Emotionally Sensitive, But Not-So-Highly Sensitive Person

Emotionally sensitive, but not a highly sensitive person – there's a difference

A little while back I was reading a blog post that talked about Dr. Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person (affiliate link). I thought huh, sounds like I’m probably one of those. So I picked up the book from the library and had a read. It got me thinking about trait, illness, and all the grey area in the middle.

At the beginning of the book, there’s a true/false self-test to see if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP). I came to the conclusion that I’m mostly not… but sometimes am. Specifically, only when I’m depressed. As I flipped through the book, I identified with it far less than I expected to. My reaction was more along the lines of “that’s what I do sometimes” rather than “that’s who I am”.

Emotional sensitivity

I have always been an emotionally sensitive person. My feelings get hurt easily, and I tend to empathize a lot with others. But the sensitivity encompassed in the concept of the HSP is much broader than that. Dr. Aron summed it up with the acronym DOES: Depth of processing, Overstimulation, Emotional reactivity, and Sensing the Subtle. There seems to be quite a bit of emphasis placed on environmental stimuli.

In terms of emotional reactivity, I tend to be empathetic, but don’t internalize others’ emotional energy. I don’t think I could work as a mental health nurse if I wasn’t able to stop before that point where empathy turns into internalized reactions.

Sensory sensitivity

When I’m depressed, I tend to lose my ability to filter out external stimuli. It’s like I’m being slapped by a million different hands all at the same time, and I become very easily overwhelmed. This can make basic tasks like going to the grocery store absolutely horrible.

This isn’t an issue when I’m well, which has allowed me to travel in countries like India that are a spectacular assault on the senses. It’s like the stimuli wash over me like waves lapping against a beach rather than a tsunami crashing ashore. That has been a stable trait across much of my life that is completely disrupted by my episodes of depression. Based on the self-test in the book that’s what really stands out as differentiating me from an HSP.

HSPs aren’t always introverts

Dr. Aron mentions that sometimes introversion is mistakenly equated with being a highly sensitive person, and about 30% of HSPs are actually extroverts. I’m a card-carrying member of the introvert club, and that trait has been stable throughout my life. When I’m depressed, that introversion pushes to new extremes, and I tend to develop a more active, intense aversion to other people. Stuck inside the depression, I sometimes start to think this is how I’ve always been and/or how I’ll always be. Realistically, though, I know that I used to enjoy spending time with close friends and coworkers.

So who am I?  Sometimes I have no idea.  It’s so easy to try to describe or classify ourselves based on our illness, but personality traits aren’t the same as illness symptoms, and I think it’s fairer to ourselves if we can try to distinguish between the two.  If I do that, I’d say that I’m not a highly sensitive person, which makes interesting food for thought.

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11 thoughts on “Emotionally Sensitive, But Not-So-Highly Sensitive Person”

  1. That’s my question…. Who Am I ? Ever since my diagnosis I haven’t been able to separate my self from it. I’m struggling with my feels today, ironically.

  2. I think many people like to classify themselves because it make them feel better, in terms of self-identity. Like, if they fit a certain classification, they think it tells them who they are; but it doesn’t work like that.

    1. I agree. And I think sometimes people do that with diagnoses. A diagnosis can tell you what treatments might work and how your symptoms might behave but it can’t tell you who you are.

  3. I agree with much of what you’ve written. It’s very easy to mix up who we are with how we are when depression takes hold. I would say that I’m a HSP, but is that a symptom of my ptsd which has been near constant through my adult life. I feel a need to investigate further! I’ll look out for the book.

  4. Very interesting post! I think I would be classified as a highly sensitive person but sometimes I wonder how many labels are too many, and if it might just be easier to see humans as a spectrum of all these different traits without all the categories.

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