What I've Learned as an HSP Meetup Organizer

Author: Johannes Traa

December 27, 2022

Table of contents

What is HSP?
How I became an organizer
What I've learned from the group


I am the head organizer for a Meetup group called Highly Sensitive Persons – Greater Boston and have been leading it together with other co-organizers since April 2017. It is an affinity group that enables HSPs to explore questions they have about themselves and the world in a psychologically safe space. In this article, I’ll describe what HSP is, how I got involved in the Meetup group, and my biggest take-aways from being a leader in this community. Hope you enjoy the read!

What is HSP?


HSP is best seen as a neutral trait of human temperament with unique benefits and drawbacks. Some people describe it as feeling like a sponge, taking in the world and digesting it at length in the search for meaning. It can manifest as an eye for detail, artistic passion, empathy for the disempowered, and so on.

According to the research, 20% of the general population is HSP, of whom half are men and half are women. More surprisingly, 30% are extroverts! It’s a large segment of people from all backgrounds, so despite sharing the HSP label, it’s a very diverse community. No two HSPs’ experiences are identical although underlying similarities never fail to surprise.

The term HSP was first coined by Dr. Elaine Aron in the late 90s as a result of one of her psychology research studies [0]. The topic is nicely covered for a general audience in her first book [1]. Elaine and her husband Art have both done enlightening research on temperament and relationships, including the “rope bridge experiment” [2]. She has written many books on different facets of the trait and has driven the effort to produce multiple full-length HSP movies. The first one, Sensitive: The Untold Story [3], prominently features Alanis Morisette.

DOES criteria

The trait can be summed up by the DOES criteria.

Depth of Processing

We take longer on average to digest our experiences. This is often because we seek more profound meanings. As a result, we may gain deeper insights in the long-term.


Being more responsive means getting overstimulated sooner and needing to step away to recharge. Managing overwhelm is an essential skill for any HSP.


We tend to experience our emotions more vividly. Happy times are happier, sad times are sadder, etc. We also often value being empathetic towards others, making space for their needs, and seeing them be heard. This strengthens human connection but also opens us up to negative input from those who are unconcerned with our well-being.

Sensory sensitivity

We can find sensory input jarring like sudden, loud sounds, bright lights, strong smells, and foul language. We also tend to notice subtleties that others miss both in the physical and social-emotional worlds.

HSP/non-HSP metaphors

Elaine Aron has illustrated the difference between HSPs and non-HSPs with a fun metaphor. Non-HSPs are the warrior kings who take on the critics and charge into battle. Meanwhile, HSPs are the priestly advisors who lead a studious life and council the warrior kings in making more informed decisions.

The way I like to phrase it is that HSPs are the ones who sense danger lurking at the edge of the village. And the most non-HSP among us are the ones who charge straight at the jaguar, get bitten, and fight on anyway.

Either depiction suggests that society needs both types to function. The main challenge is to understand one another and reap the benefits of the partnership.

What HSP is not

HSP is not a diagnosis, nor is it a disorder, nor is it a flaw. Far from it.

Some confuse the trait for autism, ADHD, and other disorders [4], especially in childhood. HSPs get overwhelmed and feel strong feelings but don’t have or need a diagnosis. They just need space and time to process it all and to be told that it is normal to experience life the way they do.

HSP is also not narcissism. It’s the opposite but can coexist with narcissistic tendencies. I discuss this later in the article.

Finally, HSP is not fragility. Most of us have heard references to this over the years. But the more self-actualized we are, the more we see those comments as pejorative ignorance imposed on us by an unaware majority. Strong and healthy HSPs are formidable as they are highly emotionally intelligent and wield Brene-Brown-grade vulnerability [5].

A note on the use of the term

Elaine Aron is a clinical and research psychologist and so coined the term from that perspective, not anticipating that her findings would take on so much meaning for so many people. Now, there is some debate in the community about what to call ourselves outside of HSP circles.

Although the term "highly sensitive" is technically accurate, it does pose somewhat of a barrier to entry in this (American) society where the word "sensitive" has a negative connotation. This is especially true for young men who are tasked with resisting the allure of toxic masculinity.

A vague concensus among HSPs I've talked to is that "highly intuitive person" would be a better term to use since it is still accurate and focuses on more positive connotations of the trait. Another approach is to simply not use the term HSP at all in conversation but instead employ the language around it: intuition, emotional intelligence, overwhelm, "I'd like to consider this more carefully".

As a leader in the community, I feel that it's important for me to role-model confidence in the trait. It helps that I'm a man, too, since the idea of a "strong and sensitive man" can be hard for many to grasp in this culture.

That being said, I do withold my more HSP qualities in some settings where I know the person I'm talking to will respond defensively when seeing in me what they fear in themselves. It's not unlike men who bond with each other and say "I love you guys" only to reflexively add "but I'm not gay!" It's that learned fear that can be triggering. How much to be "out" is a balance that we have to play by ear.

