I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). This means I’m hypersensitive to external stimuli and have a high level of emotional reactivity. There’s a lot of benefits to being highly sensitive, like being naturally empathetic, having a deep appreciation of art, music, nature and being creative and imaginative. However, being an HSP comes with quite a few challenges, too.
Sensory processing sensitivity, the trait that HSPs possess, is not a disorder, but it does affect many aspects of our daily lives. It can makes things that are no big deal for most people difficult for us. Since it’s estimated 15 to 20 percent of people are highly sensitive, chances are you know an HSP or two. If you aren’t highly sensitive, then you might sometimes find yourself confused by your highly sensitive loved one’s feelings, needs and reactions. Here are some ways you can show your support and help us not be overwhelmed by everyday life.
1. Read “The Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine Aron.
Dr. Aron is the one who first began doing research on sensory processing sensitivity in 1991 and is herself an HSP. She has written several books, but “The Highly Sensitive Person” will give you a basic introductory course in sensory processing sensitivity and a glimpse into the inner workings of your highly sensitive loved one’s brain. If you are an HSP, then Dr. Aron’s books may help you understand yourself better as well.
2. Do your best to let us enjoy your company in ways that don’t overwhelm us.
Since we’re hypersensitive to external stimuli, we often find things like parties, nightclubs and many other large-group social situations extremely overwhelming. So much so that we can’t even enjoy being there with our friends because we get too frazzled. Maybe you’re planning to celebrate your birthday by going out to a bar with all of your friends. Your highly sensitive friend probably wants to celebrate the occasion with you, but dreads the prospect of going out to a loud, crowded bar with sticky floors, weird lighting, loud music and strong alcohol smells.
They might think it’s worth it to brave the sensory overload in order to celebrate with you and all your friends, but they might also feel trapped between forcing themselves to go out and feeling like they’re abandoning you on your birthday. I know I’ve felt this way on several occasions. Maybe your highly sensitive friend can meet you for a slice of pizza before you head to the bar. If you know your friend is highly sensitive and would feel much more comfortable meeting one-on-one in a pizza place than going to a bar with 20 of your friends, offering them that option upfront can help them feel less pressured to go places and do things that make them uncomfortable.
3. Respect our need for alone time and quiet time.
Not all of us are introverts. In fact, about 30 percent of us are extroverts, but we all need time to recharge, just like introverts do. Since every HSP is different, every HSP’s recharging time will look different. Some people may need a complete sensory shutdown, totally alone, in absolute silence, with no bright lights or strong smells. Some people may just need to find a quiet spot, listen to some calming music and dive into a good book.
Some people might not even need alone time. They just need to do something more relaxed with you in a less stimulating environment. For me, I like to go home, curl up on the couch with my dog and watch some Netflix. Whatever it is that we do to recharge, we need our loved ones to understand and be respectful of it and let us take it when we need it.
4. Ask us if there are any everyday tasks we find particularly overwhelming, and offer to help with them from time to time.
Chances are there’s at least one mundane, everyday task you think nothing of, but your highly sensitive loved one really struggles with because of the way they process sensory stimuli. Maybe they don’t like to go to the gas station because they find the smell of gasoline too overpowering. Maybe they dread vacuuming because it’s too loud. Whatever it is that your highly sensitive loved one struggles with, occasionally offering to help them out with it will make their life a lot easier and more pleasant.
For me personally, the sound of forks and knives scratching against each other or against plates makes me feel like I’m going to vomit. Whenever I go home, I really appreciate it when my sister or one of my parents offers to split the task of setting or clearing the table or unloading the dishwasher with me. This way I can handle the plates, and they’ll do the silverware.
5. Give us plenty of time to do the things you ask us to do.
If you want an HSP to do something for you, then if possible let them know about it before you need it done. One trait that a lot of HSPs (myself included) share is we tend to get anxious and overwhelmed when we have a lot to do in a short amount of time.
6. Don’t surprise us.
One trait Dr. Aron uses to identify highly sensitive children is “doesn’t usually enjoy big surprises.” That aversion to surprises doesn’t just go away in adulthood, either. You probably already know your highly sensitive loved one isn’t the type of person who would enjoy a huge surprise party for their birthday, but not surprising us applies to smaller things, too. When I was learning to drive, I would get distraught when we would be already halfway out the door and my dad would say, “You’re driving.” Even though I’ve never been a huge fan of driving, that wasn’t the reason why I got so upset. I got upset because my dad had surprised me. Once we worked out a schedule of driving lessons, my dad had a much easier time teaching me to drive.
7. Don’t stand over us while we’re working.
My parents used to do this to me all the time when I was a kid, and I absolutely hated it. I mean, I understand why they did it. As a child with ADD, I needed a little extra help and supervision to keep me on task and get my homework done, but as an HSP, being watched made it even harder for me to concentrate on what I was doing. Many HSPs feel the same way. If they have to perform a task while someone is watching them, they will become nervous, frazzled and be more likely to make mistakes.
8. Don’t make us watch violent or scary movies if we don’t want to.
There are a lot of people who find scary movies fun and exciting, but your highly sensitive loved one is likely not one of them. Many HSPs avoid watching graphic movies and television because as highly sensitive people, the images on the screen will have a much bigger impact on us than they will on you. You might be able to feel scared during a movie and then perfectly fine once it’s over, but for me, watching a scary movie means taking a chance I might be dealing with sleepless nights and feeling constantly on edge for days after I watch the movie.
9. Don’t purposefully startle us.
HSPs startle more easily than non-HSPs do. Because of our hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, we’re being startled all day long by sudden noises and changes in our environments. The last thing we need is to be purposefully startled again by someone we love. Maybe your highly sensitive loved one doesn’t mind the additional jump they get from you sneaking up behind them or popping out from around the corner, but better safe than sorry.
10. If you see us start to get overwhelmed or notice we’re in a situation that we might find overwhelming, then check in with us and ask if there’s anything you can do to make us more comfortable.
Going through life as a highly sensitive person can sometimes feel like walking around naked. There’s no barrier to protect you from your surrounding environment, and you feel things around you other people seem to be able to just ignore. You start to feel exposed, vulnerable, hyper-aware and probably a little bit self-conscious the longer you’re away from your home or another place where you feel safe and comfortable. When you check in with us and help us feel more comfortable in our environment, it’s like you’re offering us your coat.