Living As a Highly Sensitive Person

I am a Highly Sensitive Person.

I am a Highly Sensitive Man.

By most standard conventions of society, those two statements are almost certain to get you labeled as at least “a bit strange,” but more likely as a “sissy boy,” “doormat,” or “girly man.” 95% of men– even those who are sensitives, themselves– would feel hesitant to make such a statement, openly. I feel sad, when I think about that.

It used to bother me a great deal that I seemed, somehow, “different” from the rest of the world. As a boy and a young man, I had a slight “softness” in demeanor, and in my approach to life. It wasn’t that I was “effeminate” in any way, it was more a case of my being less aggressive and boisterous than my peers; lacking in stereotypical "male toughness;" memories of wanting to save the frog in the creek, rather than squash it; of wanting to work with my friends, rather than against them. I tend to prefer "cooperation" over "competition," and that often got me tagged as "odd." And yet... I also "stood out," because I was very tall (6'3" by 13-14) and I made excellent grades without really trying.

Although the idea of someone being “Sensitive” has been around for a long time, and may have its original roots in C.G.Jung’s “Melancholic Temperament,” the current definition of what makes someone a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP for short) can be attributed to Dr. Elaine N. Aron, whose research and 1996 book established that 15-20% of the human population are actually born with nervous systems that are more sensitive. The implication, of course, is that “sensitivity” isn’t just some “personality quirk” or "pathology," but a substantial and normal genetically inherited trait. What’s more, in spite of the historical tendency to label Sensitivity as a “female trait,” there are actually equal numbers of male and female HSPs.

I mention this because I read that book, and it offered me some insights that changed by life direction almost completely. I made peace with the essence of who I was, in a sense... and embraced the idea that I was a little "different." I write this rather lengthy story because I feel it's important that sensitive people understand themselves, and don't feel like they have to accept labels like "weird" or "freak."

Some skeptics dismiss sensitivity as something that is “all in the mind.” In some respects, they are exactly right– when subjects have been hooked up for EEG or fMRI scans, it has been shown that the brains of HSPs fire in manner that’s not the same as the rest of the world. Being Highly Sensitive may be “in the mind,” but it is certainly not “in the imagination.”

So what exactly is “High Sensitivity?” How does an HSP feel different from other people?

There are a number of different aspects to being a highly sensitive person, and there are actually different “kinds” of HSPs. At the heart of High Sensitivity is the idea that because HSPs have more “alert” and finely tuned nervous systems, they are more easily overstimulated by a variety of inputs from the world around them. As a result, HSPs have a greater need for “quiet time” to recharge their batteries after certain events. It’s important to keep in mind that high sensitivity is a neutral trait– it has both upsides and downsides. For example, a “good” thing might be that I can smell a gas leak 30 minutes before you can, but the “bad” thing is that I’ll very likely get a pounding headache from the scent of ordinary household cleaners.

If you are curious as to whether you might be an HSP, I’d suggest that you take Elaine Aron’s Self Test for High Sensitivity on her web site:

Now, I'm not trying to "sell a label" here. I'm more interested offering an alternative to people "labeling" themselves (as did I, some years back) as "too sensitive" and "needing a thicker skin."

For me, being highly sensitive means that I am particularly sensitive to bright light, loud noises, strong smells and rough touch. I am also very easily overstimulated by sudden movement, crowds of strangers and having to do multiple things at once– especially if I have to do them in front of an audience. I tend to have a long “reflection period,” which means that even though I am (by conventional measures) “highly gifted,” it’s difficult for me to think of “snappy answers” on the spot. Being in crowds and noisy company can wear me out fairly quickly, even though I don’t mind being there. This is different from Social Anxiety, in that these things don’t actually scare me, or concern me– they just tire me out, very quickly.

More specific HSP characteristics include a tendency to be overly conscientious or perfectionistic; being profoundly empathic– often to the point of having trouble separating another’s feelings from your own; very high sensitivity to caffeine, drugs or other stimulants; a tendency to be overwhelmed and upset by life changes, roughness, violence and upsetting situations, in general; a tendency to get hurt feelings very easily; very deep reactions to music, art, nature, beauty and feelings– sometimes to the point of breaking into spontaneous tears; a very finely tuned awareness of people’s intentions, the environment around you, as well as very subtle changes.

