"Once you find out you're HSP, it can be liberating," writes Natalie Reilly. Photo: Stocksy
Do you enjoy delicate scents, tastes, sounds and works of art? Do you find yourself easily affected by other people's moods? Do you avoid scary or violent movies? Were you called shy as a child? Well, don't take this the wrong way but you might be a Highly Sensitive Person. Oh, I promise it's nothing bad! Well, it's a blessing and a curse. You might want to take this quiz before we go any further.
The concept of the Highly Sensitive Person rose to prominence in 1996 when Elaine N. Aron wrote a book called - you guessed it - The Highly Sensitive Person. But the personality trait was actually uncovered by Carl Jung who called it "innate sensitiveness". It's been estimated that as many as one in five people have it.
On the surface, the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) seems like just another descriptor for "Princess" or "Narcissist" or "Special Snowflake With a Gluten Allergy". You can overhear them in a restaurant:
"I simply cannot have cheap wine in my vicinity! I'm HSP!"
It's true, being highly sensitive can metastasise into one of those things. However, if a person labels themselves "highly sensitive" but they're only sensitive toward their own needs, it likely means they're not a HSP in the first place - they're just neurotic and maybe even a little self-centred. Which is not to say that you can't be both neurotic and HSP. Hey, who could forget Bette Midler in Beaches telling the interviewer, "CC feels things" (and then hating herself for saying it later on) - classic HSP with a side of neurosis, guys.
Contrary to reflexive thought, the Highly Sensitive Person is not just a convenient invention to keep Millennials coddled behind their Apple watches. It doesn't always reflect a bad childhood, either. A body of research suggests that its origins are largely biological, rooted in how their nervous systems react (or over-react) to stimuli.
So the HSP doesn't need a hug, because this excess of sensitivity is not limited to the emotional realm. HSPs are also sensitive to noise, lights, smells, fabrics, medication, coffee - the list goes on. But it's not all horrid; they are intuitive and can easily discern what someone is feeling or thinking. This is because HSPs are empathetic creatures. If you have one as a friend, they will soak up your sad story like a new Shammy! In her book, Aron referred to them as "the canaries in the coalmine" because they sense danger before the average person. They're also hyper-aware of every little feeling they have - whether physical or emotional - and often need to get away to properly process them.
But don't let this fool you; not all HSPs are introverts. In fact, Aron suggested publicly that Susan Cain's book Quiet and subsequent TED talk on introverts was actually a treatise on Highly Sensitive People. Because, just like the introvert, they need to get away to calm down and think. They don't always like meeting new people. They are sensitive to criticism. Now criticism doesn't feel good for anyone, but the HSP is more likely to turn that throwaway comment into a Life Defining Moment. For example:
"I remember how I felt before my fifth grade teacher told me to shush. The sun was shining, I thought its rays would last forever. I was wrong. I will never trust again." (cue: theatrical sobbing).
What's not to love?
Well, according to a recent article in Huffington Post, being sensitive, especially if you're male, isn't always thought of as a super awesome thing. Ted Zeff, Ph.D., author of The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide, explained that highly sensitive men he interviewed from Thailand and India were rarely teased, while highly sensitive men he interviewed from North America were teased - a lot. "[It's] very cultural - the same person who is told 'Oh, you're too sensitive', in certain cultures it's considered an asset," he says.
Shocking, right? Well, it is shocking when you consider that HSP affects males and females equally. But Australia has a rich and brutal history of telling people to "get over it, mate" via suppression, humour and violence. So it's sadly unsurprising that, in this country, the male suicide rate is roughly three times higher than the female suicide rate. It's highest in men over 85 - the generation most often told to "man up".
But once you find out you're HSP, it can be liberating. I should know - I scored 100% on the test. This won't come as a shock to those closest to me, who understand that the line "I'm losing it!" has become my unofficial catchphrase.
If you suspect a person you know is HSP, you don't need to put on oven mitts to handle them. In fact, once I realised that just because I'm always on the verge of collapse, cry at the drop of a hat and have an unnatural hatred for that person eating their lunch next to me, and that none of it lead to the end of the world, I could relax.
Besides which, most of us are sensitive on some level and all of us have feelings. Some of us are just more porous. Am I right? Well, if I'm wrong, don't tell me! I'll lose it! Actually, as a Highly Sensitive Person, chances are I'm going to lose it anyway.