“For at times it happens that some trifle will cause as much suffering to one as a great trial will to another; little things can bring much distress to persons who have sensitive natu

Dear Susan,

Since we first started dating, Ted told me I should be surrounded in bubble wrap because I was so sensitive.  It turns out that I am an HSP, or Highly Sensitive Person. I was amazed to find recently that you are NOT highly sensitive.  In fact, counter to your natural, high-scoring, test-taking abilities, you only scored a four on the Highly Sensitive Person test I sent you. Slacker. Studying my own impressive 22/28 score, the realization dawned on me that there must been many times in our friendship that you wondered what was going on with me. Clearly, you did not understand my highly perceptive, insightful, and sensitive nature. You just made up for it by being really, really smart. I get it.  To clarify, being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a not a disorder, it’s a personality trait.


HSPs first came into the spotlight with the publication of the The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine N. Aron in 2013. The review gives a good summary of who may be an HSP: “Do you need to withdraw during busy times to a private, quiet place? Do you get nervous or shaky if someone is observing you or competing with you? HSP, shorthand for ‘highly sensitive person,’ describes 15 to 20 percent of the population.” But wait, there’s more! You may be an HSP if you are easily overwhelmed by stimuli, affected by other people’s moods, or if you are easily startled.  We suffer more in bad environments but appreciate good environments more than others, too. This reminded me of one of my daughter’s favorite sayings, “It’s not a want, it’s a need.”  And it’s not just humans –  biologists have found HSP traits in over 100 species, even fruit flies.

Ted was not surprised by my score because he has been on the front lines of this for 15 years (He, as usual, scored right in the middle with an 11). He has had to listen to it all: the need to paint the family room because the existing color gave me headaches, the need to leave crowded rooms at inexplicable times, the inability to eat at a certain restaurant because of the cleaning fluid smell, etc.   In fact, there are all sorts of books out for people who are in relationships with HSPs, to help guide them through the minefield that is our lives. I wondered, though, how does being an HSP relate to our spiritual lives? It’s probably a good thing I wasn’t around in the days of Noah, because I’m pretty sure I never would have set foot on that ark. Do we HSPs get extra credit with God because it is just so hard for us to function on a regular day?


One Catholic blogger wrote about being a highly sensitive Catholic and it demonstrated to me just how differently this trait can manifest in each of us. For example. She doesn’t mind crying babies, I do (not the baby, just the sound). The same author says that many times, the wine at Eucharist is too strong for her. I think I can safely say that this has NEVER been the case for me.   Catholic news site, Aleteia, recently covered the TED talk of psychologist Elena Herdieckerhoff, who said that being an HSP is a gift. “We say, ‘You are too sensitive! Don’t take it so seriously!’ Nothing could be more wrong. Sensitivity is not a defect; it is a personality trait,” Dr. Herdieckerhoff clarified. The issue has even come up for discussion on the site, Catholic Answers, where one HSP wrote:  

…There are always those select few in the group (including animals like zebras, deer, sheep, birds etc.) that were more sensitive than the rest. These highly sensitive creatures of the group would be the ones to see the oncoming danger and thus alert the flock/crowd/group to it. Thus, this certain type is to warn the others of oncoming danger…. If you think about the Saints, they were such people as well… warning the people, seeing things before others saw it because of their sensitivity.


I knew it! Being an HSP could make me a saint, or a really nervous zebra. Of course, the HSP-Saint connection is kind of a no-brainer with our rich tradition of mystics. Saints are always smelling something weird, hearing things, and spontaneously bleeding – even when there is no itchy clothing tag to blame.

Do I think I am St. Teresa of Avila, famous mystic with mysterious headaches, illnesses, and visions – and probable HSP? Not at all, but I do think that there is a lesson here from both the Saints and the doctors: sensitivity is not something to work against or be corrected. In fact, it should very often be heard. After years of trying to ignore this personality trait of mine and trying to work against it, I am ready to embrace it. Who knows what God has been trying to tell me all these years that I have not heard because I didn’t want to give into the weakness of my sensitivity?  I am excited to embrace my HSP score and see what it brings me.

And Susan, watch out – I think there’s a lion over there!






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