Highly Sensitive Person

What Not to Say to a Highly Sensitive Person and Why

Genes and/or certain childhoods give rise to high sensitivity.

Posted May 14, 2018

Pixabay are released under Creative Commons CC0
Source: Pixabay are released under Creative Commons CC0

Have you ever been criticized for being too sensitive? It turns out that about 20% of people are classified as highly sensitive (HSP). Genes and/or certain childhoods give rise to this personality type. HSP scales for adults and children have been developed and used in research (1). The scale contains 27 diverse but strongly interrelated items.

A highly sensitive person (watch TEDx talk on HSP):

  • has a rich and complex inner life
  • is deeply moved by the arts and music
  • gets easily overwhelmed
  • has difficulty performing a task when being observed
  • easily startles
  • is sensitive to pain, caffeine, and hunger
  • is attuned to inner bodily sensations
  • readily notices sensory changes

If you are a HSP you might have been accused:

  • Of being too analytical
  • Of being too sensitive
  • Of being too emotional
  • Of not handling criticism well
  • Of not handling stress well

If you care about a HSP person in your life, here is what you need to understand:

Too analytical:  Because a HSP has an excitable nervous system and a sensory system with low threshold, they are the first to notice any changes in details. Another name for HSP is sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). This means that they have a low threshold to sensory stimuli around them. This can contribute to a unique ability of quickly spotting changes in details. Because, they might process more sensory information about their surroundings, they might come across as too analytical. The result of these sensory computations might be a new perspective.

Too sensitive/ too emotional:  Because of their rich and complex inner life, they are sensitive to any feedback. When giving feedback to a HSP, you should keep this in mind so you don’t inadvertently hurt them. Refrain from using comments that can have double meanings or neutral bland feedback.

Handling criticism: a HSP is very sensitive to negative feedback and takes longer time to recover after criticism. While most people don’t like criticism, a HSP can be paralyzed by negative comments. These types of comments can facilitate a predisposition to depression or anxiety disorders.

Handling stress: any event impacts a HSP deeply. Their minds marinate in their surroundings, this means that they can easily get overwhelmed . When stressful events happen to a non-HSP, their system returns back to baseline after the stress response resumes. However, a HSP can take a much longer time to return to baseline after a stressful stimulus. Also, a HSP might perceive some benign stimuli as stressful which leads to overtaxing the nervous system and giving a feeling of being overwhelmed. When burdened with multiple stressors, a HSP can burnout and give up.

The sensitivity of a HSP can bring a fountain of emotions, unparalleled levels of empathy and deep level of understanding to a relationship. It is worth it to consider the above when dealing with a HSP you care about.


Aron, E.N., Aron, A., Jagiellowicz, J., 2012. Sensory processing sensitivity: a review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev.16 (3), 262–282.