How I became an organizer

In late 2016, I was settling into my first job in the Boston area. I knew from several past experiences that there was much I didn’t understand about myself and that this was the time to explore. I quickly found the Boston-area HSP group online and attended the first monthly meeting.

One other person showed up who wasn’t the organizer. The next month, no one showed up. After that, two young women from a local college’s admissions department stopped by. At which point the organizer sent out a message saying that he wanted to hand off the group. I immediately replied and adopted the role overnight.

I reached out to various other HSP groups around the country for advice, rebranded, and scheduled a first meeting. Eight people showed up! And I’m still friends with some of them. It was the (re)start of something great. I did eventually connect and meet with the woman who started the group back in 2010. Her journey has since taken her into psychotherapy and research.

What I've learned from the group

Now for the juicy part. These learnings reflect the dominant patterns in members’ experiences that have emerged over the years.

1. HSP can be a strength under the right conditions

I’ve seen many examples to illustrate this point. One comes from Dr. Aron’s research about mental health outcomes for HSPs and non-HSPs as a function of childhood conditions [6]. Turns out that HSPs who grow up in a validating, supportive household are more well-regulated as adults than non-HSPs. But the opposite is also true, that an unhealthy environment will lead to worse regulation than average. It's a phenomenon known as differential susceptibility.

Another distinction is by profession. An HSP working in government may have a harder time lying for political gain, but a teacher or therapist can make great use of their temperament to build meaningful connections with others and drive positive outcomes. That’s not to say that HSPs can’t be impactful politicians, just that some professions are a better fit for the trait.

Another example: creative types (painters, musicians, writers) find that their sensitivity helps them tune in to the human experience to create more meaningful works of art. This comes up regularly in group discussions.

2. We can be unresponsive/unempathetic when they are overwhelmed

This one can be confusing for non-HSP friends and family. An HSP child surrounded by non-HSPs may feel overwhelmed, shut down, and be labeled as difficult or impolite, invalidating who they are. There is an art to being a well-regulated HSP who confidently sets boundaries and asserts their energetic needs. It's important for us to learn how to do that because we’re of no use to anyone when our nervous system is fried.

3. We can come off as demanding

One recent study [7] hits this nail on the head. They refer to it as hypersensitive narcissism. The idea is that some sensitive people demand that everyone around them cater to their needs rather than adjust themselves to fit in. This can be the dark side of HSP, although it also sounds to me like an insensitive majority telling the minority how to act. But point taken.

This is the eternal struggle of HSPs in a world that overwhelms them. It’s natural to want to make changes in your environment to reduce your suffering. Stuff like “can we replace that fluorescent light?” or “why do I have to yell over other people to be heard?” or “can we avoid having 3-hour-long meetings late at night?” Some will hear these complaints and respond with microaggressions such as “grow up” or “deal with it”.

4. Some HSPs find themselves gravitating towards narcissistics

This pattern comes up often and is explainable as well as avoidable. HSPs have a tendency to create and hold psychological space for others to be heard and have their needs met. It simply feels like the right thing to do. Narcissists are the exact opposite. They naturally seek to take up space and use others to meet their own needs. HSPs who aren’t well-educated and prepared for that dynamic can easily fall into a pattern of making themselves available for the narcissist’s endless needs. This drains the HSP's emotional energy and locks them into an unhealthy power imbalance. We sometimes refer to such challenging people as “energy vampires” [8].

In more severe cases, this is similar to the emotional abuse evident in IPV stories [9, 10]. Several HSPs have come to the group post-divorce or re-thinking their relationship with a parent, and find that the HSP-narcissist pattern fits their experience well.

5. Some HSPs identify as empaths

When someone says they identify as an empath [11], I think Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. She is the ship's counselor and can pretty much sense everyone's thoughts and feelings at all times, sometimes even on nearby planets. She's half-human, half-Betazoid (another species), the latter being the source of her telepathic abilities. She holds a respected position among the crew because Captain Picard relies on her to provide insight into, for example, an alien leader's hidden intentions during negotiations. She can sense deception or murderous intent when no one else can. What a badass character.

Back on Earth (for real now), empaths are the ones who can immediately sense people’s feelings when they walk into a room, have strong intuitions, vivid dreams, and can be deeply spiritual. They are a subset of HSPs who bring a unique perspective because they usually experience the same benefits and drawbacks of their temperament as the rest of us, but more strongly. I personally don’t consider myself an empath, but I am envious of their perceptive abilities.