During the past decade, I have learned to become far more particular, in choosing both friends and activities. Many of my more recent contacts and friendships have been with fellow sensitives... after all, nobody "gets" what it's like to be highly sensitive like someone who is also highly sensitive.

Sorry about the "dissertation;" I'm just happy to find this group!
Denmarkguy Denmarkguy
56-60, M
30 Responses Dec 29, 2007

I almost have the same characteristics with you!

Thanks very much for writing this! I took the test, and checked off about 20. I'm very sensitive to many things, and people that aren't, seem to think that I'm either dramatic, or trying to get attention. Probably the worst thing that ever happened to me, was walking into a small restaurant with a big grill that the woman had just covered with a strong cleaner. I could smell it, but at my second tiny breath, the smell was "climbing into my nose, mouth, sinuses!" It took hours and hours to get rid of that! I asked the woman how she could handle it, as I rushed to get out, and she said: what smell??

I always thought of myself as passionate, and then sensitive, but now I think sensitive comes first.

My last bf was def. one, and that made our relationship so very intense! I hadn't thought about finding a bf with it, but I'm sure glad that I did! We would both notice every little thing, and that made *everything* so very pleasurable!

I'm glad that I found this. I was always called a sensitive person too. I did what you said and I took that test. I checked off almost every question. I guess I didn't really need that test to tell me what I already knew. I am surrounded by people who don't know what it's like to be as sensitive as I am. Conversely, I don't know what it's like to not be as sensitive as I am, so I guess I can't blame them for not understanding. There is something to be said for this group though, and thank your for your story. I still wish sometimes that I could be less sensitive because it causes me to avoid competition of any kind and being a good sport is a positive trait in a person. Even though I am quite aware that I shouldn't feel hurt because I lost in a game, I can't help it. It's an automatic strong emotional reaction and I've had to learn how to tame it down, or at least cover up my physical reaction by being aware of what muscles in my face are tensed and relaxing them.

HSP are also better artist and musicians, due to the attentiveness and incredibly detailed perfection that can be found in their work.

Wish I could meet guys like you! I always seem to end up with "macho" types.

thanks a bunch for sharing.<br />
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now i feel a little bit better about myself. i took the test and couldn't believe how much of it was true about me.

Thanks for sharing this. I'm always fighting someone who thinks I'm a punk for smiling at babies or enjoying the sound if chimes or nearby church bells. I fight with my girlfriend too much because I don't like for someone to raise their voice and make faces when they speak or act as if they're angry and claim they aren't even though they act angry. I haven't taken the HSP test but according to my family and almost every friend I meet I'm either "Emo" or too soft. I've grown up with anxiety attacks and I had to take Paxil and then Zoloft anti-depressants. I stopped taking the pills. I have heard songs that make me cry violently. I spend time in my room a lot recovering from the world. A break up kills me. I don't want to lose my woman over this. She claims she's OCD. I think she's HSP. How do two HSP's get along?

From what I just read, they get along very well because they understand each other. My last bf was one, and we were both highly tuned in to each other.

Nice to know there is another male in the world like me. I feel like I'm the only one sometimes.

I am a HSP male. It harder to be a man with this trait. It's not the ideal western male macho image.

A beautifully written post. Strange how the arrangement of words convey energy. Your post flowed through me, each word connecting form of a generous spirit. Thank you for your post.

hahhAHHahahaha<br />
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youR all Siss Boy, Girly Men HhhahhahahaHAha!!<br />
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You should all be a like MMEE!! THORBOLTT! <br />
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I am Rated 'T' for ThoR!!

Thanks for your well written and informative story. Wherever you are, I hope you are doing well.

it changed my life to find out about HSP. have you done HSP-the workbook by Elaine Aron? I´m working through it now and find it very interesting and helpfull.

I enjoyed reading your story, Denmarkguy. I didn't realize there were others like me in the world, if I may say that without sounding TOO egocentric. I'm a fairly typical heterosexual male who sometimes cries because of a beautiful piece of music, or the thought of a long dead friend. I try to mask this 'weakness' to others through humor and making jokes a lot. Your story made me realize why I am the way I am. Thank you for sharing your experience here.

