You might have heard the term HSP and wondered if it applies to you or some of your coworkers, or perhaps even your partner. Understanding this trait will be helpful to you in any case as it may help you advocate for yourself, navigate your relationships more effectively, and to better support others.
WHAT IS AN HSP?
Dr. Elaine Aron was in conversation with her therapist when they suggested that perhaps she was highly sensitive.1 The idea of being highly sensitive intrigued Elaine so much she went on to research and in the early 90s defined the trait that is also known clinically as Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
It is important to note it is quite distinct from Sensory Processing Disorder which includes difficulties in organizing and responding to information that arrives through the senses and which can have a significant impact on learning and daily life.
People who have the trait are most often referred to as HSPs, with HSP standing for “highly sensitive person”. Elaine defines the term as “a preference to process information more deeply”. I would add the word “involuntary” in advance of preference, as there is little to no choice involved. The trait is present in about 20% of the population, so I can guarantee you know someone who is an HSP…even if they don’t know it yet. HSPs’ brains light up differently in fMRI studies compared to non-HSPs when given tasks that involve perception involving subtle differences.
Let’s tackle the word “sensitive” as it can put some people off. Sensitivity is an under-valued quality in North American culture and, despite its great value, can be perceived by some as a sign of weakness. Here, sensitivity does not relate only to emotional sensitivity and easily finding oneself in tears, though that is possible for some. In fact, Elaine confesses she would rename the trait if she could start over, perhaps replacing sensitive with the word perceptive or responsive. Our sensitivity or responsiveness extends to the physical, mental and emotional.
Since the term is out in the world, I’m going with it so those who have learned about it can find the Happy Space Pod and podcast, but it’s worth understanding the trait includes some other qualities. Elaine refers to them with the acronym DOES (pronounced like the verb, not the noun, though I think the image of female deer is probably apt).
D – Depth of Processing – we spend more time dealing with new information and thinking about it more deeply… which can definitely be exhausting. The dark side is tendency to overthink.
O – Overstimulation – we can be extremely sensitive to high stimulation environments – think crowds, busy roads, and noisy restaurants, as well as rough fabrics!
E – Empathy & Emotional Reactivity – we have greater reactions to both positive and negative experiences with mirror neurons activating in response to pictures conveying emotion, even in people we don’t know. Further, our brains are noticeably more responsive to positive stimuli.
S – Sensitivity to subtle stimuli – we pay attention to everything. Couple that with our empathy and you’ll find us looking out for others.
WHAT HSPs NEED AND WHAT YOU CAN DO TO PROVIDE SUPPORT
- We need time to process thoughts. From you, we appreciate patience while we form our ideas and actions.
- We are sometimes over-stimulated. From you, we appreciate empathy and compassion. Compassion in the form of supportive action to eliminate a stressor is even better.
- We deeply feel the emotional energy of others. From you, we appreciate the flexibility to take quiet time and be in a space where we can center, rest, and recover.
- We notice small things which may be of great importance. From you, we appreciate being heard. Customer service departments – we are your greatest gift if you are willing to listen.
HSPs are shown to make exceptionally good employees with high performance reviews, yet if conditions are not kind, we will be the first to burnout.
If you are an HSP – define what you need to sustain your energy. I call these Productivity Table Stakes™ – eight key ingredients to understand your relationship with and ensure are considered every day.
If you are a leader, ask your HSP employee what they need to succeed. It’s my favorite leadership question for everyone, but it is so relevant here.
If you are a partner to an HSP – co-create your home and life together to minimize stress and increase the joy in your time together.
I invite you all to join the Happy Space Pod – a safe online community to explore greater productivity and well-being for highly sensitive professionals. I hope to see you there.