6. Most of us have a Meyers-Briggs personality type in the NF group

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a well-known tool for mapping personality and pursuing self-development. It consists of 16 types, each denoted by 4 letters (e.g. ENTP, ISFJ). When a new member joins an HSP group meeting, my default guess is INFJ, and that’s usually spot on or off by one letter. I've seen estimates of the NF group size range from 16% to 19%, which matches the roughly 20% of the population that is HSP. In the MBTI model, the NF group is known as the “idealists”: sensitive, expressive, and spiritual. Bullseye. I’m on the INTJ-INFJ boundary, in case you were wondering.

7. HSPs are big on healing

By healing I’m referring to all kinds, from deeply processing past traumas to Reiki to supporting someone through a recovery from addiction, and so on. It all feels so meaningful and worthwhile. It requires deeper insight and delving into the heart and mind. This is why HSPs are uniquely suited for psychotherapeutic work. We experience it as a natural way to become more whole.

8. HSPs can feel overwhelmed by their awareness

Because we pay attention to the world around us in a way that non-HSPs do not, we can accumulate a bothersome amount of awareness. This traditionally plays out in settings where others lack some awareness and it bothers the HSP who can’t un-see things. Sometimes we even recognize an aspect of the person we’re talking to that they can’t. It’s plain as day to us, but they can’t see it.

The fact that some insights come to HSPs in the form of intuition that we can't cleanly verbalize doesn’t help the situation. This is because non-HSPs will not have observed the same subtleties that we did to develop those intuitions in the first place. So we’re quite literally living in different realities with differing evidence from which to draw conclusions.

This is one of the aspects of life as an HSP that you just can’t fully describe to a non-HSP. It's a point of frustration for us and we sometimes don’t offer certain opinions outside of HSP circles to avoid feeling invalidated.

9. HSPs can struggle in competitive industries that reward narcissism and psychopathy

That means politics, business, finance. You get the picture. Our tendency to prioritize balanced, empathetic interactions that leaves space for others’ perspectives puts us at a disadvantage when working with people who are keen on taking what we’ll give them. It feels unnatural for many HSPs to intentionally shut people down or ignore their concerns. And that’s a basic skill in some industries. We can learn to do it, but it rarely feels right.

Narcissists do those things naturally and psychopaths see it as just another tool in their toolbelt. So we educate ourselves on those patterns and rely on our perceptiveness to spot them. We then strategically avoid situations where we would expect to be pressured to act against our core values. As always, easier said than done. There are a few books now on how HSPs can find fulfilling, balanced work [12].

10. Boundary-setting is a big topic for us

We often discuss how to set and maintain boundaries that keep us healthy and happy [13]. Boundaries for ourselves in the form of habits and rules as well as boundaries with others to protect our energy and self-worth. Many HSPs find themselves constructing systems of rigid boundaries that, yes, protect them, but also cut them off from intimacy in their relationships. Developing healthier, more adaptive boundaries is part of our self-work.

We all have stories of controlling, unempathetic people treading all over our interpersonal boundaries, even after we’ve told them we’re not okay with it. They confidently do it anyway, acting like we’re the ones with a problem. Most people don’t act that way, but those who do can cause disproportionate damage. It’s those experiences in particular that drive our expertise in boundary-setting.

11. It’s challenging to grow up as an HSP boy

Much has been written about this [14, 15] and the topic is important for many men in the group.

In American society, girls are more accepted when they feel strong feelings and seek empathetic connections. Boys, on the other hand, are implicitly and explicitly told to “act like a man” without any guidance on how to make sense of that as an HSP. Other common microaggressions are “toughen up”, “suck it up”, “don’t be a pussy”, and “crying is shameful”.

This leads many boys to repress their emotions to survive socially, developing a conflict style centered on anger or an absence of emotionality altogether (stoicism with a lower-case "s"). That lack of wholeness sets the stage for anxiety and depression.

The fallout also affects romantic relationships. A woman, who was taught how men “ought” to behave, might criticize her boyfriend for not being “enough of a man” while resenting that he is emotionally unavailable. It's a lose-lose situation for everyone.

The complaints are painful for HSP men to hear because we really do want to be emotionally available and experience a deep, loving connection. But we are terrified to truly show up because we were taught that it’s shameful to do so in the way that feels natural to us. The upside is that once we do the work to find and assert our genuine selves, we HSP men can enjoy very profound and lasting partnerships.

One fun bit of trivia on HSPs and romantic relationships is that there isn't a significant preference towards partnering up with another HSP vs non-HSP. And there are benefits and drawbacks to both combinations [16].

12. Some HSPs approach the group feeling broken

There have been plenty of people who show up to the group saying that they feel broken and have felt that way their whole life. At that point, my job as an organizer is to offer a different perspective. That being highly sensitive is not a flaw, but a neutral trait that can be a great asset.

Members of the group usually offer up their views on how they appreciate being sensitive and wouldn’t have it any other way. This is an epiphany for those who feel like they have a troublesome diagnosis to cope with. “I’m not broken? I’m just highly attuned? And it can be a good thing?”