I am a high school teacher. I have problem with noise and activity. Any suggestions??

im 6foot 6 and ive had very similar feelings

I am a sensitive person too.<br />
I am 13 and when I get shots, I cry. If I hear loud noises they make me want to cry in a mad way. Also when people pound hammers, they make my eyes bl<x>ink every hit they make. I hate it! Also, I am scared of getting in trouble. I get nervous and my stomach starts to hurt and it feels like my throat is crying. I am shy and I can't control my voice in school or around adults and people I barely know. I can't help feeling sad over people saying "no duh" or sarcastic voises. I wish I could change it.

Thanks for sharing! Its a long time since I heard from anyone from Denmark. Brings joy to my heart.

i got 18 on the test. wow i cant believe there are actually so many more others out there like me.

Boy could I ever relate to this. Excellent piece you wrote! Thanks for sharing :-)

<b>OP,</b> you're welcome, and thanks for sharing! In general, 14 or more "yes" answers suggests you're "highly sensitive." 10-13 suggests moderate sensitivity. I have known quite a few people (who would definitely NOT identify themselves as "sensitive") who've only has 2-3 "yes" answers.<br><br><br />
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<b>Cinderelly</b>, "sensing moods" does seem to be a pretty common trait of sensitives-- it's part of being more in touch with your intuition than most.<br><br><br />
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<b>PGA,</b> it's nice to "meet" someone else who's male, sensitive and so comfortable in his own skin. You're probably aware, alas, that we're somewhat of a "rarity."<br><br><br />
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<b>Eyes,</b> welcome to the "club!" It's always interesting to discover new things about yourself, isn't it? I am not affected by caffeine at all, and I have no food allergies/sensitivities.<br><br><br />
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<b>Tiamichele,</b> that just means you are "somewhat" sensitive, rather than "highly" sensitive. Or it could mean that your sensitivities are focused in a narrow area. For example, some people are extreme EMOTIONALLY sensitive, but not physically sensitive, and vice-versa.

Thank you, all, for your comments and kind words!<br />
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My main point in writing all this was not so much to pass a "value judgment" as to whether being sensitive is "good" or "bad," but more to emphasize that sensitivity is merely a TRAIT, not some "illness" or "pathology" in need of treatment or pharmaceuticals.<br />
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Maybe that sounds a bit extreme, but there are LOT of people (and I mean MILLIONS) out there who are currently being medicated into oblivion because they are trying to get their sensitivity "cured." Often, they are not even AWARE (nor is most of the health/mental health industry) that what they are thinking of as a "disorder" or "anxiety" or "hypersensitivity" is actually just the way they are genetically wired. Unfortunately, our society has an almost unhealthy obsession with "normalizing" people, and "medicalizing" anything that seems even slightly different from some arbitrary definition of "normal."<br />
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As a parallel, think of the current childhood "ailment-du-jour:" ADD/ADHD. I'm not saying for a moment that there aren't genuinely SOME kids with this particular problem. That's not the issue. The issue is that diagnostically speaking, maybe 2-3% of the population "has it," but 15-20% are being "treated for it." Every kid who's a bit "feisty" or "talks back" or is "energetic" gets hauled off and treated for ADHD. <br />
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So it is with sensitivity, in many ways. <br />
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I get a little passionate about this issue... I've been helping people UN-pathologize themselves for almost a decade.

I thought *** said 14 meant highly sensitive<br />
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but it has been like 2 hours since i looked at the page, so I could be wrong.

I got 15. Guess i'm just sensitive, but not highly so.

I got 25, lol<br />
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I checked a few though, then unchecked them... like the caffeine one. I am sensitive to it, as in I get migraines, but I don't react to it like by getting hyper, so ...

I never realized there were other people like that. I mean, I knew, I just didn't know. If that makes sense. <br />
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Thank you.

Wow, this has been interesting to read, Denmarkguy, thanks for posting this. I got a score of 21 on this test myself... I seem to absorb people feelings around me and take them up like they are my own and it gets very tiring and annoying at times. I do need a lot of time by myself to recuperate.

Thanks for this story Denmarkguy. I share many of the characteristics you have listed here. I'm not ashamed to say that i am a sensitive person. I'm actually quite proud of the fact.

Thanks for commenting!<br />
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I like to look at the non-pathological reasons for why we feel a certain way, before going into there actually being something "wrong." Being sensitive is just a natural experience, even if it requires us to take certain steps to feel our best.

Wow--excellent description. Maybe that has been my problem all along......I always thought that I was a "crybaby". I DO get tired very easily by loud, noisy environments, crowds, and even when my house is untidy (the clutter is exhausting)!