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What is HSP/HAP

HSP (Highly Sensitive Person)/ HAP (Highly Attuned Person)

HSP (Highly Sensitive Person)/HAP (Highly Attuned Person) is an inherited neurological trait that is neutral and on the continuum of normal variation in temperament. It’s not a disorder;  it makes one unusually thinker2perceptive & responsive, especially to subtle differences in the environment and to social stimuli. It is present in 15–20% of the population and in over 100 other species. It means your brain does more elaborate processing of all stimuli in all situations (when calm, when stressed, when joyful).  There is more intense activation of mirror neuron systems (for empathy, self-awareness, & emotional meaning-making,) as well as the areas for higher order cognitive processing, decision-making, and complex cognitive tasks.

The word sensitive can mean quick to detect subtle changes or signals, or accurate, as an instrument can be. It can mean having acute mental or emotional sensibility: being aware of and responsive to feelings of others.

Unfortunately, North American society has selectively focused on the pejorative interpretation of the word “sensitive,” which is “Inter-Personal Sensitivity” or IPSven-diagram (i.e., being easily hurt, offended by what others say & do). This is not the HSP Trait. Many people have IPS and are not HSP. Many HSPs do not have IPS. However, you can have both.

Think of it like a Venn diagram where 2 circles overlap, creating three categories: 1) HSPs; 2) people with IPS; 3) HSPs that have IPS (the overlap).


Elaine Aron, PhD, a research psychologist & clinician, has published rigorous scientific research (and books for the general public) on this topic, as have scientists in Denmark, Sweden, China, & Japan.  In her clinical research articles, the term Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is used as the scientific term for HSP.

Elaine Aron has also helped create a documentary movie about the trait: Sensitive – The Untold Story, which may be available on vimeo or youtube now.

dolphin Many scientists are doing research using brain scans (MRIs)   and genetic research on this topic. Dr. Aron has developed a 27-item assessment of this trait that is more available to the general public. She named this trait “Highly Sensitive Person or HSP” in her books; perhaps meaning sensitive as radar can be: good at picking up signals otherwise missed. This trait also brings unusual ability in understanding/adjusting to others, adapting, learning, neuroplasticity; in other words,


What may be a more accurate descriptive term for the HSP Trait is . . .


HAP (Highly Attuned Person)

xxx .x

The Four Main Hallmarks of the HAP Trait:

  1. empathyUnusually aware of subtle stimuli  (intuitive, good at spotting errors, small differences).
  2. Deep processing of what is noticed  (connect one’s thoughts, feelings, behaviours, compare current situation with remembered info, ponder possible consequences = pause to check tendency with all stimuli, not just perceived danger).
  3. Easily overstimulated  (lower threshold for what is too much stimulation taken in by the five senses).
  4. Emotionality + empathy  (feel all emotions intensely,  learn more, & make better decisions because of this; especially responsive to other’s moods/positive affect; feel abhorrence for cruelty & violence; deeply care how others feel).      

Here are some other signs of the HAP/HSP Trait:

  • Interpersonal intelligence: find it easy to understand people, i.e., their motivations, feelings, beliefs, group dynamics; accurately see or guess how others feel
  • Intrapersonal intelligence: find it easy to understand yourself, your thoughts & feelings, where they come from
  • Feel your emotions easily and intensely; don’t always show it
  • Able to adapt, grow, learn, change more than most people (neuroplasticity)
  • Think in shades of grey, not black or white or rules based; good at independent critical thinking
  • Think in outside-the-box ways, creative, original ideas; usually for the greater good
  • Good at helping, healing; sense what others need & often able to provide it
  • Prefer harmony and cooperation to conflict and competition; good at team building
  • Love to think about what things mean and connect things in original, complex ways
  • Value privacy & alone time; free from pressure or observation needed to perform well
  • Usually get along well with others, well-liked
  • Brave enough to be pioneers/risk disapproval to be true to their values or for the greater good
  • Able to easily & vividly imagine almost anything
  • Strong sense of what is aesthetically pleasing and deeply affected by its presence or the lack of it
  • Cautious: usually pause to think about all ramifications, especially how others would feel (so slow decision-maker, slow action-taker)
  • Responsible, OK with being held accountable
  • Conscientious, ethical, thorough, & careful, care about social justice
  • Often throw self on the grenade for sake of the group
  • Objective, wise, can see the bigger picture
Yes, you’re right- these are leadership qualities!  Signs of quiet, resilient leaders; highly valued in the older, longest-lasting, most successful cultures.

HAPs/HSPs are not:

  • unaware of  appropriate personal space
  • impulsive
  • missing subtle social cues
  • “just get it done” doers
  • naturally good at quick comebacks
  • self-centered
  • emotionally immature or unstable
  • demanding or attention seeking
  • blindly obedient or resistant to all rules/authority
 We’re 15–20% of the population and have great benefits to offer the whole species.  We are an untapped resource, working creatively for the greater good, often as quiet leaders.


If you are having challenges living in a world that does not value the HSP trait, I can help. If you are wanting to increase your self confidence or reduce anxiety, I can provide EMDR, which works quite well for HSPs.  Give me a call at 604 868-0958 to book an appointment, or request a quiet leader seminar for your workplace by emailing quietleaders@gmail.com.
 HAPs can make great leaders.  Are you a Quiet Leader?