on January 11, 2014:
I find this very interesting as I like to learn more about different types of people. I took the sensitivity test but only got 8 out of all the statements.