Has your spouse, partner, or friend told you that they are a Highly Sensitive Person?
What are you supposed to do with that information?
What does it mean to be a HSP? And what does it mean for you, as their loved one?
I’ve interviewed three people whose partners are HSPs. Rose and her husband are parents to five young children; Jon’s and his girlfriend Viv travel the world while working on their business; and Jim is my husband.
What follows are their opinions and answers to my questions about being in a relationships with a HSP.
What did you think the first time your partner told you about Highly Sensitive People? Did you believe that it was a “real” thing?
ROSE: When my husband told me about HSP, I definitely believed it. I stumbled across a list about introverts on Facebook and I instantly tagged my husband as a classic introvert. It was actually a relief to find out what was “wrong” with him. It turns out nothing is wrong– he’s just an introvert HSP!
JIM: She was very excited when she told me about HSP. She has a tendency to get into stuff, to obsess over things. I thought it was another one of those things. At first I thought it wasn’t real; I think now there’s more to it. I don’t fully understand it though. It’s not that I believe it, I don’t not believe it.
JON: At first, I dismissed it into that mental file of “something we must do something about”. That is to say, I looked at it as: “stop complaining and try to be less like that!” This is making me sound harsher than I was – I certainly appreciate it was a problem (i.e., not made up) but at first I felt like it was something fixable, not something inherent.
How would you define “Highly Sensitive Person”?
ROSE: Off the top of my head, an HSP is someone who is sensitive to one or more elements of their environment. One may be sensitive to crowds, loud noises, bright lights, violence, too many people talking at once, or a variety of other things. Often an HSP is also an introvert, but not necessarily.
JIM: Highly Sensitive Person means someone who perceives that they are sensitive, but there’s no real baseline for them to judge [whether or not they are more sensitive than others]. They cope with things in a different way.
JON: I’ve been doing more and more reading about it. As I understand it, HSP is the condition of being hyper-stimulated by external inputs, be they audio, visual, or perhaps even touch. This results in being upset by things that don’t have an affect on other people, be they noisy eating, bright lights, or even the way people breathe. As I understand it, the emotional effects range from a feeling of claustrophobia or being trapped, to genuine distress and even feelings of violence, depending on the severity of the condition. I’m sure it comes partly inherent in your DNA, but I’m also fascinated with what childhood / youthful experiences fuel it.
HSP strikes me as similar to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in that it’s easy for onlookers to sniff at. It’s not something that’s widely understood as a “serious condition” like (dare I even say it) cancer, not that you could ever compare the two. It’s not even something acknowledged as non-lethal but highly troubling like Tourette’s. “Oh, you hate noisy chewing and bright lights – cry me a river.” That must be tough; it’s very easy to assume people are just being fussy.
What are some examples of HSP behaviors your partner exhibits?
ROSE: Some HSP behaviors that my husband displays are sensitivity to lots of people talking at once (my large Italian family can be a bit overwhelming at times), crowds, and violent stories in the news, especially ones about children being hurt. When he’s more tired he also can get much more emotional about things, so during those times if he listens to a song that he can relate to, or he hears a story about someone doing something good in the world, I might find him with happy tears.
JON: Viv is particularly upset by sounds. Her condition (which we discovered after we started dating) is called misophonia, which is hyper-sensitivity to certain noises. The scale ranges from mild irritation to having to stop yourself from physically hitting perpetrators. My girlfriend’s tolerance lies somewhere around the middle, thankfully.
What are the hardest things to deal with in regards to your partner’s high sensitivity?
ROSE: The hardest thing to deal with is how he reacts when he’s overwhelmed. He can get angry (never physical) and start yelling, not at anyone, but just in general. The anger comes and goes in a flash, but it leaves him exhausted and worn out for the rest of the day, and often it’s hard to get back to our routine. The other thing I find hard to deal with in regards to sensitivity is how often he needs to take breaks and be alone. This can be especially difficult because we have 5 small children. A final difficulty I have is explaining to the kids why Daddy needs a break, or why Daddy is currently unavailable to give them attention, and to keep them away so that my husband can have his down time and then be able to go back to being with them.
