What Happened When I Found Out I Was a Highly Sensitive Person

It wasn't until this past year that I realized I was a highly sensitive person (or that that was a thing with a definition and nuances I could totally identify with). Feeling the emotions of others sounds nuts but if you're also an empath you'll know how draining it can be when you pick up on it constantly.

For so long I used to think I was weird for completely avoiding any kind of violent or scary movies but I cannot watch them without my stomach churning and my mind feeling the emotions of the characters. It's exhausting.

Maybe you can relate.

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Here is a list of everything that comes to mind when I think about being an HSP that I always felt made me "weird" or "off" from other people. I'd love to hear if you relate to any of these as well:

  1. Loud noises startle me easily and I find myself overwhelmed when I hear sirens, car horns, or other loud city or driving sounds

  2. My sense of smell is super high, I notice all smells, get instant headaches when I smell cigarette smoke, and often notice smells and scents that others don't pick up on

  3. I find myself emotionally involved and overwhelmed when watching movies or shows that depict intense, dramatic, violent, or fear-based scenes. To the point where I want to curl up in bed. Sometimes where it bothers me for hours afterwards. Even resulting in nightmares, tears, or the feeling that I've experienced it through watching them. Admitting this still feels weird, awkward, and self-centered in many ways. But I no longer watch any type of scary movie or horror films for this reason.

  4. I often find myself overwhelmed with tears when listening to other people share their pain. If I'm not careful to expend extra energy to protect myself or but up a mental barrier when talking to others, I will often find myself in tears or have an extremely hard time holding it together because of the amount of empathy I feel.

  5. If I'm not aware and conscious of how I'm taking on the energy of others, I will find myself "absorbing" other people's moods very easily. For example, if my husband is home and feeling angry or frustrated, it won't take long for me to feel the same way.

  6. I can walk into a room and tell if someone I've never met is feeling "off." This is hard to describe but I've always been able to sense other people's emotions and can instantly tell if they are being truly authentic in the moment or are hiding a deeper emotion. There's a great article that explains this more here. 

  7. Growing up and even still today, it's common to hear things from others like "you're overreacting" or "you're being way too sensitive" or "are you pregnant or something? why on earth is that making you cry?" - I know right, not the most supportive comments.  

  8. I am careful to share when things make me super emotional due to many blank stares and judgement I've gotten in the past. Things like "you shouldn't care so much" or "It's only a _____"

  9. I find myself extremely sensitive to pain, insect bites, and other common occurrences that most people tend to dismiss as no big deal

  10. I feel highly in tune with my body and what it's trying to tell me. I notice almost instantly how certain foods make me feel, what substances or food additives make me shaky, how foods effect my mood, and what I should do to remedy things.

  11. I notice how different pains in my body correlate to moods or experiences I'm having. For instance, I not only feel that stomach or "gut" feeling when my intuition kicks in but I often find my chest tightening when I feel I'm being lied to or when someone is being fake. 

  12. I feel a huge need to withdraw from social activities on a regular basis and love spending time in a dark room on sunny days as a way of "retreating" or "escaping" from overwhelm.

  13. This could be more of an introverted trait but I always want to leave parties earlier than most. In college I would sneak out of parties and head back to my room only to have people constantly bug me or ask me why I had to leave "so soon." It was totally vital for my wellbeing and mental sanity though to have that time to recuperate. 

  14. I hate it when people watch me do things and often accuse my husband of "hovering" when I'm doing things in the kitchen

  15. I absolutely CANNOT stand crowds, big events, loud concerts, loud sports bars with blaring TVs, or anything where I have to be immersed between hundreds of people. This means I'm probably not coming to anything with "Fest" at the end of it.

So what exactly is a Highly Sensitive Person?

First of all, it's not an illness, or a weakness, or a disorder. It's merely an awareness of sensations, noises, and emotional queues that goes much deeper than most people. It's also not a superpower or anything that makes HSPs better than anyone else, it's a unique difference. And I have to add that everyone's experience is different. It's also not an "all or nothing" thing where someone who experiences something at a higher level in one area but not another is or isn't an HSP. Again, it's more a collective awareness and definition of the "symptoms" or nuances of what is typically experienced by HSPs.

Highly Sensitive People are pretty common, ranging from about 15-20% of the population. Their brains process information more deeply and thus they are highly aware of subtleties most can overlook or not think much of. Dr. Elaine Aron has been researching this since 1991 and does a much better job describing it here. 

How do you know if you're an HSP?

Honestly, there isn't one definitive answer or test but there are resources out there that can build your awareness around how much you relate to the nuances of it. 

Here are a couple you can start with:

  • Elaine Aron's Highly Sensitive Test - This is not meant to act as a diagnosis but it was extremely helpful to me 
  • LonerWolf HSP Test - Very similar to the one above but with additional resources or specific articles for you to reference at the end depending on your score. I found these questions were easier to identify with the way they were worded.

What can change after learning about HSPs

Whether you identify with being a HSP or not, knowing that it exists, it's a thing, it's been defined, and more people experience it than you'd assume, can be both a liberating and helpful experience. 

Personally, I now feel more liberated, I judge myself less, and while I don't use it as an excuse to avoid observing my emotions and reactions, it does help me to know that I have a tendency toward feeling overwhelmed, etc. 

I'd love to hear what your experience has been like. Let me know in the comments below. Have you ever felt any of the ways I listed? Do you know someone else who might be an HSP? 

Sarah Steckler