If you’re part of the 15-20% of the population who’s highly sensitive, then you need to know about, understand and embrace these four essential features of being a highly sensitive person (HSP).
These are what define us as highly sensitive people (as identified by Dr Elaine Aron, who first identified this trait).
The four key features are known as the DOES model, which stands for:
- Depth of processing
- A propensity towards Over-stimulation
- Emotional responsivity and empathy
- Sensory sensitivity as well as a capacity to sense the subtle
Let’s look at each aspect in turn – because in understanding lies acceptance, and in acceptance lies freedom.
#1 Depth of Processing
The HSP’s brain processes information it receives more deeply than a non-HSP.
Of course, all human brains process the data coming into to us from the environment through our senses – comparing it to stored memories and information, making connections – but HSPs do it more deeply.
We pick up on more details. We reflect and investigate. We pick up on energies around us.
And all this extra sensory data our brains are receiving must be processed, and HSPs process it more thoroughly than non-HSPs.
This takes time and energy.
Looking back at my life as an employee in universities, I understand now why I found meetings so excruciating. Often I just sat there quietly, berating myself for not speaking up. Then later that day (or the next day) I’d think of something useful and relevant I could’ve shared.
But this is a feature of being highly sensitive. It takes us longer to reflect and digest; we pause and check before acting or talking. But when we’re ready, we will come up with a suggestion or solution which is useful, astute and well-considered.
All of this can feel frustrating – and it can be exhausting.
But, remember the gift here is that what you have to offer has been well thought-through and will be insightful and relevant.
If you’re taking in the energy and the finer details of the environment around you and processing it all deeply, then you’re going to reach saturation point more quickly.
Everyone has a point where they’ve experienced too much stimulation and they need a rest or to take a break.
It’s just that for HSPs that threshold is way lower than for non-HSPs.
This reminds me of a family child’s birthday party quite a few years ago, full of rampaging toddlers and people I didn’t know very well, all in a relatively small space. I ended up having to go upstairs to have a nap after a couple of hours, I was so exhausted! At the time I thought it was a bit weird – now it makes total sense to me. I’d tipped over into sensory overwhelm and needed a complete break to reset my nervous system.
Whenever there’s more to notice (e.g. in a loud, crowded open space) or the situation is complicated (e.g. you’re trying to take in new information with new people and your progress is being monitored) or a situation lasts a long time (e.g. a long train journey or air travel) or is very intense (e.g. a noisy and cluttered environment) you’re going to wear out sooner through having to process so much.
You’re going to feel tired and/or wired. You’re going to need a break.
Non-HSPs won’t notice so much and because they don’t have so much to process, they won’t tire so quickly.
Over-stimulation stresses HSPs. It’s our nervous system responding and going into overwhelm.
But we also consider things more deeply; we look at and understand different sides of the issue and can see it from different angles.
Which brings us to…
#3 Emotional responsivity/empathy
HSPs react more strongly to both negative and positive experiences and images.
A series of studies carried out by Jadzia Jagiellowicz found that HSPs particularly react more than non-HSPs to pictures with a “positive valence” – this is a psychological term which refers to the intrinsic attractiveness or “goodness” of a person, situation, object or event.
This means that HSPs are wired to see the good in people and the world around them.
So high sensitives will tend to respond particularly well to positive experiences, people and environments.
But it does mean we tend to be more strongly affected by negative people, information and events and stressful situations.
E is also for empathy – the ability to share and understand the feelings of others.
We HSPs have a natural predisposition to understand people – to really see them and get them. To see beyond the surface and share in the feelings of others.
Sensitives tend to try to avoid conflict. We have a propensity to want to help others, and to help them feel better. And we have an intuitive sense of what would help them feel better or more comfortable in the given situation.
A beautiful trait to have … as long as we don’t get stuck in a pattern of prioritizing others’ needs above our own…
Embrace the gift: we see the best in people and situations, we understand and share the feelings of others – sorely needed in the often unkind and judgmental culture we inhabit in the West.
#4 Sensory sensitivity, including Sensing the Subtle
The technical term for high sensitivity is “Sensory Processing Sensitivity”: where the central nervous system has an increased sensitivity to physical, social and emotional stimuli.
An HSP’s nervous system is more sensitive to the data coming in via our senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, hearing.
When talking to clients I often offer the example of walking into a room:
An HSP might notice:
- There are six people in the room.
- Something in this room has been cleaned recently – there’s a strong hint of detergent, which, mixed with the scent of that guy’s cologne is really overwhelming!
- The fluorescent lights feel really uncomfortable to my eyes.
- Gosh, that person is giving off a funny vibe, they’ve had an argument with someone today.
- That person isn’t feeling comfortable standing, I think they’re wanting to sit down – they seem quite tired.
- I’ll go and stand in the vicinity of that person over there who seems quite friendly but not too loud!
A non-HSP might notice … there are six people in the room … and then they’ll stride over and interject themselves into a conversation.
See what I mean?
High sensitives will tend to notice the little things other people miss.
We also sense the subtle.
It can be in how we’re feeling, how others are feeling, the details in our environment and the simple beauties and pleasures in everyday life.
We notice and we feel. Deeply.
We are energy sponges. We pick up on vibes.
We see deeply into the life of things and sense the interconnection between all living beings.
We are easily moved by art and music and the natural world.
We’re often drawn to healing, counselling, creativity and working in the natural world.
The spiritual aspect to life is a felt reality for us.
This, for me, along with empathy, are where the true gifts of high sensitivity reside.
My sensitivity may sometimes lead me to feeling overwhelmed, but it also brings me the gifts of being moved profoundly by the way sunlight filters through leaves on a late-summer afternoon; of noticing the sheen on a bird’s wing and feeling my heart sing as the birds sing; I see cherry blossom and it frothy pink exuberance makes me tingle all over with the joy of being alive…
My sensitivity leads me to be called to create and hold space for others to connect to their souls, and the mysteries of life and the divine nature of all living beings…
How do you sense the subtle?
Embrace your sensitivity
So, I hope these words have helped you to understand yourself and the trait of high sensitivity a little better.
Please, never refer to your sensitivity as a condition to be managed or a diagnosis or a problem.
I know it’s challenging when you may have lived so much of your life thinking there’s something wrong with you.
As a sensitive you have gifts of insight, intuition, reflection, measured responses, and appreciation of the inter-connectedness of life – all gifts that this world sorely needs.
You are one of the wise counsellors; creatives; and peace-bringers that our culture needs.
And the sooner we sensitives realize and embody this, the sooner we can bring our unique healing gifts to a world in pain.
Embrace your sensitivity beloved fellow sensitive. Find your inner peace.
Because the world needs your light.