JIM: It’s hard for me to understand because I don’t feel the same way. It’s hard to relate. I think I find it funny more than I find it annoying–like when she is scared by her own shadow. I don’t take it personally when she wants to be alone.
A Highly Sensitive Person might not cope with things very well, so instead of trying to find ways to cope, they just think “Oh, I’m sensitive, that’s how I react.”
JON: It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned that it has nothing to do with me.
I imagine it’s similar to the way I feel when I smell dog poop. My brain goes: “Ergh, that smells like dog poop.” I’m not going “Hmm, I wonder what I feel about that odor…I think I shall turn my nose up at it.” I’m going “Gross, that shit stinks like only dog feces can.” I imagine it’s that same level of instinct, it’s just that with HSPs, the sensitivity levels are turned to a higher dial, through no fault of their own. Most people just don’t realize how much distress they can cause, because they’re just not aware it’s a thing that could possibly upset. Finding out can be hard, but it’s something you just have to understand and deal with.
Are there positive aspects to your partner’s high sensitivity?
ROSE: My husband is very conscious of other people who might be HSP. We have been able to identify it in two of our children, both of whom my husband is able to help because he can relate to them. He is very careful to give them their time and suggest that they go take breaks when needed. Before we understood HSP we were both very frustrated with them, but now we know how to help them.
JIM: Knowing about HSP helps my wife understand herself better. Like when she reacts a certain way, she realizes it’s because she is HSP, and it helps her reason why she feels that way, and that makes her feel better, so that’s a positive.
It seems like she appreciates things more than I do; that’s something I’m envious of. I can look at a flower and think it’s nice, but I don’t appreciate it like she does. I’m jealous that she gets more excited about things. Like, “Look at the dog’s new trick!” and she is genuinely excited by that. She is also very considerate.
Has learning about HSP affected how you look at other people? Are you more open-minded?
ROSE: Yes, learning about HSP has affected how I look at other people, especially my children. [see previous answer]
JON: Totally. The only thing is, I worry about it a lot now. I wonder if I’m chewing too loudly on the train, and annoying someone three seats away. It’s made me a tiny bit more sad as a person, to know that there is so much more heartbreak out there than I realized, but I think – weirdly enough – that that’s a good thing; I’d rather be a little more upset and aware than be ignorant.
Do you have any tips for other partners-of-HSPs?
ROSE: To help my husband, I try to identify when he’s having a hard time, especially when dealing with noise or crowds. When I see him start to get overwhelmed I will ask him if he needs to go take a break. I think the most important thing to do is to put yourself in their shoes; try not to get annoyed at their need for extra alone time. Remind yourself that you love this person and to love someone is to want what is best for them without expecting anything in return, so be accommodating to their needs. I try very hard to think about how he may feel by being in a certain situation, and then I am able to be pro-active in insisting he takes a break. If we are at a family gathering and see him feeling overwhelmed I may ask him to go home and check on the dog to get him away for a while or I’ll encourage him to find an empty room and sit there quietly while I send away noisy nieces and nephews who may come too close while he’s taking a break.
JIM: Just being aware of it helps. Be open to it. Have patience.
Like when she says she is tired of a party and needs to go, I understand, and I’m like, “Let’s go.” Even though I might want to stay, I understand that it’s hard for her.
JON: This is going to sound very Doctor Phil, but talk to your partner. The more we non-HSPs understand about your condition, and HSP in general, the more we can do to mitigate its effects.
Also, let your partner-of-HSP know what it’s like to suffer from it. Viv showed me videos of people on the high end of the misophonia scale, and it was genuinely sobering viewing. It made me grateful her triggers weren’t so severe, but also gave me an understanding of what it’s really like. The human brain is a marvelous thing, but there are times when it gets its wires crossed (please excuse the oversimplification). Everything is just electric impulses, but a tiny alteration in someone’s brain chemistry can create such misery for people, and I think just understanding this situation can make a huge difference.
