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Highly Sensitive People and "Being Psychic" – HSP Not ESP-Reading Non-Verbal Signals

High sensitivity is essentially a naturally occurring tendency for the brain to process incoming stimuli in more detail. It occurs in 15-20% of the population of all higher animals including human beings. This extra processing takes more time and means that an HSP will sometimes be more occupied and even over-stimulated when trying to assimilate the meaning of high speed, complex and shifting social or environmental information. At the same time, processing in greater detail permits the capture of subtleties and nuances that others might pass over or experience only minimally.

Several of the questions in Elaine Aron’s HSP Self-test aim specifically to assess the quality of inter-personal sensitivity in the test taker.

  • “When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating)”
  • “Other people’s moods affect me.”

HSP’s generally score high on these items. This is significant because other human beings, their actions, and expressions of emotion are processed with the same depth of detail and attention to nuance that characterizes all HSP processing

Emotion researchers inform us that up to 90% of all emotional communication is done non-verbally.

Human beings communicate their feelings, not just with words, but through tone of voice, volume, speed of speech, turn-taking, pattern of eye contact, facial expression, body posture, hand gestures, changes in color (such as blushing or paling), and more subtly still by physiological changes in breathing or heart rate which may be perceptible to a highly attuned observer (Schore, 2005).

Ability to read and respond to these indicators is already developed when we are pre-verbal infants. Attention to speech eventually takes priority in our interpersonal exchanges and the underlying ability to read non-verbal signals becomes largely unconscious and automatic even though it continues to underpin and enlarge our understanding of what our conversational partner intends.

These non-verbal signals constitute a sort of emotional language that we emit and interpret in parallel to our speech and we respond emotionally with feelings of wariness and anxiety, or comfort and security, depending on what is being signaled.

Highly sensitive individuals are also highly sensitive to this play of emotional signal and response, but like the rest of us, they may be unaware of the degree to which they are reading and responding to their partner’s non-verbal communications.

Many HSP’s wonder if they are “psychic”?

They know that they get “feelings” about places, things and especially people. Human nature being what it is, pleasant feelings of acceptance, warmth or interest are not worrisome, but HSP’s, with their attention to detail unconsciously notice mixed signals, or signals which could suggest anger, disapproval or rejection. Anxiety produces physical sensations in the body such as increased heart rate, constricted breathing and the release of chemicals that prepare us for fight or flight. HSP’s are more subtle readers of their own bodily responses as well and these unpleasant sensations may not pass unnoticed. They may however be misinterpreted as “negative vibes” and presumed to be emanating from their conversational partner rather than originating in themselves.

This misreading becomes problematic if HSP’s act on their feelings by withdrawing, avoiding or by responding with irritation, anger or hurt which may not appear justified by the surface exchange between the two.

It is useful therefore, for HSP’s who do get “feelings” about people to take a moment to question their assumptions.

People typically try to modulate the feelings that they show on the surface so that they are in keeping with the demands of the situation. But this means that people often feel more than they show. HSP’s with their extra awareness of nuance in communication often pick up on this depth or mixture of contradictory feelings in others but they make the mistake of presuming that it is directed at them often in a negative way which is actually unwarranted.

    An imaginary example might be a situation where a friend is required to say something mildly critical to an HSP acquaintance. The friend approaches the exchange with mild anxiety and perhaps even some resentment towards a third party who has insisted that this be done… so that mixed emotional signaling underpins the exchange. The highly observant HSP may misread this as hidden aggression or anger and respond more strongly than the situation appears to demand on the surface.

    This is because the HSP, in the moment of perceiving the unpleasantness, feels rising in themselves their own history of being criticized, rejected and hurt in the past and they respond as if there is imminent danger of re-occurrence. Their strong reaction is in turn confusing and upsetting to their partner… and the situation intensifies problematically for both parties as the HSP hooks their partner’s ordinary tension up to their own personal fears and negative expectations.

Reality check

How can this be prevented?

In a word, “Ask!”

HSP sensitivity and attunement to others is a gift but it should not always be permitted to remain at the level of “feelings”. An HSP faced with mixed or confused emotional signals from their partner may have to address the experience consciously and rationally. Often the use of a simple, open question will permit clarification and defuse the tension.


  • “I get the feeling that there is something about this that bothers you?”
  • “I wonder if there is more you would like to say about this…”
  • “I feel as if you are feeling a bit upset about this …(without specifying a possible cause)”
  • “You seem to be of two minds about this.”

HSP’s are uniquely situated.

Human beings live in a social world in which we are constantly attempting to communicate or ideas and feelings not only through words but also through gestures and glances. HSP’s are sensitive readers of these signals and with a little conscious awareness they are uniquely situated to translate this nuanced understanding into better, deeper, relationships with those around them.


A.N. Schore (2005). A Neuropsychoanalytic Point of View, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 15(6), p.829-854.

E. Aron, Highly Sensitive person Self-Test, Copyright, 1996.

Source by Susan Meindl

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Dr. Ravindra Aher

Dr. Ravindra Aher is management theatrics stimulator and skills evangelist with rich corporate & academic experience of 25 years, having worked with multinational companies and academic institutions of repute. Always keen to share his knowledge and he is passionate about bridging the prevailing skill gap in students & corporate through structured value added programs. He is an avid blogger and twitter enthusiast. He previews books and promote good reading culture in young generation.

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Categories: 21st Century Skills

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