If they can weather that shock, they have an opportunity to embrace a new understanding of themselves and the feeling of having found their tribe. This can be very empowering and sometimes happens in just one visit! We might never see them again, but we know we touched their lives in a positive way. I love seeing the group rally around an exiled kindred spirit.

13. HSP can be confused with trauma-induced sensitivity

HSP is characterized by general responsiveness while trauma is a shock to the mind that results in associations being hooked up to one's internal alarm system. So they're quite unrelated concepts that can be confused with one another at first glance.

It's important for us to understand the causal mechanism behind it. The classic transition from freeze to fight to flee discharges the effects of trauma from our nervous system. An understanding of how our minds process trauma is essential for HSPs to avoid accumulating disempowering wounds.

See this article for a discussion of trauma and strategies for transforming it.

14. HSPs do a lot of reframing of their past experiences

We used the term “reframing” a lot. It’s the process of re-evaluating past experiences in light of the trait. For some, this results in a domino effect where heavy feelings associated with troubling memories neutralize one after another.

The classic examples are being told “you’re too sensitive” or growing up with a parent who invalidated them. In the absence of the knowledge of HSP, we internalize those implicit and explicit messages into our self-concept. The resulting feeling of being flawed is a symptom, and reframing is the technique by which we unpack that narrative, recalibrating it to be positive, life-affirming, and empowering.

For some, the reframing process is a life-long journey. For others, it’s a several-years-long deep dive. Either way, it seems to always be beneficial. It’s our way of choosing how to tell our own story.

15. We love being in nature

Put us next to a lake, river, forest, or mountain, and we'll feel nourished. A funny illustration of this is a line I wrote in one of my college application essays back in the day. It was something like "I want to attend your institution because it's next to a lake and I enjoy big bodies of water." I wound up getting accepted, attending, and having several transformative experiences next to that lake. Connecting with nature recharges us somehow.

16. We're very diverse

There's the stereotypical HSP who hates loud noises, is very introverted, feels anxious in new situations, and so on. And then there are the thrill-seekers among us who like horror movies and roller-coasters. Some of us think "the weirder the noise, the better". Or "I only buy the smelliest cheeses". It might seem counterintuitive, but our sensitivity sometimes increases our desire for strong sensations. Our reality is vivid and we enjoy basking in it.

17. We tend to skip small talk

HSPs have a curious tendency to politely go straight for the jugular. “Hi, my name is Johannes, and these are my traumas.” The Meetup group isn’t therapy. We just want to get to the good stuff sooner. It feels natural!

A great example of this penchant for deep conversation is a first date I had many years ago. We met up at a noodle joint in Harvard Square and sat there for 5 hours straight talking about our childhoods, families, and struggles. I even brought along an HSP book by a Danish author [17] that I was reading at the time to introduce the topic. Smooth move, huh? Anyway, we’re happily married now.


HSP is an essentially neutral trait that is wonderful in good times and ocassionally a pain in the ass. It gives us a rich inner life and enhances our ability to connect with others’ experiences. We seek deeper meaning. We can also be neurotic, anxious, or depressed when we’re chronically overwhelmed or have low self-worth. The HSP journey is to reframe past experiences in order to benefit from the positive aspects of the trait while minimizing its drawbacks.

In closing, it’s worth mentioning what we want non-HSPs to know. The most important point is probably that we need more time and space than you do to process all the information we’re absorbing. In return, we’ll share our insights once they're done baking. We ask that you have patience and focus on our strengths. And we thank you for it.

Be well!


[0] Elaine N. Aron and Arthur P. Aron, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality, 1997

[1] Elaine N. Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, 1997

[2] Donald G. Dutton and Arthur P. Aron, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Some Evidence For Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety, 1974

[3] HSP movies website, Sensitive: The Untold Story, 2015

[4] Elaine N. Aron, The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them, 2002

[5] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, 2015

[6] Elaine N. Aron, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person: Improving Outcomes for That Minority of People Who Are the Majority of Clients, 2010

[7] Emanuel Jauk et al, Do Highly Sensitive Persons Display Hypersensitive Narcissism? Similarities and Differences in the Numological Networks of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Vulnerable Narcissism, 2022

[8] Christiane Northrup, Dodging Energy Vampires: An Empath’s Guide to Evading Relationships That Drain You and Restoring Your Health and Power, 2019

[9] Marti Tamm Loring, Emotional Abuse: The Trauma and the Treatment, 1994

[10] Particia Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond, 2010

[11] Judith Orloff, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, 2018

[12] Barrie Jaeger, Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person, 2005

[13] Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life, 2017

[14] Ted Zeff, The Strong, Sensitive Boy, 2010

[15] Bell Hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, 2004

[16] Elaine N. Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You, 2001

[17] Ilse Sand, Highly Sensitive People in an Insensitive World: How to Create a Happy Life, 2016