Ultimately, in a relationship you’re there to support each other, and this is just another example of how that needs to happen.
Thank you to Rose, Jon, and Jim for taking the time to answer these questions.
photo credit: Brandon Christopher Warren via photopin cc
My partner is an HSP. She doesn’t share much of her feelings with me easily. At times she feels high/ low and that makes her feel broken that she starts crying and most of the time she is not able to figure out the reason for such high/ low feeling.
1. How to deal with this and make her feel better?
2. How to deal with her nature of not sharing her feelings/ emotions completely with me?
I can’t wait to share this with my husband. I am a HSP. I too truly need to escape social situations sometimes. I am OK for awhile, but usually just when they party really gets going, I feel trapped and become mentally distressed. I need quiet and solitude, even though everyone else is having a great time. Even among my best friends, I can’t tolerate too much together time. Until I discovered your blog and article in the San Diego paper, I thought it was a symptom of my generalized anxiety disorder. By continuing to read your blog, I’m learning to accept being a HSP and stop beating myself up for being abnormal. Now I recognize my feelings and actions as HSP traits, not a mental illness that I need to fight and change.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge and HSP experiences. I see myself in almost every posting. Pardon the cliche- but I have seen the light!! I feel empowered by all this new understanding. Your blog is life-changing. Thank you.
Wow, Ann, you just made my day. I’m so happy this blog helped you!!!!! speechless! 😀
This was very informative, I appreciate the non-HSP point of view, but now I am feeling like it’s maybe good I’m not in a relationship. I don’t want to make someone else’s life difficult because of who I am.
There is a lovely quote that might apply here: “Everyone comes with baggage. Find someone who loves you enough to help you unpack.” I think it is normal to feel down about yourself and to not want to be a bother. (I wrote a post about that, actually! http://highlysensitiveperson.net/people-pleaser-i-dont-want-to-bother-you/) We all deserve love, and even if you think you might be difficult, everyone has their issues. No one is perfect.
i just learnt that am a HSP..though its a relief to finally understand what my ‘problem’ is,most people around me still dont get me..not even my boyfriend
its honestly frustrating
Hi Olive. Thanks for reading! It can be frustrating, but give your boyfriend some time. The concept of HSP is foreign and strange to some people (it was to me at first–and I’m living it!) but hopefully, over time, he will understand and accept it a little better.
I love this insight by Jon, when asked whether learning about HSP has affected how he looks at other people or if he has become more open-minded:
“Totally. The only thing is, I worry about it a lot now. I wonder if I’m chewing too loudly on the train, and annoying someone three seats away. It’s made me a tiny bit more sad as a person, to know that there is so much more heartbreak out there than I realized, but I think – weirdly enough – that that’s a good thing; I’d rather be a little more upset and aware than be ignorant.”
I have just found out i’m HSP and i have found it a revelation, as Ann says I can finally stop beating myself up! I have the lowest self-esteem and my confidence is skin deep. In the past I have used (moderately!) a multitude of crutches including drink, recreational drugs and now antidepressants and food, to help deal with life (has any other HSP’s been faced with this type of past?). I feel that if i’d only known what I know now I could have saved myself so much damage. At 41 I am only now getting to know and understand the real me and its amazingly liberating. My husband is a non HSP and i’m struggling the same as Olive, but I just keep reminding myself that this is my journey and that eventually the proof will be in the pudding!!!!!!!
Simone, you sound awesome; congrats on feeling the freedom of accepting yourself!! I feel like you have a fun future ahead 🙂
Thanks Kelly and thank you for your fantastic POD casts too!
Is there a place to talk to someone about how to have a successful relationship with an HSP?
To add I am dating an HSP and want to be receptive to her needs and recognize the times when her HSP is really showing.. please help!
