03 Oct 1 In 5 People Are Highly Sensitive: What Does This Mean For Your Relationship?

Are you somebody (or in a relationship with somebody), who thinks about things really deeply, feels emotions intensely, and who becomes easily overwhelmed by noises, smells, sights, crowds, new places, being rushed, being judged, getting tired, becoming hungry… simply overwhelmed by life itself at times?

Maybe I’m describing you? Or maybe it’s your partner, child, relative, friend, neighbour, colleague or boss that comes to mind.

You’ll certainly know somebody like this, because 1 in 5 of us are blessed with the trait of high sensitivity: that’s 20% of us humans (female and male) who truly are different to the “norm” (by which I mean the remaining 80% majority) in ways both good… and potentially problematic.

Psychotherapist Elaine Aron coined the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) in the mid 90’s after observing (first in herself, then also in her clients and others), an experience of life lived with a unique and particular sensitivity.

Many others have added to HSP research since (also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity), yet many therapists have never received formal training about this trait.

I’ve learned that knowledge about it is often the crucial “missing link” for people wanting to create lives and relationships that truly thrive.

First, the good news: HSP’s are blessed with unique and important qualities. 

We’re big thinkers who process information deeply. We’re naturally observant about things, all things, including people, places, sights, sounds, smells, textures, and so forth.

We’re also finely attuned to emotions (our own and those of others), which means we’re compassionate, empathic, conscientious, heartfelt, emotional, wise, and creative, amongst many other great qualities.

What’s important to understand is that (whether aware of it or not), HSP’s process all the incoming data of “life” with an intensity that simply isn’t shared by our non-HSP counterparts… and we’re doing this all the time!

Yes, there is a downside to being a HSP. 

All this non-stop sensing, observing, and processing requires energy… a lot of energy. Consequently, the downside is unavoidable: HSP’s are easily overwhelmed.

This is where things can get tricky for the HSP, and for those who love them. I see every day how this overwhelm manifests – differently in different people of course, but including behaviours like:

temper outbursts, meltdowns, irritability, anger, crying, controlling, overthinking, avoiding obligations, being defensive, being over-apologetic, “going missing” and stonewalling, becoming exhausted or unwell, self-medicating with alcohol or recreational drugs… 

A healthy life and marriage starts with a simple formula for a HSP: When stress increases, so must self-care.
It’s the only way to embrace the positives and mitigate the downsides of the HSP trait.

Yet I see clinically that when stress increases, HSP’s find self-care harder. We’re too busy absorbing and processing all that stimulation to even think about our personal needs.

If our self-care habits aren’t super strong, into a downward spiral we can go… feeling like we’re running faster and faster to keep up, whilst increasingly becoming more and more overwhelmed. And so it goes.

When an HSP is overwhelmed, our personal wellbeing and relationships suffer. Sometimes even break. That’s why knowledge about this trait is so crucial.

Elaine Aron’s short video on HSP self-care is important for all of us: whether highly sensitive, or in a relationship with someone who is. To learn more about HSP with my “take-out” summary, or to watch Elaine’s video, click here.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. She has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive for 25 years. Thanks to Elaine Aron for her work with the HSP trait, which has inspired the content of this article. Elaine’s website can be found here. Contact Pamela here.