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The Superpowers of Highly Sensitive People

Just because I'm Lord Voldemort doesn't mean I don't have feelings. There just homicidal feelings.

OK, for all you sensitive people out there, I have one piece of advice offered by JFK. "better to give an ulcer than to get an ulcer". It's always worked for me. You're welcome.


The Superpowers of Highly Sensitive People

Strategies that sensitive people use to cope with their overwhelming moments can be helpful for others

Elizabeth Bernstein, WSJ

Updated March 7, 2023 8:03 am ET

I cried three times in three days recently. When I heard a country song on the radio about a son missing his late father. When I saw the moon, Venus and Jupiter rise above a stunning sunset.

And when the massive old iguana that lived in my backyard—that I’d hated—died unexpectedly. “I know he was a nuisance, but I feel really bad for him,” I told a neighbor.

“Well, he’s in iguana heaven now,” he said. “Good riddance.”

Some people are more sensitive than others. Psychologists, neuroscientists, educators and others refer to them as highly sensitive persons, or HSPs. If you’re not one yourself, I bet you know someone who is.

HSPs process information more deeply than other people. They’re very responsive to emotions, both their own and those of others. And they’re often more attuned to sensations, such as taste, touch, sound or smell.

Scientists have been examining HSPs for decades. Researchers believe that sensitivity occurs on a spectrum: About 20% to 30% of people are HSPs, including both men and women. A similar amount have low sensitivity, while the majority are in the middle.

High sensitivity—another term is environmental sensitivity—is an innate, stable trait, requiring some HSPs to employ next-level coping skills. They use strategies such as setting boundaries, scheduling downtime and planning positive experiences.

These tactics often enable them to thrive in their personal lives and careers. They are also a great blueprint for everyone.

HSPs are more thoroughly attuned to both positive and negative information, says Elaine Aron, a psychologist and author of “The Highly Sensitive Person,” who coined the term HSP in the 1990s. She says that brain scans of HSPs show differences in neural activity, compared with non-HSPs. They’re more empathic and more attuned to their environment—often picking up on subtleties others miss, including social cues.

I’ve written about HSPs in the past. Now, there’s increasing attention to them, much of it focusing on the benefits of being sensitive.

In May, an international conference on sensitivity research will be held in Italy, with sessions on the highly sensitive brain and high sensitivity in parents. A new film, “Sensitive Men Rising,” will premiere in time for Father’s Day. And last week a book on the inner strengths of HSPs, called “Sensitive,” came out.

“In the past, there’s been a stigma about being sensitive, where people see it as a weakness,” says Andre Sólo, one of the book’s co-authors and co-founder of a website for HSPs. “But sensitive people are strong—and they can be a source of compassion and clarity for others.”

Actor Luke Goss has played a gangster, a monster, a hit man and a king. Yet he considers himself “hypersensitive” and says he cries often, such as when he hears someone has lost a loved one. He got teary-eyed during our interview when talking about how much sadness he sees in the world.

Recently, when a bird flew into his window, he scooped it up and—with tears in his eyes—said a prayer.

“I’m a big softy,” says Mr. Goss, 54, who says his sensitivity has helped him add depth to the characters he plays.

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Overwhelmed by personal losses over the past few years, Mr. Goss began painting and writing songs and sharing them on his Instagram account, often talking about his feelings about love, faith and sorrow. People responded by opening up, too.

“Sensitivity is a secret weapon,” he says. “It can bring people together.”

High sensitivity is found within more than 100 species, including monkeys, dogs, fish, rats and even spiders, research shows. Having some individuals with the trait likely benefits a species’ survival, says Michael Pluess, a professor of psychology at Queen Mary University of London. “They can pick up on threats and dangers more quickly and can inform others,” he says.

HSPs excel at many things. They’re perceptive, reflective, caring and imaginative. They make excellent therapists, teachers, coaches, musicians and artists.

Yet, it can be tough to be someone who feels sadness deeply, is quick to cry and is prone to becoming overwhelmed. Here’s some advice for HSPs—that really applies to everyone.

Embrace being sensitive.

Many people are successful in jobs and relationships because of their sensitivity. Make a list of the times yours has benefited you. This will help you see it as a strength.

Allocate your energy.

It can be exhausting to process information so deeply. This puts HSPs at risk for burnout.

Recognize that your energy is finite. Dr. Aron, who is an HSP, imagines her daily energy as a pie: She divides it up into “pieces”—the periods when she needs to be focused—and is careful not to consume too much at one time.

Schedule downtime.

The sensitive brain needs a rest. Put downtime on your calendar each day. “This prevents overstimulation and it’s often when new ideas, breakthroughs, or solutions will come to you,” Mr. Sólo says.

He recommends you choose a “sensitive sanctuary”: a favorite armchair, park or maybe even your bathtub. Having a go-to quiet spot will signal to your brain that it’s time to relax.

Recently, I started taking 10-minute breaks—I set a timer—on a daybed in my sunporch. I close my eyes and slowly repeat this mantra: “Just rest.”

It helps a lot.

Set boundaries.

This can be difficult for HSPs, because they’re attuned to other people’s emotions and feel bad if they let them down, Dr. Pluess says.

Here’s a strategy: Remind yourself that you need to say no because you feel awful when you’re overwhelmed.

Then offer an explanation, such as: “I’d love to see you, but I’ve been working hard and I need to give my brain a rest.”

Create more positive experiences.

HSPs can get a bigger boost from positive experiences because they feel them more deeply, Dr. Pluess says.

So do more things that make you happy. Hang out with your favorite people. Spend time in nature. Check out an art exhibit. Have a solo dance party.

Trust me on that last one. I’m sensitive.

Are You Highly Sensitive?

For those interested in determining whether they are highly sensitive, Dr. Aron's book includes a quiz, which is below.

Answer each of the following questions by checking the box labeled 'yes' if the statement is at least somewhat true for you. Check 'no' if the statement is not very true or not at all true for you.

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