My wife is an HSP. I am not. It is incredibly frustrating navigating her sensitivities and feelings of being overwhelmed while raising 2 kids. And the constant criticism is the most difficult part. What is not a big deal to average people is a big deal to the HSP, which creates a lot of tension. It’s not easy living in a house when you are constantly told you are wrong or terrible when you do something that she simply doesn’t like, but won’t admit that it is her preference (I.e. It’s not some law of physics). This tests the limits of your patience. But there is a limit. And then innumerable arguments occur because you don’t react with complete patience when her sensitivity has hijacked her brain. Additionally, ironically and counter-intuitively, when overwhelmed or mad HSPs can be incredibly vicious. Then, to top it all off, after I choose to be loving and take the blame and apologize for the “problem” it takes her days, if not weeks, and often months to recover from a fight. When you’re raising kids, things go wrong, not as planned, misunderstandings happen, etc, and because she is constantly recovering from being upset or hurt those episodes of hurt layer onto each other in an overlapping mess. Try being patient and loving in those circumstances. Not to mention that there is absolutely no upside personally for you and your needs.
Hi frustrated husband, I’m so sorry to hear about your struggles. I suggest you seek marriage counseling; it can be extremely helpful. It definitely sounds like you are not happy right now. I’m sorry to hear that.
Also, high sensitivity isn’t necessarily to blame for a person’s shortcoming or struggles. For example, you said, “when overwhelmed or mad HSPs can be incredibly vicious” — this is not a characteristic of HSPs. Just because your wife was vicious in an argument does not necessarily mean that it due to being highly sensitive.
Thank you, Kelly. Apologies for the over generalization. We are going to start marriage counseling soon. She agreed, although I think she plans on using it to “fix” me, as opposed to figuring out how to constructively work together. Alas, hope springs eternal.
I can relate to this so much. My boyfriend is HSP. He gets very overwhelmed easily about things that would not overwhelm most people and simple things like making a decision on a restaurant and making a reservation appears to be a significant effort for him (though he does this for us). He makes me “wrong” when I know that I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary like asking him if we want to go socialize or plan activities for the weekend or help me cook dinner – he will lash out because he gets overwhelmed out of nowhere and / or he will need a lot of downtime without me even if we are physically together reading the news or checking Facebook on his phone. He is very loving when he is in a good mood but it is a bit like walking in a mine field. Also as a feminine woman, it is hard to see your man struggle to make daily decisions or business decisions. He cannot multi task business tasks and writing an important email will take him a whole day to a week vs taking me 10 minutes and it will overwhelm him and make him very grouchy and he expects me to understand what he is going through. In the past, I thought maybe there was something much more complex that I simply didn’t know but recently I received access to all of the facts and to me it was stressful but not that big of a deal that can be handled in 10 minutes. These recurring situations were so puzzling to me that I started to do research online and discovered HSP and the description fits to a T. It has helped me a lot just to know that this exists and that I am not crazy. But my question turns to what about my needs? A relationship is a 2 way street. It is very difficult to be patient or be attacked when he gets overwhelmed or overreacts compared to what is the norm but if he doesn’t or can’t acknowledge that because that’s how he feels then where does that leave the partner who has been subjected to the effects of that? Isn’t there a responsibility on the HSP’s part also to acknowledge their tendencies and be considerate of the negative effects they are forcing upon their partner too? Now that I have this knowledge it will be a bit easier for me to be patient and understanding I hope but I also have needs too. At least with my boyfriend he makes me “wrong” – my way of being which is perfectly normal – “wrong” and this creates a lot of conflict and head scratching on my part in this relationship. Don’t HSPs have a responsibility to understand and be thoughtful towards the partner who has to deal with this too instead of feeling 100 percent entitled to their outbursts and overwhelm which affects others around them?
Hi Mk, thanks for your comment and for sharing! Of course HSPs should not be 100% entitled to outbursts and affecting people around them negatively. They should be self-aware of their actions. High sensitivity is not an excuse to act badly to others. Not every behavior issue is the “fault” of high sensitivity–people can have all kinda of myriad issues and quirks for lots of reasons. I know when I am feeling overwhelmed or having a bad day, I am worried about how it affects my spouse–are his needs being met? Does he feel overlooked because of all my needs? I check in with him constantly. Have you shared information about being highly sensitive with your bf, and also told him calmly how it makes you feel when he does certain things? I wonder if he might benefit by speaking to a therapist. If he is having outburst and getting easily overwhelmed, I bet he feels a lot of anxiety. Talking to a therapist can do wonders!! Thank you for trying to understand where he is coming from, it sounds like you are a very caring and understanding person; he’s lucky to have you!!
