It is believed that up to one in five people could be regarded as having, as Elaine Aron researched in the 1990s, highly sensitive personality traits.
Highly sensitive people may reflect on things more so than others do, worry about what others think and feel and prefer quiet, controlled environments over noisy, fast-paced ones.
Below are some of the main characteristics and traits usually associated with highly sensitive people.
- They will often have more empathy for others than less sensitive people. They tend to react emotionally and worry about how others feel, often finding it difficult to say no as they find it uncomfortable holding another person’s disappointment. Although this may lead to a lack of assertiveness it means they are highly tuned in to other people’s moods and reactions.
- They prefer to exercise and take part in solo events rather than team activities and sports where they may feel judged. Although they may not be competitive they are actually good team players, supporting those around them and not afraid to bring out the best in people.
- They find it difficult to make decisions, always weighing up and fearing the possible consequences of the wrong decision. They tend to analyse situations and ruminate. If they do make a bad decision they tend to dwell on it and be affected by it longer. They feel more upset and tend to judge themselves harshly. On one hand, they may feel paralysed by constant analysis, but on other the decisions, they do make tend to be well thought out and take into account everyone’s best interest.
- They feel and process things at a deeper level than others, paying attention to detail. They’re the first to notice someone’s new hairstyle or clothes.
- They are more prone to experience anxiety and depression if they’ve had a lot of negative experiences. They can sometimes find it difficult to let go of negative experiences.
- They tend to be more considerate, well-mannered and conscientious in the company of others and are more likely to notice when others aren’t. They also feel more wounded by criticism, taking it more personally as a judgement against them rather than as something constructive.
Highly sensitive people can make really good team players and in some cultures and situations, sensitivity is considered an asset. Their attention to detail and the ability to tune into other people’s feelings make them ideal in some professions.
If being highly sensitive causes difficulty in your life, or if you feel you are weak remember that these are characteristics and signs of being truly compassionate and aware. They can be developed and used to serve you rather than inhibit you.
Sometimes it can help to remember turning a little of that compassion for others inwards can go a long way. Learning and developing resilience can also help. Recognise that feeling another person’s disappointment may be uncomfortable but the truth is they’ll get over it. Usually quite quickly too.
Learn to recognise and communicate your values and boundaries honestly and confidently. Pay attention to what you think, feel, experience and notice. Tap into your own sense of autonomy.
Darren Magee is a psychotherapist, counsellor, and clinical supervisor based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
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