Did you know that I add the letters “HSP” after my name on my LinkedIn profile and on Zoom?
HSP stands for a highly sensitive person and I have this trait. I think it’s an extra piece of information – just like pronouns – that can help others understand something important about me that would otherwise remain invisible. The level of understanding will depend on prior knowledge of what HSP means, but if one has never heard of it, it’s often a conversation starter. And, that’s fine by me.
Identified by Dr. Elaine Aron in the mid-90s, high sensitivity is a genetic trait clinically known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity. It occurs in about 20% of the population and over 100 species. It is a positive distinction that SPS is considered a trait and not a “disorder” (though there is debate about whether the term disorder is fair for other neurodivergent conditions as well), however, this means that while high sensitivity is considered a normal neural state, the accommodations which might be helpful, and which are available to conditions viewed as disorders, are not readily offered to the highly sensitive. It is my goal to raise awareness and understanding of sensitivity in general and to pave a smoother path for fellow HSPs. We really shouldn’t have to worry about labels. We simply need a more tender world. Or as I like to say, “everyone deserves a Happy Space®”.
I wish I could remember exactly how I first found out about the trait about eight years ago but all I remember is feeling like I could see myself more clearly after reading Dr. Aron’s masterwork “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You”. It’s fair to say it has significantly influenced my life for the better. Awareness is everything.
“Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person” by Barrie Jaeger, Ph.D. and “Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work” by Melody Wilding, furthered my understanding of the impacts of the trait in a professional context. And, more recently, “Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You” by Jenara Nerenberg helped me to realize that sensitivity is commonly observed in many neurodivergent ways of being such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia.
I began to include sensitivity in my presentations to the organizing and productivity community in 2017 as I came to understand organizing efforts as a personal coping strategy to calm my overstimulating world. Today, I include a reference to sensitivity in my title as a Highly Sensitive Executive Coach and am often asked to speak about neurodiversity. I honour the trait and its strengths as part of why I believe I’m good at what I have chosen to do.
With so much reflection and review of the way Dr. Aron refers to the elements of the trait in her DOES model (which I explained in my first blog post about the trait), I found DOES troubling in three ways:
a) A name must be easy to say if you expect people to repeat it. I never knew if DOES was “duz” as in the active form of doing something, or “dōz”, as in the plural of the female form of deer. I suspect it’s neither as have heard Dr. Aron spell it out – D O E S, but the ability for it to be pronounced two (or more) ways stumped me. I figured it might get in the way of other people remembering the elements and/or sharing about it as well. I do recognize that this could indeed be an example of me embodying the HSP tendency to deeply process and overthink.
b) The “O” over overstimulation and the “S “of sensitivity to stimuli seemed to me to be related and therefore can be considered as one item with a continuum of experience.
c) There are two E’s: Empathy and Emotional Responsiveness. They are both important and I feel deserve to be adequately recognized.
Pondering this for some time, as a highly sensitive person is wont to do, I thought to rearrange and group the elements of the trait in an easy-to-remember way, with a positive metaphor. Hence, the SEED Model™ of High Sensitivity.
OVERVIEW OF THE SEED MODEL OF HIGH SENSITIVITY
The acronym SEED stands for four elements in a positive analogy suggesting that rich goodness lies within. The elements are Sensitivity, Empathy, Emotional Responsiveness, and Depth of Processing.
Let’s take a look at each element and both its positive and challenging aspects. When expressed positively, we have superpowers 💪🏼 at our disposal. That said, there is a chance that we can struggle 😕 instead, especially if we are depleted in any way and not able to effectively self-regulate. I think it’s important to acknowledge the positive and negative parts of the trait and do our best to set ourselves up by designing life and work to experience as much of the positive as we can.
💪🏼 Our ability to be sensitive to subtle stimuli makes us great “noticers”. We can pick up on facial expressions, turns of phrase, and body language. Our abundance of mirror neurons means we are more apt to naturally mimic a person with whom we are engaging and subconsciously build rapport. HSPs have an innate ability to put others at ease.
😕 With our nervous systems being “always on”, we can tire more easily. In loud, bright, or crowded spaces no matter whether physical or virtual, our senses may be overwhelmed. This can lead us to avoiding or opting out. We need more rest and recovery options built into our days. Naps for the win!
💪🏼 We have an innate ability to understand what others are feeling. This can invite them to feel comfortable with us and lead to compassionate action. It can make us stronger leaders; empathy is now being widely recognized as a key leadership skill. You’ll want HSPs on your team.
😕 Sensing others’ suffering can leave us feeling emotionally exhausted and limit our effectiveness. It can be important to limit the amount of toxicity and pain we choose to experience. “Blinders on!” can be an effective strategy.
💪🏼 Increased brain activation in response to stimuli confirms that we receive robust cues to help process information. This arousal means our highs are definitely higher. This is worth celebrating.
😕 Conversely, our lows can be lower. Receiving strong signals without having the time available, intent or ability to process them can lead to potentially offensive outbursts. Self-regulation skills are your friend. Insert pauses into your day to stay grounded.
💪🏼 Our intense thinking can lead to rich, creative solutions. Research shows that even the HSP brain “at rest” (in the absence of stimuli) is actively processing. No wonder we’re often mentally tired.
😕 If left unchecked, our conscientious natures and desires for quality outcomes can mean that we suffer from perfectionism and end up spinning. We mull over option after option and can end up stuck in analysis paralysis. You’ll want strategies to simplify decision-making to support moving forward.
Knowledge of the trait has grown slowly over the years but I feel we are on the cusp of it being widely understood. Certainly, the release of “Sensitive: The Hidden Power of a Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World” by Andre Sólo and Jenn Granneman in early 2023 is helping drive recognition with articles in Time magazine and Forbes. Check out episode 15 of the Happy Space® Podcast for my conversation with Andre.
Hopefully, broader appreciation will also not be far behind with more prominent people sharing their sensitivity. For example, tune into episode 16 of the podcast to hear management thought leader, Tom Peters shares his appreciation of sensitivity and thoughtful leadership. I recently shared a post in the Happy Space Pod, a conversation between George Stroumboulopoulos and Gabor Mate in which they explore where creativity comes from. Dr. Mate says very clearly: it comes from sensitivity. With celebrities such as actors Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, and Viola Davis, and singer Annie Lennox all sharing that they are also highly sensitive, I hope more people will not be afraid to be loud and proud about the trait.
Here are a few additional resources. Feel free to share with anyone you think might be highly sensitive. Who knows…you could be triggering a life-changing moment.
Happy Space Podcast
Happy Space Pod online Facebook community
Productivity catalyst, highly sensitive executive coach, and inclusivity advocate, Clare Kumar, helps professionals improve productivity and well-being while avoiding exhaustion and burnout. She delivers keynotes, workshops, coaching, and connection through her online community, the Happy Space Pod. Kumar is a sought-after brand ambassador and media contributor for products and services contributing to productivity and well-being.