Oh, how I would love to talk to Rose! The more I read, the more I think my husband is an HSP. Her comments under “hardest things to deal with” are almost exactly what I face. Coming from a large, busy family, I’m completely blindsided by the needs and perceptions of an HSP person. Slowly learning more and trying to find ways to get on top of things and make his world less stressful.
Today I’m wondering — If I can manage to keep our house more decluttered, would that be a blessed to his overwhelmed senses? And just how do I start doing that when a) he’s someone who tends to keep things in case we ever need it AND b) I’ve got three kids four and under that I’m caring for full time while also being a work-from-home mom. Extra time to declutter is hard to come by!
I can relate to this as my husband is an HSP and I have some of the same experiences as post from Mk. Regular life overwhelms him and he often gets so stressed he refuses to make any decisions. Additionally, he will avoid conflicts at all costs. Both of these traits cause a lot of strain on our marriage as I feel as I am the one to handle majority of our decisions (small from what to make for dinner to large like car purchasing, etc) which can get exhausting. As a non-HSP I sometimes find it difficult to navigate the sometimes emotion mine field. I want to be there for him and understand he needs more time to process; however, I feel that often my emotional needs are not met and I’m more of a supportive figure for him then a partner due to his HSP. I’ve asked for more support and he has said that I’m the ‘rock’ in the relationship not him and he cannot handle any more stress. Also, I’m having trouble trying to get him to do something he agreed to do as he often forgets what he has said he will do and if I ask about it again, I’m nagging him and he then thinks he can’t do anything right and everyone is picking on him. I would appreciate any insight from and HSP on how to approach a situation like this with out it escalating. Additionally, what is the best way to approach a HSP when they agree to something they do not want to do only because they are avoiding potential conflict or disappointment, then they avoid and find excuses to not do what they agreed to do.
Hi Leah, thanks for your comment. It is wonderful that you are such an understanding partner! Of course you also deserve to have your needs met as well. It’s not a one way street! I’m not a trained mental health professional, so I can’t tell you exactly how to fix this, but it wouldn’t hurt to speak to a therapist or mental health pro. Or maybe your husband could speak to one. I think therapy can benefit pretty much everyone! Even in one visit or a couple visits, you may learn some nuggets that can help. It definitely helped me!
One thing my husband does when I’m overwhelmed is he asks me something like: “What can I do to help with —“. It is generous and sweet of him (and it also makes me feel a little guilty) but it just reminds me that he’s on my side and wants me to be happy. It’s like he’s acknowledging my feelings–this is big for HSPs. Sometimes that alone can make me feel stronger. I usually don’t take him up on his offer to help; it’s just enough that he *offers* to. Maybe gently say something like this, “I know you feel overwhelmed, but what can we/I do to help make this decision?” Just feeling *heard* might be enough to help him power through. I wish you the best of luck!
I’m coming to the conclusion that, as an HSP-introvert, I might be better off by not attempting any more relationships. My previous relationship of seven years came to an end almost ten years ago. As I came to learn why I react to things the way that I do, I decided that being alone might be better for me in the long run. Then I met someone new who I was entranced by and I decided to give it a try. So far, it’s been a 50/50 mix of pleasant times and disagreements. The disagreements seem mostly irrational, from my point of view, and they’re totally wearing me out. I’ve now been in this new relationship for six months and even though I care deeply for her, I’m thinking of ending it. I just don’t know how to be an open and honest HSP without (from her point of view) treading on her rights to be who she is too. In my past relationships, I played the game and tried to be the person my partners expected me to be, but after a long time doing that it wears thin. Eventually, we all show our true selves and I’ve found that most people, though initially attracted to what HSPs bring to the table, become frustrated with us quickly. I think I’d rather be alone that spend all my together time faking it.